Thinking About How To Water Ski: Mental Imagery And The Acquisition Of Skills
Let’s face it, our sport is not easy. We shred water at high speeds and with little time to do it, we hit solid ramps doubling the speed of the boat pulling us, and we make extremely acrobatic moves in 20 heart-breaking seconds. Most of these features of our sport are common to pro skiers and amateurs, male and female, young and old. Also, these features are those that sometimes frustrate us when we are in the process of learning a new trick, or to change our position on the slalom ski or on the big jumpers. In my very small coaching experience, I keep hearing things such as “you are giving me too much information” or “I feel like I have no time to think about it”. Needless to say that, as a skier, I happen to make such remarks to my coach as well. So, how can we avoid such problem? Unfortunately, most people tend to rely solely on repetition, with their mentors stressing the fact that the more you repeat a certain movement, the more natural it becomes. Even though this notion is true on a certain extent, it is not the only factor involved in skill acquisition. Many other factors are involved, such as trust in the person coaching, emotional status during practice, beliefs about the technical aspects of a certain movement, and so on. The factor I want to explore in this article has to do with having a clear picture of what it is that you are trying to work on, and use a technique called mental imagery (also known as visualization) to help the process of skill acquisition.
This technique can be practiced anywhere, and it consists of three steps. The first step involves thinking about yourself attempting the skill you have been working on. The second step involves watching youself from the outside and evaluating your movements. The third and final step is to perform some physical movement trying to recall the sensations you need/want to have while skiing.
Personally, I find mental imagery handy during a rainy day, when I walk back from campus and I know that there will not be a chance for me to ski. Also, it works great on certain movements that come and go, things that we thought we learnt and here we are doing them wrong again. Whoever has been through the hurdle of learning a new trick knows exactly where I am going with this. It is very important to maintain the three steps separatedly. They all have their specific purpose and the mixing of them can create interference that will produce nothing but confusion.
Ok, so you are ready to practice. First of all, sit down on a comfortable armchair, or lay down on a stretching mat. Some people like to do mental imagery work while holding some yoga or stretching positions. I would recommend not to do so, since your mental energy would be used to some extent in the holding of the position. Just sit down or lay down somewhere comfortable. You have sat and laid down all your life, so no mental energy will be used here.
Step 1: Ski
Skier: Roberto Linares
In the first step of your mental training you want to pick a technical aspect to work on. It is fundamental that you have already worked on this movement or series of movements on the water. Also, it would be perfect if you have had someone riding for you and giving you advise as on what to try and feel while you were working on this technical aspect. Finally, keep in mind the feelings you had while you were working on the water. By this I mean questioning yourself about the difference between what the person in the boat was saying and what you have felt during your on-water practice sets. For explanation purposes, I will assume that you have full confidence and trust in what the person in the boat told you to try. You must be absolutely sure (at least for the time being) that the movement you are working on is the right one.
Once all these requirements are met, you are ready to start your mental training. I will go through the technique by using a paradigm in trick learning: Toe O.
From your comfortable position, start with some deep breaths and make sure to be fully relaxed.
Now, the first step involves thinking about you skiing. This sounds fairly easy, but it is way more detailed than what a first impression might tell. First of all, the mental image you have to work on has the visual details of you skiing behind the boat. For instance, while preparing for a TO, you would see the boat, the rope, partially see your toe leg, and maybe the tip of the ski. Once this is achieve, it’s time to try some mental TO. Try to condition yourself as if you were to try one in the water, so think about the tips that your coach gave you. Here’s some example:
-Gradual pull on the line
-Shoulders parallel to the water
-Bent ski leg knee and ankle
-Look for the boat at the end of the trick.
Perfect, time to try the trick. Now, if you have never successfully performed the trick, you may want to focus on those times when you felt that one or more of the movements you worked on were well performed. Maybe you pulled gradually and you looked for the boat at the end of the trick, but your shoulders were not leveled. At this point, try to focus on that single experience, by thinking about doing the movements you did good, while repeating to yourself mentally the one you did wrong. In the case above, think about you pulling gradually and looking for the boat at the end of the trick, while verbally (not out loud, just mentally) repeating to yourself “shoulders leveled”. The best case scenario, which fortunately is the most common one, is to have already experienced a mix of situations where you had some movements dialed in while others not well performed. Same strategy, just different movements.
The main key for this step to be successful is repetition. Revisit those experiences and movements at least twenty times. This might sound too little, and once you will be accustomed with mental imagery, you will need more than twenty repetitions. However, the technique is relatively hard to master, so twenty seems to be a good number to start with. Also, the combination of different experiences with different errors will definitely help in placing the puzzle pieces together.
If you have performed the trick before but you are still in the process of learning it, your strategy is slightly different. First of all, you want to think solely of the times you performed the trick. Most of the times, for a new trick to happen, everything needs to be done perfectly, and most likely the first time you did a certain trick you just did it the way it was supposed to be done. However, there is a decay after that. You will start to perform the trick more and more… even though not all the tips you had to be solidly focused on before are not performed. Maybe, you learnt how to get away with having your shoulders not perfectly leveled. Now, that is a good sign because it proves that you are learning the trick. However, the problem is that those defects might be naturalized, resulting in a lower consistency level. If you feel like you belong here, than your goal is to go back to that first trick, the one in which everything “clicked”. Remember all that happened, the movements, and even the excitement after you did it for the first time.
