Like I said, ski racing parents, we have a problem. Want to know the problem? Well, look in the mirror. I don’t mean to insult you by indicting you as being the problem as an individual parent. I don’t know you or how you are with your children in their ski racing lives. I’m talking about the many ski racing parents who have been both seduced by and abet the toxic youth sports culture in which your children are now immersed (in ski racing and other sports). You know, the one in which results are all that matter for parents and children alike, even at a young age. And let me be clear, many children are suffering for it athletically and personally.
I am writing this article based on a disturbing experience from last March that made this problem so glaringly evident to me. I was attending the Far West U12 Championships at Squaw Valley with my younger daughter who was racing. I waited until now to publish this article because the season was nearly over and you would have forgotten about it when this season arrived.
Here is what I saw:
- A father telling her daughter before the race, “I know you’re going to podium today.”
- Parents coaching their children before their runs.
- At least a dozen kids in tears after their race runs.
- Parents in the finish area watching Live-Timing as their kids were on course.
- Parents in the finish area talking to their children about their time and result immediately after they finish.
- A boy who was lying face down on the floor of the base lodge in tears while his father had his earbuds in and was looking at his phone.
- Groups of kids gathered around a phone checking out their results on Live-Timing.
- A father in the finish area trying to console his sobbing daughter after her run. When a teammate skied up and patted her on the back and said “It’s okay,” the father asked her time and what place she came in. When the teammate said, reluctantly, that she was in first place, the father high-fived and congratulated her with tremendous enthusiasm…all the while his daughter lay below him disconsolate.
- A mother who is a friend of mine told me that her son didn’t want her to watch his race runs because it makes him too nervous.
- A father I also know said that his daughter was in tears and vomited before her first run because she was so anxious and she was too upset to take her second run.
Why were these young racers so unhappy to the point of tears in a sport that is supposed to be such fun? And keep in mind that these were U12s, most of whom won’t even be racing in a few years because of their interest in pursuing other sports at home or the sheer cost of our sport. I didn’t, of course, interview each one of the tearful young racers. At the same time, I have seen variations of these kinds of reactions in my consulting practice for decades.
If you dig down one layer to examine the causes of such painful reactions in young ski racers, you’ll find expectations and pressure, primarily from parents, but also from peers (by way of comparison rather than ill intent) and our intense youth-sport culture. The weight of expectations is a crushing burden on the shoulders of young ski racers. Imagine your children having to put a 50-pound weight vest when they get into the starting gate and you’ll get a sense of what they feel and how it will make them ski.
If you dig down to the very heart of these reactions is a fear of failure, specifically, that if these kids don’t ski well, they perceive that something really bad will happen (however objectively untrue it may be). Based on considerable research and my own work with young athletes, the most common causes of fear of failure include:
- Disappointing my parents (and, by extension, my parents won’t love me)
- Being rejected by my peers
- Ending my ski racing dreams
- It will all have been a waste of time
- Failure in ski racing means I’m a failure
These beliefs produce in children a threat reaction that causes powerful internal changes including:
- Psychological (e.g., negativity, doubt, worry)
- Emotional (e.g., fear, anxiety, stress)
- Physical (e.g., muscle tension, racing heart, choppy breathing, too much adrenaline)
- Behavioral (e.g., self-sabotage, avoidance)
- Performance (e.g., tight, tentative skiing)
With this reaction, not only are kids pretty much guaranteed of not skiing their best, but ski racing simply becomes a truly aversive experience.
Let me be clear that this problem isn’t a ski racing problem or even a sports problem. Rather, it’s a problem that permeates our results-obsessed achievement culture that you find in school, the arts, chess, anywhere in which kids can aspire to great success and where parents can become overly invested.
Now here is where I’m going to go on a rant, so be prepared. Mostly, importantly, my rant starts with a question: Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution (this should be a rhetorical question)?
Here’s a simple reality: Kids under 12 years old shouldn’t be crying after they race (in fact, no kids should be)! What so many parents and young ski racers don’t realize is that results in the U12s (and U14s and U16s) just don’t matter. Sure, it’s great for young racers’ efforts to be rewarded with good results. And it’s gratifying for kids to be on the USSS radar and for a select few to be chosen for USSS development camps.
At the same time, unless your name is Mikaela Shiffrin, results at a young age aren’t strictly predictive of later success; just ask Ted and Bode. Additionally, when young racers enter FIS as U19s everyone starts on a level playing field with 999 points. In other words, what matters is not the results, but rather that young racers have a passion for our sport, are willing to work hard and accept its inevitable highs and lows, and continue to develop physically, technically, and mentally in preparation for that transition to FIS.
We wonder why so many kids are leaving our sport and dropping out of organized sports by their early teens (about 70%, according to the research). This research has shown that the main reasons are that sports are no longer fun and they are too stressful.
We as parents and as a youth sports culture are failing our children in a huge way:
- Our kids don’t enjoy their ski racing experiences.
- They don’t gain the many benefits of our sport.
- Their preoccupation with results bleeds into other sports, school, and career.
- These early experiences can result in that weight vest becoming a permanent piece of clothing causing a lifetime of fear and low self-esteem (and the need to see professionals like me when they’re in the 40s and 50s!).
- They are just plain unhappy (and unhappy kids usually turn into unhappy adults).
We can’t change the ski racing culture. So, it’s up to us parents to shape our family’s ski racing culture and do the right thing for our young ski racers. During this holiday season (and beyond!), give your children the gift that keeps on giving: Your love and none of the crap.
Here are a few concrete suggestions (and I realize how tough they are to enact, but I can assure you that I’m walking the walk on every one of these with my two ski-racing daughters):
- Remind yourself why your kids ski race (and it has nothing to do with results).
- Be happy and have fun at races. If you are, your children mostly likely will too.
- If you can’t control your emotions at races, don’t go.
- Before races, if you find that you are stressed, worried, or anxious, stay away from your kids.
- Before races, don’t try to motivate or coach them; nothing you say will help, but a lot you say can hurt.
- Before every race run, smile and say “I love you.”
- Don’t look at Live-Timing, at least until you’ve talked to your young racer and heard first hand how race day went. Better yet, uninstall it from your phone!
- After every race run, smile and say “I love you. Do you want a snack?”
- After races, if you find yourself frustrated, angry, or otherwise upset, stay away from your kid till you’ve calmed down.
- Here’s the toughest one: NEVER, EVER talk about results!! I know this sounds impossible, but it can be done (though it takes tremendous willpower). If your children bring up results, just say, “Results don’t matter now. What matters is that you gave your best effort and had fun.”
Want to be the best ski racing parent you can be? Read my latest book, Raising Young Athletes: Parenting Your Children for Victory in Sports and Life or check out my online Sport Parenting course.