The Harsh Treatment of Mikaela Shiffrin Is Further Proof That There's Way Too Much Pressure on Athletes
On February 6, 2022, Mikaela Shiffrin shared a video on social media detailing her journey from her days as a 5-year-old aspiring ski racer with sights set on being "the best in the world" to the two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup alpine skier she is today. Although it's a paid partnership with Bose, the video in and of itself is poignant. But the caption alongside the clip? Well, that gives it even more of an impact: "Yeah, I am human," writes Shiffrin. It's an important message, especially in light of what the 26-year-old is experiencing now nearly two since originally sharing the post.
On Thursday, Shiffrin received her third "Do Not Finish" (DNF) of the Beijing Winter Olympics after crashing out during the slalom portion of the women's combined event. While she can — and, according to Olympics.com, will — compete in the team event on Saturday, her most recent performance made it official: The winter sports phenom will leave the Games without an individual medal. It's an absolutely crushing blow to any professional athlete who's worked their butt off to make it to Bejing, but one could argue it's especially so for Shiffrin. Expectations for the alpine skiing superstar were extremely high, but her best showing was a ninth-place finish, and her record at the 2022 Games includes two disqualifications, according to the Associated Press. She might be considered the most successful skier in World Cup history, but above all, she is human.
"Beyond walking away from the Games with no medals — no individual medals — the most disappointing thing is I had multiple opportunities to ski slalom on this track," said Shiffrin following Thursday's DNF, as reported by the AP. "And I, well, you know, failed in all of them."
In many ways, what Shiffrin is facing is universally relatable. Everyone has failed big in life — and sometimes those failures happen when everything has lined up to amount to, what should be, a success. The difference, though, is that most folks don't fail while the world is watching and commenting. That feeling of not meeting expectations you've placed on yourself is incredibly difficult for anyone. But adding that additional layer of not meeting the expectations an entire country has placed on you? That's unimaginably tough, especially for someone like Shiffrin, who's previously opened up about her experience with performance anxiety.
In today's age of social media and constant feedback, those expectations affect athletes in new — and often damaging — ways. Shiffrin isn't just dealing with the fallout from a disappointing performance; she's also facing incredibly hurtful and harmful backlash. On Thursday evening, the athlete detailed the hate that's been hurled her way as of late on her Instagram Stories (which she later posted on her grid and Twitter as well).
"Get up because you can, because you like what you do when it's not infested with the people who have so much apparent hate for you. Just get up. It's not always easy, but it's also not the end of the world to fail. Fail twice. Fail 5 times. At the Olympics," she wrote. "Why do I keep coming back? Gosh knows it hurts more than it feels good lately. I come back because those first 9 turns today were spectacular, really heaven. That's where I'm meant to be."
Shiffrin also shared some of the messages she's received: "Choker," "can't handle the pressure," "Your time is over, retire," Dumb bitch can't even do one thing she's supposed to do right," among many others.
Seeing the words people have thrown her way is seriously eye-opening. Sure, over the past few years, professional athletes have been increasingly more open about the immense pressures they face on the regular. (And TG for that and for those in the spotlight who've spoken up.) But if Shiffrin's post is any indication, society needs to be way more mindful about the fact that they're still, in the skier's own words again, human. They're not robots. They don't exist solely for the glory or for the wins. And they absolutely don't deserve to be publicly shamed, hated, or belittled when they don't meet ridiculously high expectations. (Related: Sloane Stephens Gets Candid About the Pressures of Being a Female Athlete In the Media)
Now, given the weight our culture places on professional athletics, there's no denying that when you sign up to be a pro athlete, you also sign up to be somewhat in the public eye. And this, in turn, can open you up to a larger group of people, watching and commenting on every twist and turn of your performance. But that still does not give anyone the right to place an ungodly amount of pressure on a stranger and demand they meet your enormous expectations, which, let's be honest, you might've set without ever trying to slip into a ski boot (only to realize it can be one of the more painfully challenging tasks out there) nevermind scale a mountain in negative-degree weather.
