Liz Stephen never has doubted her physical ability to be one of the world’s top cross-country skiers.
In recent months, however, it’s been the improvement of her mental game that’s helped the two-time Olympian propel to new heights among the sport’s elite.
Since beginning work with a sports psychologist, the 28-year-old — who contemplated retirement following last year’s Olympic Winter Games — has posted the best season of her career, taking fifth place overall in the Tour de Ski before finishing second in the 10-kilometer freestyle race at a world cup event in Rybinsk, Russia.
The former was the highest-ever finish for an American in the multi-stage race, while the latter marked her first time making the podium at a world cup event.
“I feel like I’m pretty mentally tough, but I wanted to find ways of becoming mentally tougher and believing in myself more,” Stephen said. “I can’t think of a race this year where I really haven’t felt like the sports psychology worked.”
|Liz Stephen competes during the FIS Cross-Country World Cup Tour de Ski women's final climb on Jan. 5, 2014 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.|
As she prepares to compete in her fourth world championships, which begin Feb. 18 in Falun, Sweden, the Vermont native now sits sixth overall in the FIS World Cup standings, after never before finishing a season higher than 17th.
It’s the change in her psychological approach, she said, that has made all the difference.
The theory is surprisingly simple: Verbalize your specific goals before each race, then visualize exactly how you plan to accomplish them. Stephen said the mental game has been most effective when it comes to aspects of a race like tackling a particularly daunting downhill section.
“What do I focus on so I can get down this hill the best way? I might not be the fastest person out there, but how can I do it the best that I can today?” she said. “It’s just about setting very specific goals before the races. That’s really helped me focus on doing those things, rather then just, ‘How do I get to the finish line as fast as I can?’ If you’re just focused on the end, there’s all this stuff in the middle that you’re missing, and that’s really made a big difference for my performance.”
The difference from past seasons has been noticeable.
Perhaps best known for her hill-climbing abilities, Stephen has significantly improved her speed on the downhills, helping her to better keep pace with many of her Norwegian and German competitors.
Now, after experiencing a taste of success, she wants more.
“All of the sudden, it’s not good enough to be second,” she said. “I want to be first.”
Just a few months ago, she nearly found herself out of the sport.
Stephen seriously considered stepping away from the U.S. team following what she called a “bit of a letdown for our team” at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. There, she finished 24th in the 30k freestyle, the best finish for a U.S. skier.
“We went in thinking we were really going to set some goals and accomplish them, and it just didn’t go that way,” said Stephen, who grew weary of the massive time commitment of the sport and began to see it more as a job. “I guess I struggled less with how the Olympics had gone and more with, ‘This is a lot of my life that I’m devoting to this, and I’m not sure I’m ever going to want to win as badly as… I need to.’”
Her teammates, however, convinced her to stay and put off some of her larger life plans for the time being. It’s a decision she doesn’t regret.
“I can’t really imagine ever finding a group of people that work so well together and believe so much in each other,” she said. “When you walk away from that, you have to know that you’re probably never going to find that in another job. I was just not ready to leave that yet.”
In Falun, Stephen hopes to compete in multiple distance events, including 10k, 15k and 30k individual races. It’s a medal in the 4x5k, however, that would mean the most.
“That’s my biggest dream,” she said. “It would solidify the work that everybody on this team has put in. It’s not about the four people who race that day, it’s about the team. Before I’m done, I’d love to see what that feels like.”
The former distance runner isn’t sure how long she’ll remain in the sport. She secretly harbors dreams of making the U.S. marathon team for the 2020 summer Olympic Games.
For now, though, she’s intent on visualizing another podium or two on skis.
“As you get older, it’s not just about the love of skiing. As I can see the end of this sport for me, the results do naturally become more important,” Stephen said. “It used to just be about having fun, and that was enough for me. But now there’s a certain level of aggression. This is the first year I’ve really wanted to win.”
Rich Scherr’s articles have appeared frequently in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. He also serves as the editor of Potomac Tech Wire and Bay Area Tech Wire. Scherr is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.