Ski Racing and Parenting: Set Healthy Expectations

October 27th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Setting expectations for your young ski racer is an essential responsibility of parenting. Expectations tell your children what’s important to you and establish a standard toward which they can strive. But expectations can be double-edged swords. They can be a tremendous benefit to your children’s development as both ski racers and people or they can be crushing burdens that hamper their growth. It all depends on what types of expectations you set for them (or rather what expectations you help them set for themselves). Unfortunately, the culture of achievement that permeates ski racing (and most of children’s lives) — it’s all about results! — has convinced many parents to set the wrong kinds of expectations for their young ski racers.

Unhealthy Expectations of Success

There are two types of expectations that you shouldn’t set for your children: ability expectations and outcome expectations. Ability expectations are those in which children are expected to achieve a certain result because of their natural ability, “We expect you to win the race today because you’re the most talented skier on the hill” or “We expect you to make Topolino because you’re the best racer out there.” The problem with ability expectations is that children have no control over their ability. Children are born with a certain amount of ability (and what ability they get depends entirely on the genes their parents give them) and all they can do is maximize whatever ability they are given. The fact is that if your children aren’t meeting your ability expectations, you have no one to blame but yourself — you didn’t give them good enough genes! Another problem with ability expectations is that if children attribute their successes to their ability — “I won because I’m so talented” — they must attribute their failures to their lack of ability — “I failed because I’m just not good enough.” And, though racers can gain strength and skills, they can’t gain more ability.

Our culture of achievement also emphasizes results over all else. As a consequence, ski-racing parents often set outcome expectations in which their children are expected to produce a certain result — “We expect you to win this race” or “We know you to qualify for JOs.” The problem is that, once again, children are asked to meet an expectation over which they may not have control. They might ski as fast as they possibly can but still not meet your outcome expectations because other racers just happened to be faster that day. So they would have to consider themselves as having failed despite what may very well have been a great race on their part. Setting outcome expectations also communicates to your children that you value results over everything else, so they’ll come to judge themselves by the same standards. Contrary to what you may believe, ability and outcome expectations actually hinder your children’s ski-racing efforts.

Results Matter!

Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! I can’t push my kids to get good results in ski racing? No way I’m buying this one.” Before you jump all over me, give me some latitude to bring all these ideas back to the real world.

Here is a simple reality that we all recognize in our culture: results matter! No two ways about it, in most parts of our society, people are judged on the results they produce: grades, victories, earnings. Though it would be great if every young racer was rewarded for their good efforts, that is just not the way the world works. Unfortunately, this societal focus can cause you as parents to place your desire for your children to succeed — as defined by that culture of achievement — ahead of their long-term development and enjoyment of ski racing.

Outcome Expectations

I would recommend that you give up outcome expectations all together, but still give your children outcome “somethings.” Those somethings I refer to are outcome goals. Goals are very different from expectations. Outcome expectations are often set by parents and placed in front of their children without their consultation or “buy in,” and kids often feel dragged — sometimes kicking and screaming — toward those expectations. Children have no ownership of the expectation and little motivation, outside an implied threat from their parents, to fulfill the expectations. When I ask young racers about expectations, they usually grimace and say things like, “That’s when my parents get really serious and I know they’re gonna put pressure on me” or “They’re telling me what to do and I better do it or I’ll get into trouble.” Not exactly “feel-good” parenting! Outcome expectations are also black and white; your children either meet the expectation and succeed or they don’t and they fail. So there is very little opportunity for success and lots of room for failure.

Goals are very different. I believe that children are wired to respond to goals. One of the great joys in life is to set a goal, work toward a goal, and achieve a goal. Children want to set goals for themselves, with guidance from parents and coaches, and they want to pursue those goals. Importantly, goals aren’t black and white, but about degree of attainment. Not every goal is achieved, but there will almost always be improvement toward a goal and that progress defines success. When I ask kids about goals, they respond much differently. Their faces perk up and they say things like, “It means I decide to do something and I really work hard to do it” or “I feel like my parents are really behind me and I’m psyched to do it.”

For example, let’s say your young racer has been finishing in the top 20 in recent races and he sets an outcome expectation of finishing in the top 10 in the next race. But he finishes 12th. According to his outcome expectation, he would have failed because he didn’t meet that expectation. But if he had set an outcome goal of a top-10 finish, then his result would be a success because, though not fully achieving his goal, he showed significant improvement toward the goal.

