I began skiing as an adult. Snow, as you may know, is hard to find in Tamil Nadu, where I grew up. A few lessons later, I was pronounced an intermediate skier. Mid-level ski instruction was a bit different from what I had learnt as a beginner. For the first time, I heard phrases such as “You have got to relax and trust the mountain”. High up on a blue-level slope in Colorado, US, my instructor, a ponytailed blond man named Hawke, told me that my problem was that I was trying too hard. My muscles were too tense from the exertion of trying to learn. Relax, he said. Don’t work so hard.
It isn’t easy to work less. It involves a mental leap of faith to go against years of conditioning. When you are growing up, nobody tells you to “work easy”. They all tell you to work hard. As contradictory as it may seem, to get better at sports like rollerblading, skiing or ice-skating, you have to work easy. You have to simulate the relaxed muscles of a child who has no fear and little concern for achieving goals. To a child, skiing is just another new adventure, a vast unmapped life.
A lot of it has to do with fear. When you are trying a new adventure sport, be it rock or mountain climbing, windsurfing, or bungee jumping, the body responds to new stimuli in three ways: fight, flight or, when you are stuck on a rock-cliff, freeze. The Virtual Fear project at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, US, simulates a fear-filled 3D environment using virtual reality gadgets. Fear-inducing memories can lead to panic attacks. The trick is to tame the flight of imagination about what could and would happen. Focusing on improving specific skills—how to brake while skiing down a curved slope, how to pull yourself up to the next rock ledge—helps channel thoughts. The term used these days for this skill is mindfulness. Elite sports professionals use another term: trust.
They say that you have to visualize and trust that you can do it; reach the next goal, climb the new mountain; and work less hard at it.
Eventually, I learnt how to work easy. I exhaled a lot; forced myself to relax; and did all the seemingly counter-intuitive things that my instructors told me to: like leaning forward while skiing even though I was terrified I would fall on my face. To my surprise, it worked: The less I tried, the better I got. Best of all, I could carry the work-easy lessons to other sports like rollerblading. The trick is to hold your body softly as if it were a young, swaying branch instead of a firm tree. Children do this, and animals are masters of this underperformance, which is actually peak performance.
I took to visiting aquariums to watch the fish. They spend much of their time in suspended animation, swaying with the ebb and flow of currents. They do not struggle to improve their posture or technique. They only do so much or rather, so little, to stay afloat and ahead of the game. Birds do the same thing too, especially the eagles and hawks who spread their wings but let the wind currents do the work. Every now and then, they flap their wings to steer their course.
Gradually, I learnt to ski like an animal. It involved an intense awareness of my body. Every time I felt myself tensing a muscle, I exhaled towards suppleness. I am still a rudimentary blue-slope skier but slowly, I am slouching towards excellence: by working less, not more.
Shoba Narayan is trying to underperform while skiing. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at Shobanarayan.com, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.