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U.S. Ski Racing Star Mikaela Shiffrin Says Embrace Adversity

The challenges Olympic athletes must face are formidable.

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia approaching, more attention is being paid to the sports that don’t get the attention they deserve during the three years between quadrennial competition. One such sport is alpine ski racing, a sport that I know intimately, both athletically and professionally. As I noted in an article I wrote last winter, Ski Racing is One Brutal Sport.

The fact is that ski racing is an incredibly difficult sport that places physical, environmental, and psychological demands on athletes like few other sports. Just some of the challenges that racers must confront include the course itself, terrain, snow conditions, weather, and sheer speed (up to 100 mph in downhill). And don’t forget the unforgiving nature of ski racing in which races are won or lost by 100ths of a second—a small mistake can mean the difference between Olympic medalist and also-ran.

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In an Olympics, there are even more demands placed on athletes including expectations and pressure from family, friends, coaches, teammates, the media, and an entire country. Add to that the self-imposed expectations of the athletes themselves who have been training for four years for this moment. For athletes in a sport like ski racing where they have only one shot at international attention (and the financial rewards that often come with it) every four years, the volume on the internal and external pressures can be turned way up.

There is, however, a saving grace to the brutal conditions found in ski racing; namely, rarely are these difficulties present for only one or a few racers. Instead, everyone must face most of the challenges on race day. In ski racing, there is some variation as those with better start positions have better course conditions than those starting farther back. Also, weather can be pretty fluky with high wind, snow, or fog for some racers and calm and clear for others. But, over all, on any given race day, tough conditions are tough for everyone and easy conditions are easy for everyone.

What this means is that it’s not the conditions that will determine who finds Olympic success in Sochi because everyone must face them. Rather, what matters is how they interpret and respond to them.

The recent women’s World Cup slalom in Bormio illustrates my point. The conditions were miserable with snow at the top, rain at the bottom, and sleet in between with snow conditions soft and sloppy. It would be easy to arrive at a race with these sorts of conditions and think, “This is terrible. There’s no way I can ski well in this stuff.” Yet, that attitude will almost certainly lead to doubt, worry, fear, and, ultimately, failure and disappointment.

One thing is very clear about Mikaela Shiffrin, the18-year-old reigning World Cup and World Championships slalom title holder: she doesn’t go down that road of ruin. The following quote exemplifies the attitude that has made her a favorite to win gold in the slalom in Sochi:

“The weather reminds me of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom. I got out here this morning, and I was like, ‘Yes! Here we go. I’m going to be soaking wet,’” said Mikaela Shiffrin. ”The gates hit the snow, and the slush comes off and hits you in the goggles, so by the end of the course you can’t really see but you can see just enough to finish. You have to keep going and embrace it, because it’s happening to everyone—might as well embrace it.”

Given that the weather in Sochi is expected to be uncertain and unstable at best, there are several essential lessons that all athletes can garner from Mikaela’s experience with adversity.

Train for Adversity

First, the best way to learn to respond positively to adversity is to train for adversity. As a fellow alum of Burke Mountain Academy, a high school devoted to training ski racers and the first full-time sports academy in America, I can attest to the often-times brutal conditions that Mikaela has trained in while at Burke. I recall my first race as a 14-year-old at Jay Peak, Vermont where it was 42 degrees below zero (without wind chill!). More recently, I was at Burke this past December where the temperature was a relatively mild -17 degrees. The following week it was raining (groan!).

The more you train in adverse conditions, the better your chances of rising to the challenge of tough conditions in a competition. Yet, young athletes in many sports love to train in ideal conditions despite the fact that they often compete in poor conditions. In ski racing, young racers love to train on “hero snow” that is smooth and hard. The problem is that most young racers don’t race under those conditions, rather they race on courses that are rough and uneven. If you train under ideal conditions, but have to compete under difficult conditions, what are the chances that you will perform your best in competitions? Not very good, I would argue, because you haven’t trained under the adverse conditions in which you compete.

Training for adversity has several important benefits. First, it makes adversity familiar and comfortable for you, so when you arrive at a competition with difficult conditions, you can say, “Been there, done that, no big deal.” Second, training for adversity provides you with the technical, tactical, and mental skills you need to overcome the tough conditions. Finally, adversity builds your confidence, so you can say before a competition, “I’ve trained under worse conditions. I’m going to bring it!”

Mikaela’s comment that the Bormio slalom reminded her of Burke suggests that she was both familiar and comfortable with the adversity she was confronted with there, however horrendous they were, because they were no worse than the conditions she experienced regularly at Burke.

Keep Perspective

It’s easy to fall into “woe is me” mode when faced with adversity. Your focus on how difficult the conditions are and how they may hurt your chances in the competition can set you up for failure. But if you can keep perspective, namely, that everyone has to face the adversity and everyone will struggle to varying degrees, you take the focus off of how bad it is for you and on to the fact that someone has to have a good result in these conditions, so it may as well be you.

Another perspective to have is that it’s not the adversity that matters—because everyone has it on the day of the competition—but rather your attitude toward the tough conditions (e.g., “This sucks!” vs. “Bring it on!”) and how you react to them (e.g., be cautious vs. leave it all out there).

You have a simple, but not easy, choice. You can view the adversity as a threat to avoid or a challenge to pursue. There is no doubt that, ability being equal, the competitors who see the adversity as a challenge will outperform those who view it as a threat.

Mikaela clearly had a healthy perspective, based on her comment that it’s “happening to everyone.”

Embrace Adversity

A number of years ago, I was working with some ski racers at Mt. Hood, Oregon during a week of miserable weather that included snow, rain, dense fog, and really soft snow. There was another sport psych person there working with another group of racers with whom we were sharing a training course. At the top of the hill, he said to his group that “you have to love these conditions!” My first thought was that he doesn’t know much about ski racing because, let’s be honest, it’s hard to love such lousy conditions. I would argue that it’s nearly impossible to have good feelings about such adversity. Mikaela never said that she loved racing under those conditions in Bormio.

At the same time, you can’t hate the adversity because if you feel a negative attitude about the conditions, the chances are that you will just give up. What I would suggest is that you neither love nor hate the adversity, but just accept it for what it is, namely, an inevitable part of sports. By not hating it, you are able to wrap your arms around the reality of the adversity and deal with it the best you can. As Mikaela noted, I “might as well embrace it.” When you accept and embrace the adversity, you can direct your energy onto how to confront it head on and overcome it.

When Mikaela and other top ski racers in the world come together in Sochi, they will, in each Olympic test, actually be competing in three “races” each day: the race against their competitors, the race against the conditions, and the mental race. For Mikaela to win the race against her competitors and earn gold in the slalom, she must first win the “race” against the conditions by embracing the adversity and confronting the challenges of the course, weather, and snow conditions head on. But, to win that “race,” she must, first and foremost, win the mental race in which she rises to occasion by letting the attention of being in the world’s spotlight inspire her and where she stays confident, calm, and focused. If she wins the mental race, Mikaela has a pretty darned good chance of taking Olympic gold for America. Though there are no guarantees in ski racing (or any sport), knowing Mikaela, I’m definitely not betting against her.

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

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