9 Ways You Can Manage Performance Anxiety Like Olympic Gold Medalist Mikaela Shiffrin
Intense performance anxiety threatened to derail alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin’s 2016-17 season. Instead, she got super proactive about managing it and won the World Cup title for best overall skier in the world. She then went on to win gold and silver at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Now, none of this is to say that Mikaela’s anxiety is gone; she’s just learned to manage it.
You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to identify with Olympic anxiety. You may not be performing in front of the biggest audience in the world, but performance anxiety can be intense in front of any size audience – at work, at school, on the field, on stage, anywhere you’re expected to say or do something that puts you in a position of being (or feeling) judged.
What triggers Mikaela’s performance anxiety, and how it manifests, may sound familiar to you. And the way she manages it could work for you, too.
Mikaela Shiffrin’s story and when the anxiety set in
Mikaela Shiffrin was born in Vail, Colorado, to avid skiers Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin. She was skiing at 3 years old and training on gates by the time she was 6. Mikaela was homeschooled until she was 11. That’s when she enrolled at Burke Mountain Academy, a Vermont boarding school for elite ski racers.
Though that might sound like a lot of pressure starting at an early age, it also sounds like Mikaela’s parents took steps to minimize it. (She also wasn’t alone in the training; her older brother, Taylor, trained right along with her and also attended Burke.)
As reported by Sports Illustrated:
“It’s a fundamental part of the Shiffrin origin story that her parents insist they emphasized development over race-times, process over performance. Nevertheless, the results came.”
And those results are some of the best in the world:
- At 15, Mikaela made her World Cup debut (2011)
- At 16, she won the slalom national championship (the youngest in history to win an alpine skiing national championship) and was named World Cup Rookie of the Year (2012)
- At 17, she won the slalom world championship, the youngest U.S. woman to do so (2013)
- At 18, she won a gold medal in slalom at the Winter Olympics in Sochi; she won the World Cup title in slalom (2014)
- At 19, she won the World Cup title in slalom (again) and placed third in giant slalom (2015)
- At 20, an injury threw her off her game for World Cup contention; she placed fourth in slalom and tenth overall (2016)
- At 21, she was back on top, not only winning the World Cup title in slalom, but also overall; she placed second in giant slalom and sixth in combined (2017)
- At 22, she won gold in giant slalom and silver in the super combined at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang (2018)
What the results do not show is the intense performance anxiety Mikaela started experiencing – for the very first time – at the start of the 2016-17 season.
“I’m going to throw up,” she thought about a minute before the season’s first slalom race in Levi, Finland, in November 2016. “I didn’t actually,” she told NBC Sports, “but I kind of dry heaved or gagged in the start and then went…. I did actually throw up at several races after that, until probably the middle of the season.”
It was especially bad in Killington, Vermont, later that same month.
She managed to win both races – in Levi and Killington – but the victories were bittersweet.
“My skiing felt pretty good, actually, in the warm-ups and when I was freeskiing,” Mikaela said, “but when it came down to just do it in the race, I was totally just skiing defensively. It was fast enough to win, but it wasn’t the way that I wanted to do it….
“We pretty much figured it out really quickly that it was anxiety, because the feeling would come on whenever somebody basically started talking about the race.”
What triggers Mikaela’s performance anxiety
Mikaela Shiffrin’s intensive training regimen is legendary. So, it’s no surprise Mikaela was thrown for a loop when bad weather interrupted her schedule when training for the 2016-17 season.
“Historically, the reason you weren’t nervous was you were always the most well-prepared athlete on the hill,” Eileen Shiffrin (who is also Mikaela’s primary coach) said to her daughter in a post-season interview. “This fall [of 2016], we ran into a lot of challenges getting Mikaela time training. She was not prepared for the races she went into, and she knew it. That’s why she was nervous.”
Shiffrin’s more recent comments to Sports Illustrated suggest just how much uncertainty creeps in when she feels unprepared, no matter the results:
“I don’t feel confident based on wins. If I’m winning by getting lucky or pulling a rabbit out of a hat, that is not a confidence booster.”
Fear of disappointing people
“Killington was a lot of pressure, and I didn’t realize it till I was there,” Shiffrin told The New Yorker of the November 2016 race. Not only was she expected to win, but she was in Vermont – on her home turf – and the stands were full of extended family. “I was kind of freaking out…. Instead of just answering questions, I started to hear myself answering them.”
In fact, the sense of dread she woke up with that morning was so bad that she told herself maybe she shouldn’t race at all.
Though she won slalom in Killington, that wasn’t the case a few weeks later in Zagreb, Croatia, in January 2017. It was a race in which she was poised to tie the record for consecutive World Cup slalom wins. Instead, she straddled one of the gates and didn’t finish the race.
But she didn’t have the reaction to the Zagreb failure-to-finish that one might expect: “The first thing I thought was relief, she told NBC Sports. “I’m not even sad. I’m so happy that nobody’s going to be asking me about that record for the rest of the season.”
