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Three things that can help set you up for an athletic breakthrough

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

In an athlete's career, breakthroughs are critical in order to rise to the top and to consistently perform on demand. However, the idea that athletic breakthroughs occur by simply putting in long hours of technical practice is false. In fact, it takes much more than "being the first to arrive and the last to leave" from practice in order to succeed. It requires the alignment of the technical, mental and emotional performance to redefine athletic limits, and while this alignment often happens haphazardly, in reality breakthroughs can be manufactured intentionally and often.

As an Olympic mogul skier attempting to reach the pinnacle of my sport, I aspired to become better each day. Putting the idea of creating breakthroughs into the context of making small incremental improvements was less intimidating and allowed the team to build a program of attainable objectives. For the most part my breakthroughs were not monumental and most of the times were unobservable to the outside viewer.

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But my team all understood that careful planning, creating the right environment and focusing on targeted and achievable objectives could coax out the type of breakthroughs that are required to continue to advance in a very competitive landscape. For example, goals such as managing my energy more effectively, or slipping into a state of performance more fluidly, were weighted equally with learning a new aerial manoeuvre or skiing the course more quickly.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch many young female mogul skiers create their own breakthroughs, at my annual mogul-skiing camp for girls. Over the past eight years we have used a similar formula in which we see the skills of the girls improve dramatically over the two-day camp. I am always thrilled to see such a change in confidence and ability. Two days is not much time to build technical skills. The girls arrive at the camp with the potential to ski faster through the moguls and to learn new aerial manoeuvres, but it is the alignment of the emotional and mental aspects with the technical that I believe helps the girls to flourish.

To achieve that alignment, we keep three goals top of mind:

1) Build a positive environment. Without a positive environment it is much more difficult to create self-assured emotions required for success. There is a lot of cheering, hollering and many smiles that can be seen throughout the weekend. Anyone who has been cheered on knows how it can uplift and open you to the possibility to go beyond what you originally thought possible. In an individual sport such as mogul skiing, competition is a solo effort. But having a supportive team to prepare and to train with on a daily basis makes a difference. Supporting your direct competitors uplifts everyone's performance. It is really that simple a concept, but it often doesn't prevail without a conscious effort.

2) Manage the mental aspect of performance. An essential aspect of the mental game is being motivated. Intrinsic motivation can either apply or eliminate the pressure to succeed. Negative pressure disrupts performance by creating doubt and an emphasis on outcome rather than process. It's important to emphasize that the beauty of sport is having the opportunity to challenge oneself and to celebrate that effort. Throughout my career the most rewarding moments were not winning medals but overcoming the fear of injury and the intense pressure to perform on demand. Focusing on the effort removes failure from the vocabulary.

3) Develop a training session that is narrow in scope with clear objectives to achieve consistent technical improvements. The "lift-off phase" of a 360 aerial manoeuvre occurs with a focus on only the essential movements by creating a clear path for execution. The arm motion, managing the force with the legs, height of the vision, hip movement, distribution of weight and timing are all essential to performing a well-executed 360 aerial manoeuvre. But one can't possibly think of all of those factors in a split second and succeed. Therefore, the jump is distilled down to the basics. The power to spin is generated by the motion of pushing the hips up and around while looking into the distance to remain balanced. If those two aspects are accomplished the rest of the jump will occur naturally. Secondarily, clear objectives also make it easier to evaluate past performances and readjust the plan to move forward. Often, the girls pick up their skis and hike up the hill excited to try again.

Watching the young skiers land their first 360 aerial manoeuvres or ski more aggressively down the course is fulfilling. The challenge is to construct and contribute to a positive environment, to focus on the process, to stay focused and to celebrate the mini-successes along the way. It's reassuring to know that one can have a plan to create breakthroughs.

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Jennifer Heil is a humanitarian and an Olympic gold and silver medalist in the sport of freestyle mogul skiing. She is the co-founder of B2ten and has raised over a million dollars for the Because I am a Girl initiative. One of her passions is inspiring fellow Canadians to get active and live healthy and confident lives. You can follow her on Twitter @jennheil.

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