Anxiety & Ski Racing
“When the archer is shooting for nothing, he has all the skill. If he is shooting for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or see two targets. He is out of his mind. His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of winning than shooting. And the need to win drains him of power.”
Chuang Tzu (Ancient Oriental Philosopher)
A delicate balance exists between optimal arousal and being either under or overly aroused. We are born with a need for stimulation and excitement. That’s why ski racing is so much fun. It is often referred to as arousal. When a skier steps into the start gate. He is ready to go when he thinks about another competitor, a past accident, a difficult gate. He becomes immediately over aroused.
Arousal and it impact on performance can be demonstrated using a “bell shape curve.”
our level of arousal is low, we are bored and seek stimulation. When our level of arousal is low, performance usually suffers. When we are overly aroused, we get excited, fearful, or anxious and performance again is likely to suffer. Somewhere in between, there is a state of optimal arousal. Optimal states of arousal differ from sport to sport and individual to individual. For sports requiring fine motor skills, lower levels of arousal may result in better performance. Golf might be a good example. The converse is also true. A football lineman usually tries to get himself really psyched before a game while it may be less advantageous for the quarterback to enter the game overly psyched. So levels of arousal needed for a peak performance differ from sport to sport, and person to person even within the same sport. Skiing, in all likelihood, falls somewhere in the middle between the two examples. Too little and you lay an egg, too much and you choke. Each athlete needs to learn and know his own optimal level of arousal.
“Flow” is a term often used by sports psychologist to describe the desired level of arousal. When an athlete is in a “flow” state he is usually totally immersed. Have you ever heard an athlete say, “I was on automatic pilot” or “I was in the zone.” No matter what it’s called, an athlete is in a flow state when his ability to perform is matched to the challenge. In a flow state, all sense of time may be lost. Everything may seem like it is slowing down. The athlete knows exactly what he is doing but there is no conscientious awareness of having to perform well. There is no concern about winning or losing. There is a sense that everything is going right. Everything the athlete is doing seems to be automatically happening. It is all happening without effort. During a “flow” experience, everything is focused (centered) on what you’re doing. When an athlete performs in a “flow state,” or “in the zone,” they usually perform at or beyond their level of ability.
If I were to try and describe a flow experience outside the athletic arena, I think of those time I have driven a road, day after day, month after month, and one day I arrive at my destination and I can’t remember having driven through a town. Does it mean I was when I drove through that town I was asleep. Certainly not! I am sure if a deer had jumped in front of my vehicle I would have slammed on the breaks. I was therefore conscious, concentrating, and focused on my driving but doing so in a flow (automatic pilot) state. I was in the zone.
How does an athlete reach a flow state?