Regardless of skill level, pretty much all skiers and snowboarders have experienced the same sensation: being perched at the top of something overwhelming (whether that means a blue groomer or a 55-degree, rock-encrusted chute) and feeling shaky, out of your element, and weak-kneed. You imagine everything that could possibly go wrong, resist the urge to barf on your crisp Gore-Tex outfit, and feebly tell your friends you’re taking a different way down.
Yes, there’s almost always another way down, whether that means going around the cliff you’d hoped to huck, throwing the brakes on a takeoff so your jump becomes a bunny hop, or doing the sidestep of shame down a steep section. But if you want to progress as a skier, giving up on something that should have been doable just leaves you feeling sour and disappointed in yourself.
So, in the name of progress for skiers everywhere, I chatted with a few experts I deeply respect, notably Joe Schaeppi, skier and adventure-based psychotherapist, and Kristen Ulmer, instructor at Ski to Live, a mindset-only ski camp.
Here’s what I learned.
What happens when we get scared?
The first key to knowing why something makes us shake in our boots is understanding what’s going on inside our noggins (and our bodies).
Joe Schaeppi gave me the lowdown on the process. Basically, when something gets stressful, scary, or intimidating, our sympathetic nervous system starts kicking in. Our bodies release the cortisol hormone. When shite escalates and we get into fight-or-flight mode, adrenaline starts to flow; we’re now ready to fight off any radioactive saber-toothed grizzly bears that may lumber our way.
Then, an interesting thing happens when we get to the point of feeling truly overwhelmed. (Where this point is for you depends on your skill level, psychological resilience, etc.) At this point of overwhelment, our parasympathetic nervous system, which normally gives us the jollies with soothing servings of dopamine and norepinephrine, kicks into high gear just as intensely as the fight-or-flight hormones.
“At this point, it’s like driving while slamming the gas and the brake pedals at the same time,” says Schaeppi. “You stall out and come to a grinding halt, unable to do anything.”
This flood of counter-balancing hormones is literally enough to stop us dead in our tracks with fear. This is what’s happening when you’re frozen at the top of a jump, unable to talk yourself into it, despite being fully aware that it’s only a tad harder than the last jump you successfully landed.
How, then, does one overcome fear? “The key, actually, isn’t ‘conquering’ fear,” explains Kristen Ulmer. “In fact, this idea that we need to ‘fight’ fear is a big part of the problem. Fear is a natural sensation and a totally reasonable response to risk. In fact, it’s what’s kept our species alive all this time—we run away when the bigger animal chases us.”
“What we really need to do, rather than fighting fear, is make friends with it,” she says. “Acknowledge it, understand it, honor it. Then take it along with you for the ride—because it’s fear that makes things thrilling. If we didn’t get a bit of a rush out of our sport, it wouldn’t be exciting at all.”
It had never occurred to me that fear could be an ally. But it makes sense.
“Great skiers aren’t fearless. In fact, they’re madly in love with fear. The people who ‘get’ fear and have a reasonable dialogue with it are the ones who do well,” she explains. While the sensation of fear itself isn’t necessarily the super fun part, it can come with a big payoff: we end up awash in a sense of pride and stoke, having moved past apprehension to enjoy a dose of dopamine coursing through our veins.
Training Your Puppy Brain
According to Ulmer, our minds are susceptible to fixating on a big, hairy, paralyzing fear because our brains are much like puppies (with less cuteness, fuzziness, and drool).
“Puppies are always scanning the room for something to chew on,” says Ulmer. “They’ll pick up any inappropriate thing and start gnawing and fixating on it. That’s how our minds can be too. They’ll chew on totally unhelpful thoughts if left unchecked. What we need to do is first notice when our brains are chewing on something damaging—for example, a thought that fear is negative, or ‘I can’t do this.’ Then, second, we need to shift and give our minds more useful thoughts to chew on.”
What We’re Shooting For
You know the feeling of doing something that wasn’t pee-in-your-pants scary, but was rather exhilaratingly challenging?
There’s a term for this feeling: psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls it a “flow state.” A flow state encapsulates the feeling of being “in the zone” when you’re doing something challenging enough to be a thrill, but not so terrifying that it’s out of your element entirely. It’s Goldilocks Plus: a bit harder than the norm, a bit out of your element—but still within the realm of the doable if you push yourself a little.
This state results in a happy-dance sensation of landing a cliff huck or going just fast enough down a corduroy groomer to release a shiver of glee.
What happens when our brains achieve this flow state is they refrain from going into paralyzing hyperdrive, and instead they make a nice little hop from being moderately amped up on adrenaline to attaining the delightsome sense of accomplishment that comes with a flood of dopamine. Then, as the day winds down and we’re basking in a perma-grinned sense of accomplishment, our brains cruise on a pleasant plateau of norepinephrine.
Sound good? Here’s how to get there. So, there are a few tools you can use to ease out of “puppy brain” and get to a pleasantly thrilling flow state.
Stop, slow down, and moderate your breath, pausing to hear it, feel it, and measure the length of each inhale and exhale. This lets you step out of a state of panic. With each inhale, you increase your brain’s executive decision-making ability, and with each exhale, you release a bunch of toxins and CO2. With your breath, you can take your brain out of the whir of panic you worked yourself into so you can, instead, pause and calmly assess whether something is doable. If you decide it should indeed be doable, you’re now better prepared to do it, thanks to well-oxygenated muscles and a sharper focus.
You can visualize the run ending well—then put yourself in the driver’s seat and play it out. Or, if you want to really work the brain game, you can invest time beforehand by repeatedly visualizing things going well—and even visualizing what would happen if they don’t end well, until you make peace with either outcome.
“If you’re so stoked to launch off this jump that you’re completely at ease with both the possible positive and negative outcomes, you’re going to be at peace with making the move,” says Schaeppi. “In fact, being genuinely relaxed, happy, and non-panicked at the outset means you’re much more likely to stay firmly in the driver’s seat.”
Regularly practicing meditation builds your brain’s ability to wave distractions away when they float into the picture. So if anxiousness, fear, or self-doubt enter your mind, you’re better prepared to just acknowledge them, then let them move along.
“Ultimately, fear and a sense of accomplishment go hand-in-hand. In fact, flow state isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the inclusion of it. If you develop your own mental resiliency and learn to manage the sensation of fear, you can channel it to help you focus and do things that are exciting without giving yourself a heart attack,” says Ulmer.
Fear is, evidently, like the high-energy college friend who fueled your fire if you managed the relationship wisely—or who led to your proverbial undoing if you let it get carried away. (To be fair, lessons were learned; now we know how flammable couches and peach vodka are.)
But now that I have a few more tools to manage my fear response, I feel poised to enter this next ski season with a bang. See you out there; I’ll be the one doing the sickest straight-air you’ve ever seen off a seven-foot cliff.