Vert Fest 2017

 

I'm into month two of my self-imposed 12 month challenge to race once a month for all of 2017. Today was the Vert Fest, a backcountry ski race at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon.  

I often write blogs and FaceBook posts while I race.  This is not the most competitive of practices, but it keeps me busy and avoids the other questions that I'm pummeled with.  Like why are you doing this? Unfortunately after the lactic acid sets in I don't seem to be able to access the incredibly witty rapport that's going thru my head to distract me, but here's my post race effort anyway.

This race was an experience in doing most things wrong.  Standard things that I remind racers to do all the time. Like pack your gear the night before. This would have been a great idea since I forgot a essential backpack I was going to need to hold my gear on the up and downhill. Luckily I had a good friend coming up to the mountain and she grabbed one for me.  Unluckily was the fact that her family is perpetually late getting to the mountain and forgets every weekend that Saturday traffic to Mt. Bachelor is at a standstill if you don't leave by 7:45am.  This gave me plenty of time to warm up as I ran thru the parking lot looking for her car in a panic to expedite the transfer and increase my adrenaline. By the time I got to the staging area I was properly warm and thirsty.

Mistake number 2.  I didn't bring water.  No problem - there is always water or a product at the starting line.  Except this time.  The only fluids available were coffee and beer.  Since I'd done the former this morning and didn't think the latter was a good pre-race choice, I went without, hoping there would be an aid station somewhere along the way.  Which there wasn't.  Note to self: bring water. Always.

Mistake number 3 was a doozy.  I found a friend who had actually won the Recreational category last year (a misnomer - there is nothing recreational about skinning uphill.) That was the moment when I said "Tell me what the route is like."  Had I looked at the route ahead of time (or listened to my husband) I could have wrapped my head around just how much uphill was in store for me. And maybe I would have eaten more than said coffee and pretzels for energy two hours earlier.  All of a sudden there was some clarity in what the morning was going to require and there was no question that bringing my headphones was the best item I packed.

The rest of the race was really a blur (an hour and forty-seven minute blur). Since I had no real race plan, I maximized my strengths and put up with my weaknesses.  Unfortunately downhills are my strengths and uphills are not.  So in a predominantly uphill race (like 90%) I did not have a lot of time to shine and scare other racers.  Except when I fell on a steeper section of an uphill track and a really nice bald man helped me up.

So I finished! And not dead last - which is always my goal even though I know as a sports therapist to avoid making an outcome goal as your goal.  I know I wasn't dead last because I went online to find race results immediately. This is my favorite part of most races.  I've learned at my ripe age of racing off the couch that the the only way to appreciate results is to create enough categories until you find something positive.  Today was a great day for this strategy.  I was 30th overall (we never ask out of how many). I was the 5th woman (again, follow the rule about not asking).  And most importantly I was the oldest woman racing by 10-15 years. So I won that category! It made me wonder where all the other 49 year olds were.  Either they are a bunch of slackers or they've gained some wisdom in life and enjoyed a blue bird day going downhill. I'll just leave it at that.

How To Train Like a 10 Year Old

I spent last Sunday on a 22 mile mountain bike ride with my 10 year old son.  I set  him up for success, lots of downhill, some technical, minimal hill climbs, but it was over a 3 hour ride nonetheless.  By the time we were done I had the distinct impression that training as a 10 year old was an untapped strategy for athletes in any discipline.

Assume You Will Make It

I ride on a fancy shmancy full suspension 29er.  My son recently upgraded to a 26” hard tail, but has been on a 24” with a locked out fork and bald tires until Saturday. Regardless of what each of us were riding there was one main difference in how we approached our ride: my son assumes he will get up and get over anything he tries. Anything.  Every obstacle that he approached he sped up, took his hand off his brakes and went for it - which is the exact opposite of how his mother (me) rides. He does this when he skis as well - his mentality is consistently “why wouldn’t I make it?”  He is not afraid of looking silly, stumbling, risking failure or even bumps and bruises.  Athletes that adopt this mindset find themselves more comfortable being on the edge of their abilities because it becomes the norm instead of the exception in their sport.  Our brains are on the lookout for danger and anxious responses; my son is training his brain to be used to challenges and relax around them with his “can do” approach.  The strategy is priming his brain to relax, and when it relaxes the rest of his body stays calm and fluid - ready to adapt to whatever the terrain throws at him.

Thumbs up When You Fall

I was the mother with the kid in diapers who could ski on his own. So I was also the mother who had to watch him blow up, yard sale, and get stuck in the trees (see #1 Assume You Will Make It).  Since he insisted on skiing wherever he wanted he developed a habit of exploding and would give me a raised thumbs up from wherever he landed so i knew it was just an ugly but safe fall.  His now 10 year old self still gives me the thumbs up when he falls and its a great strategy.  He is an athlete that doesn’t take his falls seriously.  His ego is not bruised when he is unsuccessful in his attempts, he actually celebrates the “epic fail”. To be able to celebrate an epic fail is to fully enjoy the attempts we make as athletes.  To not beat ourselves up for trying keeps us in line when we set our goals, whether in competition, a training ride, or a day with our friends. Make sure you give yourself the proverbial thumbs up when you make an attempt that doesn’t end the way you envisioned it. 

