What Can We Learn From Mikaela Shiffrin?

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

If you live in the U.S. and have even a passing interest in the upcoming Winter Olympics then you’ve seen her by now- Mikaela Shiffrin.  The 18-year-old skier currently living in Colorado has become the youngest American World Cup winner in history.  How do you get to be that good when you’re so young?  Surely there are aspects of Mikaela’s upbringing that other athletes can learn from to help them be their best too. Mikaela Shiffrin

Much has been written about her but one of the better articles chronicling her young life was published in the New York Times recently.  Some key aspects I took away from the article are that she is focused on process and technical excellence, she seems to be very resilient, and her family is exceptionally supportive while de-emphasizing podium results (and sometimes used quirky training methods…).  From what I can read I would say she has other critical attributes likely shared with other young prodigies such as Tiger Woods: intense personal drive, and genetically mediated physical traits.

Focus on Process and Technical Excellence

Ms. Shiffrin seems obsessed with process and technical excellence, and indeed at the speeds these skiers are traveling, with hundredths of a second proving the difference between the podium and fourth place, you better be focused on technical detail.  Again I think of stories from the young Tiger, hours on the range, even more hours putting (who actually likes to practice putting???).  This is a common theme for the world’s very best athletes in any sport, building a foundation of technical excellence at a very young age.

Resilience, Embracing Adversity

I am very impressed with her ability to race and thrive in adverse conditions.  She has trained in a wide variety of conditions and lived in two very different skiing locales, so I get the feeling that even though she is very young that she’s experienced quite a lot.  It’s been theorized that one reason young baseball players from the Dominican Republic are so good is that by the time they make it to the perfectly manicured fields of Major League Baseball they’ve handled bad hops on dirt or pockmarked grass since the time they first played the game.  I’m not saying we should intentionally place kids in poor playing conditions, but a wider variety of training experience could prove beneficial.

Supportive Family, De-Emphasizing Results

Youth sports are increasingly results driven, with competitive leagues forming at the very youngest age groups.  I will probably go to the grave with this thought, but my belief is that at the youngest ages we’d produce more individuals interested in lifelong health, fitness, and sports excellence if we de-emphasize results at the youngest ages.  Hats off to the Shiffrin family for taking a courageous stand for their young prodigy and keeping her grounded with “fun” activities.

But The Missing Piece:  She’s Just Better Than Us

Emphasis on technical excellence, using a positive mental attitude, and de-emphasizing results are all things that just about everyone could do, and if you did so you’d have a chance to be the very best you could be. But still there would be no guarantee that you’d be the best in the world at anything.  I’m sure that if we were to perform sophisticated testing on Ms. Shiffrin we’d find that she has several genetically mediated traits that give her the edge- superior reflexes, visual field, pattern recognition, etc.  For now I’m just glad she has them and I’m looking forward to seeing her succeed on skiing’s biggest stage.