Gifting Time

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Still shopping for the ski racers on your list? Try the gift of time, wrapped up in perspective.

The theme I hammer more than any other in my little corner of the Internet, is patience. Athletes hoping to reach their potential in this sport have to buckle up, because wrangling all the factors that must come together to find any degree of success is a long, rough ride. Beyond the factors within our control—things like strength, technique, tactics, equipment and mental approach—are countless ones beyond it.  Those range from individual physique, geography and opportunity, to plain old luck.

Ski racing is an outdoor sport performed in the harshest conditions, on a venue that is new every day. Every slope, run and set are different; the snow, light and weather change not only daily but every hour, run and even every turn. Not surprisingly, and as mentioned a bazillion times on this blog and elsewhere, the odds of harnessing all those factors in and outside of our control and actually winning, are minuscule.

On the upside, in an era where we have learned to embrace and even celebrate failure as a gift, ski racing is like Christmas every day: a straddle for you, a hooked tip for you, a tweaked knee for you, a pre-release for you, and a nice inexplicably slow time for you and you and you. Now run along and have fun kids!

Many Roads to the Top

Regardless of the above realities, some athletes do manage to have a lot of success quickly, and sustain it throughout a long career. I thought about this while watching the Killington World Cup and looking at the results, where birth years are listed next to each athlete. The range was impressive. In the slalom, Lara Colturi, born in 2006 finished right next to Anna Swenn Larson, vintage 1991. At this level, all are incredible skiers. What accounts for the different rates of success for an athlete like Shiffrin—who, at age 28, has been winning for more than a decade, or Colturi—who is hailed as the next phenom; and athletes like Swenn Larson or Holdener—both of whom notched their first victories here one year earlier, at ages 31 and 29 respectively?

Even among these best-in-the-world athletes, why does the journey to peak performance take so much time for most, while a select few seem to take express train? How does a prodigy’s accelerated path happen, and should we try to replicate it?

Considering the nature of our sport, I think the answer to the first question is likely less mysterious that it appears. If success in this sport hinges on figuring out how to harness the myriad factors that go into winning a ski race, it makes sense that the journey to mastery takes time. It also stands to reason that the more factors you can control, and the fewer factors you have to juggle and actively manage, the faster you can make that journey. Athletes like Colturi, Shiffrin, Marcel Hirscher, Henrik Kristofferson and wunderkind like them across other sports have at least one thing in common—a parent/coach relationship. It makes sense because completely managing all those elements from a very young age can realistically only happen when a parent—someone who is naturally fully-invested in every aspect of the child’s welfare—is in charge.

These successes may not be a mystery, but they are nonetheless miraculous. It is a rare thing for any parent to have the capability, knowledge, time and resources to put into one child’s sport development; it’s rarer still for the child to have the desire and drive as well as the physical, psychological and emotional capacity to perform at that level from youth through adolescence and into adulthood.

Miracles Aren’t Models

While that total control is effective for the unicorns who can handle an inconceivable level of focus and intensity, it is not a replicable development “model.” Most parents achieve their peak influence as snack providers and chauffeurs. One athlete appraised his mom’s contributions to his performance with this loving statement to her: “Enough of your cheesy pep talks!” Even for parents with a background in the sport, realistically the best we can do for our kids is help build a love for the sport, provide advice as wanted, gently guide them from the cliff when needed, then encourage and support their efforts.

Even if we had unlimited resources to expedite development of every talented athlete why would we try? Across sports, and for a variety of reasons, talent selection has been pretty roundly debunked as a development strategy. And yet, the youth sports complex—in skiing and elsewhere—just can’t help itself from pushing the early achievement imperative down on us. I didn’t fully appreciate the weight of the damage that causes until last season when I interviewed a bunch of ski racers for an article on NCAA skiing. All of them noted how relieved they were when they graduated beyond junior status and became irrelevant to the development system. Finally, the could again enjoy the sport and simply focus on getting better rather than constantly meeting criteria. It was a little bit eye-opening, and a whole lot heart-breaking.

Normalizing the Non-Linear Ascent

As in all sports, ski racing has as many paths as players. It would be grand if we could celebrate them all; if we could be awed by the prodigies and their miraculous ascent, but also normalize the less linear, yet far more common paths. There is nothing wrong, and a lot right, with encouraging athletes to master the many variables needed for success at their own pace, and (hopefully) hang in there long enough for all of them to come together. It makes for compelling stories, creative performances, circuitous paths, surprising plot twists, thrilling comebacks and unlikely heroes. It’s what makes sports interesting and keeps us watching.

Listen Up!

While this topic swirled around in my head, I listened to the latest Arc City podcast where host Jimmy Krupka interviews Atle McGrath. I strongly recommend ski racers of any age and level (and their keepers) to tune in and give it a listen. It’s an insightful, open conversation across a wide range of topics related to personal and athletic development.

McGrath talks about injuries and the associated mental health aspects; about team culture from grassroots to the national team and the importance of fun at every level; about the tiny Norwegian national team that is only reached through an insanely competitive meritocracy yet is also an inclusive family with a strong code of conduct.

Fun, Family, Freeskiing and a Sense of Belonging

It’s refreshing to hear one of the skiing world’s brightest young stars talk about things that are vital to success, yet aren’t expressly taught, including: culture, friendship, teammates, freeskiing, ongoing set-up tweaks and the absolute necessity for a strong sense of belonging. (Psych students and team leaders take note: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs still goes the distance)

Along the way are interesting tidbits like the fact that he and teammate Lucas Braathen (both of whom were legit prodigies scoring in World Cup by age 18) grew up traveling to ski trips with their club as part of a huge group. Neither won any type of national title through U-16, nor were they led to believe those achievements would predict future success. The picture he painted of his early racing environment felt like a stark contrast to the grind that is the junior racing experience in this country, where kids are pushed to achieve milestones early and often to stay “on track” in the development pipeline.

And yes, McGrath also talks about the importance of having a World Cup Dad who tended to important details in equipment and technique, and was able to do it within a community construct.

I get that no system is perfect, and certainly the Norwegian model has its share of challenges. The podcast was recorded before McGrath’s teammate Braathen made his surprise retirement. Ironically, McGrath notes his promise to himself, that when he quits having fun, he’ll quit the sport. Braathen did just that.

Hope and fun are mighty motivators. Instead of heaping the stress and anxiety of expectations on kids as they develop, perhaps we can instead encourage them to work hard and have fun, with a feeling of patience and hope. It’s a gift that costs absolutely nothing, and has an excellent return policy.

2 thoughts on “Gifting Time”

  1. Another insightful post Edie. I always like reading these. So well done. I will tune into the podcast to listen to McGrath. i think Jimmy does a good job on those. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    • Thanks for reading Patrick! I hope you had a great holiday and are getting some snow finally. Rough

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