Overcoming fear and anxiety when skiing

By Dr. S. Gerald HannClinical Psychologist, Level 2 CSIA Instructor

August 11, 2020

9 min read

Overcoming fear and building confidence in your skiing…

My original idea was to simply write an article on understanding and overcoming fear as a limiting factor in skiing.

Ironically, when I first agreed to become a contributor for a series of blogs, it was in early March 2020, and we were just only beginning to understand the very real threat of a global pandemic. Like many avid skiers, I grieved the premature end of the 2019-20 ski season and had no idea how much challenge would follow in the coming months.

Quick Links:

1. What can we learn from a global pandemic?

2. What is fear?

3. Why are we afraid of things?

4. How do we overcome our fear to become a better skier?

5. Re-training your anxious brain in the off-season

6. Reduce anxiety with in-season training

What can we learn from a global pandemic?

Six months later we find ourselves in the throes of a global pandemic. Very few of us had any advance knowledge that COVID-19 would cost us hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings and affect millions of others worldwide. Wherever we live (and ski) on this planet, our lives have been irrevocably affected by this virus. Many of us have been forced to face fears that none of us ever thought we would have to face, at least so starkly in our lives. Will my loved ones survive, will I be OK, what will happen to my job, my future? Indeed COVID-19 has made us all anxious, undeniably very anxious.

"Our resiliency is one of our greatest strengths."

As I sit here writing this blog, in the sweltering heat of August, and 6 months after the ski season came to an abrupt end, we are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. I am learning to accept that COVID-19 is still a threat and will be for some time in our future. I keep reminding myself, that despite our fears as human beings, we have learned through our humanity, the necessity of learning to adapt to our fears. As a species, we will overcome this dreadful disease, as we have with other pandemics and tragedies in our past. Afterall, as human beings, our resiliency is one of our greatest strengths.

As a clinical psychologist with almost 30 years of experience, I know full well that human beings are tremendously resilient, adaptive and able to overcome remarkable adversity. Over the years, I have borne witness to the human spirit in my clinical practice, thanks to the thousands of patients I have had the privilege to have worked with, and this is the most gratifying thing about my profession. My observations are also backed up by science. Homo sapiens have perfected our ability to adapt in over 200,000 years of living on earth. That’s a lot of time to get it right!

The amygdala - the (stubborn) fear center of our brain

What is fear?

Despite our adaptability, one thing remains unchanged, and that is our emotional brain.

This almond size part of our brain, the amygdala, is very primitive and very stubborn to learn new things. For the most part, it is the identical brain our prehistoric ancestors walked around with when they lived almost a quarter of a million years ago. Initially, it will try to protect us by avoiding anything it detects as a threat. If our amygdala did not protect us from threats, we wouldn’t have lasted for over 200,000 years!

To understand our fear response, take the threat of COVID-19 as an example. Initially, we knew little about this disease, and we were highly anxious and fearful. As we learned more about the virus, such as the importance of maintaining social distance, wearing a mask, and washing our hands, we became more confident in confronting this disease.

We are now able to resume some normality in our lives while a search for therapeutics and a vaccine takes place. Fear is simply an adaptive response to promote our survival as a species. Fear is our brain (and body’s) response to tell us to avoid something, or to at least, to be very cautious.

Fear tells us to be very cautious - some of us listen more than others.

Why are we afraid of things?

First of all, we must know that fear is a normal response and part of our adaptive system. Simply recognizing this fact and not fighting it is the first step.

Secondly, we fear things that could cause us harm. Even in situations where harm may not be great, our emotional system airs on the side of caution, and we avoid.

Avoidance is not always good, and it can actually be maladaptive. Fortunately, we can reprogram our brain (and our body) by approaching things or events that are anxiety provoking. Simply approaching things causes our anxiety to reduce. The psychology jargon is “habituation”, but I prefer to simply call it “getting used to it”, or GUTI for short.

"Simply approaching things causes our anxiety to reduce."

How do we get used to something? By engaging in that something, whether it is living in a pandemic or becoming better at something like skiing. Personally, I’d prefer to use my GUTI tokens on skiing!

Getting used to it - those can be some of your best moments

How do we overcome our fear to become a better skier?

The general consensus amongst expert skiers and ski trainers is that balance is essential. Don't take my word for it, read the CARV article on proper posture. Becoming better balanced on your skis is essential and translates to becoming a better skier.