Many parents believe that results at a young age are important, so they emphasize results and place outcome expectations on their children. Yet the early years of ski racing are about gaining experience, learning, and improving, and developing the attitudes and mental skills necessary for later success. Using goals rather than expectations is one of the best ways to foster this growth.

But even outcome goals aren’t ideal. Many parents think that focusing on the result will increase the chances that their young racer will achieve that result, but the opposite is actually true. Here’s why. When does the outcome of a ski race occur? At the finish line, of course. And if young racers are focusing on the finish line, what are they not focusing on? Well, the process, obviously. Here’s the irony. By focusing on the process rather than the result, young racers will more likely ski better and, if they ski better, they’re more likely to achieve the result you wanted in the first place. Also, why do children get nervous before a race? Because they’re afraid of the result, more specifically, they’re afraid of failure. So by getting young racers focused on the process, they’ll be less nervous and will focus on what they need to do to get down the hill as fast as possible. And, if all goes well (and you have to expect that all won’t always go well in ski racing), the result will be good.

So if you’re going to set outcome somethings, set outcome goals, but then immediately direct your children’s focus onto the process, that is, what they need to do to achieve the desired outcome.

Bode Miller is my poster child of the unimportance of results early in ski racers’ careers. Bode never raced at Topolino, never won a Junior Olympic gold medal, and never won a World Junior Championship medal. And he has never cared about results! All Bode ever cared about was, as he put it in his autobiography, Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, to ski “as fast as the natural universe will allow.” And, thanks to that attitude, Bode is one of the greatest ski racers in history.

Effort Expectations

If you want your children to be successful, instead of setting ability and outcome expectations, you should establish effort expectations, that will actually encourage them to do what it takes to achieve the outcomes you want. Effort expectations are within your children’s control; they can choose to work hard or not. Think about what your children need to do to reach their ski racing goals: commitment, hard work, discipline, patience, focus, persistence, perseverance, positive attitude. Examples of effort expectations may include “Our family expects you to make your ski racing a priority” or “Our family expects you to give your best effort in training and races.” Regardless of the abilities your children inherited from you or with whom they might be compared, children have the capacity to use effort expectations and the tools associated with them to be the best they can be in their ski racing (or whatever area of life they choose to pursue).

Effort expectations should be established in collaboration with your children. This cooperative approach ensures that your children have ownership of the expectations rather than feeling that you have forced the expectations on them. You can talk to your children about the value of effort, how it will help them achieve their goals, and that they have complete control over their effort. You can share examples with your children of how notable people used the skills associated with effort to become successful (for example, Lindsay Vonn and Ted Ligety). Most important, you want to help them make the connection between their efforts and achieving their goals.

If your children meet the effort expectations they established, they will, in all likelihood, ski well, achieve some level of success (how successful they become will depend on what abilities they were born with), and gain satisfaction in their efforts. If your children don’t meet the effort expectations, they are not likely to achieve their goals and must face the consequences of their lack of sufficient effort, for example, disappointment. In either case, your young ski racers will learn essential life lessons that will not only serve them well throughout their ski-racing careers—whether it ends after high school or carries them onto the Olympic podium—and in all future goals they pursue throughout their lives.

Note: If you want to get a jump on achieving Prime Ski Racing, you can order my Prime Ski Racing book and Mental Edge CD here.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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18 Responses to “Ski Racing and Parenting: Set Healthy Expectations”

  1. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @all: Not quite sure why O-P would want a post as esoteric as this one, but the parenting angle applies to any achievement activity.

    Not exactly libertarian material! :->

    But fun pick of the little racer!

  2. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    Correction: “fun pic” not “fun pick.”

  3. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I love the article. It’s a great departure from the more standard fare of politics, which is mostly depressing these days. It obviously applies to sports, especially sports like ski racing where individuals compete under highly visible circumstances. And you’re right that the parenting angle has much broader application, even into things like academics. I’ve often seen parents pushing their kids too hard and in the wrong way, and it’s hard to resist saying something about it.

    By the way, I love Bode Miller, too. I’ve always thought of him as the Joe Namath of skiing — party hard, talk a big game, go out and play it, and usually win.

    The photo is really great. For those who haven’t done it, click on the photo to see the full-sized version and look at that face. Pricelessly precious!

