By Amie Henderson
We’ve all been there. At the top of a cliff of certain death. If I point my skis even slightly downhill, all kinds of terrible things will happen. How the hell did I imagine that I could ski down here and why the heck am I now frozen to the side of this mountain? Of course, in reality, it’s just a red run. But I’ve got the fear. And I can’t get rid of it.
The ‘cliff of certain death’ was long forgotten when I arranged to interview sports psychologist Louise Jones. One of the most respected and experienced experts in her field, Louise has worked with high performance athletes over an enormous range of sports, from professional rugby players to talented triathletes, downhill mountain bikers to rally drivers and big wave surfers to Olympic medal winning snowboarders. In fact, it’s Louise’s involvement in Workshop by Jenny Jones that we’re here to talk about.
Images of Jenny, Olympic bronze medal around her neck and a massive smile on her face, inspired a new army of snowboarders, not just in the UK, but around the world. Jenny is a British snowboarding legend and her success in Sochi was the culmination of years of hard preparation, hard training and hard knocks. Her new mission, ‘Workshops by Jenny Jones’ shares her knowledge and experience on a board with adventurous snowboarders during a unique mountain experience. Each weeklong workshop during winter 2017 sold out in a matter of days and Jenny even hosted a kids workshop here in Morzine.
Louise, sporty from an early age, always knew the career path she wished to follow. An undergraduate degree in psychology and sports science preceded a masters degree in applied psychology, taking her to Canada and introducing her to the complexities of ice hockey. “It’s all about helping people be better at what they do” is how Louise explains her job. Whether it’s the athlete or the coach, Louise works with everyone that can influence the environment of a promising sporting star.
Is mental preparation the key to sporting success? “It’s no different to preparing for anything else in life – a job interview or something else important – you can’t wing it as a professional athlete. You can’t take the risk, especially if you’ve got government funding supporting your sport!” Louise explains. The role of a sports psychologist is to help athletes be ready for the unexpected, to give them confidence and to ensure they’re mentally on form to perform at the best of their ability. “The brain and the body then work together in sync – there’ll be rational, mindful thought and any fear subsides”.
Louise spent ten years guiding Jenny Jones to Olympic success. “Jenny is such a hard worker. Even though I’m working to lessen the impact of emotions on sporting performance, I was crying my eyes out when she won bronze in Sochi. It went right down to the wire for her. She called me five minutes later and we just screamed down the phone at each other. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
With Louise’s career successes so entwined with the performances of the athletes she works with, I start to wonder how she’d coax me down the ‘cliff of certain death’. I wasn’t after a free therapy session, you understand. But ‘the fear’ is surely an issue for pro athletes, especially when a 100-foot kicker lies ahead of them.
“If you ignore the fear, it’ll come back and it’ll get worse. If you’re prone to freezing in tricky situations, you should accept that it’s going to happen and have a plan to deal with it.” Louise explains. “You can still function and perform with fear, but you need to put it in the back seat of your car. You’re driving. Fear won’t be your overriding emotion when you recognise it and relegate it.”
“One thing you need to understand about ‘the fear’ is that it’ll get worse the older you get” Louise tells me. “In that case, I may never ski again” I think to myself. “When we’re older, we perceive threats differently – we have more experiences to draw on and more responsibilities to consider”. True that.
“The second thing you need to do is accept it. It’s OK to feel fear. It’s normal. It’s part of being human. It will subside.” Fight, flight or freeze were my only options on ‘the cliff’. I froze for a while (I’m guessing it was a minute or two, my best mate Suzie would tell you it was ten at least), but I knew I needed a plan.
“The next part of the process is for you to decide whether the situation you’re in – the top of a piste, the top of a mountain bike run or the top of a steep road descent – is a threat or a challenge. Consider each option – imagine there’s a pair of doors in front of you – the choice is yours.”
I eventually made it to the bottom of ‘the cliff’ after what Louise described as a ‘f**k it’ moment. I lived to ski another day, and ski another red run later that day as it happens. “You have to consider your personal performance objectives when you get ‘the fear’. Why are you out there? Do you want to be better? Focusing on the views, the weather, the friends you’re with and the overall experience will keep you in the present and help you combat ‘the fear’.”
It’s these skills that Louise offers during Jenny’s workshops. Through a series of sessions, Louise helps to exercise and strengthen your mind to advance your performance. Of course she’ll cover ‘the fear’, but also how to deal with setbacks, how to push your boundaries and help you to achieve a better level of mindset to improve your snowboarding.
Find out more at workshopbyjennyjones.com