Mikaela Shiffrin’s Swift, if Unplanned, Ascent to World Champion

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Mikaela Shiffrin’s swift, if unplanned, ascent to World Champion hasn’t followed the usual pattern:

Not surprisingly, any predetermined strategy was remarkably elemental and always focused on process, not results. Jeff and Eileen, former college-level racers, believed in basic tenets, like keeping a light race schedule for their children as they loaded up on practice days filled with deliberate, skills-based drills and exercises.

And, they said, it was imperative to keep family close by.

Yet, these were controversial theories in the ski racing community — both when Mikaela was starting out and when she advanced to the World Cup.

Youth coaches were livid when Mikaela, faster than skiers several years older, chose to stay close to home to practice with her family instead of chasing the prestige of distant championships. Several years later, Eileen said, the United States ski team was adamantly against her accompaniment of Mikaela on the World Cup circuit in Europe. Eileen went anyway, and the Shiffrins paid for it for three years.

“Our plan produced the first 17-year-old World Cup champion the U.S. has ever had,” Eileen said. “They should thank us for our $500,000 donation to the U.S. ski team.”

The message, the Shiffrins insist, is that their approach, which stressed skill development and shunned goal setting, and always involved the family, has been the secret. If there was a secret.

“If you look at it, what we always sought was normalcy,” Eileen said.

Jeff recalled: “These top-level coaches would tell me that Mikaela was just ripping up a racecourse. And I would say: ‘Yeah, I agree, but she’s just 9 years old.’ And they’d say, ‘What are your plans for her?’ And I’d answer: ‘Plans? Well, tomorrow she’s trying out for a part as the angel in the Christmas play.’


When Taylor did not make a travel soccer team with all his new friends, the reaction of the Shiffrins was emblematic of their approach to almost everything.

“My mom went on Amazon and bought about 10 different World Cup soccer DVDs,” Mikaela said. “And she bought 12-foot-high rebound nets and bungee cords and all these contraptions so we could set up our own soccer complex in the backyard. Every day that summer, we had our own soccer camp for six or eight hours.”

Mikaela recalled that they bought a unicycle because Eileen had read that it was good for balance, which she considered a pivotal athletic skill. The Shiffrin children also learned to juggle to improve their coordination.

“We then started going around our block, which was two miles long, riding the unicycle and juggling at the same time,” Mikaela said. “And if I was doing that, then Taylor would be behind me dribbling a soccer ball as he ran around the block.”

Eileen was confident it would pay off, even as she worried what people were saying about her children.

“You would see the neighbors coming out to watch the Shiffrins going around the block juggling on a unicycle,” Eileen said. “I’m sure they thought we were completely nuts.”

But the next summer, Taylor and Mikaela made their travel soccer teams.

As Eileen recalled: “The coach said to me: ‘What did you do? They’re great now.’ And I said, ‘You don’t really want to know.’ ”

Jeff said: “Some people might call our approach intense. But it’s not, because the motivation is not to be better than other people at something. The motivation comes from a belief that almost anything can be mastered if you’re willing to put in the hours to master it. If you’re going to do something, do it as best as you can.”


“I believe there is always a faster way to do things,” she said in September after playing tennis with her mother. “Whether it’s learning to hit a backhand in tennis, learning high school chemistry or getting better at ski racing, I really believe with hard work and analytic preparation, you can skip a few steps and find the faster way.”

It is something of a family motto: Be faster.

Daniel Coyle recommends this DIY approach because it is aligned with the way skill actually develops — which is not through splashy public accomplishments.

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