As March comes to a close so, too, does ski racing’s “champs” season with state, regional and national contests. As ever, this past month involved qualifications for every über-galactic showdown in the ski racing world. For kids on this track, making it past one threshold only meant redoubling one’s energy and focus for the next. During the crescendo of ski racing’s March Madness, I’m often reminded of Leslie Nielsen’s line in Airplane: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
Peak heat in the pressure cooker coincided with the World Cup Finals and Mikaela Shiffrin claiming her third World Cup slalom crown to accompany her Olympic gold and two consecutive World Champ slalom titles. She notched her 14th World Cup win by nearly 1.5 seconds the day after her 20th birthday.
Shiffrin is a once-in-a-generation gift to the ski and sports world. Her path has been spectacular, well planned and brilliantly executed. Her success has been well earned. But let’s not mistake it for being in any way normal. This is important to keep in mind lest we make the mistake of trying to replicate Mikaela Shiffrin’s accelerated timeline and near vertical trajectory in the kids we parent, coach or support.
Throughout the season, I’m often asked whether I think certain kids are going to go “all the way” or if they “have what it takes.” This time of year, parents can get starry-eyed or blurry-eyed at their kids’ performances in these seemingly all-important championship events. First off, I am no scout, and my own experience in working through the ranks only makes me less inclined to make predictions. I’m acutely aware of the many factors that can dramatically turn the tide either way for young athletes at all points along the performance spectrum.
Secondly, and more importantly, we all need to realize that each kid will take — and need to fully embrace — a different path to reach his or her potential. When I was a kid and starting to win a lot of races locally, people asked me: “Are you the next Tamara McKinney?”
McKinney was our generation’s Shiffrin, racing the World Cup circuit at 14 and winning at 17. It was always an awkward moment, and I never really knew how to answer without feeling arrogant (“Yes, I am!”) or snotty (“No, I’m the first Edie Thys!”) or pathetic (“In my dreams!”) or honest (“How the hell do I know?”) And then I’d feel a little clench of pressure, a lurking unease that I was already behind McKinney’s benchmarks.
Wunderkinds are hugely inspirational to kids, but can also have negative effects on the sport if parents and coaches recalibrate the markers of success to a phenom’s standard. Pushing too hard too fast and always going for the win or the title can circumvent the good fundamental technique and tactics that will ultimately serve kids better. It can lead to injuries, stress and just plain burnout.
This plays out all the time in youth skiing, as when we encourage kids to:
- Lean in, rotate and cross-block their way to faster times rather than teaching them proper turn dynamics
- Crush gates on easier hills rather than learn the discipline of establishing line on the steeps
- Sacrifice the feel of a clean ski for the power trip of a tuck
- Jump into gates early season before solidifying fundamentals
- Risk re-injury rather than heal properly
- Focus on notching results rather than strategically using races as training opportunities
These are but a few examples of ways immediate gratification can sabotage real progress.
Imposing unrealistic expectations on how fast kids should develop can not only be counterproductive to long term athletic success, but can also have disastrous consequences to social and personal development — not to mention family dynamics. Even among hugely talented and motivated kids, very few have the temperament to push themselves or to be pushed in an intensive, all-consuming pursuit at a young age.
That makes them normal, which comes in handy in life and actually plays well in elite sports, too. Certainly some of skiing’s brightest stars have had notoriously strong parental figures who guided and facilitated every phase of their development. That approach, while it works for some individuals, is not prescriptive for all, or even for most. I’ll wager that sports psychologists would vouch that such inescapable intensity prematurely squelches passion for the sport among the vast majority of kids who seek independence, balance and just plain fun.
Just as effective in the pantheon of sports stars are parents who are more focused on raising an entire family versus a single champion, more worried about keeping kids fed, clothed, happy and educated than about tenths of a second and peaking for a particular junior event. Hard-driving parents who are intimate with the sport and athletics can be effective, but so too can supportive parents who stand on the hill as gatekeepers and cross their fingers that each day is injury-free, that their kids have a good group of friends, that they ate a healthy lunch and handed their homework in on time. Parents can fan the flame of desire in their kids and support it, but no matter how much they turn up the heat, they can’t ignite it.
Finally, the thrill of early success can quickly morph into the devastation of early failure. Even though fluctuations are totally normal and expected, kids heralded as young prodigies can end up feeling far lower than their former peers when they can’t sustain their special status. Being in the mix and making steady, if not meteoric, progress year to year is usually a healthier, more humane and more effective path to achieving a dream.
Recently I was sitting with some U14s and U16s as they discussed qualification criteria for their respective championships. (I wholeheartedly support this pastime, as it reinforces their grasp of complex math). Amidst the calculations, one of them offered, “But CanAms don’t really mean anything,” and then added, “actually, none of them really mean anything.” They all paused then laughed in agreement.
On one hand, every competition matters in that it reinforces your strengths and reveals your weaknesses. You can put that feedback to use in the next race or camp or season. And as crushing as it inevitably is to not “make it” at a certain level, the only way to stay on your unique path is to keep moving ahead at your own pace.