The 3 most important turns on a ski run

Books have always provided me constant source of motivation and inspiration. None more so than one I read recently called The Art of learning by Josh Waitzkin. For any chess fans out there this name might ring a bell because Josh was touted as the new ‘Bobby Fischer’ as a brilliant junior chess prodigy in the early 1990’s.  For those that don’t know, Bobby Fischer was to chess what Michael Jordan was to Basketball. He was a genius, a maverick, a total one off, there may never be another player like him. Josh had a similar talent at a young age, there was even a film made about him called Searching for Bobby Fischer.

As you can imagine the pressure put on this young boy was immense and unfortunately the fame he achieved was ultimately his downfall. It became too much and he moved away from the game he loved in pursuit of finding something far less pressured and rewarding.

In The Art of Learning, Waitzkin recounts the story of his years as a chess competitor from his own perspective. He describes how movie fame challenged his concentration on the game, how he took up Tai Chi as a form of relaxation, and then discovered that the same learning techniques he employed in chess enabled him to advance rapidly in martial arts as well. He subsequently studied eastern philosophies and the psychology of learning and unlearning.

Josh became a martial arts World Champion by applying the same learning techniques he developed from chess. He now works with some of the most successful people in the business and sporting world.  He teaches them his learning methods and techniques to become even more successful than they already are.

But what does this all have to do with triathlon?

A triathlete’s journey is a never-ending process of learning and development, where self-evaluation is critical to success. If you can learn from your mistakes you will improve quicker. There is no magic bullet, as some seem to think. To become a great triathlete takes hard work, time and patience.

But what was most interesting about the book was the fascinating interview with Josh at the end of the book (only available on the Audible recording). It tells us something about the mind-set of someone who rose to the very top of his sport and what might separate the best from the rest.

Josh describes a conversation he once had with World Champion skier Billy Kid who raced for Team USA in the 1960’s. Billy was something of a maverick himself.

Billy asked Josh the question:

“Josh what are the 3 most important turns of the ski run?”

Most will say the middle because it’s the hardest and the beginning because you have to gain momentum.

But Billy describes the 3 most important turns of the ski run as:

“The last 3 before you get in the lift.”

This is where people will get sloppy because muscles are fatigued and the attention span is diminished. This results in bad form, which internalises poor body mechanics. It’s no surprise this is where races are usually won and lost.

“If the last 3 turns are precise you are internalising precision, this reinforces quality right through to the end and carries through to your next session.” 

There are key messages in this conversation that relate directly to training and racing for triathletes if you want to get really good:

The first in training is to make sure your final repeats are your best and most focussed, even when your body is screaming at you to slow down. This reinforces precision and quality that will carry through into your next session. It also mentally leaves you with a ‘feel good factor’ because you didn’t give in. This helps to toughen you mentally because it develops your ability to concentrate on the task at hand when the mind wants to do wander. Think of it as mental durability training, the mind being trainable muscle.

It’s easy to maintain intensity in the early part of a training session. You are fresh, the numbers looks good and your mind and body is fully engaged in the moment. But that quickly changes and the real challenge of your mental and physical resilience begins as you start to fatigue. This is where being able to hold ‘technique under pressure’ is crucial and is part of what separates the best from the rest. These physical and mental aspects should be continually tested in training to make you stronger. The more overcome these challenges the stronger you can become.

Many of the sessions I write for my triathletes have a high level of repetition and progression that continually challenge them when they are fatigued. The reason being is want to see how they react in that moment when their legs, arms and mind are telling them to stop. The more they overcome these challenges the stronger they will become.

If you want to get really good it’s all about challenging yourself to maintain your speed, RPE, power or cadence in those darker moments when it’s all too easy to give in and slow down.

The same applies to racing, when you look at some of the greatest athlete of our time be it age groupers or professionals, they all have a remarkable ability to get stronger the longer they go. With a bit of thought and dedicated focus this is both trainable and achievable for any triathlete.

It’s not what you do when you feel good that’s important, it’s how you react when it doesn’t.