Gold-medal attitude: Coaching Mikaela Shiffrin when she was 8
In perfect form: Mikaela Shiffrin.
Well before Mikaela Shiffrin won any Olympic gold medals, led the World Cup overall standings, and was widely considered one of the world’s fastest women on skis, she was the best 8-year-old racer in New Hampshire. And I happened to be one of her coaches on the Ford Sayre Ski Team.
It was 2003 and I was a college student and part-time coach, just having quit Division I ski racing to have more time as a Dartmouth student. No more early morning training and long hours at the gym. I wanted to stay out late with friends, pretend to study in the library, and do all of the things that college students do. But having spent much of my life as a competitive ski racer, I missed it immediately. Thankfully, an email came soon after my hasty retirement: a local team needed a coach. It was perfect: I stayed connected to the sport I loved, but without the full-time commitment, and could pass on my love of racing to a new generation of skiers.
While I don’t remember the exact moment I met Shiffrin, it was only a few weeks into the season when I consulted my co-coach and mentor. “She’s not just good,” I started, “but, like, the best ever, right?” He was where I am now, with more than 15 years of coaching experience, and nodded in agreement. We watched this rare, once-in-a-lifetime talent, and hoped to do it justice.
We were all fairly certain that one day Shiffrin would be on the world’s stage, not only because of her top-level racing skills that she executed at so young an age, but because of her attitude. She came to the hill each morning with a hunger for improvement that put her exponentially ahead of her teammates and the competition. She was good in a way that even my contemporaries Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety and Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who still race for — and win — Olympic medals, never matched. As kids, these skiers were great for their ages. They crushed the competition by a few seconds a run (like winning a soccer match by seven goals). But Shiffrin had a grace and poise that matched World Cup competitors and won races by as much as 8 seconds per run, the equivalent to lapping fellow runners in the mile. Even given these winning margins, she still wanted to be better.
“But what else should I do?” begged the tiny 8-year-old, her long blonde hair trailing out of her helmet, seeking more advice, more drills, more ways to improve. While other athletes listened carefully and focused enough on my coaching advice to apply it during their practice runs, they also occasionally acted like kids. They spaced out, sometimes forgot what they were working on, and certainly looked for opportunities to free-ski — heading off the race course and into the trees for a little of powder and jumps.
Not Shiffrin. She stayed laser-focused on how to tweak her hand position to be more aerodynamic; what she could do with her knees to keep them in a stronger position; how to improve, little by little, piece by piece. Every. Single. Run. She was, for lack of a word in the English language that doesn’t understate it, intense. By all reports, she’s still like that today at 23.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
Naomi Tomky (wearing black hat) with the Big Green Dartmouth ski team.
As if her skiing and focus weren’t enough, she was also so coachable. She could consistently take, compute and apply advice as she absorbed the ever-increasing pressure from every angle, including her family, who became her de facto coaches. She ingested all the directions, the energy, the expectations that everyone piled onto her. As her team coach, I helped Shiffrin improve while attempting to downplay her focus on winning. She left a better skier, thanks a little to me, but mainly to her. I could coach skiing, but couldn’t teach kids to have the kind of desire that Shiffrin had.
“Did you know she’d be an Olympic champion?” I’m often asked, when people learn that I coached the golden girl. Sure, but with a caveat: If she could steel herself mentally to handle the pressure she placed on herself, and the burden of the expectations of those around her.
Today, I coach at Team Alpental Snoqualmie, where racers spend 16 hours a week on the slopes. It is not uncommon to see overzealous parents subject their kids to additional hours of video-watching and their own (often divergent) ideas of what the kids should be focusing on.
Most skiers are not Shiffin. I see what happens to the other 99.99 percent of kids subjected to the double intensity of ski-racing coaches and over-involved, high-pressure parents who unload the weight of their own hopes and dreams onto their children. It’s not pretty.
Preteens pushed too hard often break, like a rubber band stretched too far. They go through the motions, showing up for practice, but without heart and drive. It looks like lazy skiing and inattentive listening, and can lead to thrown equipment, even injury.
Most of these over-coached kids will one day tire of the intensity, and their parents will grow weary of pushing their children to achieve the athletic dreams they didn’t. Most of those kids will come away with more resentment than medals. The ones with staying power, some of whom have found their way to the national development team — one level below the Olympic squad — pushed back and carved their own path. They wove fun and lighthearted play into their training days. They relaxed on the chairlift, hugged at the finish line. You see, you have to love ski racing as you do it, not just when you win.
Mikaela Shiffrin's mental strength set her apart from her peers, and from most people. More than her perfect turns, it was her tenacity in the face of intensity that earned her gold in Pyeongchang. For the rest of us mere mortals, perfect pole plants go best with peals of laughter.