What to say to young racers before and after races
The race season is now upon us and race day is a stressful time for racers and parents alike. Racers are putting their efforts on the line and must accept that those efforts don’t always pay off in our sport. Parents want the best for their children and it pains us beyond pale to see our kids not find the success that they want so much.
Because of this impact on them and us, we as parents want to do everything we can to help them both before and after races. This is where parents have a tremendous capacity to engage in magical thinking. Let me explain.
As the parents of our children, we think we have a lot of power over them. And, to a great extent we do, having been the most influential forces in who they are as evolving people. And this belief in that power to impact our children extends down to how they do on race day. Parents so want to believe that if they just say the right thing, their kids will magically ski incredibly fast.
Wanting to leverage that power, a common question I’m asked by parents is: “What can I say to my kid on race day that will help them have a successful race?” You do have some seemingly magical power, but, sadly, that power can only hurt your kids’ efforts.
Here’s what I believe. Nothing you can say to your kids will make them faster. Not “You can do it!,” “We believe in you!,” “Have fun!,” “Try your hardest,” or “Go fast!” You can’t psych them up, remind them of what they should work on, or somehow increase their motivation, confidence, intensity, or focus. They will ski as fast as they are capable on that day regardless of the “motivational” lines or “inspirational” speeches you give them.
But, unfortunately, you do have the ability to ensure that they don’t ski fast with what you say to them. Your words can create pressure, make them nervous, shift their focus to results, cause them to think about you, cause them to think about their competitors, reduce their motivation and confidence, and make them afraid to play. “You can win!, “Keep your hands up!,” “We’ll be cheering for you!,” “Charge over the knoll!,” “Go out there and beat Johnny [or Suzie]!,” and “Watch out for that flush as you come onto the flats!” are all pretty much a kiss of death for your kids on race day.
I have two suggestions before a race. Before they head up to inspect, give them a big hug and say, “I love you!” Then, stay away from them until after their run. If you see them on the hill as their run approaches, resist the urge to say something and simply smile and give them a big thumbs up or blow them a kiss. And, by the way, as the father of two young ski racers, I do my best to practice what I preach. And, yes, it’s really difficult.
Another question I’m also frequently asked is: “What do I say to my kid after a race run?” My first piece of advice is, whether they had a good run or bad run, don’t rush right up to them. An important part of your kids learning to deal with both success and failure in ski racing (and life) is to allow them to sit with their performance, fully experience whatever emotions they might feel (whether frustration, disappointment, elation, or joy) and figure out for themselves what they think of their efforts. If they had a great run, you want them to be able to revel in their success and allow those good feelings to sink in deep. If they had a disappointing run, your first urge is to rush up to them and protect them from the pain of failure by comforting, assuaging, and placating them. That is the worst thing you can do. One of the great emotional lessons they can learn is how to deal with the inevitable ups and downs that will occur in their ski racing lives. And those lessons require that they be allowed to feel bad. So, success or failure, give your young racers the space to fully experience their performance before you swoop in and give them congratulations or condolences.
Once you give them that space, ideally, you want them to come to you rather than you go to them. When you do connect, what do you say? If they had a great run, the most common refrains I’ve heard include “Look at your time on Live Timing!,” “You were so fast!,” and “I think you’re in the top ten!,” Suffice it to say, none of these comments are very helpful to your children.
If they had a run that you know is going to be disappointing to them, don’t try to make them feel better; it won’t work. Comments such as “You’ll get ‘em next run!,” “I thought you skied really well!,” or “It doesn’t matter.” won’t be helpful at all. You can’t just make their disappointment go away and you don’t want it to just go away.
If they had a run that you know was good, don’t feel compelled to tell them how good a run it was; they know when they “done good.” So, there’s really no reason for compliments such as “You were so fast!,” “Good job!,” or “Way to go!” Their actual success is all they need to validate their efforts, build their confidence and get or keep them excited about ski racing.
I have two suggestions for what to say and do after a race run, whether a success or failure. First, just like before their run, give a hug and tell them, “I love you.” If they are really sad after a disappointing run, don’t say anything more. Going back to that power we think we have to make our kids feel magically better, but don’t really have, just hold them close and be fully there with them in their sadness.
Second, I learned this from Wayne Bryan, the father of the multiple Grand Slam tennis doubles champions, Mike and Bob Bryan. His advice, and what he did after every match with his boys, was to simply say, “Where do you want to eat?” The message you send your young ski racers is that you’re at the race, so you obviously care about their racing. At the same time, you’re also sending them a message that how they did wasn’t that important to you. And, especially after a disappointing loss, Wayne said that he just wanted his boys to get the messages that they’ll be okay and that life goes on. And I can’t think of better messages to send to our ski racing children after they put so much of themselves into this crazy and unpredictable sport that they have chosen to pursue.