The Art of Practice

We went snow skiing in Utah last week, just as the state was getting slammed by a major snowstorm. For most skiers, fresh snowfall implies a powder day, the dreamiest of ski conditions. For me, it caused me to reflect on my skills and willingness to brave the mountain as a skier who has had minimal opportunities to practice.

My snow ski life started at age 30, and in the last 35 years I managed to ski no more than once a year for 2-4 days. Just about the time I got into the groove of swooshing down the mountain, it was time to go home. For many of those years, I didn’t ski at all.

Part of me felt cheated, as I would never get the 10,000 hours of practice reputed to be necessary to get really good at something. Learning as late in life as I did, I knew I would never have the muscle memory that comes with learning something as a child. My body, it seemed, didn’t know how to ski. It was up to my head to remember. As a result, every trip starts with the question: do I still know how to ski?

My initial mindset for this trip was no different. When I first locked into the skis and did my first couple of runs on a short hill aptly named “Trainer”, I wondered if I would ever go beyond this bunny slope. Frankly, I wondered if I would even do a second run. In fact, I mentally quit skiing for good about 50 times. The feel of the skis seemed foreign, the gentle slope of the mountain looked like a steep cliff to my eyes and there were obstacles everywhere I looked. Sure, those “obstacles” were other skiers, but life would have been much easier for me if they had just stayed home. My ski style at this point could best be described as survival-sliding-down-the-mountain.

By the third run, my body remembered the basics of snow skiing, and with lots of trepidation mixed with a small dose of determination, I decided it was time to get on the big lift.

On the first big run, I noticed my breathing was different than it had ever been on previous ski trips. Instead of ragged, shallow breaths, my breathing was deep, smooth and slow. It reminded me of the breath I use when submerging into 45-degree water of my regular ice baths. About halfway down the mountain, I noticed that I was no longer survival skiing. My turns were smooth and even. My breath was deep. I felt relaxed and in tune with the mountain, taking each turn as it came.

After the second run, I realized the most pronounced change in this trip had nothing to do with my muscle memory and technique. The noise in my head was minimal.

For 35 years, my inner experience of snow skiing was a house of horrors, as my inner critic screamed things at me all the way down the mountain. “Watch out!” “Look out, that’s ice!” “There’s an edge – get away from it – quick!” And those were the nice things. There was also a lot of “Oh S#$T” and worse. For those watching from the outside, they could see the tense body language and the sure sign I was terrified: my ski poles being used as speed brakes, dragging in the snow as if they could magically slow me down.

I started the second morning ready to go. I had booked a private lesson initially to have a pro help me get through the terrifying first couple of runs; having already done that, we started on the big hill where I had skied the day before. Instead of immediately starting with a “follow the leader” ski lesson, he suggested I just ski down and we could then decide where to go from there.

At first, I was a tense, but nothing like the first run of the day before. About halfway down the mountain, I found my flow and skied with relaxed confidence to the bottom of the ski lift. I was comfortable being out of balance because I had confidence that I could get back into balance. The instructor noted my relaxed state of mind and said that I had not missed a single pole plant. In other words, I had not deployed my fear-induced speed brakes one time. While this was a cold, snowy, windy day, I had my best ski day ever. Thanks to the ability to go through the “ski school” line at the lifts, we did more runs by lunch than I’ve ever done in a full day.

Reflecting on what was different after all these years, I realized that principles I began to uncover in Dancing the Tightrope have made their way into my regular practices. Snow skiing puts me in the “Froth”, the agitated state of mind where my Survival Mode screams for me to reach for the same Rules I’ve used my whole life. The Froth also offers another way: reach for my Tools, and let the mountain tell me when to turn, where to turn and how to turn. Take it one frame at a time. Let myself feel the little endorphin kick moment by moment.

Not once at the top of any of the ski runs did I hear my mental chatter yammer at me that “This might be the run where you bite it. What if you get stuck? What if you can’t do it?” Instead, I just kept looking at each step, with the question “Ok, what’s next?” As the day wore on, the wind grew stronger, and we were in full whiteout, blizzard conditions as we got off the lift. The instructor looked at me to see if I was going to freak out. Or maybe I looked at me to see if I would. It had certainly happened before. But no, I just strapped on my poles, looked at the instructor and said, “Let’s get on down the mountain.”

As notable as what my mind was doing – tuning into the inner feeling of returning to balance, letting the mountain guide me on where, when, and how to turn, reaching for my mental tools, breaking it down frame by frame, rewarding every tiny bit of effort – what I wasn’t doing was equally notable.

The mental chatter that I’ve often called the Sports Mom Bitch was gone. Once I got going, there was no beating myself up.

Besides this trip, I’ve only skied once in the last 5 years. Yet my skiing this trip improved as much as if I had been practicing much more often. Why? My mental practice had been a bigger gap than my physical practice.

Practicing the old way that I practiced might have done more harm than good. Beating myself up was never the way to get better, notwithstanding the societal pressures to be hard on ourselves to show we care about getting better. I believe beating myself in truth takes away any progress I’ve made, thus keeping me the same or worse than I was at the beginning. It’s also a very difficult habit to break, as you saw in my mental chatter at the beginning of this ski experience.

This experience further made me realize the profound impact of mindset on my approach to practice.

If my mindset focuses on minimizing mistakes in a given practice session, the unstated assumption is that making mistakes is bad, and my tendency will be to stay within a tolerable range of mistakes.

However, if my mindset focuses on systematically following a set of practices to restore balance, no matter how far out of balance I’ve gotten, then I will expand my horizons and gain confidence in my ability to handle the unexpected.

In the end, both my enjoyment and my skiing improved when I cared more about being in the moment, step by step instead of focusing on the dilemma of surviving my way down the mountain. The choice point happened over and over again in the Froth. It’s the feeling that something is off – that I’m out of balance – and the awareness that I have the mental Tools and wherewithal to restore balance.

It wasn’t through more skiing that I was able to apply this “system” to practicing skiing. It was through my daily practice of applying this system to everything I do, from unloading my car, to writing a piece such as this, from riding a horse to driving my car down the street.

What have you found that helps your practice become truly productive? What mental habits are serving you? Which ones are taking away your progress? How are you building confidence that you can restore balance, especially when the pressure is high?