“It’s like, the races I’m supposed to win, I worry about what happens if I don’t,” she told the Washington Post in the days leading up to her 2018 Olympic debut in Pyeongchang. “Who am I letting down? My family? The media? What’s the media going to say if I don’t win? I was listening, and I had never really listened to those things before….
“I listen to more people, and I care what people are saying. The opinions of the other athletes, my competitors, that kind of stuff makes more of a difference to me now. I also feel this sort of moral obligation to show people who I am. I want to show them I’m a good person.”
How Mikaela’s anxiety manifests
It was in Levi, Finland, that Mikaela first experienced the physical symptoms of anxiety that she struggled with during the 2016-17 season – stomach cramps, dry heaving, and feeling like her throat was closing up. In subsequent races throughout the year, she was actually throwing up. (Other physical symptoms of performance anxiety can include racing pulse and rapid breathing; dry mouth; trembling hands, knees, lips, and voice; sweaty and cold hands; and vision changes.)
Though it sounded like she was still experiencing anxiety this 2017-18 season, the physical symptoms seemed to have abated. Before this season’s Killington race, Mikaela texted a Time reporter, “Right now I’m feeling…uncertain…. On the plus side, I have not puked this year! Ha-ha.”
She went on to win that November 2017 race in Killington, then went on a hot streak from late December through early January.
Unfortunately, physical symptoms returned in full force at the PyeongChang Olympics. Not before her first race – giant slalom – for which she won the gold. But the very next day – for slalom – the race she was favored to win. Pre-race, she started vomiting, which she initially said had felt like a virus but later confirmed was, in fact, nerves.
“After yesterday, it was such an emotional high, I think almost feeling that kind of emotion, I let myself feel too much yesterday,” Shiffrin told USA Today. “And then I had too much of the – it’s like peaks and valleys. I had too much of a peak yesterday and too much of a valley today…. When you have two races in a row, it’s really important to keep that mental energy stable.’’
Anxiety dreams are common among Olympians. In fact, they’re common among all of us, anxiety being the emotion we report experiencing most in our dreams.
According to Outside Magazine, Mikaela’s recurring anxiety dream looks like this:
“She shows up at the mountain for a race, puts on her boots and helmet, then realizes her clothes are disappearing. So she takes off her boots and helmet, dresses in her thermals and speed suit, then buckles on her boots and helmet again. But by the time she’s done this, her speed suit has flown off. This goes on: one piece of gear donned, another vanished.
“Eventually, she just starts running to the chairlift so she won’t miss her start. Every step she takes, the hill gets steeper and steeper until she’s falling off a cliff.”
Mikaela got off to a shaky start of the 2017-18 World Cup season. She finished fifth in giant slalom in the first race of the year. Then, a couple of weeks later, she finished second in a race she was favored to win. As Shiffrin told Time of the loss to Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, “I skied as hard as I could and still couldn’t beat her. All of a sudden I was questioning everything.”
She bounced back with the aforementioned winning streak, from December 19 through January 9. But things didn’t go so well in the five races leading up to PyeongChang, with two seventh place finishes and three failures to finish.
Did this leave Mikaela “questioning everything” going into the Olympics?
It doesn’t sound like it.
“Last season, I would have been like, ‘Oh God, what if I don’t live up to what the face of the Olympics is supposed to do?’” she told Time. “Face of the Olympics or not, I’m the same person. It’s a good mental place to be.”
How Mikaela Shiffrin manages her performance anxiety
Her former coach, Brandon Dyksterhouse, says Mikaela trains two times as much as any other skier in the world: “Mikaela lives, eats, sleeps and breathes ski racing. She wins a race, then she goes right to the gym.”
“You don’t want to be second-guessing yourself on the way down,” Mikaela told Outside Magazine. “And you don’t want to be skiing at 110 percent…. One of my theories is that if I just train more than everybody and I’m strong and I watch more video and understand the sport better, my 90 percent will be enough.”
Mikaela learned early on that too little sleep can hurt a performance. Though, surprisingly, it wasn’t a lesson she learned on the slopes. When she was in middle school, Mikaela went to a slumber party the night before a soccer game. They stayed up late and it took a toll on how Mikaela played the next day.
Now, she’s in bed by 9 pm and up by 7 am, giving her a solid 10 hours.
But the sleep component isn’t limited to a good night’s rest. “The first thought I’ll have [in the morning] is: I cannot wait for my nap today,” she told Outside Magazine. “I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
“Sir Naps A Lot” as she’s affectionately known can squeeze in her daily nap pretty much anywhere, be it a chairlift or a ski lodge floor.
Mikaela studied The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey, a book that is not only one of her mom’s favorites but was also taught by Mikaela’s former headmaster at Burke Mountain Academy.
“The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills,” writes Gallwey. “He discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.”
