Mikaela Shiffrin is, at only 18 years old, a veritable fount of lessons that athletes, coaches, and parents can learn from to help racers achieve their ski racing goals. After reading a recent profile of Shiffrin in The New York Times, I felt five more lessons crying out to be told.
Inborn Talent Matters
With all due respect to Dan Coyle (author of “The Talent Code”) and other authors who have recently tackled the subject, 10 years or 10,000 hours isn’t enough to achieve athletic greatness. It is abundantly clear that much of what makes Shiffrin exceptional can’t be taught. Early videos of her demonstrate a feel for the snow and a sense of balance that simply isn’t trainable. I’m going to argue that Mikaela is just wired differently than us mere mortals.
Of course, that inborn hard wiring wouldn’t have been enough to take her to the top of the World Cup without the drive that enabled her to put in the long hours of training to master the physical, technical, tactical, and mental aspects of ski racing.
Drive Must Come from Within
I’ve certainly known athletes whose success was driven primarily by their parents, but I can assure you that there were two casualties in that experience: the athletes’ happiness and their relationship with their parents.
One thing is clear about Shiffrin is that she didn’t need anyone to push her. For whatever reason, she had the mojo to ski race from an early age, whether due to genes, her parents’ role modeling, wanting to keep up with her older brother, Taylor, or who knows what. Shiffrin’s incredible drive to train and compete has resulted in a determination, focus, and off- and on-hill preparation that was absolutely necessary for success at a young age.
Training Still Matters
What is also clear about Shiffrin is that she put in a prodigious amount of time in her dryland and on-snow training (yes, hours matter, but not as much as many believe). As you can read in The New York Times article, Shiffrin spent hours a day as a child engaged in activities such as riding a unicycle, playing soccer, inline skating, and juggling that developed essential physical skills that benefitted her ski racing. Also, as someone who watched her train at Burke, I saw firsthand the hours she put in on the hill.
Parents Must Create Opportunities
Few great athletes make it to the top without the support of their parents. Mikaela is no exception with Jeff and Eileen giving her and Taylor every opportunity to pursue their goals and, perhaps more importantly, have a lot of fun. There is no doubt that Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin made many sacrifices (e.g., financial, family separation) to support their children, but my guess is they would call them choices that they are glad to have made.
It’s a Family Thing
One thing is for sure about the Shiffrins, they are in it together as a family. There is a collective love of ski racing that you can’t help but feel when you are around them. I also believe one thing that has really helped Mikaela is that, by remaining in a tight-knit family unit, she has been able to maintain a sense of normalcy that contrasts markedly with the decidedly non-normal experiences she has had as a ski racing prodigy. This same normalcy was evident during her time at Burke where, despite her successes, she was treated like just any other student-athlete at the school.
What’s the overall takeaway from these lessons? First, there is no magic to ski racing success. Shiffrin wasn’t the first ski racer to go down this road. She was just fortunate to have the combination of controllable and uncontrollable contributors to success go her way. Second, despite her appearances, Shiffrin is not superhuman. Rather, she just put in the time to fully realize the innate ability she had. Finally, what I always emphasize about Shiffrin aside from her considerable talent is that somehow, in the crazy world that she has lived, she is not only a remarkable athlete, but, perhaps more importantly, a genuinely nice and humble person. In this day and age, that is the feat for which her parents should really be congratulated.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke Mountain Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over the last 25 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams, many World Cup and Olympic racers, and several of the leading junior race programs in the U.S. and Canada. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind, he publishes bi-monthly newsletters on sport, business, and parenting, and also blogs for huffingtonpost.com and psychologytoday.com. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit his website.