Readers of this blog know that I don’t write a lot about winning. I write a lot about The Long Road, and the things that actually matter along it. Things like: sportsmanship, teamwork, happiness, failure, confidence, perseverance, injuries, education, fear, faith, getting back to basics and even an appreciation for the rugged beauty of a condiment sandwich. But there’s not a lot about winning.
This is not because I don’t enjoy winning, or because I find anything wrong with striving to be the very best at something. I am no fan of watering down real accomplishment with the “Everyone’s a Winner” trophies-for-all approach to sports. Along with the rest of humanity I can attest that winning feels great, and the mere prospect of it is powerfully motivating. It can get a ten-year-old to sit still and listen to directions, a teenager out of bed at 0-dark thirty to go for a run and kids of all ages to get their homework done ahead of time. If nobody ever kept score or started the clock we’d lose interest in organized sports pretty fast.
Winning is a totally worthy goal, but it can’t be the main goal because of one unavoidable truth: You will never, ever, win enough to justify not enjoying the process.
Anyone who has been around this sport long enough knows how little time is spent actually winning. On the rare occasions when you do win, the high from it is over pretty quickly. All those other things mentioned in the first paragraph, however, offer benefits that endure.
KEEPING YOUR EYE ON THE PRIZE:
Remembering that helps us navigate the speedbumps and potholes that inhabit the Long Road, and keeps us focused on the true rewards earned along the way. An honest peek inside the real lives of successful former athletes reveals no direct correlation between long term happiness and athletic achievement. Athletic success is nice, but on its own it will be short-lived. With that in mind, parents and coaches need to ask ourselves what we want our kids to get out of their commitment to sports? What parts of their sport experiences will make them better, happier, more fulfilled people? In honor of the season of giving I offer these:
REAL GIFTS OF SKI RACING
The Gift of Resilience: One of my favorite ski racing pictures is the one above of “my” U-14 girls lined up, arms slung on each other in such a way that you can’t tell who is propping up and who is being supported. To me their postures and expressions say it all: “We are confident, connected, loved, whole and a little sassy. We can put on wet socks, eat Saltines for lunch in a pinch, hurl ourselves down an icy scary course and sleep in a van or on a floor if necessary.” I am assured by other mothers that this low-maintenance and fully-self-contained demeanor is not universal amongst teenage girls. It reminds me of Deb Armstrong’s explanation of why missing two straight years of skiing (during a family move to Malaysia) may have actually helped her win a gold medal. “So much of our sport hinges on being able to cope. It’s part of the ‘10,000 hours’ and that’s what those two years were all about. I could eat ants. I did eat ants. After those two years there was nothing I couldn’t handle.”
The Gift of Losing: When I was trying to think of a title for Shut Up and Ski, my sister kindly suggested, “How about ‘Loser’?” The book was, after all, based on my experience making the 1988 Olympic Ski Team, my performance on which earned me the unofficial title of “The Best of the Worst.” To this day that band of “losers” are my closest friends. Aside from that Murphy’s Law season we had our share of wins on and off the slopes, but standing around at awards ceremonies and toasting victory doesn’t reveal a whole lot about anyone. Making it through really bad situations without crumbling, however, is a bond that can’t be broken. To this day, I rely on those forever teammates who have seen me at my lowest and most vulnerable moments. I can always rely on their humor, compassion and strength to get me through the roughest ruts and fish me out of the B-net when necessary.
The Gift of Fear: As a downhiller fear was part of my every day life. People often assume that downhillers are fearless. On the contrary, just like the mathematician who claims he has merely trained himself to be more comfortable with not knowing the answers, downhillers create a working relationship with fear. Billy Kidd summed up this way: “If you don’t have any fear, you end up in the hospital.” I was scared virtually every time I saw a new DH course for the first time. Fear became part of my routine, and, as I gained experience, part of the magic. No matter how gripped I was at first look, by race day, I was (ok, usually) ready to go out of the start full blast. The ability to trust that process—to know that if you pretend to be calm and keep moving towards a goal you will make it to the other side of fear— is something that is, like the Visa commercial says, priceless.
I marvel at the power of working through fear every time I see little kids in baggy suits and big helmets putting their poles over the wand and pushing down an icy course all alone. This is not normal behavior, and it will take them far.
The Gift of a Lifetime: When I say it’s a long road, I’m looking well past young adulthood. I get to interview past champs from many eras for my work with Ski Racing and Skiing History. I’ve noticed that the ones with the pushiest parents did indeed achieve remarkable success, but often no longer have relationships with that parent. Furthermore, they chose not to get their kids into the sport. To me, that’s not a personal win, and it’s certainly not a win for the sport.
Passing it on: As coaches and parents the best way to assure that the gifts that really matter get passed down is to foster a culture that values, recognizes and celebrates them. Make a list. Check it twice. Talk about the gifts to give them weight and meaning. Imagine the message it sends when our postable moments do not involve the podium or the results sheet. Imagine how different the scene looks when we shift our perspective to look at each race or training session through the Long Road lens, in the context of a season, a youth sports career or a lifetime.
As it turns out, I have written a lot about winning, but with personal interpretations of the word:
- Winning is being motivated by a passion for something that is healthy and positive and neither electronic nor illegal.
- Winning is having a group of friends that will help you through everything life throws your way.
- Winning is being able to eat ants, sleep on floors and survive on Saltines if you really need to.
- Winning is knowing that fear can’t stop you from doing what you really want and need to do.
- Winning is having the privilege and ability to know what matters to you and to go after it with all you’ve got.
- Winning is sitting on the chairlift with three generations of family.
What’s winning to you? How would you complete the sentence: Winning is…?
And if you’re in to that sort of thing, post away with words or pictures. #winningis…