My last post, Ski Racing Parents, We Have a Problem, clearly touched a nerve in our parent community with more than 12,000 views on Facebook alone, generating dozens of comments and my receiving many emails and messages in respond. The responses were 99.9% supportive of my perspective (one fellow spoke out quite vociferously against it). I also saw the willingness of ski racing parents to “own their stuff,” meaning many admitted that they have work to do to better support their young racers.
Before I dive into today’s topic, I want to “go positive” and “get real” for a moment and say that, despite the parenting and cultural challenges that are painfully evident in ski racing, here’s the “go positive” part: the majority of parents are well intentioned and do right by their kids most of the time (though we’re all imperfect beings and we can all do better) and our sport is still an amazing environment to expose our kids to (if done right). It’s easy to complain about what’s wrong with our sport, but the “get real” part of this is that having kids in ski racing is a choice, so if parents don’t like the experiences their kids are having, they can always leave the sport (and save a ton of $$ in the process!).
As the saying goes, though, “It takes a village” to raise kids and that belief is equally appropriate for raising and developing young ski racers. Another frequent message that I received after my last article was that parents aren’t the only ones in the ski racing community complicit in the torrent of tears pouring out of young ski racers. That is, coaches also play a huge role in the experiences that young racers have in our sport, whether positive or negative.
Let me preface my thoughts by stating upfront that, like parents, the vast majority of coaches are in the sport for the right reasons, care deeply about the kids they coach, and believe that healthy development is more important than results. During my racing career, I had coaches who had a profound influence on my athletic development and, more importantly, my personal growth (thanks Finn Gundersen, the late Marty Heib, and Chris Jones). And I have seen dozens of remarkable coaches over the years in my professional life.
At the same time, just like parents, coaches are also people who are as vulnerable to the messages of our toxic youth-sports culture and to the pressures imposed on them from parents and ski programs that have gone to the “dark side” of ski racing. A key part of this pressure is that, at least in the elite race programs, coaches’ careers and livelihoods depend on getting their young racers to produce the results that many parents expect as their ROI for the investment they’re making in ski racing. That pressure can cause coaches to go to the dark side as well. In that vein, see below for some of the behaviors that readers of my last post shared with me about their kids’ coaches:
- Everything on your list about what parents do, substitute coaches.
- Coaches throwing young racers’ poles over the B netting in frustration for kids’ not using their poles correctly in training, in front of the child’s peers (U12s).
- The same young racer had to crawl under the B netting to retrieve his poles as his peers laughed at and ridiculed him.
- Comparing training and race times among racers.
- Pitting two children against each other to promote competition.
- Making fun of the child’s “wussiness” when they injure themselves and pull out of training.
- Kids being derided by their coaches for shortening training because they were exhausted from a bad night’s sleep.
- Racers being told by their coaches that they should prioritize racing over school during the winter.
- Swearing at them while training.
- Ridiculing them for mental weakness.
- Talking about where kids should finish in upcoming races.
- Racers often hear their coach talking and laughing with other coaches about their less-successful athletes.
- Coach tells racers how “they will never get into that race.”
- Coaches don’t confront star racers if they misbehave or bully teammates.
- Coaches saying bad things about teammates while riding the lift with racers.
- Coaches talking about their accomplishments at the same age as their racers.
- Coaches making fun of their racers.
- Threatening retribution if the racers confide to the parents about coaches’ inappropriate behavior.
- Coach has called some kids idiots.
- Coach has hit some kids with his ski pole.
- Coach has reprimanded kids for not having the proper technique, but never actually explains to them what to do to have better technique.
These behaviors are as egregious as those of parents that I described in my last post. This behavior is simply unacceptable and must be confronted directly when observed in your own kids or those of other parents. A few brief thoughts on this before I dig deeper into this topic.
First, the leadership of ski programs should have clear guidelines of appropriate and inappropriate behavior for their coaching staffs and have processes in place for anonymous reporting and adjudication of complaints. There should also be tough policy for misconduct by coaches. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is the wise thing to do legally. I haven’t heard of many lawsuits against a ski program, but I assume they have occurred or will occur at some point in the future.
