Photo: Looking up at Wimpys, my exit tracks on the left, Grand Teton National Park, January 2022
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our minds”
Bob Marley: Redemption Song
My skis slip… again. I say to myself, “Why can’t you do this? Are you too old? Too weak” I am struggling to climb a parallel ski track that winds its way up a 3500 foot thirty five degree ski run called Wimpys in Grand Teton National Park— no lifts, no ski patrol. Climbing skins, attached to the bottom of my skis, grip the snow allowing me to ski up the track. Every time the track steepens or I have to make a kick turn at a switchback I slip backwards. I am skiing by myself, but not alone.
On this blue sky morning in January, 2022 with eight inches of fresh snow, I have already been passed by nine skiers. Not only do my skis slip, but I am slow. Looking down the mountain I see another dozen skiers. In disgust, I say, “Everyone is passing the old man.” My attention is focused on things I can’t control: my age, the other skiers and the steepness of the track. My mind wanders to the past when few skiers travelled outside the ski area boundaries and fewer still were fit enough to pass me.
Whether you are a competitive athlete or in a high-stress job, you may find yourself at times burdened with self-doubt, subject to your internal critic and focusing on outcomes rather than the task at hand. What drives these negative thoughts? Is it fear of failure or success? Are the edges of your confidence frayed by future unknowns or past setbacks? Does self-consciousness occupy your attention? This edition of What I Learned is about the art letting go freeing your mind to focus on the task at hand.
Choking is poor performance in a stressful situation. Most of us have been there: struggling in athletic competitions, speaking in front of an audience, or flailing on a math test. Self-induced pressure compromises performance and ensures the desired outcome is not achieved. Behavioral scientists have studied the science behind choking. Their research indicates it is not pressure that causes us to choke, but rather self-consciousness. Impaired performance in high pressure situations is associated with heightened activity in parts of the brain linked to self-awareness. Attention shifts, undermining performance in a number of ways.
Self-consciousness diverts one’s attention from the task at hand. The result is incorrect action or inefficient movement. Climbing Wimpys, I was focused on everyone passing me rather than on my body position to maximize my climbing skin’s holding power. The same thing happens when you think about passing a test you are taking rather than the question at hand
Self-consciousness increases perceived effort. If you are concerned about how you look giving a speech to a large group, you risk rushing your speech to get it done. Direct your attention outward: slow down, pause, and make eye contact with the audience. If you are racing your bike in a time trial thinking about the pain in your legs, you lose focus on what you are doing. You are much better off directing you attention to your body position and pedal stroke. This distracts you from your suffering, allowing you to push harder.
Our Internal Critic
Many of us suffer from an overactive internal critic. The art of letting go requires living in the moment– living with flow. See my article: https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/11/22/living-with-flow/. Life flows when what we think, feel and wish for are in harmony. Be prepared mentally and physically for the task at hand. Fill your thoughts with positive self-talk and belief. If you focus on what you can control in the present, you free yourself of self-doubt and silence your internal critic. Self-confidence built on hard work creates positive results. Believing in yourself whether you succeed or fail allows you to be in the moment – in flow.
Victory or success does not make you stronger. Failure does. Recovering from trauma is especially difficult. Wounds heal, but scars remain. In 1974, I lost my dad in a climbing accident. My brother and I stood over him as his body shuddered with a last dying gasp. The pain hits you in waves. Eventually the waves get smaller and you get stronger. The same is true when you don’t get that promotion at work or you perform poorly in a race you thought you had in the bag. Embrace your failures. Learn from your setbacks. Feed your emotional, physical and spiritual strength.
Living in the Moment
The slope angle eases approaching the top of Wimpys. The snow sparkles in the mid-day sun. Blue sky outlines the jagged peaks of the Teton Range. The high altitude air smells clean and fresh. Below my skis, the broad valley of Jackson Hole lies blanketed in snow. I join a group of skiers who passed me on the way up. We make the transition from climbing to skiing. I resist the temptation to join the conversation. My struggle on the way up makes me self-consciousness. I want to tell them I have been skiing the range for fifty plus years. I say to myself, “Don’t say it. Keep your mouth shut.” Forget your age, forget all the people; so what if you struggled on the way up. You are here. Live in the moment, accept what you can’t control and work on controlling what you can.
I spied an untracked line on the way up. The old guy still has a few tricks and a nose for soft snow. I point my skis downhill and push off feeling the flow. I drop into a bowl of soft snow, then cut left into the trees avoiding a cliff, and sweep down a steep ridge. More trees— stay right out of the ugly gully, then a final open face where I set down a set of tracks right down the middle. Twenty minutes later and 3500 feet of untracked powder skiing finds me on the flats looking up at Wimpys– no mistakes, no falls. A big grin splits my face. I say, “Well done old man.”
Photo: selfie in the Teton backcountry, January 2022.