BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Before Darian Stevens could begin her slopestyle skiing qualifying run, she had to find the right song. A combination of fate and feeling would guide her. Standing at the top of the course, having been told she could drop in, Stevens sifted through her phone’s music shuffle until the right song filled her ears: “Caught Up,” by Usher.
“If I get too in my head, I know I don’t perform that well under pressure,” Stevens said. “I just need a distraction. I just let my body take over and do what it knows how to do.”
As snowboarders and freestyle skiers walk from the end of their runs through crowds of reporters and supporters, equipment in hands and goggles on forehead, you might notice a curious accessory protruding from the top of their jackets. For a certain percentage of riders, probably a small majority, those wires and ear buds are as much a part of their uniform as bindings and boots.
Throughout the PyeongChang Olympics, snowboarders and skiers have provided personal soundtracks. Women’s halfpipe gold medalist Chloe Kim told ESPN that she listened to “MotorSport” by Migos during her iconic final halfpipe run. For his gold medal halfpipe trip, Shaun White had a Post Malone song in his ears. Slopestyle skier Caroline Claire listened to Playboi Carti. Halfpipe snowboarder Maddie Mastro chose Cage The Elephant.
The individual nature of their sports allow riders to listen to music in competition. There are no teammates to interact with or coaches to heed. But they do not do it just because they can. Music helps the athletes block out distractions, focus before a race and perform better during it. The sports require rhythm and artistry, and those who choose to roll with an iPod might see inherent benefit in those areas.
According to Matthew Stork, a PhD candidate from the University of British Columbia who has researched and written on the relationship between music and performance, researchers have come to understand the phenomenon through the term “entrainment.” It means the tendency of biological rhythms — heart rate, respiration rate, even brain waves — to align with musical rhythms.
“In other words,” Stork said in an email, “there is an innate human tendency to synchronize movement with musical rhythm.”
On her slopestyle skiing runs Saturday, 2014 silver medalist Devin Logan bobbed and bounced to Kendrick Lamar as she started, moving her hands to the beat even as she gripped her poles tight. She practically danced during her first few pushes.
“I like to get into it, just feel the music and ski kind of to the beat,” Logan said. “It helps my rhythm. It’s just something to drain out my head talking to me too much.”
Many riders praised the effect music has just before a run begins. For some, it reduces the noise around them or puts their mind at ease. For others, it amps them up and ratchets their intensity.
“Music has the potential to put athletes in a spot mentally or emotionally where they’re able to operate or perform in a more optimal way,” Stork said. “Music can ‘get you going,’ put you ‘in the zone’ or state of ‘flow’ where you are fully focused and immersed in the task at hand.”
While skiers and snowboarders listed both heavy rock and hip-hop as pre-race musical choices, those who listened during competition all leaned toward pop and flowing hip-hop. Stork said he would expect that. Different kinds of athletes, he said, would be looking for different kinds of music. In hockey, an enforcer might blare Metallica before a game, but a stick-handling forward might prefer Tupac.
“You put on the heavy stuff, and you hear guys say, ‘Whoa, bro,’ ” Canadian snowboard cross racer Kevin Hill said.
Skiers and snowboarders have to choose lines and routines in practice, then employ mental imagery to replicate them in competition. Stork said music can serve as a kind of “aural imagery” — listening to the same song in practice and competition can create cues and promote repetition.
Some riders opt to leave the iPods at home. Sebastien Toutant, a Canadian slopestyle snowboarder, forgoes music during competition so he can hear his board, particular when he is on rails, when he listens for aural clues of when to pop and when to leap back to the snow.
“If you get used to riding with music all the time, then people riding without music feel weird,” Toutant said. “So I’m kind of like the opposite. And I like to shred with the homies and talk all the time.”
Swedish slopestyle snowboarder Niklas Mattsson listens to rock — the Black Keys and Iron Maiden are favorites — before his run to psych himself up. While riding, though, he turns it off to maximize his capacity to process aural feedback. He does not want to miss what his surroundings are telling him.
“I like to hear the sound of my board.” Mattsson said. “It’s really important. You can hear whether the snow is hard or it’s soft. You feel better if you don’t have music in your ears. Your feeling of it’s soft, it’s firm, you can hear how fast it goes.”
Hill said he likes to hear the edge of his board cut into crisp snow, and that listening for wind direction can help. There are secondary considerations that might prompt an athlete not to listen.
“I honestly get sick of my music a lot faster,” Hill said. “I get sick of play lists. You’re on the hill for four hours a day. You listen to 30, 40 songs. They just run out quicker.”
Meehyun Lee, a South Korean slopestyle skier who grew up in Pennsylvania, said she never rides with music for a reason dating from her development: Her ski instructor kept telling her to take her ear buds out so she could listen to him, and the act became so tiresome she just did away with music altogether. Creating her own energy, instead of using music to do so, became her focus.
“The vibe you carry is the vibe you ride,” Lee said.
Even for some riders who listen to music, the practice reveals a trait that helps make them elite athletes in the first place: Their level of focus overtakes the tunes.
Stevens had to think for a couple of minutes before she could recall which song was on during her run. Great Britain’s Isabel Atkin, the women’s slopestyle skiing bronze medalist, listens to music during competition, but “I don’t hear it, because I’m in the zone,” she said. Mattsson, the Swedish snowboarder, said one reason he stopped listening to music is because he couldn’t hear it anyway.
Some riders who would like to listen don’t need actual music. American snowboard cross racer Hagen Kearney plays guitar in the metal band Kapix. But snowboard cross racers cannot listen to music during race heats because in the chaos of their sport, they need to hear whether a rider is coming from behind or next to them, or in some cases communicate with competitors. Kearney still finds a way, like so many of his brethren, to compete to music.
“I have a song in my head,” Kearney said.
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