Keep Your Cool: Plan, Execute, Reflect
Training tips often revolve around times, intensities, workout details; the nuts and bolts of how to get
fitter and faster. But coaching and performing is also about the emotional and mental qualities you
want to come out of you through a workout and ultimately a race. As you start to get on snow and
prepare for big races, we should consider that training isn’t only for the body.
In my 30 years involved in ski racing, I can say that of all the races I’ve competed in personally as well as
those I’ve witnessed as a coach or spectator, the VAST majority weren’t perfect; they were maybe
rushed in place, too frantic at times, and were less effective at using energy well between the start and
finish lines, than they could’ve been. In a 10-year career as a serious athlete, I can think of a total of 3
races where I think I was just about perfect. Someone more successful than I was may have a much
higher percentage of perfect or near-perfect races, but after 30 years in the sport, I don’t sense my
competitive experience is an anomaly. Let’s unpack that first before we move on.
The myopia of our personal performance compared to something, be it a personal best time, a rival, a
training buddy, the course; drives much of our competitive spirit. But after all the training is complete,
the race’s test of our planning, composure, discipline, and execution, are what delivers or does not
deliver the result as we wanted it on that day. When left to our own devices, our ego, insecurity, and
nerves can take over anything we care a lot about, and can quickly unravel it into something we didn’t
intend it to be. How many times have you set a goal for yourself and ended up at the finish line
disappointed? If disappointment occurs more times than happiness and satisfaction, you’re probably
not only honest but also in the company of nearly everyone who races with regularity. Part of this is
appropriate goal setting, but often the race just “gets away from us.”
If we’re so used to being dissatisfied so regularly, what can we do to become more satisfied? The
answer to that is the million dollar question and if that were easy, I wouldn’t be able to make my
livelihood as a coach. But planning for performance goals, executing them, then reflecting, can be done
more formally to render a desired result. Some people do this naturally. Too few do it deliberately.
Like anything, the composure and perspective to deliver on workout and race goals must be practiced to
be realized. So every workout that tests you for your races, it’s important not only to meet the
prescribed physical adaptations, but equally to compose yourself to the mindset that delivers the best
combination of appropriate arousal, anxiety, relaxation, focus, and execution that you want on race day.
The following three points are necessary to effectively implement for optimal performance:
When considering your training plan, you lay out stresses and recoveries based on desired
outcomes. Why would mental and emotional preparation for the tasks be much different? It’s
equally important to plan how you want to be aroused and engaged emotionally on race day.
Some workouts and all races are HARD! If you are not prepared for how you are going to face
that difficulty, prepare to be disappointed in your performance. This requires honesty,
introspection, and clear understanding of how you naturally react to the stress of race day.
From there you have to plan to keep yourself on track.
A simple plan is to ask yourself what you want to achieve in a race, then implement that plan for
appropriate workouts leading up to the race. Focusing on the way you approach things mentally
and emotionally impacts how well you execute the physical demands. We can all ski more
relaxed, or find something technically we want to focus on the whole race. The plan you create
should focus on affecting a performance FACTOR not a performance OUTCOME. A performance
factor is how well you transfer your weight. A performance outcome is beating your training
buddy or skiing the Birkie in under 3 hours. There’s not much room for both in your in-race
emotional tool belt, so getting good at planning and executing a focus on the FACTORS is critical
to the outcome. When factors are executed well and the outcome isn’t what you wanted, it’s
easier to see objectively why the outcome happened (wax, course conditions, etc…) without
them being mere excuses for a poor race plan.
As I hint above, a plan is great. But the ego is very strong. Too strong sometimes. When you
see your training buddy two powerline poles ahead at kilometer 4 of the Birkie, that Tazmanian
Devil inside you is going to start tugging at you to flail to catch up. Wouldn’t it be great to use
that moment to think about something else that will keep you skiing relaxed, smoothly, and
powerfully, especially with most of the race still ahead of you?
It’s human to lose your cool in the heat of battle, but the best, most consistent performers are
the ones who can remain focused on process for a desired outcome, using emotion only in the
moments when the outcome is most in question. Executing takes practice putting your triggers
into play when emotion wants to take control. We need emotion too, but to perform optimally,
we need some level of planned execution, and this takes practice and reflection.
If you find yourself feeling like the Tasmanian Devil on the powerline in the Birkie, maybe you
need a practiced reminder when you see the powerline that triggers your goal to ski relaxed and
plant your pole where you want it. Maybe you need a key word to refocus? Maybe every time
you drink something during the race it triggers a performance factor to refocus on. If you’ve
practiced this in interval sessions and prep races, the Tasmanian Devil may never make an
appearance at all!
A perfect race plan will take time to execute well. The most important part of the process
working over the long run is reflecting on how you executed your plan, and how you could
improve that execution, and/or the plan itself. The lessons you take from reflection can refine
your next workout and race to help you improve.
Insecurity is and can be both a productive and destructive force in athletic performance. To shuck
insecurity entirely from an individual sport performance is by nature very unlikely when you care at all
about the outcome. Why and how we care are forces that drive each of us differently, but if you care
enough about your performance that you’re still reading this article, your insecurities probably get
exposed and will be a part of your next race. How you learn to harness them has a huge effect on
whether or not they will be destructive or productive to your next performance.
So, when you get into your first on-snow interval session with a training partner or teammate, give a
little or a lot of thought as to how you can execute a planned emotional response that is appropriate to
getting the most out of that workout. Short sprints might need different foci than long intervals, for
example. Reflect where you could have planned and executed better to have a better workout when it’s
For a great in-depth source on sports performance psychology, check out one of the most well-known
sources on the subject, In Pursuit of Excellence, by Terry Orlick: https://www.amazon.com/Pursuit-