The Parent Whisperer

You can’t force a kid into being the next great thing, but you can do a lot of damage trying.
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The Parent Whisperer tout

As an Olympic skier who now occupies the sidelines watching my own kids compete in the sport, I’m often assumed to have special insights about at least two things:

1. Who will be “the next Mikaela Shiffrin,” and

2. How, as a parent, to create “the next Mikaela Shiffrin.”

I hate to disappoint, but I can’t help much with either. On the first point, I could never predict any youngster’s superstardom, especially not in skiing, where an unfathomable combination of circumstances and lucky breaks 
must come together before anyone has a shot at the sport’s highest levels. In addition to talent and opportunity, kids need physical and emotional maturity to progress through the increasing stresses of competition and training, access to optimal training venues and coaches, competitive peers, the right equipment (and lots of it), luck in avoiding injury, and, perhaps most important, relentless and single-minded motivation.

That last factor leads to my deliberate abstention from point No. 2, the making of a phenom. You can’t force a kid into being the next great thing, but you can do a lot of damage trying. Many a young skier has blazed through the junior ranks only to stall at a critical juncture and then disappear in frustration. And many others quit the sport long before reaching their potential because too much pressure too soon sucked all the joy out of skiing.

This is not uncommon in youth sports, where parents with the best intentions tend to ramp up expectations at the first sign of “talent,” aspire to elite teams at ever earlier ages, get nutty on the sidelines, and proudly post podium shots for all to see “the reward.” The pressure created by this behavior contributes to the oft-cited stat that 70 percent of kids quit sports by the age of 13. What a shame.

So most of my advice to parents is not to push harder but to back off, to focus on the enduring and hard-earned benefits of the process rather than the fleeting high of each positive outcome. Every March, just as championship season froths up, I give parents my “Long Road” speech, which advocates a broader perspective on sports development and extols the long-term value of failure.

Ski parents may have bigger sidelines on which to hide, but we also have incentives to keep our behavior in check. Most of us actually participate in the sport. 
If our kids suddenly decide to quit, say, baseball, it may not affect us much, if at all. If they sour on skiing, that’s goodbye to ski vacations, to having something fun to do when it’s below freezing, and to potential ski days with grandchildren. That vision makes my ski-parenting role crystal clear. My main job, like that of an entertainer, is to keep ’em coming back for more.

Depending on how you define it, “success” in a sport can take a long time to play out. I have the privilege
 of interviewing some of the most successful ski racers of all time, and I’ve noticed a pattern. Those with notoriously pushy parents, once they became parents themselves, choose not to get their own kids involved in racing. Success can be the sum of moments on a podium, but it can also be pushing your kids down the driveway for the first time, chasing after them on the bunny hill, and, when the time comes, freezing your butt off on the side of a hill as the show goes on.

Edith Thys Morgan skied on the World Cup circuit for six years and competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two teenage sons.

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