Better control over your balance is one of the single biggest variables that delineates a good skier from an exceptional skier. Unfortunately, evolution is working against us when it comes to becoming better at balance. Our amygdala, in conjunction with our vestibular apparatus interprets being in (what we may perceive as) an unbalanced position as a threat. Even if the reality is different.

If our head hits the ground, we could die.

Even though we all know that being better balanced helps our skiing, our primitive brain is working behind the scenes to undermine us.

There are two ways to overcome this misfired fear response when we ski:

  1. We can do this in the gym off season
  2. Or on the snow during ski season.

Both environments are needed, and we need to focus on balance improvement in both settings. We need to focus on counteracting our brain’s reflex to become anxious and protect us from danger. Instead we need to teach our brain that we are safe, even when we do not feel entirely in balance.

"Instead we need to teach our brain that we are safe, even when we do not feel entirely in balance."

Re-training your anxious brain in the off-season

First, we can find ways to simulate skiing to retrain our brain that we are not falling or in danger.

Elite athletes have mastered this skill. Whether it is a gymnast, tennis player, golfer, diver, or skier, all of these sports require the elite athlete, through thousands of hours of simulation, to retain the brain and counteract the evolutionary urge to protect the head (and body).

"You need to train your brain (and body) to 'get used to it'"

One of my favourite things to incorporate in my skiing is balance drills and activities in my workout regime. Whatever balance activity you choose, I would encourage you to engage in a task that challenges you not only physically, but also your emotional brain. Find a task that makes you a little nervous but does not overwhelm your amygdala.

One of my favourite practice activities is the use of a balance board (such as the Montreal B-Board or US Vew-Do boards). These boards create a manageable amount of anxiety, while simultaneously developing balance.

Simply developing your balance alone will not translate to being a better skier. You need to train your brain (and body) to “get used to it” in a way that won’t overwhelm your bodyguard brain.

Reduce anxiety with in-season training

Once we spend time during off season training our brain to be less anxious when seeking balance, we need to learn to translate this skill to time on snow and use our training to learn to manage the forces exerted on our body while we remain in balance.

The trick here is to simultaneously condition our brain to overcome the evolutionary response to stay upright.

So much of skiing is about being comfortable toppling your body - something we are hard-wired to avoid.

The problem here is we often rely on our own internal feedback about whether we are in balance.

This is wrought with problems as your perception can be wildly inaccurate. Even the best ski instructor/coach can find it challenging to help a skier translate the necessary steps into practice to achieve better balance.

The primitive brain is just not a good listener!

Relying solely on our internal processes to improve balance and overcome our evolutionary fears is also hugely problematic. As well intentioned and committed as we may be, we alone cannot override our brain’s reflex to keep us upright.

Fortunately, the creators of Carv have solved this problem. Carv gives us real-time, meaningful feedback about our balance, as well as a variety of other necessary aspects of skiing. We can incorporate this feedback and gently and manageably challenge ourselves out of our comfort zone to make huge gains in our skiing, in a short period of time.

Carv Tip: Know when you're doing it right

Part of the challenge of learning to ski is to associate "what am I feeling?" with "what should I be doing?"
Often skiers will say "I am leaning forwards" only to see a video of themselves doing the exact opposite.

  1. Carv's Training Modes have been specifically designed to re-engineer the learning process around instant feedback.
  2. Work through the 20 grades of increasing difficulty with audio feedback on each turn.
  3. After each run, you'll receive a tip to keep you on track.
Learn more about Training Mode

In summary, we learn to balance better by challenging our fears, both off-season and on-season. Off-season, we can build a less anxious platform on which to construct our on-snow movements. During ski season, CARV feedback gently coaxes our emotional brain to take manageable risks which are essential to improve our skiing.


Written by: Dr. S. Gerald Hann

Clinical Psychologist, Level 2 CSIA Instructor

I am proud that I have worked for almost 30 years as a clinical psychologist and have been skiing for 35 years. That should tell you each pursuit is an equal passion, and I am conflicted (in a good way) as to which makes me happiest.

I consider myself an expert in understanding emotional process. I hold a CSIA Level 2 and I am working diligently on achieving my CSIA Level 3. When I played the younger man’s game, I was a hurdler and coached elite athletes in sprints and hurdles. I even taught physical education to a future Olympian. I believe that the insights offered by CARV are an integral part of synthesizing behavioral science into ski development and can allow us to ski in a way that captures our younger years!