Experts discuss Mikaela Shiffrin and how to overcome a crisis of confidence: 'It happens to everyone'

Mikaela Shiffrin of Team United States falls during the Women's Giant Slalom on day three of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 07, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
Tom Pennington | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Mikaela Shiffrin's confidence appears to be shaken. If it can happen to her, a three-time Olympic medalist, it can happen to anyone.

The U.S. alpine skier's back-to-back disqualifications at the 2022 Winter Olympics left the sports world in shock this week after Shiffrin failed to finish two of her signature events. In an emotional interview following her second disqualification on Wednesday, Shiffrin told reporters that the setbacks had made her "second guess the last 15 years, everything I thought I knew about my own skiing and slalom and racing mentality."

While athletes around the world have offered Shiffrin an outpouring of support, one question that remains is whether she can recover her confidence to bring home a medal from her third-straight Winter Olympics. She still has multiple chances remaining, the first of which will come in Friday's super-G race, the U.S. ski team announced on Thursday.

Shiffrin has competed in every Winter Olympics since 2014, taking home two gold medals and one silver, while also winning more World Cup slalom races than any skier ever. At just 26 years old, she's already had a distinguished career and faced massive expectations – and pressure – around her performance in Beijing.

The fact that an Olympic champion like Shiffrin can doubt herself, even with a track record of massive success, is proof that anyone can, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock tells CNBC Make It.

"Even the best athletes sometimes don't have their best days. And I hope, for the average person, that gives them, actually, a little reassurance that no one performs at their best all the time," says Beilock, who is also the president of Barnard College at Columbia University and author of "Choke," a book that examines why people can stumble under pressure.

So, how do you recover from a crisis of confidence?

Remember: Everyone has setbacks

Whether you're a record-breaking athlete or an everyday person trying to get ahead in your career, setbacks are inevitable. You have to learn how to handle failure.

"No one wants to lose, no one wants to fail. But I think those that are seeking success have the ability to also understand that failure is a part of it," says Hillary Cauthen, a psychologist and co-leader for an executive task force at the Association of Applied Sport Psychology.

If failure is inevitable, we all need to cut ourselves some slack and practice self-compassion when we don't perform up to our potential, Beilock says, and "[Shiffrin] shows that it happens to everyone."

Deborah Grayson Riegel, an author and management expert who has taught at Wharton and Columbia's business schools, says that what happened to Shiffrin showcases how everyone can have both superhuman and human abilities.

Even though Shiffrin is someone who may defy gravity on her skies, Grayson Riegel said, she can also fall short of expectations. And, that's as true for Olympic athletes as it is for the rest of us.

"Keep in mind that even in areas of your life where you feel superhuman, you've got to expect that you are still human and will have failures and setbacks," Grayson Riegel says.

Think about past successes

Even in the sting of the moment, where it can be hard to give yourself credit, try to find a moment to reflect on everything you've accomplished up until that point.

We're usually our own worst critics, Beilock says, but that can do more harm than good. Taking stock of all your past successes and triumphs can help begin the process of rebuilding your confidence, even in the wake of a huge disappointment.

"[Shiffrin] should be looking at her entire career and the amazing successes she's had," Beilock adds. "This is something that I hope that she's doing, as she thinks about what's ahead."

On the flip side, Grayson Riegel recommends not only thinking about the times you succeeded, but also reflecting on the times that you successfully recovered from a failure.

"While some people would say [to Shiffrin], 'Take a look at all the times you made it down the mountain successfully,'" Grayson Riegel said. "I would say, 'Take a look at all the times you fell and got back up. What can you learn from that in this moment?'"

'Grieve the loss'

In our culture, people tend to ignore their emotions in light of failure, Grayson Riegel said, and instead people might push past it and bury how they feel.

But it's important, she adds, that Shiffrin and anyone else facing failure will "let yourself grieve the loss" and "acknowledge your feelings in the moment."

As hard as it may be to hear Shiffrin doubt herself, perhaps the skier's acknowledgment of her own frustration was exactly what she needed to begin the process of moving on.

"The fact that I'm frustrated, angry, sad, disappointed, it is reminding me that there was something important to me that I cared about that I wasn't able to accomplish, and that's really important information," Grayson Riegel adds.

"Think about what didn't work, and which of those are within my power to change, then I would think about what it is that I need to move forward," Grayson Riegel says. "Is it time, money, energy, other people, encouragement, instruction? Get really clear about what I need to move forward."

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