Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin on Dealing with Performance Anxiety: 'I Never Expected' It Would Affect Me

Mikaela Shiffrin spoke to the crowd at Colorado's Nottingham Park about how art has influenced her career and her mental health

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With so much of the country still on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin recently opened up about finding resources that can help those who are feeling the weight of these difficult times.

The 25-year-old joined a Colorado crowd through video chat on Sunday to talk about art and how she has used it to support her own mental health during her career and after recently losing her grandmother and father.

"Art has had such a positive impact on my life — not just my life, but my career and my mind, my whole mindset," Shiffrin told the crowd at Nottingham Park for the He(art) of Vail Valley’s Youth event hosted by Mountain Youth. "I've learned some things along the way through ski racing that have translated into every aspect of my life, and I think could help others in their own lives."

"My family has faced a lot of loss this year, and adding the situation with COVID on top of that, sometimes it's really hard not to feel completely helpless," she said. "I think a lot of people are feeling that way. What I've been realizing throughout this process of learning how to live in a world with a pandemic, especially after losing my nana in October and my dad in February, is that it's okay not to feel okay. It's okay not to be happy all the time. It's okay to feel helpless. Sometimes it's all okay."

Shiffrin said one of the first times she realized the importance of prioritizing her mental health was when she experienced performance anxiety following the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"I would get to the start, and totally freeze," the two-time Olympic gold medalist said. "My eyes would start watering. I'd feel like I had to gag or like my throat was closing and I couldn't breathe anymore. This happened almost every single race for an entire season, about three minutes before I was actually supposed to go and race my run."

"I never expected that I would be somebody who was completely petrified by pressure and by performance anxiety," Shiffrin continued. "But I went through a phase of that, and I had to learn how to control my mind and my emotions and stress."

Mikaela Shiffrin
Mountain Youth

Even after she earned gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and solidified herself as a dominant star in the skiing world, Shiffrin said the success heightened the pressure and anxiety she experienced. This battle with anxiety eventually led her to look into how to better control her mind and emotions — something she's still working at today, she admits.

"It's a learning process, and I'm still learning and building the tools that are going to help me deal with the ups and downs that life and my skiing career has to offer," Shiffrin told the audience. "Something I always try to remember is that I feel these emotions because I love what I do, because I care. And that's not a bad thing, but sometimes it can really hurt."

"It's important to seek out the things that you care about because then your passion becomes like a pair of wings that will carry you through the most difficult times and give you a sense of motivation and determination that feels like a tailwind propelling you along, and really allowing you to soar," she said.

To unwind, Shiffrin often turns to her favorite TV show, Friends, or music. She plays the piano or guitar, which she learned 10 years ago when a friend showed her chords. But these instruments don't just provide her an outlet for stress or frustration — they've proven to be something even more intimate than that.

"One of my favorite things to do is to take a song that I think is great and strip it down to my own acoustic version," Shiffrin, a native of Vail, Colorado, explained. "And it's like, I can take a trip into the mind of whoever wrote that song and feel what they might have been feeling at the moment when they wrote it."

"It's like looking at a picture that you took from some memory, some experience, and you look at that picture and you can transport yourself back in time to that moment," she said. "Except for I get to look at the picture, a snapshot of somebody else's mind. That's something I really fell in love with. That form of expression and being able to experience someone else's expression."

But you don't have to play an instrument to benefit from music, Shiffrin said. You can simply listen to it.

"Music is a really powerful tool that can help us feel things more deeply," she said. "It can also help us to drive and control our own mindset and emotions, or it can take control of us."

RELATED VIDEO: Skier Mikaela Shiffrin Wants to Remain a Down-to-Earth Dynamo as She Chases Olympic Gold (Again)

Shiffrin encouraged those in attendance to find their own purpose, and their own art, to help them through the rest of the pandemic.

"Right now you're being tested for your strength. And working on those strengths is only going to make the rest of your life something that you can manage so much easier," she said. "So find your forms of art and they'll help you, whether it's winning an Olympic medal, whether it's passing the math tests, or just getting through a day in your office cubicle, every part of it is real."

"Every part of that is valid," she continued. "It's all life and it's yours. So you can make it what you want it to be. You can make it something that you're passionate about and you can have tools that will help you get through it all."

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