Go Speed Racer! (and study too): Parenting(?) a Competitive Athlete

2014-03-23 09.12.25Many of you can relate to the peaks and valleys of raising a teenager.  If that teenager is a competitive athlete, the peaks can be towering mountains and the valleys bottomless caverns. I’m struggling a little lately with how to parent in this ecosystem.

Our son has reached a level of ski racing competition that is truly global.  We hear French, Russian, Czech, Slovenian, German, Norwegian and Finnish at the finish line (see what I did there?) of his races this week.  The Australians and Kiwi’s were on the start list. World Cup racers came over after their races in Beaver Creek this weekend to brush up on their giant slalom technique. My son’s body, which has grown quite a bit in the last year, is still small in comparison to many of these men’s tree-trunk legs and beefy arms.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this world, ski racing is a brutal sport.  The young guys compete from the back, fighting nerves and huge course ruts left behind by the bigger, stronger guys.  They compete on a point system, lower is better, and those points go down gradually as the racer fights, race after race, to finish in a better position.  They must complete two runs in order to get a race finish, and often half of the pack fails to cross the finish line in both runs.  They train year round, in the gym and on the hill.  They travel a lot.  They get hurt a lot.  And then they show up at a race and their day could be over after the 6th gate of the first run.

After today’s race, our team packed up their gear and drove to school so that the boys could prepare for finals next week.  Many of their competitors probably went out for a beer.  It’s a little weird and somewhat understandable that my son’s focus on studies is a bit hazy sometimes.

So yesterday, when I woke up to make him a “healthy breakfast” (he got to sleep in until 8:00, a rare luxury) I had the bad sense to check his grades on-line.  And I got a little frustrated with his apparent lack of attention in a couple of classes.  And I woke him up to say, “You better get it together, kid!  You’re clearly taking your eye off the ball.”  And then I stopped.  He had a race beginning in a couple of hours.  He would be pushing his body down an icy hill on razor sharp skis, trying not to mess up, on the edge of crashing, and I was yelling at him about his English grades.  Yikes.  I chose the completely wrong moment to unleash.

<Deep Breath>

He is a good kid.  He is 16.  He and his teammates work extraordinarily hard.  He has passion.  He is critical of himself for not racing as well as he believes he can, and he always feels like he can do better.  I am not a former World Cup ski racer, as are many of the parents of his competitors.  I never ski raced at all.  I can’t give him any advice about how to approach a delay on the course or when to release his edges for the next turn.  I can’t even give him much help with the mental aspects of ski racing.  In fact, I’ve learned to say nothing about any of these things, because I really don’t know what to say.  I’ve never faced the pressures of highly competitive athletics that he does.

I do, however, know how to be a student.  19 years of studentry under my belt, thank you very much.  And so I focus on his school work and try to give him pointers on study skills and time management and suggest that he work ahead.  If I’m honest (though he doesn’t need to hear this) I’ll admit that I wasn’t the best at time management and study skills when I was a junior in high school.  Procrastination seems to be genetic and he is as good at it as I was at his age.  It’s hard to watch him make the mistakes and not-great choices that I once made.  I remind myself that this is his journey.  I cannot be Captain Jean Luc-Picard and “make it so.”

Still, I’m a mom and part of being a mom is nagging a bit here and there (in future at more appropriate times than just before a race) to remind the Young One that this school thing is important.  Racing will end and he will have to make a living some day.  As far as I can tell, the rest of my job description includes providing food, shelter, clothes, gear and a hug from time to time.

Go get ’em! Ski fast! Have fun! (And get some sleep and don’t forget to brush your teeth.)

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Taking One for the Team

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Last night, Tyler Hamilton spoke to the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail community, sharing his story of doing what it took to be a winner, and the painful consequences he suffered.  You may not recognize his name if you don’t follow bike racing.  Tyler is the one who outed Lance Armstrong and the rest of the U.S. Postal Services Pro Cycling Team for its doping practices a few years ago.

Tyler’s story was gripping.  He was a quickly rising star in the pro-cycling community when he was first offered steroids by the team trainer.  He knew it was wrong, he said, even though everyone told him it was “for his health” and that he needed to take care of himself.  Doping was rampant, expected, and administered by the team and its physicians.  It was a necessary element to winning on the tour.  Eventually, doping was pushed underground by enforcement actions.  The methods became more risky to the athletes’ health and yet they continued.  He said that he began to focus more energy on his fear of getting caught than he did on winning.  But he was a winner.  He won an Olympic gold medal.  He was on the team that won the Tour de France.  He achieved the glory that most athletes dream of.

Even when he tested positive for doping, he said he “took one for the team” by lying and denying any wrongdoing.  He felt that he had to keep protecting the culture of cycling, his teammates and his friends.  He feared being blackballed and undermined if he told the truth.  He kept quiet for 14 years, even after his retirement.  He suffered depression, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts due to the burden of holding the secret. He felt alone.  His ethical and moral core was at odds with his environment and he suffered from the inner conflict.

When he was subpoenaed about the team’s and Lance’s doping practices, he finally shared the truth, releasing the pressures of his secrets.  Eventually, he shared the story very publicly on 60 Minutes and felt the wrath of his former teammates and the cycling community.  He broke the unwritten rule of solidarity and betrayed those with whom he shared the bond of silent wrongdoing in the quest for greatness.

He says that he wishes he had been better prepared when that first pill was offered to him. He wishes that he could have seen how far he could have gotten without performance enhancements, although it’s likely he would not have been a winner.  He will never know.  Those decisions to dope altered his world forever. He lives a life of regret, but he seems at peace with himself now that he spoke out.

Part of Tyler’s message is his concern for our nation’s twisted focus on winning.  It is not enough to give one’s best effort if it doesn’t result in a win.  Only the winners get our attention and accolades. And human nature craves that recognition.  And it goes well beyond sports.  People in all facets of life will face pressure to do whatever it takes to achieve success: cut corners; break laws; risk lives.   In the quest for “winning,” people will feel the need to cheat in school, lie on resumes, or mislead investors.

Our culture is teaching our kids to win at any cost.  My son played lacrosse for many years, often at a highly competitive level for his age group.  One evening, I stood on the sidelines cringing as the other team hacked and pushed and tripped our boys.  Twenty yards from me, I heard a mom from the other team screaming at her boy to “Hit ’em! Hit em! Bring ’em down!”  And when one of our kids was laid out flat after a cheap shot, she clapped and cheered.  These kids were 10 and 11 years old, being taught to do whatever it takes to win.

How do we change this about our culture?  How do we encourage our kids to be the best that they can be, and push them to find their limits, without it being at any cost?  How do we shift our collective mindset to recognize the value in the one who never wins but keeps showing up anyway?  How do we arm our kids so that they can resist a shortcut when “everyone is doing it” and push back against the pressure to “take one for the team” when it’s not right or it’s unhealthy?  How do we help kids to find their voice in the face of an unwritten rule of silence? How do we teach a kid to take pride in an average grade that is achieved with her own mind and merit instead of an “A” that came from cheating?

Example is often the greatest teacher, and sometimes a lone voice can instigate change.  Tyler sharing his story, exposing the weaknesses in himself, admitting his regrets and shining a light on a pervasive problem is a good step.  Thank you for that, Tyler.