For a moment at least, ski racing season is over. With the end of this season our family officially moves beyond children’s racing, and into the FIS zone. It’s a little bit of many things: scary, exciting, sad. It’s sad in part because this time of year—when the mad skiing scramble that consumes every bit of our spare time abruptly ends— always leaves me feeling a bit empty and, in every respect, spent. But, this year it’s also sad because of the things I’ll miss when we move beyond this phase.
I will NOT miss the annual drama of the championship crescendo, but I will miss some of the accompanying side benefits. I will miss the fact that for youngsters all it takes is a hotel pool and a group dinner to make the experience of a higher level competition a happy memory. (OK, I will not miss monitoring that pool.) I will miss the familiar stable of coaches who have been a constant in these kid’s lives, and I will miss the parents who shlep up to the sidelines and help stabilize each other through the rollercoaster ride of a long season. Parents still show up at FIS races, but with so many races run midweek and faraway, it just doesn’t have that consistent support group feel.
One of the funniest moments I had this year was at the bottom of the U-16 Nationals. Many of the parents gathered had multiple kids in ski racing and had traveled across New England and across the country for this event. All were fully committed to this sport. The race organizers had grilled up too many hot dogs for the between-run BBQ, and offered them to the spectators for free. “Free hotdog,“ a race dad said, biting in. “This is great!” A race mom behind him smiled and with cheery cynicism said, “Don’t kid yourself. That’s an $80,000 hot dog.”
It was a funny moment: funny/amusing because we all got the joke. The dad just smiled and said, “mmm no wonder it tastes so good,” knowing full well that there really is no such thing as a free lunch, especially not in any skiing context; it was funny/strange because the $80,000 hot dog is the elephant in the room, the thing that will end up pushing many of the kids around us right then, out of the sport, at just this age.
Deep down, we all know where we find value in our $80,000 hot dogs. It’s in the bottomless side
order of education that comes with it. I recently read a piece about the difference between a transactional vs. a transformational sports experience. Transactional sports programs trade on their ability to “deliver” results, rankings and improved performance, and to build better athletes. Transformational programs seek to build kids into better people through the pursuit of athletics.
At the end of a long, hard-fought season it’s healthy and productive to honestly evaluate your progress. Point profiles and race results, however impressive or depressing, are merely data points. They can give you a pang of regret or a jolt of satisfaction, they can inform your decisions for how to improve, but they will never really tell the story because they do not reveal the transformational value of the season.
At each age there are critical things ski racing teaches: it makes young kids happy, healthy and active. As they get older ski racing builds their confidence through physical and mental toughness. It teaches them the social values of being a good sport, a good teammate and a good friend while also fostering independence. As they move through their teens ski racing’s necessary self-reliance, and the immutable honesty of the clock, give kids the tools to be proactive, decisive and self-aware. The regular adrenaline fix quenches the teenage brain’s thirst for risk while the discipline required to thrive nudges young adults towards wiser choices (relative to choices driven by social pressure) that carry long term benefits.
As one mom put it recently, “I just want to keep my kids racing through high school. It’s like paying up front for good choices so you don’t have to pay later for bad ones.” Keeping them in the sport through high school, however, is increasingly challenging, particularly at this U-16 graduation when they are faced with two seemingly irretrievably divergent paths. One leads to a full commitment to FIS racing, and the other towards what is perceived as a watered-down “everything else.” In many cases neither accommodates the difficult yet doable balance kids and their parents hope to achieve through the committed pursuit of sports.
In the past few weeks I have run into many families across the country—families who love and value this sport for all the reasons our family does— who are having this reckoning, all while paying the bills for last season and getting bombarded with notifications for spring and summer camps. I ache for this sport when I see it slipping beyond the reach of the people who love it most, not after high school—which used to be the clear decision point—but far earlier. The winnowing happens well before U-16, at U-14 when it seems like the only way to advance is to ski significantly in the off-season, and even at U-12 when the specter of the $80,000 hot dog appears as a frightening foreshadowing.
On the positive, flip side (sorry it took so long to get there!) I see the success stories of kids who have managed to stay in the sport in a way that is affordable in all respects, and still allows them to reap the benefits: kids who made the switch from club to high school racing and are thriving athletically, academically and socially; the 21-year-old college student who found a way to train at a nearby hill after classes, and had his best year ever; kids who have found their tribe and renewed enthusiasm on their college club ski teams; kids who turned their ski talent into their first jobs as coaches and instructors. In each scenario, these kids have been encouraged and supported to pursue the sport—at the level that works for them—with passion and purpose. If we love this sport, it’s our responsibility to enthusiastically support and value not only the high end, but all these opportunities across the participation spectrum.
I am a rookie at sports parenting too, just trying to get it right and keep my own pulse down, trying to keep this very real and important part of my kids’ lives in the proper perspective. We all have our own ways of reckoning the transactional fee—whether it’s $8,000 or $80,000—with the transformational reward. Mine comes down to three questions I ask at the end of each ski season:
Are my kids having fun? Are they improving? Is this sport making them better people? As long as the answer is yes, bring me another one of those dogs.