Relatedly, there is a new requirement by U.S. Ski & Snowboard that everyone who works with young racers in the U.S. must take and pass the SafeSport online course. I completed the course a few months ago and it blew me away. It educated me about what qualifies as misconduct and provided a clear (though admittedly uncomfortable) path for reporting inappropriate behavior. Assuming that all ski coaches in our country are required to take it, I encourage parents to as well (it costs only $20) so you know what you can and should do when you see or hear about behavior such as those described above.
Second, it is parents’ responsibility to advocate for (and protect) their children. If you see a coach acting badly, it is well within your rights to discuss what you saw with someone in a position of authority at your ski program. Unfortunately, as several parents recently told me, talking to a program director is very uncomfortable because of fear of being seen as a squeaky wheel or of word getting back to the coach about who filed the complaint.
Now, I would like to direct the rest of my post to coaches and offer some thoughts on what I call my dos & don’ts of ski coaching that will help them to be sure that they are part of the solution instead of part of the problem. They are shared with the utmost respect for all of the positive things that the vast majority of coaches do every day out on the hill with kids.
DO WITH YOUNG RACERS:
- Recognize that you have a HUGE impact on their athletic, personal, and social development, for good or for bad.
- Get vicarious satisfaction from the many types of success (i.e., athletic progress, personal development, social growth, academic achievement) that the kids you coach experience. That’s a big reason most coaches coach.
- Be a good role model in terms of sportsmanship, attitude, and emotions. How you are in training and at races influences how your racers feel and ski.
- Maintain a healthy perspective on why your racers compete in our sport: to have fun, learn essential life skills, and prepare them for later life.
- Provide a healthy perspective about success and failure. Your racers will likely come to define success and failure the way you do, so ensure that you’re sending them healthy messages that will foster their ski racing goals and nurture their personal development.
- Emphasize process and reward effort rather than results. Ironically, if you focus on process and effort, your racers will likely have better results than if you focus on results.
- Intervene if your racers’ behavior is unacceptable during training or at races.
- Establish clear rules of being good sports by setting expectations and enforcing consequences when your racers behave badly.
- Understand that your racers may need a break occasionally. Ski racing is intense and physically demanding. Your young racers need time to rest, recover, and recharge their batteries during the long season.
- Treat your racers with respect and kindness.
- Keep a sense of humor. If you’re having fun and laughing, so will your racers. There are few things that kill the joy of sports for kids more than coaches who are too serious and intense. Remember that ski racing is just a sport and a part of life, not life itself.
- GIVE YOUR RACERS UNCONDITIONAL CARING. SHOW THEM YOU CARE AND SUPPORT THEM HOWEVER THEY SKI!!
DO FOR PARENTS:
- Express gratitude for their willingness to put their children in your hands (it is an incredible privilege and compliment to you!).
- Recognize the price they are paying and the sacrifices they are making to give these opportunities to their children.
- Treat parents with respect and kindness.
- Communicate regularly with your racers’ parents. They have a right to know what is going on with their kids. Plus, they are less likely to call you at 11 at night!
- Inform parents of relevant issues occurring on the hill that might affect your racers at home, for example, conflict with teammates, low motivation, or extreme emotions. When your children head home, they take their ski racing lives with them.
- Make parents your allies. They can make your life wonderful.
- Listen to parents’ concerns about their children.
- Work with parents to solve problems that arise.
- Be the adult even when parents sometimes aren’t.
DON’T WITH YOUR RACERS:
- Tease, ridicule, demean, embarrass, humiliate, guilt, or shame them (in private or public).
- Use sarcasm. It may be funny to you but it’s not usually funny to them.
- Talk about results, points, or rankings. You need to counteract the unhealthy messages they may be getting from their parents, peers, and our youth-sports culture.
- Lose control of your emotions.
- Abuse your racers in any way. It’s wrong and it’s illegal.
- DO ANYTHING THAT WILL MAKE YOUR RACERS THINK LESS OF THEMSELVES OR OF YOU.
DON’T WITH PARENTS
- Criticize parents publicly.
- Insult parents privately.
- Work at cross purposes with parents.
- Make enemies of parents (the kids will be the ones to suffer).
- Accept parents’ behavior that you believe is hurting their children.
In sum, coaches should ensure that several forces drive their coaching. First, to know and be guided by your values. Second, to resist the Siren’s Call of our toxic youth-sports culture. Third, to support and advocate for your young racers in the face of pressures from parents and the youth-sports culture. And, finally, always do what is best for their long-term physical, psychological, emotional, and social health and well-being.
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