One of the very first young people I worked with asked me to help her with the Pressure of Success. She was a good little skater. People remarked on her “watchability” and how she was ‘bound to do well’ in a forthcoming competition.
When you have worked hard and things have begun coming together to help you achieve a clean programme and a great score in competition you would think that was an end in itself. But often it’s the beginning of a new and scary phase of pushing through the next barrier in full view, and with the weighty expectations, of those watching your progress.
By far the majority of skaters I work with are already successful. They are achieving great things but – they are feeling the pressure of being at the top. That pressure is felt most severely from their perceived expectations of friends, family, others at the rink, and even judges who know what you’re capable of.
In the earlier days, it’s not always so important to be at the top. There is still much to work on. Much to learn. Taking each step as a learning point at the optimum pace for YOU is what is most important here. I see this magnified in particular at Junior level (though it certainly appears at all levels). For some, a simple birthday has propelled them into Juniors before they are technically ready. Others are ready to step up straight away, working hard on every single aspect of their skating ‘job’. Fitness (stamina required for that long free programme); rest – tapering training to be at their optimum for a competition; nutrition – fuelling the machine to keep in top condition; mental strength training – for resilience, confidence and that make-or-break self-belief.
Until you are the World, European and Olympic champion all rolled into one, there will always be someone better than you; who might seem to be improving more quickly than you. Never compare someone else’s front stage performance with what’s going on behind the scenes for you. You don’t know their ‘backstage’ story or the self-talk going on in their head. Nor they, yours.
It is particularly at this Junior level that technical leaps are made. The years leading up to double axels and triples are what will serve as the best foundation here. The resilience built up from occasions when it didn’t go well will strengthen you mentally. But you must learn to use those occasions as lessons, not let them give head-space to fears that it could go wrong again or that you can’t do something.
Juniors can be make or break time, from a self-belief point of view. If you think you can – or you think you can’t, you’re probably right. If you are going to make a successful transition from Juniors into Seniors you have work to do. New things to learn and attempt and accomplish. Your head has no place telling you otherwise. To believe you can’t, aren’t good enough, or that your previous successes were a ‘flash in the pan’ is to give up. Because you cannot achieve greater things with all the noise of that negative self-talk in your head.
And if you are lucky enough to have a supportive ‘crowd’ who’ve watched your past successes, there will inevitably also be the ‘naysayers’ who, unable to perform as you do, find their own twisted ‘joy’ in bringing someone down. That is about them, it’s not about you. Their words are no more real than the doubts and limiting beliefs you allow into your head. They’re gremlins – every bit as much as the self-doubting ones of your own. Treat them with the same contempt, don’t allow them in and use your shield or whatever protection mechanism you have to deflect them away.
If you approach a competition with the fear of failure and obsessing over a jump or spin you “can’t do” or the number of marks you need, you might as well give up there and then. Those fears are sending stress chemicals throughout your body which will harm your ability to skate as you need to. But if you treat every competition like a showcase of your best, and approach it like a reward for the hard work in getting it together – right there it makes you a winner.
So when you have done well, allow yourself to feel good and appreciate the moment. Remind yourself that you CAN. Appreciate every fall and every mistake in practice because they are making you stronger and more determined to overcome the challenge and master that move. You’ve done it before, many times, to get where you are now. The road doesn’t get easier and you need to embrace the challenges to make the transition. Skating is fickle – however much you love it, it rarely loves you back.
This season’s required jump may be your nemesis or it may be your favourite. Next year may be your best ever, but you won’t get that chance if you don’t stay strong now.
Finally, and fittingly, I want to leave you with a poem that expresses so eloquently what you need, above all, at the most challenging times: If, by Rudyard Kipling. Take a read with your skating in mind:
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!