Lessons in Mastery from Mikaela Shiffrin
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 16th, 2014

This week, if you watch the Winter Olympics–and pay little attention to skiing between Olympiads–you’ll be introduced to a remarkable young woman named Mikaela Shiffrin. Last year at  17 she won the world slalom championship. This season she attained almost unprecedented dominance in her specialty in World Cup races.

To give some perspective to Shiffrin’s meteoric progress–in an event with such extraordinary technical demands that it takes over a decade to master them–Lindsay Vonn, was 24 when she won her first world championship gold medal. And Shiffrin has been winning races by “implausibly huge” margins over rivals who have 300 more World Cup starts than she.

In  A Swift, if Unplanned, Ascent to World Champion.  published  Jan 9 in the NY Times, Bill Pennington offered an unusually intimate account of how Shiffrin’s meteoric rise.

For anyone  interested in Mastery and Kaizen, this article is must reading.

The ‘unplanned’ aspect of her ascent  refers to the fact that Shiffrin was raised to focus on process–not outcomes. In other words. “Every time down the mountain, be the best skier you can be. Let the rest take care of itself.”

I don’t know if Shiffrin’s parents read the books on Mastery and Flow, but a process mindset is a central principle for attaining either.

As a young girl, while fellow skiers attended races each weekend, she preferred spending hours alone on a relatively small hill, in a ‘purist’ pursuit of the physical pleasures and psychic reward of carving increasingly beautiful turns.

Shiffrin skiing

Her coach calls her  a “once-in-a-lifetime” talent, no doubt referring to physical gifts. While it’s unquestionably true you cannot vie for a World or Olympic championships without extraordinary abilities of that sort, I believe a still rarer gift was Mikaela’s preternatural ability–at just 7 or 8 years–to love practice for its own sake . . .  in the moment and without regard to what it might bring her in some unknown future.

SHIFFRIN interview

In today’s Times, Pennington describes an extraordinary interview Shiffrin gave upon arriving in Sochi on Friday. The media corps didn’t quite know what to make of her, so unexpected and unique were her responses. Here are some excerpts:

Within 24 hours of arriving in Sochi, reporters asked Shiffrin if she could rescue the struggling American ski team.

ShiffrinI’m not thinking about it that way. I’m going to do my best in my events, and if that means I up the medal count, then that’s great because I’m here to ski for the U.S. But I’m not the only one.

Takeaway: Focus on what you control. Ignore the rest.

Some skiers have complained about soft snow. Reporters asked Shiffrin what she thought about snow conditions,

Shiffin: If I don’t win, it’s because of something I did with my skiing, and if I do win it’s because of something I did with my skiing.

Takeaway: Same as above. Ignore what you can’t control. Focus on your own performance.

Reporters expressed surprised at the calm poise Shiffrin showed in the media glare.

Shiffrin: I envisioned your questions. I wrote down the answers in my notebook. I’ve envisioned this moment. I’ve envisioned myself on the top step of the podium and on the third step of the podium. I’ve envisioned myself crashing, and I know what mistake I’ve made in my head.

It takes a lot of courage to see yourself at the Olympics — to be able to see that in your head and then brush it away. To everybody else, this my first Olympics, but to me it’s my 1,000th.

Read the full article here.

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