Yesterday was one of those spring days that was so perfect it hurt. It featured my favorite color palette—blue sky, green trees and blindingly white snow speckled with red and blue GS panels. For a skier, days like this are the big reward for a season of cold, wind and ice. But like I said, it hurt. It hurt because it means the end is near. I love spring but hate that the ski season ends so abruptly and, for some, so harshly.
Right out of the blocks, March is a frenzy of qualifications for series that lead to more qualifications and series that ultimately can lead to Intergalactic showdowns that feel like they mean everything. On one hand every competition does matter because it reinforces your strengths and reveals your weaknesses. You can put that feedback to use in the next race or camp or season. But “making it” in these seemingly all-important end-of-season contests has little effect on long term growth for a junior skier. Getting better, as ever, will depend on what you do next, after success or defeat or, meh. Specifically it will depend on how hard you work and how much you enjoy the process and effort of what you do.
What this rollercoaster of emotion and adrenaline can do is make you a little nutty as a skier, coach or parent, which is why every year, on March 1, I roll out the “It’s a Long Road” blog as a reminder to chill out a bit and look for the bigger picture. If you or anyone you know have anxiety about expectations, underperformance, “tracking”, qualifying or whatever, read or send the Long Road.
Exaggerating the value of early success in sports usually doesn’t make a huge difference on the long road. In fact, if not kept in perspective, it often leads to added pressure and an exaggerated sense of failure way too early in a kid’s development. That can be far more damaging than missing the cut for one competition. These contests are great opportunities for a fun, eye-opening experience, but they are not an end in themselves or the end of the road. They are just another step along one of many paths.
I yammer a lot about taking the pressure off kids and keeping sports in perspective even while supporting kids in their pursuit of the highest goals. This time, however, I’m hooking you up with some pros at articulating the issue. The two videos below are from Ted X conferences, and each talk is around 14 minutes so get some popcorn and carve out a half hour and hunker in. While the corn is popping I’ll give you the background.
First up is Jim Thompson, founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, coming atcha from Fargo:
If, as a parent or coach, you have not checked out PCA, you should scamper on over to the PCA site and peruse their mission, methods and language. For example PCA advocates: Coaches with a double goal focusing on both winning and life lessons; Athletes who are triple impact competitors looking out for themselves, their teammates and the game; Parents who relentlessly focus on the second goal, learning life lessons from sport. Every year the PCA compiles the ten best and worst moments in youth sports. The worst moments (athletes punching refs, coaches punching athletes, parents abandoning kids on the highway after a bad game, etc) Thompson blames on the wrong culture we have created around sports. It has evolved into an entertainment culture that values winning at all cost vs. a culture that uses youth sports as a Development Zone aimed at developing better athletes/better people. He shows how each respective culture deals with bad calls, losing streaks and the all-important scoreboard, and clearly explains the benefits to be gained by supporting the development zone culture.
The PCA’s best moments in sport are referred to as Mallory Moments, in honor of a softball player who helped an opposing teammate score her rightful home run. (Watch the video and all will be explained.) His point is that coaches, parents and athletes will all be faced with a Magic Mallory Moment, when we have the opportunity to act or react in a way that elevates the game. It’s up to all of us to do the right thing. In the past few weeks of championship frenzy I have been impressed by the skiing, but way more impressed by the composure of kids in their Magic Moments of sportsmanship and team support. That’s the stuff that makes me proud of our sport.
This next video is of John O’Sullivan, whose “Race to Nowhere” article caught my attention last year.
The elite soccer coach and author founded the Changing the Game Project after learning that of the 40 million kids who play sports in our country, 70 percent drop out by age 13. His observations and stories are bolstered by studies and surveys that reveal why kids quit sports and how parents and coaches can best support them to stay in the game. He learned that the single greatest factor to improving performance is state of mind. Being happy matters. This is yet more motivation to not be The Nightmare Sports Parent who can greatly hasten the end of sports as a positive force in a kid’s life. (Don’t want to be that parent? Hint: back off during the car ride home). His single best takeaway advice can be boiled down to 5 simple words that parents can say to their kids: “I love watching you play.” That’s it. Simple but powerful.
There is so much left to enjoy in these last precious weeks of skiing, which is why my favorite part about March Madness is the moment the frenzy ends. When the last hurdle has been cleared, or not, kids can get back to doing what they love to do: Racing—just plain skiing as hard as they can, for the sheer fun of it. I wrote about this last year in Spring Training, my plea for kids to hang in there and make use of the ideal training and skiing conditions this time of year. We have sunshine and daylight, great friends and freeskiing, dialed-in equipment and technique, and (in the east at least) lots of good hard snow. It’s fast, it’s fun and it’s virtually free. The reward of spring is much more than earning another T-shirt or medal. It’s the fun and freedom that drew us to this sport in the first place, the rewards that will keep kids coming back for more and performing their best. Let’s make sure we tell them all that we love watching them ski.