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5 Lessons about Youth Sports from an Athletic Prodigy

A young Olympic gold medal favorite can teach us a lot about athletic success.

Mikaela Shiffrin is, at only 18 years old, the top slalom ski racer in the world, a favorite for Olympic gold in Sochi, and a veritable fountain of lessons that athletes, coaches, and parents can learn from to help athletes achieve their competitive goals. After reading a profile of Mikaela in The New York Times recently (be sure to watch the videos in the article), 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 recent authors, “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. I’m going to argue that Mikaela is just wired differently than us mere mortals.

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Of course, that inborn hard wiring wouldn’t have been enough to take her to the top of her sport 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 know athletes whose success was driven primarily by their parents, but I can assure you that there were often two casualties in that experience: the athletes’ happiness and their relationship with their parents.

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.

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 (and she thought she was just playing and having fun!) that 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.

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.

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, where, despite her successes, she was treated like just another kid there.

What’s the overall takeaway from these lessons? First, there is no magic to athletic success. Mikaela wasn’t the first athlete to go pursue sports greatness. She was just fortunate to have the combination of controllable and uncontrollable contributors to success go her way. Second, Mikaela, despite appearances, is not superhuman. Rather, she just put in the time to fully realize the innate ability she had. Finally, what I always emphasize about Mikaela 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. And, in this day and age, that is what her parents should really be congratulated for.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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