To win is wonderful, but to win respect is divine.
Hero worship is way overrated. But I make an exception with Ted Ligety. When you have the world’s best skier (today, and on many other days) who also runs a successful business, makes fun a priority, takes a stand on issues for the benefit of fellow athletes, literally shrugs off disappointing runs and takes time to fist-bump his pint-sized fans on the way up to the podium—when you find all that in one person, I’m good with having my kids worship at his altar.
Truthfully, as a parent and a coach I feel somewhat indebted to Ligety for filling this role in their religious training. To be sure, we are not churchgoing people. My kids, however, are well-acquainted with sermons. Our sermons are usually on Sundays on the way to a ski race and they go something like this: About 15 minutes from the mountain I turn down the music of choice, and look in the rearview mirror to see that I have the majority of their attention. Then I dive in.
“What’s the most important thing you need to do today?”
“Be a good sport,” they answer. To their credit, they do not groan or roll their eyes, yet. Then we go in to a brief review of what that involves, chiefly about being a good winner and a good loser.
We have a little quiz about things good winners do: accept congratulations gratefully and graciously, ask others how they did, support teammates, refrain from gloating, thank coaches and race workers, etc. And then, even though it is less fun to imagine, we review what good losers do: congratulate the winners, control frustration, be happy for teammates, avoid making scenes or excuses, etc.
It’s not over until I bust out my favorite line, because while preaching is easily forgotten, scare tactics often stick: “Twenty years from now nobody is going to remember how you do in this race. But everyone will remember if you’re a bad sport.” I know this is true because of a story my Dad once told me about a famous ski racer who, after the awards ceremony, disassembled her trophy and loudly proclaimed it “cheap.” To this day I cannot recall one of that athlete’s racing accomplishments, but I have a crystal clear vision of that unfortunate scene played out before my birth. And now my kids do too. I doubt that racer would be proud if she knew.
They indulge me these sermons, and all the little stories that go along with them, perhaps because they know I can’t help myself from yammering into them the messages that were yammered in to me as a kid. But they are also building their own image library of good vs. poor sportsmanship from real time scenarios. What stands out at the end of the race day is rarely an exceptional run, but often particular comments, gestures or behaviors that range from endearing to appalling. Especially in the heat of competition, sportsmanship matters. It shows that you can see beyond your own performance. It shows that you respect the efforts of everyone out there, and it shows that you are worthy of their respect as well.
That sense isn’t innate–it is learned, usually at home. Phil Mahre grew up being reminded to “be nice to the people on the way up because they’re the same ones you’ll meet on the way down.” Last summer I asked Ted Ligety about what or who instilled his sense of sportsmanship. “My parents I guess,” he grinned, adding, “I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have kept paying for me to do this if I was a jerk.” Note that these parents are not obsessed with outcomes and even if they’d had the opportunity, I doubt they would have tweeted or posted their kids’ results.
Parents may have the most opportunities to instill and support the value of sportsmanship, but they are not the only influencers. Recently I asked my parents about a particular race day ritual that was set in stone in our household. After every race, no matter how much we felt like slinking away, we had to congratulate the winner. And win or lose we had to thank the person who put on the race. It was often a mad scramble to track down the right people so I could get on with the rest of the day’s shenanigans, but I always did it because I liked the way it made those people smile.
And let’s be real. I did it because it was a rule. I asked my parents how they, who were not hugely into sports as kids, knew to prioritize sportsmanship by requiring those acts?
“That doesn’t sound like anything I’d have made you do,” my Dad replied with an honesty that can only come from complete disassociation with a concept.
“I wish it was me,” my mom admitted, “but I think it was your coach.”
I thought back to that coach, the one I remembered as a quaint fixture of my junior racing days, who happened to be at the helm of many fun adventures. But then I remembered how he’d host the race families at his house to wax our skis the night before a race. To prepare for our most challenging race of the year, at a place notorious for complicated course sets, he’d unfurl a roll of toilet paper onto which he had copied the entire course as we would see it the next day. He clearly wanted us to do well, and took pride in our performance but he also had a higher purpose. He wanted us to be a team, to love the sport and to be good sports first.
So here’s to you Paul Arthur. It may have taken me close to 40 years to recognize all that you taught me, but God knows as a parent and a coach you had to have patience.
And speaking of God, here’s to you Ted Ligety, for being a hero worthy of worship. Thank you for not throwing a fit when you fell six gates into the Kitzbuhel slalom or when your ski came off just before the finish in Wengen. Thank you for remembering to smile and laugh and keep it fun even when the pressure is on. There is a reason the competition smiles when congratulating you. Thank you for showing your many fans, large and small, that you can take the high road all the way to the top.