3 Ways to Improve Your Skiing for Next Year – #2 – Embrace a Growth Mindset

No matter if my morning workout was an effortless 50k double pole done in record time or a never ending slog where rhythm couldn’t be more absent, as I shake off my coat and stomp the snow from my boats in the entryway of mouse, I’m greeted by a reminder – a sign which simply reads: “Work hard and stay humble.” If space was an issue, this article could probably end at the last sentence. If you are a long time reader of this blog, you know this isn’t the case. At least stay tuned for one more sentence….could a better mantra for athletes to whisper to themselves daily be found?

The essence of a growth mindset, a term most notably championed by educational researcher Carol Dweck, is the recognition that you are capable of growing in your abilities through goal setting, hard work, and patience. It isn’t an, “I can’t do this” mentality, but rather an “I can’t do this…..yet,” mentality. This approach finds its meaning in the proper definition of success – the “satisfaction of giving 100% effort to be the very best you can be.” Hard work and dedication are the tools by which you improve upon your most basic abilities. Equally vital is to approach the task at hand, whatever it may be, with humility. 

I have many “beefs” I with the nordic ski community, but the general absence of humility might as well be at the top. It probably isn’t worth pinpointing a root cause for this, however, one plausible hypothesis is the general socio-economic status of most nordic skiers. Wealthy, well-off, privileged individuals – those more likely to have access to skiing – are rarely the humble, self-starters, willing listeners and “eager to learn from others” type of people. Instead, they tend to be uppity, know-it-all, and stubborn. I understand I’m painting with a broad brush, and I doubt Jackrabbit Johansen fits my caricature, but I bet all of us can think of people we’ve come across who fit at least a few of these traits. Heck, I’m sure I’ve fit into this category before (though I sincerely apologize and do not mean to, if I do). If it makes you feel any better, I’ll add additional self deprecation by highlighting another field commonly laced with this attitude of “I’ve arrived and know everything” : public school teachers, of which I am one.

Look, you can simultaneously be both an authoritative teacher on a subject AND also acknowledge you haven’t arrived yet. There is always growing to be done, and an attitude of, “I could be wrong,” or “I’m not sure” can work wonders in that department.

The problem I see stemming from this demeanor of self-ascribed “arrival” is that it prevents a critical element which could lead to growth through hard work: the ability to listen to others and critically self-analyze. If you read our first part of the series, you hopefully realized the importance of that trait. Part of a growth mindset is identifying elements in your own skillset that need improvement, a process which requires effective, regular, and honest self analyzation. If you already think you are perfect, or, maybe just as bad but slightly different – if you are perfectly satisfied with yourself – you probably aren’t honing this skill on a regular basis. Likewise, if you only bother to listen to people who are “above” or “better” than you, ignoring those with less experience, skill, and/or accomplishments than yourself, then you miss out on a wide swath of individuals who could be sources of beneficial information. 

One of the best ways I like to illustrate this to skiers is using a non-skiing example. Say I am a 2:20 marathon runner. I run into a random Joe-bag-of-doughnuts at the local Starbucks. He notices that I have a “Fargo Marathon” shirt on and says that he runs, too. I size him up – he looks a little portly – ‘could he even run a 5k?’ I wonder. He proceeds to tell me that he recently ran his first half marathon in 2:24 and hopes to someday complete a full in under 4.5 hours. He tells me about his experience and how he used to be 300 pounds overweight and through running, setting goals, and persevering through countless obstacles, has lost almost 200 pounds. Let’s pretend I don’t even bother to tell him about my times.

I have two choices here: 1) I can respectfully listen to the man, since we are in the public square, but completely dismiss the content of his testimony since, OBVIOUSLY I could NOT sensibly learn something that would help me. After all, his half time is slower than my full time! We are in different worlds. I have been running my whole life at a level so much higher than this man – how could he possibly impart something into my “tips-to-become-a-better-runner metaphysical lexicon?”

Or…..

2) I can listen to the man respectfully, and in addition, turn my growth mindset radar to the highest setting. “What can I glean from this man’s experience in running? Is there something I can takeaway, learn, or apply from his perspective, perseverance, patience, and overall testimony?” If I choose the first choice, I guarantee the information out of HIS mouth will lie to rest in YOUR brain in a magnificently different fashion than if you opt for #2. Having a growth mindset often requires being humble, and it is demonstrated with an attitude ripe with a hunger for learning. 

You have never arrived, and you never will arrive. Paul thought this about his Christian walk, and Paavo Nurmi thought this about his athletics. Both achieved great success, and you may as well, in whatever venture you have immersed yourself in. It is important in those moments to walk the fine line of balancing confidence and humility.

I personally know that I am not truly as CONFIDENT as I should be in my own abilities BECAUSE I still struggle with humility. I often feel the need to qualify a race experience to people who ask, as if they NEED to understand that I clearly “should have” won or was obviously the ‘best’ racer in the field. A truly confident person feels no inclination to obsess over abilities or race results in this way. This is an open and honest critique of myself – perhaps you can relate.

The final point on this topic I think I actually do alright, however, is something I’d like to explain now. I believe a subtle component of the growth mindset exists in a sort of dichotomy. In the one sense, you are not being satisfied with where you are while in another sense, you are simultaneously totally confident in who you are (and……therefore…where you are). So, don’t be satisfied with where you are…AND also….BE satisfied with where you are. How can this command coexist?

When I was coaching at UMPI, which competed in the EISA circuit, I was surrounded by phenomenal student-athletes with beautiful ski technique. Floating around the courses to cheer, test wax, or take splits were their coaches, who, as former Olympic or DI athletes themselves, often possessed more graceful and eloquent technique than even the best athletes! Let’s just say, the joke in running that you can spot a coach at a meet by trying to find the guy who is racing to each cheering spot while checking their form is amped up to a new level in cross country skiing! As someone who had only been in the sport for 11 months at the time, you can imagine that my technique did not always impress in the same way as say … the former Olympians. 

Inside, I felt self-conscious about this often. But, I also wanted to ski at each meet. I wanted to ski at every opportunity I could have actually. I wasn’t going to put on boots and stand at the finish line because I was embarrassed by how I skied. I decided to humbly and objectively recognize where my technique was without letting it emotionally dictate decisions (i.e. whether I should stand at the finish in boots or follow an experienced coach on a 2 mile classic ski out to a spot on the course…..I always chose the latter). I decided that even though other coaches might look down upon me as the “weird guy who has ugly technique” I wouldn’t let their thoughts about me bother me. I didn’t attempt things I knew were two steps above my level. But I did attempt things that were one step above my level, even though the risk of humiliation was possible. That risk is necessary. 

As an elementary music teacher – teaching a class I myself never took as a kid – I was constantly bouncing between two identities: authority on the subject AND totally clueless noob.

In short, I became a sponge, absorbing all sorts of information from other coaches through directly asking them things (which took a great deal of courage since many of the questions were likely obvious and extremely basic; things which should have been answered in my non-existent high school ski career), skiing behind them, or just watching from a distance. Non of that would have been possible if I – 1) would have assumed I was the greatest coach there was, not needing any improvement (obviously not me in this case, but we all know someone like this) or – 2) would have been too scared and self conscious to step out and embrace the growth mindset mentality. 

So, if you are out skiing on crappy snow in old skis, trying to improve on some silly looking drill that actually can really improve your skiing, don’t mind the onlookers. Have a confidence rooted in meekness.

Work hard and stay humble.

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