Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
In order to have a top-level men’s figure skating performance, there are the physical things that need to happen on the ice and the mental things that need to happen in one’s head.
What’s happening upstairs, especially when performing under the pressure of trying to make an Olympic team, impacts what’s happening on the ice, and for that reason Max Aaron has focused on mental toughness this year in preparation for the ups and downs of an Olympic season.
“Obviously in an Olympic year it gets very stressful and there are a lot of guys competing, so going into this year I just wanted to focus on my mindset and the abilities I have,” he said. “I know I can compete with the best of them, it’s just being able to complete two clean programs under the lights and being mentally prepared and mentally tough in any situation.”
Two years after winning the U.S. men’s junior national title in 2011, Aaron won the 2013 senior national title. The following year was 2014, an Olympic year, and Aaron got the bronze medal at the national championships. With only two slots for the men, however, Aaron missed out on a spot as winner Jeremy Abbott and runner up Jason Brown comprised the team that competed at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
As part of his preparation to hopefully be one of three men going to PyeongChang in February, Aaron decided to not only add more content to his programs, including another quad to both programs, but also focus on being mentally tough enough to be ready for whatever comes at him.
In practice, that includes finding cues he wants to attach to and discovering the mindset he wants to have as the programs progress.
“Going into certain quads, what mindset do I want to have, making sure in the middle of my program I’m cool and calm, focusing on my breathing,” he said. “There are times I don’t practice for something but practice against it so that when I have a tough program or that moment where I want to give up and restart in practice I make myself push through and practice how I can create a perfect performance after I start poorly.”
Working on that mentality helped at this season’s Cup of China, where Aaron won the bronze medal. It was his first medal at a grand prix event since winning Skate America in 2015, and he climbed the standings with his free skate after being in fifth place following the short program. His free skate included a trio of quads and a career-best score of 176.58 for a total of 259.69.
“It’s funny because I felt great that I skated so well, but at the same time I’m more proud of the fact that it was one of those performances where I felt like I was tilted every single jump and nothing felt correct,” he said. “But it was a mentally tough moment I prepared for and I was able to tap into that mindset of getting things done no matter how I felt. Now if it happens again, I’m prepared.”
Aaron’s second grand prix assignment, the Internationaux de France, wasn’t quite as successful. Battling jetlag, he finished in seventh place, but Aaron said he’s now glad it happened because it was another lesson and reinforced the necessity to keep his mental game strong.
With the U.S. championships coming up beginning Jan. 4, it is his last chance to show his stuff for consideration for the Olympic team. Aaron said he’s focused on leaving no stone unturned in cleaning up his programs, making sure his spins are flawless, his choreography strong, and he’s hitting all his musical cues and nailing his jumps.
Staying mentally tough will be even more important with the media hype, the crowds and the spotlight with the men’s free skate occupying the primetime slot on Saturday night.
“I can’t wait for that moment to get out there,” he said. “I’m just going to be calm, cool and collected and deliver two strong performances and not worry about what anyone else is doing. I have a plan, I have my goals and I’m just trying to accomplish them. If I skate two perfect performances and don’t make the team I won’t be upset, but I know I have the ability to make a dent in the event and hopefully make a good stand of making the Olympic team.”