Martin Bell’s expert advice: part 7 - the mental game of skiing

Martin Bell’s expert advice: part 7 - the mental game of skiing

By Martin Bell

We've been working with former Ski Olympian Martin Bell for over 15 years and he created our unique PB Martin Bell Ski Academy, which runs every year in Zermatt and, from this winter, in Arosa too for children, aged 11 to 15.

In this series of blog posts, Martin shares his extensive knowledge and valuable expertise. This is the final post of the series, in which Martin shares his expert knowledge on conquering the mental side of skiing to truly master the sport.

Skiing is a dangerous sport, there is no escaping that fact. Indeed, it's a major part of the sport's appeal. As humans, we have a basic need to scare ourselves slightly, while knowing deep down that the risks are controllable and acceptable

There are several aspects of skiing that can create fear: speed, poor visibility, steepness, ice, and jumps or drops.However, all of these elements allow the risk to be controlled by technique and planning.

Speed is fun! As a former downhill racer, I cannot deny this but, of course, it is risky as unexpected things can happen more quickly, and you have less time to react. Nevertheless, humans can become accustomed to anything, and it is easy to become used to the pure sensations of skiing fast: the wind rushing in the ears (even with a helmet), the skis being shaken about by undulations, the exaggerated effect of terrain - floating you or squashing you. I remember going through this process every November. But when you're not used to speed, your mind's first reaction is to become defensive with your body language, and this invariably leads to moving your weight further towards the tails of the skis which unfortunately leads to a loss of control. It is the front of the ski which decides where the rest of the ski will travel. If there is no pressure on the front of the ski, it cannot guide the rest of the ski into a turn so, at speed, you need to become more aggressive and attack the slope, so it doesn't attack you. This will naturally put your weight forward on the front of your skis, giving you more control.

Poor visibility because of fog, flat light, or just the early dusk that comes around 3.30pm in December, has the same effect as speed. It causes skiers to become defensive and sit back. Again, the cure is to have positive body language: push the hands forward, and make sure the whole body moves forward with them. In bad light, it's also important to stay loose. Your feet will encounter unseen bumps and if you can remain relaxed in the ankles and knees, your legs will naturally absorb them. Try to learn to become more sensitive to the messages being sent up to your brain from the soles of your feet. In bad light, you may "feel" the bumps before you see them.

A steep slope is always intimidating - but there are other factors at play as well. Often, the scariest thing is a contrast in gradients; so going from a flat ridge to a steep slope is far scarier than being on a slope of consistent steepness. The length and width of the slope are also huge factors.The instinctive reaction on a steep slope is to shy away from the downhill side and lean into the slope. But of course, this reduces your angulation and makes your skis far likelier to skid, giving you less control. What we call "learning good technique" is really overcoming that urge to lean into the hill, and instilling new instincts of creating angulation and edging our skis. These new instincts have to be learned in less threatening situations so that they become second nature when you find yourself in a tough situation. Any skiers who say "I don't need to learn good technique because I just cruise on-piste all day" are kidding themselves. This is a fallacy. If you don't get in the habit of good technique, then sooner or later you'll get caught out of your depth, either through poor navigation or inconsistent piste grading.The principles for dealing with icy slopes are the same as for steep ones. Eventually, if you have sharp edges on your skis, and confidence in your own technique, you'll feel much more secure with skis on your feet than you would without them.

It is a little-known fact that ski technique can actually be learned without ever even putting your skis on. "Mental rehearsal", also known as "imagery", can be hugely beneficial. Scans have shown that the same parts of the brain are activated, whether you are actually performing a technique, or just imagining yourself doing it.

Another useful principle is "take it one turn at a time". In golf, it shouldn't matter if you're driving straight on to a fairway, or over a water hazard - but it does. And it shouldn't matter if you're making a turn on a 30-metre steep pitch or a 1000 metre one - but of course, there's huge mental pressure in knowing that a fall could result in a long slide. The more you can shut out the long slope below, and just focus on the next turn, the better chance you'll have of skiing that pitch successfully.

When dropping off a cornice or a cliff, there is always a fear element - that's part of the fun. But you can tip the odds in your favour with a little planning. The ideal thing is to check out the landing on the previous run, to judge the snow consistency, depth, and whether there might be unseen obstacles.If you cannot check out your landing, then check out other people going off drops nearby. Or even take a look at recently-made tracks. This can give you a feel for the type of snow you're about to land on.Of course, there is a happy medium between jumping in blindly, and too much planning. The longer you stand above a drop, the bigger it tends to look. So once you're up there, don't leave it too long. "Look before you leap", but remember that "he who hesitates is lost".Fear is an emotion that creates a physical state in the body: faster pulse, shallower breathing, tight chest. But this process also works in reverse. If you can slow your pulse, breathe more deeply, and relax your chest, it is possible to reduce your levels of fear.The ultimate extension of this principle is the type of mental training and self-hypnosis pioneered by Lars-Eric Unestahl. I found Unestahl's teachings to be particularly helpful in reducing stress levels back in my competition days.

Skiing is a physical sport, but your body will only perform at its best when the mind is also in the optimal state.

For more information on the PB Martin Bell Academy, click here or call 020 8246 5300.