So just because some might argue that unsolicited pressure from strangers might be just part of life as a professional athlete does not mean they deserve it (spoiler alert: they don't) or aren't affected by it. In fact, the pressure the public puts on athletes can — and often does — have serious consequences, according to Terri Bacow, Ph.D., New York City-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety.
"You feel an expectation from the world to repeat the standard of excellence, which was excruciatingly difficult to achieve in the first place. This makes people feel trapped into the pressure to be a certain way, with no flexibility and room for failure," says Bacow. "For example, Mikaela recently spoke about getting into her head and overthinking [and] being open and honest about it set a wonderful example for others with the same struggles and fears. People underestimate the difficulty — the Herculean physical challenges and the cognitive and emotional challenge of this level of performance. Managing others' expectations can be killer."
Shiffrin is, sadly, not the first young, female athlete to see this type of backlash — and not just in history, but during these very Olympic Games. It's also fallen on U.S.-born figure skater Zhu Yi, who gave up U.S. citizenship to compete for China only to face an influx of hate from the very nation she was representing after she fell during an event. This backlash inspired conversation about the way in which countries treat their own athletes when expectations are not met. And then, of course, there's Simone Biles, who stepped away from the Tokyo Games to protect her mental health and was accused of being "selfish" and "a quitter" when, in reality, doing so made her even more of a G.O.A.T.
"The general public is likely not aware of the immense pressure these individuals [already] face, including all the hard work and grueling effort and toll of not just pushing their bodies to complete immensely difficult athletic endeavors, but also being in the spotlight constantly," says Bacow. "It is a vulnerable place to be in when one is subject to adoration and also criticism and hatred — this is not easy, at all, and can absolutely affect one's mental health."
Although Shiffrin hasn't explicitly spoken about the state of her mental health as of late, Biles (who, BTW, has sent her support to the skier on social media) recently spoke to the cognitive challenges that come with being an Olympian. "Honestly, you can't judge somebody's mental health through a platform, so I hope she's [Shiffrin] doing okay," she told TODAY on Friday. "Because it's a really tough place, especially during a pandemic, you're going to compete at the Olympics, and America is kind of like gold medal or bust, and so that puts a lot of pressure on ourselves." (Related: Olympian Chloe Kim Is Learning to Cope with the 'Pressure to Be Perfect All the Time')
Not surprisingly, Bacow believes social media has made the pressures these athletes face even more damaging to their mental health, saying, "I really feel for Mikaela Shiffrin...no one should have failure repeatedly on display and be criticized for it when you are giving it your all and trying so, so hard."
"Olympians are massively hard on themselves to begin with. Their own baseline of self-criticism stems from pushing themselves to be the best. If you tag on the criticism of millions/billions of spectators, this is crushing and debilitating," says Bacow. "From a mental health perspective, there are intense emotions of embarrassment and humiliation, which are incredibly damaging to self-esteem. It is incredibly anxiety-provoking to have so many people witness your failure on such a public scale."
So let's get something straight: Shiffrin having a bad run or two or twenty at the Olympics isn't an invitation for anyone to step up and start hurling cruelties simply because she, a human, slipped up (which, ICYMI, is an integral part of the human condition). As the athlete so eloquently put it when reflecting on her recent performance on Instagram: "Being here [the Games] can really hurt too." And you can bet that's likely due largely in part to all. of. the. pressure.
"It's important to remember that Olympic athletes are human beings [and] like all humans, they have feelings, emotions, stress, struggles, just like anyone else — and all humans experience things that impact mental health," says Bacow.
Only Shiffrin can consider her performance a failure or not. And while she's used that word a few times thus far, the fact that she's still slipping into spandex, strapping veritable sticks to her feet, and speeding down mountains despite all of the expectations, unsolicited commentary, and their impact on her mental wellbeing shows that she's anything but the f-word.