Why Did Mikaela Shiffrin Fail, and Why Do We All Fail?


Ms. Beilock is the president of Barnard College and the author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have to,” a book about cognitive science.

It was both astonishing and sadly ordinary to watch a two-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist skier slip — not once, not twice, but three times — at the Beijing Olympics. The reality is that no matter how thoroughly we prepare ourselves, how concentrated we are, or what mental exercises we perform to prepare, these things happen.

Mikaela Shiffrin appeared perplexed as she spoke with media after slipping on a gate and failing to finish the women’s Alpine combined race on Thursday, her third disaster at the Games.

She informed them, “I didn’t sense any pressure there.” “I mean, there’s always pressure, but I didn’t feel — I just felt loose and easy, as if I knew what I was doing: focused, fantastic skiing.”

“And it’s still not working.”

When you’re choking in a high-pressure situation, it can feel like you’re out of your body. That’s because it is in certain ways. According to my research, well-practiced athletic performances, such as those seen in Olympic sports, rely nearly exclusively on bodily memory and repetition rather than conscious thought. The top athletes in the world have trained themselves to remove consciousness from the equation when they’re in the zone, but when that wall of consciousness is pierced, everything comes crashing down.

It’s tough to say what caused Shiffrin’s stumbles, but with each Olympic season, the crushing strain we put on our stars grows more apparent. As a result, some athletes are opting out or making decisions that favor their mental and physical well-being.

The strain we all place on ourselves reflects this phenomenon. Humans are biologically hard-wired to desire a sense of control and assurance over the future. However, this comes with the risk of becoming overly focused on the specifics of our performance, which might prevent us from performing at our best.

Instead of concentrating on what we want to accomplish — at tomorrow’s board meeting, that single cocktail party, a crucial exam — our minds are obsessed with situations to avoid. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help us prepare and instead encourages us to pay too much attention to aspects that should be left out of our awareness – noise.

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This noise — the details we obsess about — can detract from the physical memory that athletes rely on, as well as the autopilot tasks that make up our days for the rest of us. According to studies, even conversing on the phone while walking slows and disturbs our gait. Our ability to perform at our best is hampered when our brain is processing complicated emotions and circumstances.

This is something that many of us are dealing with right now. Since the onset of the epidemic, adult sadness and anxiety have increased by 5.1 percent. We should be especially aware of cognitive loads connected with grief, loss, and overall uncertainty about what is to come if a phone call is enough to impair our execution of simple activities. All of these factors contribute to depression and anxiety, and they have a significant impact on our capacity to accomplish even the most mundane, well-practiced tasks.

It’s possible that the heavy hum of sadness and stress is getting in the way of your regular Saturday tennis matches, keeping focused at work, or being present with your loved ones.

Our campus community at Barnard College, where I am president, has seen numerous waves of public and private sadness, and I’ve seen firsthand how mourning can send our brains on a roller-coaster journey of bad days and good days.

Even for those of us who aren’t Olympic champions, clinging to our most recent failures is a typical occurrence, according to the recency effect, a cognitive bias that elevates recent events above previous ones. This natural propensity sends the wrong signals to our brain, causing us to forget how skilled, certified, or qualified we are. When it comes to their performance, the top athletes practice looking beyond the binary of winning and losing and focusing less on moments of failure. To get a better understanding of the situation.

Shiffrin is only 26 years old, according to Bill Pennington of the New York Times, and is a remarkable talent in the midst of a stellar career. Her missteps this year may appear spectacular now, but they don’t have to kill her chances of becoming one of the greatest skiers of all time, as he noted this week: “Shiffrin might easily still have eight to ten more Olympic race opportunities.”

He went on to say that she could compete in 35 more World Cup events, giving her plenty of opportunities to break her current career-high of 86 victories (she has 73 wins under her belt already). If all goes according to plan, Shiffrin will leave the 2022 Winter Games as only the second woman in Olympic history to compete in all six individual events – an accomplishment I hope she will remember fondly when she thinks of Beijing.

Remember to play the entire movie on repeat, not just the clip of your most recent blunder, as I advise my kids. I’m hoping that this will alleviate the sting of failure when they face a failed exam, a botched job interview, or a breakup. Those factors will be secondary to their willingness to try again.

Sian Beilock (@sianbeilock), president of Barnard College, is a cognitive scientist and author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have to.”