Go When You Don’t Want to Go

Our long ride started with “Do I have to? I don’t want to go” whining at our house. This is a typical conversation that occurs for about 10 minutes before he begrudgingly gets on his gear and is resigned to being “forced” to do something that will take effort and time.  The attitude lasts until we get to the trailhead and is never heard again. He has learned at an early age that rarely do we regret getting on our bikes or working out. Pack your gear and take it to work, lock your bike on the back and don’t think about it till the end of the day.  And then go.

Ride (or ski or run) Over Everything

I couldn’t figure out why my son couldn’t ride in a straight line.  He kept veering from one edge of the trail to the other, making a serpentine out of a straightaway.  I decided to follow him and quickly learned that his crazy riding was intentional. It allowed him to hit every rock and obstacle, improving his riding simply by having fun.  He had made a game out of riding that would inevitably lead to improved skills without increased stress or effort.  Take a different line or find at least one move to challenge yourself every time you ride. Eventually the gap between fear and competence will shrink out of consistent exposure.  And it’s really fun.

Celebrate Your Day

It was no surprise when my son would say something to make me feel good, that’s just who he is.  “Nice job, Mom!”, “I knew you could make that!” were comments I heard throughout the day.  My surprise came when I heard him telling himself that as well.  He celebrated throughout the day when he was successful or made a good move.  I wondered what that was like and started patting myself on the back whenever I landed something new, got up and over something hard, or kept my hands off the brakes while cornering. At first I felt kind of silly, whooping out loud and yelling “Yes!!” to myself. But then I started to look forward to the celebration - like giving myself my own gold star.  Who doesn’t like a gold star? It made the hard parts of the day easier, allowed me to forgive myself when I wasn’t successful, and I continually had something positive to look at after my ride.  And sometimes you need more than a gold star.  After our long ride we required celebratory tacos to go thru our stories, embellish when necessary and plan for our next “training session” together.

 

Code Words and Disney..

It turns out Pixar was a genius in creating code words for mental strength. I found this out as I was ski touring for the first time in the Purcell range in BC. As I slogged up a hill for the third time, trying to keep up with my friends ,I found myself chanting/singing "just keep swimming, just keep swimming" the mantra that Dori the Clown Fish made famous in Finding Nemo. She was onto something, that Dori. By finding her mantra she was able to get her brain to relax around the difficult task at hand, and once her brain could relax her body could follow suit.

Code words are words or phrases that athletes use to remind themselves that everything is going according to plan, even when it isn't. They get developed before race day, a necessary part of mental training that ingrains connections between brain and body.  The purpose of a code word is to help the brain relax when it experiences pain or mental stress. In a race or adventure pursuit ,like my ski tour, the brain registers signals that it is under duress- heavy breathing, painful muscles, pounding heart - which the brain reads as problematic and encourages us to stop what we are doing. It might sound like "I'm done", "I hate this" or as my brain was screaming loudly "how much better could those turns be up there? This is far enough".  

The code word is the antidote to these sticky thoughts that plague us. They are Dori's "just keep swimming" mentality that soothe our brain and let it know that we aren't going to die from this exertion, we might just be really tired. I realized that I've always used some form of code word to relax when I've found myself training or outdoors. Marathon training resulted in "it's all good" as my go-to statement regardless of the hill or mile mark. "Every day ends in bed" was what kept me going as I led teens up mountains requiring 3am alpine starts. Now I rely on "29ers like rocks" while I'm mountain biking things my mother wished I wouldn't. Add on some reminders to breathe and now the body and brain can work together to get beyond the damaging thoughts.

There are times though when we don't want to relax and maintain, but want to charge, blow past our competition and ride the wave of adrenaline that feels so good.  These are charge words, also honed in training, that fuel our efforts serving as  a mental steroid when we need to make a move. Rowers are notorious for Power 10's, a call out from the coxswain to find 10 harder strokes than the rowers are already pulling. Swimmers I have worked with report using phrases such as "Now!", "get 'er done" and "explode" as they find inner strength to put the hurt on their competitors.  By the end of the day, and nearing my end with more ridge still above me, I heard the phrase "let's get this over with!" and realized I had my charge phrase for the week.

