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  • Writer's pictureSandy Miller

The impact of anxiety on skiing

As a ski instructor you sometimes have to take on the role of a counsellor to the people you teach: a bit like a hairdresser does, but with added helmet hair. This is especially true when people are scared. Clearly everybody’s fear and anxiety are unique and personal, but some contributing experiences are more common than others, and this week I would like to talk about one of the most common negative experiences that can truly crush a nervous skier’s confidence, and completely detract from any positive feelings that they have about the sport.

The really sad thing about this experience is that it usually occurs due to the actions of well intentioned friends, family, colleagues or partners, who just want to be able to include those who are less confident in their social skiing.

Despite the good intentions these situations often end up with the nervous skier at the back, and they are always under pressure to keep up. As they are at the back, and less confident, they usually end up with no control over where they ski, and so they end up skiing things that they find very challenging. Those supportive people around them will repeatedly say things like “just get on with it”, and “going faster is actually easier” (keeping a constant speed that is not too slow will make things easier, but if you are scared it is not so easy). At this point the inexperienced skier will either sink or swim, and generally they have very little control over which way it goes.

Lac des Vaux - A relatively straight forward piste can become very complictaed if you feel anxious.

The trouble with this scenario is that neither the swimmers, nor the sinkers, benefit from this situation. The swimmers do come out of it better, but in order to cope with terrain that is beyond their ability most people resort to survival skiing, and use very bad techniques that are not as balanced as they could be and that result in a blocked posture. Over time they may become very confident skiing like this (they may even be seen as good skiers because they will ski with speed and throw themselves down anything), but they never have as much control as they should have, and because they have a posture that is blocked they cannot adapt or react quickly to what is going on around them. This lack of control and adaptability make them quite dangerous, especially when things are busy or when children are around. I completely understand that if you have just a few days of skiing you want to make the most out of it, ski with friends, and explore the mountains, but people who ski like this are too close to the edge of control.

Ok, so digression and mini-rant over. The fact is that this blog is about helping those who have sunk get back afloat, and to do that I would like to explain something called catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory is a way of understanding how psychological arousal, anxiety, and performance interact. As you can see from the diagram there are 3 axes, the vertical axis is performance, with the 2 base axes being physiological arousal and anxiety. A very simple summary of the model is that at a low level of anxiety performance increases with physiological arousal until it reaches an optimal level. If arousal goes beyond that point the performance will steadily decline. If this happens, and they go a bit over this optimal level, they can simply calm down a bit (a few deep breaths) and they will be able to perform at their optimal level again.

The catastrophe model

This all becomes a lot more complex when you add in anxiety. For somebody who is very anxious the impact of psychological arousal on performance is a lot more dramatic. At very low levels of arousal (they are very comfortable and calm) they can perform ok, but as soon as the arousal levels increase (standing at the top of something that they feel is beyond them) their performance will collapse catastrophically. Imagine the person who freezes at the top, and suddenly everything they could do before falls to pieces and no longer works. They are tense, static, with legs that feel shaky and weak, and they probably cannot link turns anymore. By the time they reach the bottom of the section that scared them they are a wreck, and they struggle to get back their composure even on something that should be easy.

The first thing that I want to point out is that this model shows us very clearly that it is vital that we do not push an anxious skier too hard. It may seem obvious, but as you ski around the mountain you will see a lot of people trying to cajole nervous skiers down pistes that they do not have the skill for, and that they are clearly not enjoying. Clearly we can push somebody who feels confident a bit harder without the risk of that complete breakdown, but we still need to be careful of pushing them into the aforementioned survival skiing, which can easy limit their long term skill development.

Another significant piece of information that we can take from catastrophe theory is how anxiety impacts somebody’s ability to get back to peak performance after they have been pushed too hard. As you can see from the breaking wave shape in the diagram things are a lot more complex for the anxious skier than for the confident skier, who just needs to calm down a bit. What this wave shape shows us is that when an anxious person has had a “catastrophe” (they freeze at the top of a run, panic when they hit a patch of ice, or they get freaked out by one of our swimmers skiing too close) they need to take enough time to calm down completely, and reset, before they can start to perform again. For a truly anxious skier the concept of just getting back on the horse can just end up making things worse and worse.

This can obviously be quite a slow process, but it should not be rushed and there is no one size fits all solution, the important thing is that the skier who is struggling has the chance to calm down completely. For some this may simply be going back onto a piste where they feel very comfortable, but for others it may mean stopping skiing for a while (maybe time for a coffee, or even having a bit of time off skis having an afternoon nap, making the most of the sports centre, or visiting the SPA). The anxious skier needs to have the chance to calm down completely, and reset their emotional state, before they can start aiming for their best performance again.

Next week I will go into a few ideas about how a group with mixed levels of confidence can ski together without issue, but for now I just want to recap.

Firstly it is really important that we understand that whether somebody sinks or swims in a difficult skiing situation (or many other situations in life for that matter) might be down to their underlying levels of anxiety, and it might be something that they have very little control over. Hopefully understanding catastrophe theory can help those who suffer from anxiety to realise that they are not alone in their struggle, but also hopefully it can also help those who are skiing with them to be more patient and empathetic.

Secondly if you, or somebody you are skiing with, have things go catastrophically wrong when you are skiing make sure you take the time to calm right down. Trying to ski on without taking the time to reset your emotional state could end up with things getting worse and worse.

A suitable ski instructor proving that there is no shame in taking a coffee break even if anxiety is not involved.

Finally in these situations finding a suitable ski instructor (such as Mountain Relish obviously) can make a huge difference. This is not simply about the experience or qualification, but the combination of that technical knowledge with a lot of patience, empathy and compassion. The fact is that if you get the wrong instructor they might be shouting the same things at you as your friends did, which can easily escalate the situation. However, if you make sure that you have somebody with the experience, knowledge and patience they should be able to calmly give you the correct, simple instructions that will help you (remember the ski instructing counsellor).

If you manage to find a ski instructor like this it is well worth investing in regular lessons to help you to keep moving forwards with your skiing. This is especially true in the early days of your skiing, but also when you are trying to recover from a knock to your confidence, or to overcome anxiety in your skiing generally. I would say that at the start of each trip is also a good time to get a few lessons, as it can help you keep improving, which will help you get more out of your skiing, but it will also give you some simple focuses and techniques that you can use as a simple focus for when things do get difficult (instead of slipping into panic).

As a matter of fact this suggestion of taking some lessons is also what I would recommend for the swimmer who managed to use survival skiing to cope with the difficult terrain. The fact is that learning brutal, survival skiing techniques will limit where we can get to with our skiing, which in turn limits out safety and our enjoyment. Some high quality lessons from a knowledgeable and highly qualified instructor will help you get the most out of your skiing.

Ultimately good ski lessons should help us all to become more confident, safer skiers, who are getting the most out of their time on the slopes, and at the end of the day, from a skiing point of view, we cannot really ask for much more (apart from quiet pistes and good stable snow, but I’m afraid that those are things that even the most qualified and experienced instructors cannot guarantee).

If you are in the situation where fear does impact your skiing and you would like some advice, please do get in touch, and I will do my best to help.


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