Tess Johnson’s improved mental game helps her pursue a second Olympics

Ryan Sederquist
Vail Daily
Tess Johnson celebrates after finishing her race in the finals of the World Cup women’s dual moguls skiing competition, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Deer Valley, Utah. The final Winter Olympics qualifying event takes place in Deer Valley from Jan. 12-14, 2022.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

VAIL — The homemade jump in the backyard suggests Olympic mogul skier Tess Johnson wasn’t attempting to recreate Times Square on the evening of Dec. 31, but rather, Deer Valley.

“My New Year’s Eve was pretty mellow,” she said in describing a low-key holiday break spent with her brother and parents. The U.S. moguls team’s scheduled training camp this week in Granby was canceled in order to mitigate COVID-19 risk. It comes alongside the Beijing Olympic Committee’s recent doubling down on its COVID-related policies, which could theoretically prevent healthy athletes from traveling to the Games at the final second, a fact which has left U.S. ski team members on edge.

“It’s really intense and we’re all pretty scared of getting COVID, but there’s only so much we can do,” Johnson lamented. “There’s a lot of anxiety around it because the Olympics are what we train our whole lives for and it only comes around every four years and this uncontrollable virus could just crush all of our dreams.”

Johnson’s older sister even stayed in East Vail to further reduce risk, leaving Johnson and her younger brother to kill time hitting their backyard jump.

“That was really fun — we made the best of kind of a sad situation over the holidays,” she said.

Doing 360s over the porch is a stark contrast to the high-stress Olympic qualification environment currently swirling around every U.S. ski team athlete.

On the women’s moguls side of things, Jaelin Kauf and Hannah Soar have already secured two of the objective spots courtesy of their second and sixth place rankings, respectively, on the FIS points list. That leaves one final objective selection, to be determined by an athlete’s best finish at one of the designated tryout events.

Currently, Olivia Giaccio, having placed first in the Ruka, Finland, opener Dec. 4, is in the driver’s seat. Johnson and her Ski and Snowboard Club Vail teammate, Kai Owens, both have third-place finishes, but Johnson’s second-best finish — which would act as the tiebreaker — is a fourth place in Idre Fjall, Sweden, on Dec. 12. Owens’ second-best individual result is seventh place on Dec. 17 at Alpe d’Huez, France.

Four more tryout events remain: two in Tremblant, Canada, Jan. 7-8, and two more in Deer Valley, Utah, the following weekend.

“It’s incredibly stacked,” Johnson said of the team she’s trying to make. “These girls are very close friends of mine, so at the end of the day I’m very happy for them, but it really just intensifies this process.”

Even with three close friends of arguably equal merit chasing one — maybe two (an extra slot could be rewarded to the women’s mogul team on account of its depth) — spots, Johnson is keeping an even keel as she approaches the final two events.

“I’m feeling confident and the most important thing is that I’m skiing well and have some great results already under my belt. So, I’m feeling good,” she said.

The monastic approach to excellence demonstrated by her disciplined New Year’s Eve isn’t a novel one for the 21-year-old SSCV athlete, who is eyeing her second Olympic team come February. The usual pressure of qualifying, only exasperated by COVID-related uncertainty, has shown a spotlight on the mental strength work Johnson has done with U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s senior sports psychologist, Alexander Cohen. The pair meets roughly twice a month, either in person or over Zoom.

“He’s been great and I attribute a lot of my success to my work with him and sports psychology in general,” she said.

Tess Johnson, right, of the United States, reacts after defeating Perrine Laffont, of Canada, in a heat of the World Cup women's freestyle dual moguls skiing event Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Jeff Swinger/AP Photo

Cohen believes practicing mindfulness daily is a great skill for managing and thriving when faced with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 and the Olympics.

“Athletes don’t necessarily need to do anything new, special, or different to perform their best at major competitions like the Olympic Games,” Cohen said in an email. “They just need to not get in their own way. Training in mindfulness allows athletes to gain psychological flexibility, helping them to manage uncertainty as well as making competition about ‘who aims their attention the best’ — as this is always under their control.”

Heading into these critical two World Cups, Johnson isn’t planning on shifting her mental approach.

“The reality is that results matter and that I do want to go to the Olympics again more than anything in the world, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t,” she said. “A lot of people will say, ‘Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the process,’ and yes, while that is the goal, it’s important for me to accept this reality that results matter and the outcome does matter. And the way that I get the outcome that I want is by focusing on the process. So, it’s kind of this crazy paradox.”

Cohen has helped Johnson “focus on the right thing, at the right time, every time.” This intentional direction of attention comes through purposefully implemented mindfulness skills. One strategy Johnson and Cohen employ frequently is imagery.