Creating mental containers

"I'm leaving for nationals in the morning and I keep getting thoughts that are bugging me". The young runner and I had worked together in the past and I was pleased he wanted to come back for a pep talk before his race.  We talked about his excitement and goals for his upcoming race and it became clear that the pressures of what he was embarking on were greater than he had let on.  "What if I don't win, what if I pass out, what if I embarrass myself, what if I give up", became the theme of our session. 
These are typical "sticky thoughts" that plague athletes as pressures arise in training and in competition. A component of mental training involves the ability to recognize these thoughts and  to distance them through different techniques. My work involves strategizing with athletes to recognize the thought,  acknowledge its presence, avoid its pull, create some space thru breath-work and relaxation, and to replace the sticky thought with something more productive (smooth thoughts).  My runner and I weren't left with a lot of time to Implement these skills; they need practice and repetition in various  training and competitive situations to become honed and effective. 
I asked what it felt like in his body when he had these thoughts.  "It feels like a lot of pressure, really heavy and tense, I feel it in my chest and throat". I gave him a stack of post-it notes and asked him to write each sticky thought on a separate note. He came up with seven thoughts that continued to trouble him. 
I usually have containers in my office (unused take-out food boxes work great) but I was out so I grabbed a tissue box and emptied it of all the tissues. I asked him to put all the notes in the box.  "What would it be like to run at nationals while carrying this box? Imagine yourself at the starting line with everyone and you show up with your box." He started to smile. "That would be crazy! It would be heavy and get in my way.  I'd be at a huge disadvantage."  I agreed completely.  
We spent the rest of our session visualizing how to leave that box somewhere before the race, picturing how it would feel NOT to carry a box of pressures and how that box was doing nothing but weighing him down. Securing the thoughts in a real and metaphorical container allowed the athlete to put parameters around his fears and see them only as inhibitors to his performance - nothing he'd ever want to lug around during a race. Creating opportunities for athletes to see the power of their thoughts (both positive and negative ) is crucial for continued success.

Growing an Athlete

"How do I tell my baseball obsessed 12 year old that he's been cut from travel baseball and won't be on the team in the spring? We're sick."

This is one of the toughest issues to handle as a parent of an athlete.  Preparing for losses is one thing - every competitive situation has the possibility for a win or a loss, a PR or sub par performance.  But being left behind while  peers continue on has the potential to devastate a young athlete and generate self defeating thoughts.  There is no easy way around this subject - there is going to be pain, hurt, dejection and very possibly tears.  Your athlete might talk about quitting, be slow to motivate to practice, become surly and start bashing their sport.  These are all normal signs associated with feeling rejected, embarrassed and vulnerable.  As a parent (or a coach) it's your job to balance immediate responses with big picture lessons.  The big picture lesson is the life lesson; we work hard, we put our selves out there, and sometimes it isn't enough.  What we do next with that information is the growth that comes from enduring the pain, creating a plan, and re-grouping.  The balancing act as the adult is to help your athlete get to a place where they can move forward and buy in to the big picture.  This can be a slow process based on the young athlete's history of successes and struggles in all aspects of life, not just their sport.  What experiences do they have in school, with friends, with siblings that might get in their way of shifting this painful experience into a growth experience?  Parents hold this information that coaches might not be privy to, and are therefore crucial parts of the process. 

The most important part of dealing with the pain and disappointment your athlete is experiencing is listening and validation.  It seems so easy, but is incredibly challenging when someone we love is in pain.  We are conditioned to solve the problem and releive the suffering  - and that's the last thing our child needs.  They need an adult to validate their hurt, their humiliation, their bruised ego.  Most of us can remember some moment when we had to sit with these uncomfortable emotions; it's your job to tap into that and reflect it back to your child.  It might sound something like "I'm so sorry this hurts", "I can hear how awful this is for you", "It doesn't seem fair does it?", "You were so excited for next season", "I'm wondering if you are worried what your teammates are going to say".  Nowhere did these statements encourage cheerleading tactics - move on, pick yourself up, you'll do better next time. It's not the time for that yet, your athlete needs to vent and to be heard before they can move into the next phase of healing.  Our need to rush thru this painful phase is often a result of our own fears for our chlidren - the fear that this setback will crush them or the fear that as their parent we won't be able to handle their pain.  The more validated and heard an athlete feels, the quicker they will be able to process the next step - the big picture lesson.

The big picture lesson is the real reason we want our kids playing sports.  It's not the possible scholarships or the glory, it's the ability to endure pain and hardship - and to welcome this challenge.  When your athlete is able to move on you will notice their defensiveness will have lessened; this is your opportunity to plant the seeds of growth. This is the time to encourage re-grouping and action.  What were the deficits that led to them not making a team? Help them seek out this information by directly talking to their coaches and really examining their skills.  What will it take to get to where they want to be next season? More practice? Staying late and getting up early? Accepting feedback even when it stings?   These are the strategies that all successful athletes come to after natural talent starts to wane.  These are the opportunities for growth that carry our athletes beyond athleticism and into life.  Welcome to the big leagues.