Kitzbühel in Austria is one of the most fancy ski resort in the Alps and home of probably the most famous downhill ski race of them all: The “Hahnenkamm” race on the legendary “Streif” slope. An extremely difficult and fast racetrack: The drivers only need three seconds from the start until they reach speeds of around 60km/h (37mph), maximum speeds are around 140km/h (87mph).
This year’s race took off last Saturday in front of 50.000 spectators. Coming in first was Swiss Didier Cuche, who won here for the third time (Quote Cuche: “Congratulations to everybody who started here. We must be completely crazy!”). Local Austrian favorite Michael Walchhofer, defending champion of the downhill World Cup, had a heavy crash, but luckily did not get severly injured. He fits into a huge line of favorites crashing in Kitzbühel. Last year, Swiss Daniel Albrecht crashed on the Streif and it took him one year to recover from his significant injuries. If we put this into context with one of the most spectactular downhill crashes of all time, Hermann Maier’s takeoff at the Olympics in Nagano in 1998, it is striking that many of the very best, most talented drivers fail in the most important races.
Is that a pure skiing phenomenon?
Actually, I don’t think so. Here’s my hypothesis: The only thing that can keep the very talented from performing very good is themselves trying to perform even better than very good. It’s not a hypothesis that I can back up easily with statistics or millions of examples, but I’ve witnessed some that brought me to that conclusion.
Let me explain it in a little more detail:
Very talented people usually do a good job. The people around them recognize it. However those very talented people have never experienced it a different way, they take their level of performance as normal. At the moment they are exposed to a special situation – that big meeting, that big presentation, etc., they think it might be helpful to do things better than normal this time. The big issue is that when you are already performing on a very high level, getting even higher is not too easy as room to move is limited. Going back to Kitzbühel that would mean that those 80% that only go down the hill with the goal to reach the finish line are much less vulnerable than those trying to steer two feet more towards the left after the “Hausbergkante” just to save 3/100 of a second.
Going for the big shot in a pressure situation can lead to huge victories, but also to heavy defeats. In most cases it is sufficient to deliver your potential, no need for a lot more than that. You might feel it differently, but the other people will in most cases appreciate if you’re doing a good job and “simply” live up to your potential.
Didier Cuche did exactly that. He won because he was driving smart and very concentrated. Before the event he studied how Stephan Eberharter drove at the “Hausberg”, one of the signature parts of the Streif, a few years ago. He stated that he watched Eberharters route, probably one of the fastest ever taken there, a minimum 20 times. Then he decided to go for a safer route. In none of the 5 sectors he was the fastest driver, but overall he clearly won.
Being smart and concentrated will probably more consistently deliver good results than going for the big shot that in most case will never happen. I actually believe that being smart and concentrated is the real big shot. You don’t have to win a sector, think about winning the race instead.