Helen Upperton - Tuesday Feb. 18, 2014 00:59

Sliding sports and mind games

How do you become an expert at a dangerous sport when you can’t train?

Kaillie Humphries competes in bobsleigh in Switzerland
Kaillie Humphries and Chelsea Valois of Canada compete in women's bobsleigh in St Moritz, Switzerland. (Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

How do you perfect the art of sliding down an icy track at 130km/h? By sliding down an ice track at 130km/h.

In the book Outliers, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell says that to become an "expert" at anything you need 10,000 hours of practice. It's the ever-constant debate over genetics vs. training, and some of the world’s most successful people, including athletes, play lead characters in the story.

Turns out that no matter what, even the most gifted people need a heck of a lot of practice.

Well, what if 10,000 hours of practice is impossible? Welcome to the world of sliding sports.

Basic training

There are 3 sliding sports: luge, bobsleigh and skeleton, all sharing the same venue. It's typically an artificially constructed track on the side of a mountain.

All tracks are designed to be different: different elevations, different vertical drop and a different number of corners to test the skill and knowledge of the athletes. Some tracks are very technical and have a high risk of crashing. Others, with less elevation change and smoother transitions between corners, emphasize the start and the athleticism of the sliders.

The tracks around the world typically open up in the month of October as the temperatures drop. The cost of running the artificial refrigeration system that is built into the concrete would be astronomical during summer months. Due to the limited time the athletes have to practice sliding, the mental component of becoming a successful sliding athlete might be more crucial than in any other sport.

In most sports, athletes can access facilities for training or competing any time of the year, almost anywhere in the world. Granted, outdoor seasonal sports can make this feat a little bit more challenging, but not impossible. So while hockey players and skaters are at the rink and swimmers are at the pool, ski and snowboard teams head to the Southern Hemisphere to locate a snowy mountain and the cross country skiers train on a glacier ... the sliders are in the gym.

Limited access

The summer months for bobsleigh, luge and skeleton are spent training for a portion of their competition that makes up only a tiny percentage of the outcome of the race. At WinSport in Calgary (the Olympic track that hosted the 1988 Olympic Games) the run times are clocked at just under one minute. The start times for bobsleigh and skeleton are a mere five seconds. That's five seconds of a 55-second descent.

So sure, the sliders are strong, and fast and agile. They can squat and power clean like an Olympic weightlifter, sprint like a track and field athlete, and the lugers can do more pull-ups than I can count. But the only way these speed demons can practice their "actual" sport for a whopping seven months of the year is by taking runs in their imagination.

This is what the sport world calls "visualization." They watch race footage and video, and they drive down the tracks in their minds ... over and over. Throughout the years, people have tried to create various simulations. Some of the athletes have even tried their discipline on wheels, but nothing can simulate the G-forces and speeds that are reached during a run on ice.

For skeleton and luge, so much of the steering in the corners is done blind, by feeling the gravitational forces on the sled and body. That is how competitors know how much to steer and when. To be able to practice the finesse it takes to keep an object made of carbon fibre and steel, travelling 135 km/hr down an icy straightaway with concrete walls just inches from either side of your sled, you need to have access to the ice-covered course. In the warm summer months, practice is downright impossible.

Immense physical toll

Even when the venue finally opens, and the athletes are able to suit up and hurtle down the track, the run volume is monitored very closely by the coaching staff. The sheer magnitude of forces on the body takes a huge physical toll. Injuries are very high, especially concussions. Bobsleigh athletes typically do not surpass more than three runs per day, with luge and skeleton able to handle only a few more.

In most cases, once the competitive season begins, sliders average only eight to 10 runs on each track per year. As far as practice goes for high level sport, that is virtually nothing.

Let me put that into perspective for a second. After a decade of competing, a typical slider will general have just over one hundred runs on each of the international tracks, home ice seeing more than double that number. And of course, the margin of error is tiny. Decisions must be made in fractions of seconds. Races are won and lost in hundredths – and in the case of luge, thousandths – of a second. Practice, confidence and mastery of their skills is crucial not only to win but also to navigate the courses safely.

Visualization becomes a skill that is trained perhaps even more than a slider’s powerful muscles. If you were to ask a bobsledder, skeleton or luge athlete to take an imaginary run down the Olympic course known as Sanki just outside of Sochi, I would guess they could close their eyes, drive the track and stop in almost the exact time that it would actually take them to get down it with their sled.

There are over 15 operational sliding centres around the world, and the athletes can picture each turn of each track perfectly in their mind. Most tracks range between 15-20 turns, and some corners require upwards of four steers to negotiate. I cannot recall a course where the sleds do not reach a top speed of over 120km/h. Occasionally, like in the case of Whistler, B.C., the speeds can surpass a blistering 150km/h.

Students of the sport

The sliders are true students of their sport, walking the 1500-plus meters every day before sliding. They study the profiles of each curve and the perfect angle to enter and exit each corner. This knowledge affects their driving lines and their safety, and forces them to adjust the way their sleds are set up to absorb force and respond to the steers. It’s a complicated business.

From the outside looking in, winter sport athletes seem to throw themselves off jumps, around rinks and down mountains with no concern for their wellbeing. When you consider the minimal training of a bobsleigh, luge or skeleton athlete, you'd be forced to question their sanity. However, when you watch them compete you can't help but be amazed at what the mind can accomplish with enough practice.

The art of visualization is a rare commodity outside of sport, but perhaps it should be something we all take a little more seriously, considering what these fearless winter sport athletes can do with so little applicable training.

Imagination and nerves of steel. That appears to be a powerful combination in the world of sliding sports. So until someone decides to build a bobsleigh, skeleton or luge track in the Southern Hemisphere, the sliders will continue to spend the majority of their days in the gym, exercising both their muscles and their minds.

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