What is needed to become a top athlete?
In first order, of course, natural talent. After that, then, discipline and self-motivation plus ambition and the correct self-perception. And naturally also some luck that you don’t have any serious injuries while training or competing. In addition to that, the general conditions regarding the selected sport could also have an influence. For example, the fact for me that I grew up right alongside ski runs.
What distinguishes a top athlete?
I think that every athlete who has made it to the international stage needs resilience in particular together with talent. At the start, that is needed to get to that point and then later to conquer the daily hurdles needed to continue to remain successful. Considering the high stress and risks that our sport carries with it, luck also plays a role to remain free from serious injuries.
What are your personal strengths?
As strange as it sounds: my gut instinct. My ski style differentiates itself a little from my competition in that I ski very intuitively. I would label myself an “instinct” skier. I perceive a lot from what comes back from the snow or from my skis. I then adapt my handling accordingly or my edge pressure or the friction that is created when the ski edge is pressed into the snow. Off the slopes, my gut instinct on the other hand has strengthened my self-confidence in some sense – in that I have always tried to go my own way and not just to accept all decisions passively.
How tough is the business of “ski racing”?
That is difficult to answer. The demands on athletes are mentally and physically very intense to withstand the pressure of the industry and to brave the dangers on the slopes. Certainly, there is enormous pressure to perform and also huge competitive situation since there is a large difference between prize and sponsor money. Only the very top athletes can live well from their income.
What are the great things and what is the dark side of ski racing?
Really interesting is that I have traveled the entire world and in doing so have had the chance to get to know new places, cultures and people. In particular I was always thrilled that usually I was surrounded by gorgeous outdoor settings and the mountains. What is challenging is the dependence on weather as well as the long, sometimes stressful travel and distances. I can’t begin to count how much training and how many races have been cancelled or postponed in my career. In any case, a lot.
Where and how have you been able to refill your energy reserves again?
During the season, it was always difficult to catch a proper breath. You are always fully under some kind of pressure which you also in part create yourself. It is essential now and again to simply tune out. To this end, my home with family and friends have always helped a lot. They have always helped me up off the ground and given me energy for the times to come.
What role does mental training play in ski racing?
Mental training plays a huge role in ski racing since it can be decisive in drops or making the cut, victory or defeat and, in the most extreme cases, also good health or injury.
Which factors are critical to finding mental strength each day?
Belief in the approach, focus and concentration, and carrying over results into competition. A process that becomes increasingly independent and influences itself. It’s all about conquering anxieties and doubt, increasing self-confidence, and improving concentration and focus. All of that helps achieve success and success then validates the approach. And when it comes to a long career, experience and routine of course also play a part - the more situations I have experienced and processed, the larger my inner reservoir becomes which help me increase my daily mental strength.
How does someone train mental strength?
Both with a trainer and alone. The trainer as expert first analyzes your deficits and attempts to reveal the basis for possible weaknesses and behavioral errors using discussions and observation. Then, you work together on strategies that can help counter them. That could be motivational exercises, visualizations, focus training, or self-reflection, or the change of a simple habit. The longer the expert and athlete work on the areas needed, the clearer it all becomes, and the athlete can largely complete training successfully on his or her own.
Mentally absolutely strong or physically in top condition. What is more important and in what way does one influence the other?
I think that one cannot fully assess that since both influence each other. When I feel good and know that I’m in top conditioning, it’s also easier mentally. In order to achieve the optimum result, both must click. I can be mentally extremely strong and thus for that moment increase my performance ability. For example, assuming all is otherwise similar, if on a second run the time differences are really slim, that’s where mental strength can influence the final placement. That only works though to a certain degree after which physical deficits cannot be compensated any more by mental strength. It is hardly possible to be in top physical condition the entire season because there is often a small cold or some unexpected travel stress with lack of sleep. Then you aren’t 100 percent. And the farther you edge from your own performance ability, the more your mental strength reaches its limits.
Failure in a race. At the next race back at the starting line. How do you forget about poor results?
The best is to concentrate totally on the next race. Changing the past is not possible any more anyway. But you can prevail in the next one.
How does someone handle criticism/poor influences? How close does someone let criticism come?
Ignoring criticism is in my opinion not really a solution. And really not totally possible. Criticism comes at unexpected times and in some cases batters your psyche significantly. And that is definitely normal. It is essential to differentiate what kind of criticism you are dealing with. If it’s about my athletic performance, I personally sit up and take notice – I listen to it and consider how I can find improvements in appropriate situations. In other situations, certain criticism is not justified. In those cases, you shouldn’t start looking for those errors. Everything demands years of practice, and it helps to discuss the validity of statements with family, trainers or others you trust. It is difficult to make a overall statement about the best approach in handling criticism. Most meaningful is I think in the end that you feel good in your own skin.
What was personally your biggest achievement in your career?
It is difficult to limit my career to achievements. When I became Olympic champion, I was very young and was at the start of my career. It was my first true triumph. That’s why my wins in the giant slalom World Cup, my World Championship Silver Medal in Vail and Are, as well as my bronze medal from Sotschi mean so much to me – because they are proof that I have rightly belonged over the years of my career to the world’s best. My last victory in Garmisch – under quite difficult conditions dare I say – also has huge importance because I was often in the downhill “almost” there. Prior to the season, it was my big goal to also stand on top in the downhill. With that I can then say that I have won a race in all three disciplines in which I started. Too, that’s why this victory will always be a strong memory.
What was your biggest disappointment?
That was possibly the 2017 World Championships in St. Moritz. As a big medal hopeful, I was fourth in the Super G and didn’t make the cut in the giant slalom. At the time, that was perhaps my biggest disappointment.
How do you process disappointments, and how do you find your old strength again?
Today, I know that misfortune has allowed me to mature into a better athlete because afterward I have scrutinized my entire training and race plans even more critically. What can I do better in strength training? With gear? In training on the glacier? In racing? One often says you learn the most by failing – that most certainly held true for me in that case.
How difficult was it to end your racing career?
After 13 professional years that is certainly a tough decision that I didn’t make spontaneously from one day to the next. In the weeks prior I thought hard of course about stepping back and talked over the idea with my family. In the process the decision gained perspective and it was still difficult but on the other hand unavoidable.
How long does one think about such a decision before making it?
I have always said that three factors had to come into play: That I was having fun, that I was physically well, and that I was successful. After my knee injury last February in Garmisch I began to notice for the first time when skiing that something was missing. I was no longer at the top level because I had later starting positions and knew that I could win the race. So, week after week this decision mellowed and aged a bit until I was certain. I really am going to stop. I am quitting!
What are you looking forward to the most?
This winter I can finally do what I never had time for. I have already gotten together with many old acquaintances and friends, have done lots of hiking tours or ones on my bike in the mountains – without the need to pay attention that my sports might suffer from it. I really am extremely enjoying that I have freedom, that I can do everything but must not do anything.
What are your biggest dreams/plans after the end of your career?
I will most certainly in the future would like to have my own home where I’m from in Tegernsee. I have roots there and feel at home. So, my professional future will likely also be there. I am looking at various opportunities and at how I can orient myself in the future professionally. And other than that, there are some things for which I now have more time – for example, my project “Fit and Active.” I developed it in partnership with the Bavaria Ministry of State and the Berchtesgaden Country Dairy. We are looking to offer events at schools. It’s about children being active, eating nutritiously, and learning to successfully overcome difficult situations and challenges on their own.