“I’ll get dressed up in my room in all my ski gear — I’ll put my boots on, I’ll have my poles, and I’ll visualize my run,” she described.

The result has been an ability to navigate the sport’s — and life’s — challenges, and achieve consistent, enjoyable performance.

“Aiming my intention at the right place at the right time is what unlocks that flow state that athletes talk about. It doesn’t happen every day, but that’s the goal every day,” Johnson said. “The distractions are going to be there, the pressure is going to be there, the desire for victory and great results is going to be there. It’s not about trying to avoid those thoughts, rather just aim my intention towards certain cues for my skiing.”

According to Johnson, mastering the mind is the key to unlocking the body.

“I can be in the start gate, I can feel super nervous, or hear the score of the girl who just went down before me, and if I can just aim my intention and my focus at, ‘OK, I’m just going to explode this top air cork seven,’ then that’s what I’ll do. The mind is so powerful, and I’m at a point in my career where my body knows what to do and it will do what I want it to do if my mind is in the right place.”

Recently, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka have brought attention to the mental side of elite sport, something Johnson believes is a positive initial step.

“I just have so much empathy and respect for Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka,” Johnson said. “They are pioneering what is mental health in sports, and it is so much more prevalent than what people think. People see athletes as gods and people who don’t feel, and I think Simone Biles proved everyone wrong, and it was upsetting to see that some people perceived that as weak, because it wasn’t. It’s just human.

Tess Johnson gestures while competing in the World Cup women’s dual moguls skiing competition, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Deer Valley, Utah.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

“What she did took more courage than anything she’s ever done in the past and I’m really grateful for what she did because I have felt the same things I imagine she was feeling in that moment. So, I was just really grateful to her for doing that and I just have the utmost respect for her.”

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Biles removed herself from several competitions she was favored to win after battling what gymnasts refer to as the “twisties,” a phenomenon similar to a skier getting lost in the air.

“You can fully get lost and lose that air awareness for a second; that’s dangerous and scary,” Johnson said in comparing the two sensations. “Whether it’s triggered by not being in the right mentality before or just a fluke, catching an edge in the jump, it’s a very dangerous thing and it’s pretty hard to come back from, especially if you do end up crashing.”

Johnson has experienced the frightening scenario herself.

“I’ve been in that same situation where I land a jump and I don’t know how I landed it,” she said. “It was very scary — I got lost in the air — and it’s hard to go back up and do it again because you’re shaking really.”

Thanks to her patience and hard work, Johnson has sliced through many mental moguls in developing one of the most challenging aerial packages on the World Cup. She believes it’s the key element she’s added to her arsenal in regard to increasing medal potential at the upcoming Winter Games.

“I’ve worked so hard over the past three years to increase my degree of difficulty and the quality of those jumps; some of those harder tricks didn’t come as easy to me,” she said. “That was so frustrating because I watched these younger girls do these cork sevens incredibly. And, while it wasn’t jealousy, it was frustration on my own part because I convinced myself at a point in my career that I would not be as good of a jumper as these other girls.”

Overcoming her perceived inadequacies required a refinement by fire.

“And that was a really low point in my career because it obviously crushed my self-esteem and it made me resent training because I just felt embarrassed,” she recalled. “I felt like a failure, water ramping all summer. But I persevered, and I attribute my perseverance to a lot of sport psychology work. And my team, my coaches, my family, for never stopping believing in me.”

The proof in the pudding came when she landed on the podium after completing a cork 720 and signature backflip venom grab in France before Christmas.

“I’m just so proud of myself for getting to this point in my career that I can say I am one of the best jumpers on the World Cup tour, without a doubt, and that’s because of my hard work,” she said.

The dialed-in air package and veteran experience from having already been at an Olympics make Johnson a real threat to medal in the extremely deep World Cup field.

“Every single girl has a different air package from the next girl and is skiing so fast and aggressive and it’s so cool to be a part of,” Johnson said in regards to the international women’s mogul depth. “So, I think that now that I have this unique air package that’s my own and a more refined mentality, I really want that opportunity to show that at the Olympics. Because yeah, I have some new things I didn’t have in 2018. That’s just a fact.”

Johnson’s little brother and parents will be at Deer Valley to cheer on the culmination of another four-year cycle of dedication, and the SSCV athlete is thrilled about the circumstances and location.

“I’m glad to have them there regardless of what happens,” she said. “It’s just so special to compete in Deer Valley. I can’t think of a more perfect place to complete the Olympic process.”

If all goes as planned, Tess and her brother will be envisioning Beijing the next time they are jumping across their backyard porch.