Canada’s freestyle skiers get one shot at Olympic glory. Kinesiology’s sport psychologist, Dave Paskevich, helps them to be ready.
By Don McSwiney
Imagine your whole life, your entire future and everything that you’ve worked for coming down to 24 seconds. Then imagine trying not to be nervous. Good luck.
This is kinesiology associate professor Dr. Dave Paskevich’s single goal when working with Olympic freestyle skiers. “When they get to the top of the hill,” says Paskevich, “they need to remember – I can do this, I know how to do this.”
Paskevich is a sports psychologist with Canada’s national freestyle skiing team, a sport that he says can best be described as being ‘very unforgiving.’ “With some sports you can make a mistake and it’s not a big deal. In freestyle skiing, a single mistake and you’re dead. Many other sports don’t have that kind of pressure. For example, I remember a slalom event when a skier missed a gate in a qualifier and walked back up the hill and skied back down. She ended up winning the Gold medal. In freestyle, she could never have gotten past the qualification. It’s a very unforgiving sport.”
“The other problem is that it’s a single event – in speed skating, if a skater messes up in a race, there’s a good chance they can still compete and maybe even medal in another distance. Not in freestyle skiing. Imagine training 6,000 hours for a single 24 second performance. That’s pressure. That’s stress.”
Over the years, Paskevich has worked with nearly every sport dealing with a range of athletes who range from 15 year old amateur golfers to professional football and hockey teams. In each case, Paskevich develops strategies to control stress so an athlete can concentrate on performance when it really counts. “Everyone has stress,” Dave says. “It’s how you deal with that stress that becomes an issue. We try to plan for every contingency. An athlete may think there’s a single plan, when in reality there is a plan A, B, C and D.”
Paskevich has been involved with the team since 2002. As with many sports, he says there’s a real cycle to freestyle. He describes the year following the Olympics as being challenging - skiers learn new tricks and methods, some retire and new skiers join the team. The next two years are spent working with the athletes and coaches leading up to the final year before the Olympic Games. “At this point the skiers know they can be successful, they’ve done very well on the world cup circuit, so our focus becomes controlling the environment so that skiers can focus on performance.”
“You have to be very careful with who is around the athletes leading up to the games. Language is a very powerful tool and every individual is unique. You have to use the right words and think the right way. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant what do you think of? If I tell you not to hit the ball into the water during a game of golf what do you immediately think of?”
“In many ways skiing is the same, someone may say to a skier ‘good luck.’ They don’t mean anything by it, but some individuals can get upset and say ‘hey I don’t need luck.’ Another skier’s mother might phone and say ‘win or lose, we still love you.’ That skier may come to me and say ‘my own mother doesn’t think I can win’ – which was clearly not her intent. So we look at who is around the athlete, what is being said to them and ensuring they use the tools that we’ve developed over the years we’ve worked together so a skier can worry about skiing and nothing else.”