By: Dr. Jim Taylor, an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of sports performance. He has worked with professional, world-class, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes for 30 years and written eight books related to sport psychology. A former world-ranked alpine ski racer, he is a second-degree black belt in karate, marathon runner, and Ironman triathlete. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com
Mikaela Shiffrin, 19, is the top slalom skier in the world, an Olympic gold medalist in Sochi, and a veritable fount of lessons that athletes, coaches, and parents can learn from. After reading a profile of Mikaela in The New York Times, I felt I should share 5 lessons she can teach us:
1. Inborn Talent Matters
With all due respect to Dan Coyle (author of The Talent Code),“10 years 10,000 hours” isn’t enough to achieve athletic greatness (BTW, here’s a great rebuttal to that argument). It is abundantly clear that much of what makes Mikaela exceptional can’t be taught. Early videos of her demonstrate a feel for the snow and a sense of balance that just isn’t trainable.
2. Drive Must Come from Within
One thing is clear about Mikaela 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 brother, Taylor, or who knows what. Mikaela’s incredible drive to train and compete has resulted in a determination, focus, and off- and on-hill preparation that was absolutely necessary for such early success.
3. Training Still Matters
What is also clear about Mikaela that she put in a prodigious amount of time in her physical conditioning and on-snow training (yes, hours matter, but not as much as many believe). As you can read in The New York Times article I provide a link to above, Mikaela spent hours a day as a child engaged in activities, such as riding a unicycle, playing soccer, inline skating, and juggling which developed essential physical skills that benefitted her as an athlete. Also, as someone who watched Mikaela train, I saw firsthand the hours she put in on the hill.
4. Parents Must Create Opportunities
Few great athletes make it to the top without their parents supporting them. Mikaela is no exception with Jeff and Eileen giving her and her brother every opportunity to pursue their goals and, perhaps more importantly, have a lot of fun. There is no doubt that Jeff and Eileen 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.
5. 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 sports in general and ski racing in particular that you can’t help but feel. I also believe one thing that has really helped Mikaela is that, by remaining a tight-knit family unit, they were able to maintain a sense of normalcy in her that contrasted markedly from the decidedly non-normal experiences she has had as a ski racing prodigy. This same normalcy was evident during her time at Burke Mountain Academy, where she attended high school, and where, despite her success, she was treated like just another kid.
But, perhaps above all, what is most impressive about Mikaela is that somehow, in the crazy world that she has lived, she is not only a remarkable athlete, but a genuinely nice and humble person. That is what her parents should truly be congratulated for.