  4. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    That little girls is seriously focused…and good technique as well!

    I see where you are coming from. I appreciate the broader interest.

    And I agree with your observations about pushy parents. Much of my work with families revolves around showing parents how to push their kids in healthy ways. And I’ve actually written a book titled Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.

  5. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    Correction: “That little girl…”

    Sloppy today!

  6. Brian |

    Some people understand, from early childhood on, that if they are going to go to the bother of participating in something that they need to always give their best effort. My oldest son is one of those people. He’s been swimming year-round since he was 7 because he wants to. I remember once, when he was about 8 or 9, he was having a particularly difficult workout (he was swimming with mostly 10-12 year olds at the time) when he pulled up, walked over to the side of the pool to vomit, walked back to his lane and kept right on swimming.

    After a disappointing finish in a meet, I asked him if it really hurt to finish 2nd to the same guy over and over. Of course it did, so I told him “remember how much this loss hurts when you go to practice on Monday afternoon. Remember it on Tuesday afternoon, and every time you get in the pool.” Within a year of that meet, he was nationally ranked.

    Not all kids can be motivated like that, though. A good parent works hard to figure out his/her child’s personality and uses tools and techniques to which that personality type will best respond.

    My youngest son can be motivated by cerebral conversations like that, but my daughter’s personality directs that she be motivated by the glory of winning.

    What’s to be done about parents that are too stupid or too lazy to make that effort? It cuts both ways – for parents that push too hard, and parents that don’t push hard enough. I don’t have an answer. Like most things, we just have to kind of muddle our way through it, to learn as we go.

  7. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brian: Very well said. “Muddle” through is a term I often use to describe what I feel (even being a so-called parenting expert!).

    You gotta love the kind of son you have, willing to suffer to reach his goals. Whatever he ends up doing, he will be successful.

    The balance between pushing to hard and not enough is the key.

  8. Tom Carter |

    “What’s to be done about parents that are too stupid or too lazy to make that effort?” That’s the hardest problem of all to deal with, and I don’t have an answer, either. It’s a big part of dealing with problems such as public education reform, crime, welfare dependency, and inner city disintegration, and it’s an intractable obstacle to progress.

  9. Brian |

    Dr Taylor, he’s a midhsipman 3rd class and is on the swim team at the USNA. He’s a freestyle sprinter (50M, 100M, and 200M), and is studying quantitative economics.

  10. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brian: You know you should call me Jim by now. Your son sounds like an interesting fellow. You must be proud of him…

  11. Tom Carter |

    Sounds like a great kid, Brian, and undoubtedly a reflection of effective parenting. Well, except for that part about being in the Navy and studying economics…. 🙂

  12. Brian |

    He wanted to major in something “easy” (to keep his GPA up) so he’d have a better shot at BUD/S right out of school. Cripes, I took 36 hours of math and I don’t think I could handle his curriculum. He’s going to get heavy into statistical analysis with calculus. He’s taking Matrix Theory this semester. I had to take linear algebra, but I had no idea what he was talking about in Matrix Theory.

  13. Brian |

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that even the Navy doesn’t like having math whizzes humping rifles and rucks.

  14. Tom Carter |

    Well, the Army doesn’t usually have math whizzes humping rifles and rucks, even though it’s a great tool for social leveling.

    And as for economists, I can’t think of anywhere they could be better employed than in foxholes. Keeps the rest of us much safer!


  15. Brianna |

    “And as for economists, I can’t think of anywhere they could be better employed than in foxholes. Keeps the rest of us much safer!”

    Paul Krugman first.

  16. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    And to paraphrase an old adage, “There are no economists in foxholes.”

    If you’re unfamiliar with that saw, replace economists with atheists! :->

  17. Bob Petitt |

    Dr. Jim. Funny thing about the picture in the article. It is my daughter Megan. She found it by googling Ski Racing Pictures for a school project. You hit it right on the head of the nail. She is focused, almost to a fault.. Her Twin Sister is also.. I read your articles in SR online, enjoy the content and try to work on being a good ski racing parent. Regards, Bob

  18. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    That is very funny, Bob. I didn’t actually choose the photo. Must have been a random photo selection by the web site admin.

    Funny that you found this article on OF long after it was published.

    Hope you’re enjoying your winter.

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