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Technique, Tactics, Mental Skills: Which are more important?

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

I have been teaching skiing for over 35 years. Skiing is my passion, and it is my profession. During that time, I have worked with all ages and abilities and worked as a trainer and examiner of ski instructors for several national training organisations. I have also attended four World Interski Congresses where the snowsports teaching nations of the world come together to share ideas on the latest techniques and teaching methodologies. And it is because of this ‘experience’ that I am ever passionate about how people learn and how we, as snowsport instructors, can ensure that our guests have the best possible experience when they come and ski with us. However, fundamental to achieving this goal for our guests is addressing the question posed in the title of this blog. So, which is more important? Technique, tactics, or mental skills? The simple answer is none of them as they are ALL vitally important. But therein lies the problem because in my experience that is NOT what happens in practice and this blog will explore some of the reasons why this is the case and what can be done to redress this imbalance so that developing people’s performance can embrace a more holistic approach.


It should be noted, at this point, that a holistic approach to performance development will also include the physical demands of the sport (including physical fitness), the learning environment (including decisions around terrain choice etc.), and equipment set up. But I specifically want to address the balance between technique, tactics, and mental skills in terms of their focus within the delivery of our ski and snowboard lessons.


In my opinion technique is the number 1 focus both by the learner and the instructor and this is common throughout sport particularly at recreational level.


The learner's bias

So, let me start with the learners and why their focus is biased towards the technical. Part of the reason is due to conditioning from early in life where the sports done both in school and elsewhere have focused heavily on the technical aspects by learning the required movement patterns. Now, please do not misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that learning a range of techniques with sound movement patterns (motor learning) is not a good thing. However, when technique becomes the overriding focus the mind becomes very busy and the focus of attention remains ‘internal’ e.g., the movements of various parts of the body (see my blog titled Focus of Attention in Sport: Internal or External for more on this). And this busy mind can be a real inhibitor to successful learning, performance and enjoyment. But still the learner thinks that this is the correct approach because that is how they have learnt (and been taught) in the past!


Another reason why the focus tends to be heavily weighted on the technical is because of the negativity bias (the propensity to home in on the negative which again is how most people have been conditioned throughout their lives).


But what is the link between technique and the negativity bias?

Technique is something that can easily be critiqued and because learners are prone to look at the negative it is not uncommon for them to say to an instructor, “just tell me what I am doing wrong”. They seem to think that if they are told what is wrong with their performance and how to fix it that all will be well. The concept of instead focusing on what they are doing right has not even entered their head. In snowsports the learner has come to expect their instructor to tell them what is wrong with their technique and to then wave a magic wand and fix it. If only it were that simple…


So, this over emphasis on technique combined with the negativity bias takes the learner on a downward spiral that is likely to lead to some bad days on the hill and feeling low and deflated.


My suggestion is that if the learner wants to get the most from a learning experience then they need to find a balance between this technical internal focus and the other aspects of performance namely tactical application of technique and using a range of mental skills. Without delving into too much detail focusing tactically moves the attention outwards to an external focus (again for more on this read my blog on Focus of Attention mentioned earlier). And the range of mental skills that can also be learnt include attitude, self-talk, relaxation/meditation/mindfulness, imagery, pre-performance routines and flow (I will come back to these later in this article).

The instructor's bias

But what about us (the instructor)? Why is it that we also tend to focus heavily on technique? In part, it is because that is what we perceive the learner expects. But it is also how the majority of us have been trained. Perhaps this seems like a rather sweeping statement but having attended four World Interski Congresses and been involved with several national snowsport instructor training organisations I have witnessed first-hand how snowsport instructors are educated and many nations still think that technique is all important. Some nations are much better in this regard paying much more attention to what has often been termed soft skills (a term which is in itself rather condescending – I much prefer to use human skills or non-technical skills) and these can include communication, customer care, leadership, problem solving and many of the aforementioned mental skills.


Therefore, this lack of training in human skills and especially mental skills means that we do not feel confident focusing on these in our lessons and instead revert to what we know most and are more comfortable with – Technical!


In an attempt to change the status quo I wrote Six Steps for Training the Mind: For optimal performance and flow in sport and life which has recently been published in paperback as well as eBook. This is a very practical book which looks at each of the steps (Attitude, Self-Talk, Relaxation, Imagery, Pre-Performance Routines & Flow) explains them in detail, looks at the research that underpins them, and provides 20 practical activities that can be used, both in sport and other areas of life, to learn and develop these mental skills and encourage people to treat their mental fitness in the same way as they approach their physical fitness. As a book, it is also a very valuable resource for us as instructors and coaches.



In addition, I have developed a new course for our ski school BASS Chamonix this season called, 'Develop Your Mental Game' which is a one-day on snow course that will teach guests these skills and show them how to implement them as part of their skiing day so that they can avoid those bad deflating days and instead find more flow and leave the mountain buzzing with excitement and feeling great.


Developing a more holistic approach to performance development in skiing (and other sports) will not be a quick fix but I believe that this can be achieved by:

  1. National Training Organisations/ National Governing Bodies placing greater emphasis on the human skills and especially mental skills within their coach education programs.

  2. By educating our learners and showing them that there are many aspects to improving performance which include:

  • Equipment set up

  • The learning environment

  • Mental skills and mental fitness

  • Physical preparation and input

  • Tactical decisions and application of techniques

  • Technical movement patterns


Footnote

This article builds on a number of my previous ones most notably 'Just tell me what I am doing wrong' which was published almost one year ago! As mentioned then I will be attending the World Interski Congress for my fifth time in March 2023 in Levi, Finland. I will be particularly interested to see which nations are adopting a more holistic approach to how they train and examine their snowsport instructors and will be reporting back about this in future blogs.



About the Author

Derek Tate is an author, coach and teacher and runs Derek Tate Coaching. His mission is to help others to flourish and get more out of life through better mental, emotional, and physical health. He offers mental skills coaching, alpine ski coaching, online courses and workshops and writes self help/psychology books.

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Hi Derek.

I've read some of your articles with interest and resonance. I'm also reminded of sharing a house in my youth with a couple of graduate dentists who were dismayed to discover so much of the actual challenge in their working life was about managing patient pain and fear, rather than applying manual dexterity and scientific/technical knowledge.


I'm wondering how your observations of focus on "mental skills" would vary, especially the manner in which national professional training bodies prepare instructors, if you contrast teaching children or adults.


cheers,

Brian


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Derek Tate
Derek Tate
Oct 29, 2022
Replying to

Thank you for your comment and it is great to hear that you have been reading some of my articles. You are not the first person to mention to me about how coaches and instructors should teach children these mental skills and I think this is an area that really needs attention. Amy Saltzman has written some excellent books about mindfulness and flow and one specifically for children and adolescents . Here is a link https://www.amazon.co.uk/Still-Quiet-Place-Mindfulness-Adolescents/dp/1608827577/ It is an area I would like to explore for snowsports as it is not something I have ever come across.

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