Walk into any skating rink outside of the ‘public hours’ and it’s as much a hive of activity as during the public sessions. Skaters running laps around the ice pad and doing warm up exercises in every nook and cranny. A hubbub in the changing rooms with laughter, gossip, sighs and moans about what is right or wrong with the world. On the ice there will be skaters practicing hard on patch (and some not so hard!) and others trying as far as they can to reproduce what their coach has just demonstrated or told them to do.
Unless you are watching skaters practicing for the Olympics, the World Championships or even Dancing on Ice, rarely, do you see anyone just standing and staring, apparently into space. Yet that is exactly what you sometimes need to do, to sharpen your focus. The on-ice and off-ice activities that make up a skater’s schedule, almost always lack that essential ingredient, which, when practiced hand in hand with the physical stuff makes the magic happen.
The importance of ‘mindset’
I’m talking about mindset. Being in the zone. A mental state of complete focus on what is about to be required of the athlete. Let’s bust some myths here. Mindset skills are not just for the elite. The elite are at that level because they know how to focus, eliminate distractions and deal with their gremlins. And here’s another myth: ‘it won’t make any difference to me – I’m not that good’. Oh yes it will!
Using techniques to focus on the broad and narrow, internal and external sharpens your mind to help your body do what you want it to do. What goes on in your head as you set up for your jump, rotate and land is crucial to the success of the jump. Henry Ford (founder of the Ford motor company) famously said “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right”. When you head into an element together with the accompanying gremlins in your mind telling you that you can’t do this, or you’ll fall, there is a high likelihood that they will be proved right.
So having the right mindset involves more than focus. We need also to eliminate our gremlins. That’s easier said than done. It actually takes quite a lot of practice. And sometimes, even when we are being kind to ourselves in our heads, if we secretly don’t really believe it, it isn’t going to work. So how can we start to get rid of the negative stuff – or stinking thinking – in our heads which is holding us back?
Here are some tips:
- First of all, remember to stay positive as much as you possibly can. What the scientists among you need to know about how this works is that the unconscious mind (some people like to call it the subconscious, but frankly it’s so brilliant there is very little ‘sub’ about it!) doesn’t work with negatives. Let’s simplify that. The unconscious mind ignores negatives. It focuses on the key words which you are concentrating on. If you’ve heard of the saying “you get what you focus on” – this is where it’s at. So if I tell myself “I mustn’t fall” or “I don’t want to fall”, the mind is focusing on the word “fall”. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out the likely result.
- Turn the negatives into positive. What could you say instead? “I want to land this (jump) cleanly”. That’s better. It isn’t a magic wand, and you have to really get your mind believing that you can. If you’ve landed it before – just remind yourself. “I’ve done it before. I can do it again”.
- Look back at your progress. If you’ve reached a plateau, where nothing seems to be working, look back at what you weren’t able to do several months ago, which you can do quite easily now. Doing this reinforces in your mind the knowledge that you have the ability to learn something new and do it well. It helps you to get back into believing that you can. I often advise skaters to take regular video clips of new things they are learning and things they can do really well. You can use the former to remind yourself of how far you have come and the latter can be stored for use in visualisation techniques if you ‘lose’ a jump or start to get inconsistent about an element (You can learn more about visualisation in a later article).
The science behind it
Practicing the physical on and off ice skills together with skills in mental toughness really boosts your ability to get better results and more consistency. The chemical changes that go on in your body as a result of having your mind ‘all over the place’ and getting upset about not being able to do something actually makes it all much worse. Brain chemistry affects your coordination, balance, timing, muscular control, ability to focus and energy levels – all of which are crucial to a great skating performance.
Not just for skating
The key thing is to realise that mental toughness, or mindset skills are an essential part of what makes up a great performance on the ice. Even better, is the fact that these same skills can be used in a whole host of situations which are unrelated to skating too. Worried about big exams coming up this year? Tests? Interviews? Having a mental toolbox on which to draw when the occasion arises is a brilliant secret weapon against the gremlins. Because the mind is where the magic happens.