There are some things you need to pay attention to, especially the first times you will be practicing this step. To begin with, it will be hard to stay still. You will notice that it is easy to find yourself moving your toe leg on the stretching mat while thinking about doing it in the water. It will not be a whole range movement, but micro movements will occur. Try to avoid them! In order for this step to work, there needs to be no physical movement. Also, try not to interrupt your breathing and maintain a constant intake and outtake of air. Lastly, it will be hard to focus. Sometime you will see only the beginning and end of the trick, struggling to think those movements in between. Most of the times this is the result of the difference in speed between information processing by itself and the combination of it with physical activity, which is what you do in the water. Force yourself to slow down and really “feel” those movements in between one front position and the other. After all, those are the ones that will make you learn the trick.
Good job, get yourself a drink and let’s move on!
Step 2: Watch Yourself Skiing
Once you are acquainted with the first step and you feel that you have practiced it enough times, it is time to work on the second skill. As well as the first step, you will not have to do any movement. Start again by breathing until you feel comfortable and relaxed. Now, you want to think about you doing the movement, but you want to pretend that you are watching yourself skiing from the boat or from shore. This step is relatively hard to master. At first, you will experience some sort of disturbance between first and third person. This happens because you have no direct experience at watching yourself in third person, and you never will. Despite that, a great aid in this exercise is to watch videos of you skiing, both from shore and from the boat. Watching videos allows us to look for the mistakes we have been working on, while at the same time spot some movements that we might not feel while skiing. Consequently, we mentally compare what we see with what we feel, and it makes perfect sense considering the purpose of technical understanding. In order to facilitate this step of mental imagery, you should watch some videos but try to discern the personal aspect with the critical eye. It involves pretending that you are not the skier you are watching.
Skier: Alvaro Moreno de Carlos
Once you are able to watch yourself on video while avoiding having immediate first-person thoughts, you can start working on this mentally.
Let’s say that you are a jumper, and you have been working on your air form. Usually, this concern about air form comes from a third person prospective. Your coach or some ski friends might have noticed some unusual position after you kick the jump ramp, or maybe you just watched a picture and thought that your air form is not what you were expecting it to be. The point is, air form is really hard to “feel”.
Back to your armchair, try to imagine being on the shore watching one of your three-jump sets. At first, watch it all, from the pull out to the buoy line, to the landing of the jump. Then, focus on your kick and air form. Is it what you expected it to be? Is it what you would like it to be? Most likely, if you are a critical analyzer of your skiing, the answer will be yes for the former question and no for the latter. Now, try to be critical about the skier you are watching (you). First of all, what is wrong with it? Maybe this skier’s hips remain to far back right off the ramp? Maybe the handle is too high? At the same time, seek those features of the air form that you would maintain. If, say, the upper body position is parallel to the jumpers, and this is what you are looking for, then acknowledge it as a good feature of this skier’s air form.
Ultimately, what you want to achieve is what you normally do when you ride for a friend. Look for mistakes and maintain positive features of your friend’s technique, while at the same time feel detached from the skier you are watching: you.
Step 3: Move Around
For this third and final step, you will have to leave the armchair or the mat. It is time to combine some physical motion with what you have been working one in the first two steps. Give yourself some space where to move around. In order to enhance the verisimilitude of this exercise, I suggest you grab your handle, or put it on your toe foot if you were working on some toe tricking. At this point, briefly go back to your first step and practice those movements you have been working on. Now, grab your handle and feel these movements.
For instance, let’s say you are working on your edge change in slalom. At first, you want to do some slalom skiing on the ground, so do not start right away by doing only edge-change movements. There is no need to run around a whole lot, six or seven feet are more than enough. Also, I suggest you do not tight the handle to a pole. This is mainly a mental imagery exercise, so the goal of using movements is not to physically feel what you want to feel on the water. The movements you are going to do on the ground should resemble the movements you have been thinking about during step 1. Back to ground slalom skiing, get in the gates, turn six buoys and all in between. However, whilst you are doing your edge changes, slow yourself down enough where you can be more aware of what is going on. After you ski a couple of slalom passes, you can start working on the edge change. Focus on the position of your arms, the connection of your inner elbow, and all the technical aspects of your skiing you have been working on. At the same time, move your body around while firmly holding onto the handle.
This step is arguably the easiest to master, since most of us move around mimicking what needs to be done in the water, especially before a set. However, because of the combination with first person imagery, this on-ground exercise will be more intense and it will involve more mental effort. Because of this, I would let some time pass between this step and an eventual set, something like 30 minutes.
In conclusion, mental imagery is a very powerful technique in athletic skill acquisition, especially in quick and intense sports like water skiing, where the short-time effort does not allow a lot of conscious mental processes to take place. This technique involves three steps:
1.First person skiing
2.Third person skiing
3.Movements + first person skiing.
These steps will allow you to use your time out of the water efficiently towards the mastery of technical skills you have been working on, hence allowing you to improve your skiing to the next level.
Matteo is a graduating senior in psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. A passionate skier since the early teens, he is a slalom skier with passion and dedication in both competition and promotion. Matteo is highly addicted to coffee, HO Syndicate products and sentences finishing with three dots.