Dear Ski Race Mom,
You maybe didn’t notice me standing there next to you with my daughter, who is 7, watching her brother, who is 8, race last weekend. You also did not solicit my opinion on the matter, but I’m going to offer it up to you anyway. Here’s the thing; I’m relatively new to this world of ski racing, but your words to your daughter left an impression on me as a bystander standing at the finish. More importantly, your words left an even bigger impact on my daughter, which is why I’m putting my words out there– in the hopes that you might read them and think about your own.
So your daughter seemed to be about 13 years old, a beautiful, strong ski racer in her own right and seemingly proud of her performance. Until she checked your phone which was on live-timing. She said something like, “How is that possible? Look how fast her time was,” referring to another member of the competition.
You could have offered so many different things to her in that moment. Again, I’m new to this world of ski racing, but I’m not new to athletic competition; I remember the parents who were jackasses to their children after games or even during them, and remain grateful for my own who said only positive comments. As someone who works with young men and women daily and has coached for as many years I’ve been an adult, I understand the power of words to a teenager.
You might have said, “I’m proud of you” or “I love how hard you try.” And if she glared at you, you might have followed up with something like, “Well, it’s early in the season, so I’m proud of your effort” and given her a tight squeeze, even if she didn’t want one.
You might have said, “Did you have fun?” or, “Let’s get a hot chocolate because I’m freezing.”
You might have even redirected her with, “Well, what do you think you would try differently next time?” if she is the kind of kid who needs to process race results out loud.
And I don’t know your kid at all, so maybe what you said to her instead actually did make your daughter feel better about her race. But at what long term effect? So in the future, if her time isn’t as fast as someone else, she might blame the conditions or the way the course was set? If she isn’t successful at ________, she has learned only the muscle memory to make an excuse.
I get it. You wanted to make her feel better. But this is what you said to her, and then I’ll tell you what my daughter heard. You said, “Honey, I’m sorry, you will never be able to compete with that—-she is an academy kid.” You even used “that” instead of “her” forgetting that we are dealing with actual girls and not inanimate objects. Whoever that “academy kid” was probably didn’t matter in that moment to you or your daughter, but it sure did to mine. Truthfully, I wasn’t even eavesdropping; you were speaking in a normal tone of voice, and I was still 10-12 feet away from you. I stopped listening to your conversation because my own began with my daughter, a little girl who asked Santa for pink Leki poles like Mikaela Shiffrin, a kid who has always had hand-me-down skis and boots from other generous racer families. One of our “big girl” racers from town passed down her GS suit to her while her sister shared her pink flowered ski bag. My daughter has no plans to be an academy kid, but she sure does want to win.
She heard what you said to your daughter and whispered to me, “Mom, did you hear that? I wouldn’t want to go out and ski again if you ever said that to me. She is saying that that the other girl will always be better than her at ski racing. Mom, do you think that hurt her feelings?” This translates into: “That would hurt my feelings.”
I said you were probably just trying to say the right thing and clearly said the wrong thing, which happens in life from time to time as parents, giving you the benefit of the doubt. And then she asked, “Well, what’s an academy kid anyway?”
I explained that academy kids really want to be serious about their ski racing so they go to school at mountains where they can ski half the day generally and work on their studies the other half of the day.
“Oh. Too bad she didn’t get to go to our school because we get to ski all the time, like at the Kanc after school and at Loon on Fridays in the winter and on the weekends. Maybe her family should move here?”
I wish you, your daughter, and the academy kid the best of luck in their next races. And for what it’s worth, I don’t always say the right thing to my kids either in the moment, but I’m trying.
(Note: My own ski racing guru, a U12 coach, our school ski team coach, and teaching colleague, Aaron Loukes, is gracious enough to answer my questions and shared this awesome article with me after he read mine. He said I would like what Dr. Jim Taylor had to say, and he was right. I share it with you now as there is still so much for me to learn as a parent of ski racers– in the moment).