New Hampshire Snow Sports

Unleash the Beast!

Get out of your mind to tap into your reflexes

SKI RACING december 16, 2003

While drills, repetition, demonstrations, chalk talks, video sessions, coaching, visualizing and such can get you some of the way, the best way to develop reflexes is simply by doing! You’ve heard it before and chances are good you’ll hear it again: If you want be a good ski racer, you have to ski, ski, ski. Not just in the gates and not only while focusing on technique: You have to go out there and kick your brain into autopilot.

It’s no wonder then that time and again, successful young athletes tell us that their favorite coaching tip is: “Don’t think, just ski!” That piece of advice is basically telling you to ski like an animal. If you’ve spent time watching animals, you know that they’re the true superstar athletes of planet earth!

Evolutionarily speaking, a part of our brain is “old” and a part of our brain is new. The new part, called the neocortex, gives us the ability to reason. The old part of our brain is where all of our automatic body functions originate, like respiration and circulation. Most of our nerves also originate in the older “animal-like” part of the brain, which means that we don’t actually control most of our movements, but that they happen automatically. (Animals don’t have a neocortex, which is why they’re feelers, not thinkers).

There are those who believe that if you learn to race with the instinctive part of your mind, you can learn up to 20 times faster than if you try to “tell” yourself how to do stuff. And if you think about it, that makes sense: The reasoning mind has little to do with the fast, subtle, critical balance movements of racing. Watch an animal and you’ll quickly see how effective this “autopilot” part of the brain is. In order to let those “catlike reflexes” emerge, we need to shut off our mental chatter, and just get out there and ski!

The language of our old brain is not words, but rather seeing, feeling and sensing. That’s why smart coaches have a bag of tricks they use to teach you new skills without having to “explain” anything. If, for example, they tell you to “ski like a gorilla” with a big wide stance, you’ll learn a movement pattern without engaging your interfering neocortex thoughts, and your animal-like brain automatically will register if it’s better to ski this way or not.

Disengaging the brain makes it easier to see the angles that work best; hear the silence of a pure arcing turn on an icy slope versus the noisy chattering slide of a disengaged edge; and feel the right line. It’s not always easy to shut off the neocortex, so come up with some tricks. Pretend to be an animal you admire. When Sarah Schleper steps into the start, she imagines that she’s a caged cheetah who just can’t wait to rip up the course. Ski like an animal often, and you’ll learn to trust the instinctive part of yourself when you push out of the start.

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