The “secret” referenced in The Inner Game of Tennis was reinforced by sports psychologist and family friend Lauren Loberg, who Mikaela talked with for help with her anxiety during the 2016-17 season.
After a particularly difficult training session, Time says Mikaela told Loberg, “I was trying really hard but not able to do things that I wanted.” Loberg’s response? To stop talking about trying: “If you think about it, trying is the opposite of relaxing.”
“She just reminded me of all the things I knew but kind of forgot,” Shiffrin told NBC Sports of her sessions with Loberg. “She reminded me of things like I’m in control of my emotions.”
5) Positive self-talk
After the failure to finish in Zagreb – and the subsequent relief of not facing questions about the winning streak that had finally ended – Mikaela had a realization.
“I realized that I was totally letting everybody else’s expectations rule my own thinking, which is not something I’ve ever done.… After that race, it got better. It was like, who cares what the media is saying?”
“No matter what people are telling you, everything depends upon how you perceive it. I am in control of my emotions. This does not need to bother me. I can still make today a good day.”
This kind of positive self-talk is a big part of Mikaela’s process, which she shared with Time.
There is this note to herself:
“You want me to say something that I can’t. I don’t do guarantees, and I’m not gonna start now just so you can bet on me. I have no idea how I’m gonna feel on race day. I only know that right now, I’m happy, I’m skiing fast, and I’m having FUN…. I can also tell you I’m equipped to handle dang near anything that can possibly come my way.”
“There will be more, of everything. More sweat. More fluorescent-lit hallways of constant dreaming that I will come out having achieved my goals, having looked like I know what I was doing, with no end in sight, aside from the dimmest flicker of firelight that reminds me to believe that I deserve to have faith in my dreams. I will have good days. As long as I am willing to have the bad.”
“Value love, not triumph. Remember moments, not victories. Count memories, not medals.”
You may have also seen the words “I am” written on her ski glove, a constant reminder for Mikaela to finish that sentence with positive affirmations about herself.
6) Lowering expectations
Going into the PeongChang Olympics, Mikaela had hopes of participating in all five alpine skiing races. After her gold medal win in Sochi in 2014, Mikaela said, “Now I’m dreaming of the next Olympics, winning five gold medals. Which sounds really crazy. Sorry I just admitted that to you all.”
At PyeongChang, she dropped the super-G after weather delays pushed events closer together, but she still planned on racing in the other four alpine skiing events. She won the gold in giant slalom. Then placed fourth in slalom the very next day. She was still planning on participating in both downhill and super combined, but weather forced a rescheduling that put the two events just one day after the other.
In a statement released by the U.S. Olympic Committee, Mikaela said, “As much as I wanted to compete in the Olympic downhill, with the schedule change it’s important for me to focus my energy on preparing for the combined.”
For years, it was Coldplay. More recently, it’s Eminem. Specifically, “Guts Over Fear.”
“When I hear it, I go to this really dark place in my mind, where I’m really aggressive,” she tells Sports Illustrated of her pre-race ritual. “I feel almost insane. I can’t imagine what everybody must be thinking when they look at me.”
While that may sound like just the opposite of relaxing, it also sounds like a good way to channel performance anxiety. Of how she felt after listening to “Guts Over Fear” before a December 2017 race in which she skied well, Mikaela said this:
“I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t worried, I wasn’t feeling any pressure to accomplish anything. And nobody expected me to do anything. I was completely free…. I found such a happy, aggressive, enjoyable place….
“I actually started to enjoy racing again and it’s been…so…much…fun.”
8) Word searches
“I find word searches to be calming,” Mikaela told The Wall Street Journal of the pre-race ritual. This is evidently no surprise to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock.
“We know that in stressful situations, when people have practiced skills to perfection, one reason why athletes can choke is that they start attending to the details of performance in the moment,” Bielock told the WSJ. “Whatever you can do to prevent yourself from this overattention can be beneficial.”
“Normally I race my mom, actually,” Mikaela told Colorado Public Radio in 2015, “so we have two of the same word search puzzles and we can’t look at each other’s, and we basically set the clock and see who can finish first….
“Normally I win…probably mostly because I spent a year just practicing word searches behind her back so I could finally beat her…. But every now and then she gets me by a word or two and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m off my game.'”
9) Looking at the bigger picture
Win or lose, Mikaela keeps things in perspective. Like she expressed in an Instagram post after her fourth-place slalom finish in PyeongChang:
“I keep thinking that maybe if I was able to control my emotions more after the Giant Slalom, I would have had more energy for the Slalom and maybe I could have put more into that race, maybe I would have had better control of my nerves, maybe. But after 5 days of schedule changes and waiting to race, and without the day between those races to reset and recharge, I wasn’t able to manage it. And you know what? I wouldn’t change that for the world….
“I wouldn’t take back my emotions or excitement after the GS in order to have better shot at a SL medal too. You know, it’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics. It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze.”