Watching a two-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist skier stumble — not once, not twice, but three times — at the Beijing Olympics was both extraordinary and painfully ordinary. No matter how well we prepare ourselves, how focused we are, what mental exercises we do to get ready, the reality is: These things happen.
Mikaela Shiffrin herself seemed baffled as she talked to reporters after tripping on a gate and failing to finish the women’s Alpine combined race on Thursday, her third disastrous mishap at the Games.
“I didn’t feel pressure there,” she told them. “I mean, there’s always pressure, but I didn’t feel — I just felt loose and relaxed, like I knew my plan: focused, good skiing, and I was doing it.”
“And it still didn’t work.”
The experience of choking in high-pressure situations can often feel like an out-of-body experience. That’s because in some ways, it is. My research on this topic has found that well-practiced athletic performances, such as those we see in Olympic competitions, rely almost entirely on physical memory and repetition, rather than conscious thinking. When they’re in the zone, the best athletes in the world have trained themselves to take consciousness out of the picture — but when that wall of consciousness is breached, it all collapses.
It’s impossible to know exactly what led to Shiffrin’s stumbles, but the crushing pressure we put on our heroes becomes more apparent with each Olympic season. That’s why some athletes are responding by opting out, or making choices that prioritize their mental and physical health.
The phenomenon is mirrored by the pressure all of us put on ourselves. Humans are biologically hard-wired to crave a sense of control and certainty over what will happen in the future. But with that comes a tendency to overfixate on the details of our performance, which can get in the way of achieving our best.
Instead of focusing on what we hope to achieve — at tomorrow’s board meeting, at that cocktail party we’re braving solo, at a major exam — our brain is preoccupied by running through scenarios to avoid. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help prepare us, and only invites an overattention to details best left outside conscious awareness — noise.
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This noise — the details we fixate upon — can distract from the physical memory athletes rely on, and for the rest of us, the autopilot tasks that make up our days. Studies have found that simply talking on the phone while walking actually slows down and disrupts our gait. When our brain is processing complex emotions and stressors, it hinders our ability to function at our best.
That’s relevant for many of us right now. Adult depression and anxiety has climbed by 5.1 percent since the start of the pandemic. If a phone call is enough to disrupt our performance of basic tasks, we should be especially mindful of cognitive loads associated with grief, loss and general uncertainty about what is to come. All are major triggers for depression and anxiety, and profoundly affect our ability to perform even the most routine, practiced tasks.
If you’ve found yourself struggling through your usual Saturday tennis matches, staying focused at work, or being present around your loved ones, it could be the heavy hum of grief and worry getting in the way.
At Barnard College, where I am president, our campus community has survived various waves of public and private grief, and I’ve experienced firsthand how mourning can take our brain on a roller-coaster ride of bad days and OK days.
Even for those of us who aren’t Olympic champions, holding tightly on to our latest failures is a common phenomenon, thanks to the recency effect — a cognitive bias that prioritizes our most recent experiences over past ones. This natural tendency sends our brain the wrong messages, and makes us forget how skilled, credentialed or qualified we really are. The key trick that the best athletes practice is to look beyond the binary of winning and losing when it comes to their performance, and dwell less on moments of failure. To see the bigger picture.
As the New York Times sportswriter Bill Pennington pointed out, Shiffrin is only 26 years old, a phenomenal talent in the middle of a stellar career. Her stumbles this year might seem spectacular now, but they don’t have to doom her chances of going down in history as one of the greatest skiers ever, as he wrote this week: “Shiffrin could easily still have eight to 10 more Olympic race opportunities.” He went on to explain that she could also compete in 35 more World Cup races, giving her plenty of time to beat the current career record of 86 wins (she has 73 wins under her belt already). If things go as planned, Shiffrin will leave the 2022 Winter Games as the second woman in Olympics history to ski in all six individual events — an achievement that I hope she will look back on with pride when she remembers Beijing.
As I tell my students, remember to play your whole movie — not just the clip of your latest stumble on repeat. I hope that will lessen failure’s sticking power as they inevitably encounter a bombed exam, a botched job interview, a breakup. Those things won’t matter nearly as much as their willingness to try again.
Sian Beilock (@sianbeilock), a cognitive scientist and the author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it Right When You Have To,” is president of Barnard College.
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