It’s that time of year. March Madness. And of course I’m talking about skiing not basketball. This is when it all happens—regional champs, state champs, Junior Olympics, etc. Lofty goals and supercharged energy converge as the biggest events in a young ski racer’s life play out in one scrambling month. Hotel pools, team dinners, game rooms and way too many vending machines fuel the fire.
Throughout the month there will be big winning moments and crushing losses. There will be the elation of putting two clean runs together and the devastation of screwing up right at that spot the coaches pointed out. This annual angst we have chosen for ourselves is normal. And yet, every year it seems like the end of the world is near when things don’t go according to plan, when that one chance at making the states, the uberstars or the intergalactics slips away like so many skittles off a frozen mitten.
All of this means it’s the ideal occasion for the “Long Road” speech. As in, it’s a long road we’re traveling, people. As parents cheering from the sidelines we can’t help but want our kids to succeed at everything they do, on every outing. We understand that real progress is often a barely perceptible crawl, and that what we really want for our kids is long term success in life, not in a silly sporting event. But still, we secretly hope for success every time. Wouldn’t it be easier to just have the good days and put off the agony of defeat indefinitely, or at least until adulthood?
I can say from experience that the fantasy of child stardom is not all its cracked up to be. The pros are, of course, an early sniff of glory and an instant endorphin hit of success. Up into my early teens I won every ski race I entered. I fell and got up, and won. My boots got stolen from the car so I borrowed a friend’s mother’s boots, and won. A big kid in ski boots stepped on my bare toes and broke them the day before a race, and the next day I won. You get the picture. Yay me.
But then one day, I didn’t win. And I kept not winning, like it was my new job, until it felt my world had crumbled. I had three close friends who resided solidly in my rear view mirror during my young days of untrammeled fabulousness. All three of them scooted past me and made their ways on to the US Ski Team while I ground my gears. They were teaching me the lesson I had taught them long ago—that sooner or later you’ll get your butt kicked, so you’d better know how to deal with it. I did not appreciate the lesson.
For the next few years (not weeks or months), I wanted to quit more days than not. I was discovering the cons of child stardom, chiefly the unrealistic view it creates of what it takes to succeed. It takes perseverance, self-confidence and a bit of blind faith. Fortunately in my case, the urge to sniff glue, roll in a ball and make it all go away was overcome by the urge to dust myself off and get back up, as if to say, “Thank you sir. May I have another?” Sticking to that decision has made all the difference, not only in ski racing but also in every challenge since. When I see these kids make that same commitment day after day I am truly inspired.
All this leads to my compulsion to give the “Long Road” speech, which is closely linked to the “Box of Chocolates” principle. Well into their teens kids are growing and changing and learning so quickly that you really have no idea of the potential that lies inside of them. In the words of Mr. Gump’s momma, you never know what you’ll get. As proof look no further than Ted Ligety, who barely made his ski club team at this age, and even as a 17-year-old struggled to keep pace with his peers. Skiing and all sports are riddled with examples of unremarkable young kids who turned into great champions through perseverance and hard work. Likewise the path to the top is littered with one-time sensations who got off track and lacked the will, the desire, or perhaps just the plain old good luck it takes to get to the top of their sport.
Not that true success has anything to do with “making it” in a sport or not. There is no “it”, no achievement that confers success on you. It really is all about finding what matters to you and going after it with all you’ve got. How often do we get to do that?
The long-term view is a very tough perspective for a young person to have. One kid going through an exceptionally frustrating bout of character building summed it to his parents as follows: “I know that this is making me a better person. But right now it sort of sucks.”
He’s right. And there’s no way around it. Dwelling on disappointment is neither healthy nor productive, but disappointment in itself isn’t such a bad thing. It means you have some skin in the game. Coaches and parents may seem to be discrediting the right to be disappointed, and diluting the value of a competitive spirit with default comments like “just have fun,” and “keep smiling.” I still cringe a bit when I interpret those words as admonishments. But as a quasi grown up, I get the broader intent, the reminder to keep your eye on the bigger prize, on enjoying the process. Enjoy the things you get from having the dream, making the effort and going out each day with a goal to get just a little better.
We recently had the last of our qualifying races for the state championships, followed immediately by the naming of the State Championship team. Kids who miss the cut-off can battle for a spot at the champs by going to the state finals, but this is the big announcement. They start with the first qualifying individual and go down the list to the last, making it an agonizing ceremony for anyone who is “on the bubble” unsure of whether he or she made the team. I can assure you from experience that whether you are waiting to be picked last for a softball team on the playground, or listening to a coach read off the names of who made the Olympic team, it’s all the same anxiety.
This time, as always, there were a few athletes on the bubble who did not make it. These are kids who have put in as much time, worked just as hard, and wanted it just as badly as any of their teammates. But for whatever reason, it hasn’t all come together for them, yet. When the last name was read I wanted to cry. OK, maybe I did cry. But I tried not to show it, because one of the bubble kids came straight up to me. He looked me in the eye and announced, “I really think I can qualify through the finals!” That was his first reaction–not tears, or moping or a tantrum, but a positive plan.
That moment in itself reminded me of why we put ourselves and our children through this. The bravest skier I know used this quote to get through life threatening illness and injury, as well as a ski race or two: “Success is not the act of never falling. It is the act of repeatedly getting up.” If a 12-year-old kid has learned to greet adversity with renewed effort, he’s pretty much learned the secret to success in anything.
As I said, it’s a long road. Some take the highway, and some take the scenic route, but in the end we’re headed for the same place.
2013 update: It is that time of year again, so you might want to circulate this to keep blood pressures in check. By the way, the kid at the end, who almost made me cry? He was among our top qualifiers for the state champs this year. More importantly he perfected the technique of grinning ear-to-ear even while gritting his teeth.