Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Challenge Your Ski Racer...the Right Way
We live in an achievement culture in which many parents feel pressure to "fast forward" their children's development as ski racers (and students, for that matter). Unfortunately, in their efforts to speed up their children's progress, parents are in danger of setting them up for failure and slowing rather than speeding up their development. By placing your children in training and race situations in which they are overmatched, you may be inadvertently inhibiting, rather than facilitating, their motivation, enjoyment, and achievement in our great sport.
An essential question to ask as parents is: Why would you put your children in situations in which they are overmatched? One reason may be that you have an inaccurate perception of their capabilities. Let's be honest here. Parents are decidedly poor judges of their children's abilities; my experience suggests that most parents seem to believe that their children are the next ski-racing superstars. You may use peer comparisons in your judgments. You may think, "My daughter is the best racer on our team, so she's ready for the next level of races." Your own ego and achievement needs can cause you to overmatch your children. Because of your emotional (and financial) investment in your children's ski racing, you may have difficulty accepting that your child is not the next Lindsey Vonn or Ted Ligety. And just wanting the best for your children may push you to push them too hard, too fast, and too far.
Wanting to accelerate development to get "a leg up" in the competition is another common reason why parents overmatch their children. In our culture where competitiveness and achievement are so revered and rewarded, you may feel pressure to give your children any advantage by putting them on what you believe is the fast track to success. This urgency shows itself in getting your children involved in conditioning programs for which they are not sufficiently physically mature, too many days on snow, and having more equipment than they need. You may also feel the need to "keep up with the Joneses;" if you aren't doing as much as other parents in your race program, then you must be a bad parent and your child will suffer from your "neglect."
The reality is though that development can't be rushed; your children have to be allowed to develop at their own pace. Some young ski racers are fast starters who dominate at every level of competition (e.g., Lindsey Vonn). Others may start out fast, but peter out as they get older (I can think of many examples, but don't want to name names). Others are slow starters, but come on strong later in their development (e.g., Bode Miller).
Most experts believe that pushing children too quickly up the developmental ladder actually slows their progress by taking the fun out of their participation, reducing their motivation to learn, and causing them to miss important physical and technical stages of development. Also, by focusing your children's efforts on areas for which they are not prepared, you prevent them from focusing on areas for which they are ready and need to learn to be successful later on. The result is that they don't develop the foundation of experiences, knowledge, and skills necessary to get them ready for later success.
The noted University of Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (try to pronounce that name!) developed a simple and elegant theory of motivation and achievement that shows the danger of overmatching your children. He argues that if children's ability surpasses the demands of the activity, they will get bored and lose interest. This is common, for example, among bright students who are not adequately challenged in school. But if the demands of the activity far exceed your children's ability, that is, they are overmatched, they will feel frustrated in their efforts, likely fail badly, and, as a result, lose interest and motivation, and likely quit the sport. Consistent exposure to training and race circumstances in which your children feel overmatched will eventually make them feel incompetent. If these experiences are frequent, this sense of incompetence may result in lowered self-esteem which can generalize to all aspects of their lives with truly harmful results.
Challenge Your Child
Achievement is a long journey of small steps rather than big leaps. As a coach I used to work with put it, "Success is a marathon, not a sprint. What matters is where your children finish, not where they start." You should do everything you can to ensure that your children, foremost, have fun, which will encourage them to stay interested and motivated in ski racing (Did you know that 70% of children ages 9-13 quit organized sports because they are no fun?). Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the ideal scenario to accomplish this goal is for the demands of the achievement activity to slightly exceed your children's capabilities. This relationship challenges and motivates children by enabling them to see that if they push themselves a bit beyond what they believe themselves capable of and persevere in the face of those achievement demands, they will be successful.
You play an essential role in this process by creating Csikszentmihalyi's ideal achievement scenarios for your children. First, have a realistic understanding of your children's capabilities. Best to ask their coaches, whose experience and knowledge leave them far better equipped than you, to judge their level of development. Second, have a realistic understanding of the demands of ski racing (becoming a good ski racer is much harder than most parents think). For you to gain this information, become an informed consumer and advocate for your children. You can then use this information, in collaboration with your children's coaches, to create training and race experiences that will best foster your children's enjoyment and progress in ski racing.
It's Up To You
You have the responsibility to create an environment in which this healthy relationship between your children's abilities and ski racing's demands can develop. The following recommendations may be helpful:
• Don't project your own achievement needs on your children. Let them find their own reasons to participate and work hard.
• Maintain a healthy perspective on why your children are involved in ski racing: to have fun, learn essential life skills, be healthy and outdoors, learn to compete, succeed, and fail, and develop love of a life-long sport (high-level success is just icing on the cake).
• Don't be seduced by our toxic culture of achievement that causes you to feel anxious or inadequate if your children are not the best ski racers.
• Don't allow yourself to do anything for your children out of pressure to be seen as a "good" parent; being a good parent means doing what is best for your children.
• Get a life! If you have a life that is meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful, you won't become overinvested in your children's lives.
• LIGHTEN UP!! If you are positive and relaxed about your children's efforts in ski racing, so will they.
And the irony is that by following these recommendations, not only will your children have more fun and be happier, but they will also develop as fully and quickly as they are capable and perhaps even achieve those lofty goals (e.g., USST uniform, Olympic medal) about which we all dream.
By the way, for those who are interested, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is pronounced Me-hi Zick-zent-me-hi.
Note: If you want to get a jump on achieving Prime Ski Racing, you can order my Prime Ski Racing book and Mental Edge CD here.
Dr. Jim Taylor drjimtaylor.com, knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. For the past 25 years, Dr. Jim has worked with many of America's leading junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many countries. He is the author of Prime Ski Racing Triumph of the Racer's Mind. Dr. Jim is also the author of two parenting books and speaks regularly to parents, students, and educators around the U.S..