Teaching Children Adversity
02.23.2017 | Jim Taylor
These days, children seem to be given every opportunity by their parents to experience success in ski racing and every other performance activity (e.g., school, other sports, the performing arts). Many young ski racers receive extra help from personal fitness trainers and some go to summer camps. They are given the opportunity to develop every possible ski racing skill necessary to achieve success. Many parents even spend hours tuning their children’s skis to give them that extra edge in races.
Unfortunately, in parents’ efforts to prepare their children for ski racing success, they often fail to provide them with what I believe is the foundation of all of the other efforts: perspective. Children are left to their own devices to find that elusive piece and many don’t. The result? Many children fail to achieve their goals because they lack that foundation to put all of their physical, technical, and tactical skills to great use. Given the inevitable challenges of ski racing, the ability to develop and maintain a healthy perspective toward the many challenges they will face both within and outside of our sport is essential to success in ski racing and life.
The ability of your children to have a healthy perspective begins with a firm grounding in their feeling loved, secure, and competent, in other words, their self-esteem. If children feel valued and capable, they are more likely to approach their ski racing with confidence and free from doubt, worry, or fear.
Another important part of self-esteem is the ownership they feel toward their ski racing. If children are driven to succeed by their own passion, motivation, and determination, rather than pressure from their parents, they will see their racing as a challenge to pursue instead of a threat to avoid.
Unfortunately, many young racers come to see ski racing not as a part of life, but rather life itself. So whenever they get in the starting gate, they are putting their lives (or, more accurately, the life of their self-esteem) on the line. That is a truly threatening experience that will inevitably lead to failure and disappointment. Your goal is to help your children see that ski racing is a part of your self-esteem, but that they will still be loved and valued no matter the result.
If your children have the right perspective, your children will also have a more positive emotional response to ski racing and react constructively to the inevitable obstacles and setbacks that they will experience as they pursue their ski racing goals.
Success and Failure
There are many misconceptions about both success and failure that can cause adverse emotions that can interfere with your children’s efforts to become successful. One of the most damaging is the idea that successes never fail and failures always fail. Yet the reality is that “successes” fail much more often than “failures.” People who are failures fail a few times and quit. But successes fail many times, learn from the failures, and begin to succeed because of what they learned. In time, the many failures and the lessons learned allow successes to succeed regularly. Learning to fail and learning from failure are essential perspectives to success and can act as an emotional buffer to the many challenges of ski racing.
Failure provides benefits such as information about your children’s progress. Failure is the best means for your children to clearly see the areas they need to improve. Failure also indicates to your children what not to do in their efforts, which narrows down the possibilities of what they need to do to be successful. Failure also teaches the essential lessons of perseverance and the ability to overcome setbacks.
Experiencing failure alone, though, will not help your children achieve success. Too much failure and your children will become discouraged, lose confidence and motivation, and come to view achievement as an unpleasant experience to be avoided.
Your children also need to experience success because, if combined with a healthy perspective, success can provide invaluable lessons for your children’s pursuit of their ski racing goals. Success builds confidence and trust in your children, which helps them to overcome adversity, obstacles, and setbacks on the road to their goals. It validates the dedication, hard work, patience, and perseverance that your children devote to their goals. Success acts to motivate them to higher levels of achievement. Success also generates positive emotions, such as excitement, joy, pride, and happiness, that further reinforce their confidence, motivation, and passion for our sport.
With this perspective, success is not such an intoxicant that it inhibits further growth, and failure is not a such monumental loss that it diminishes the desire to pursue success. Rather, they are both inevitable and necessary parts of the process leading toward success and fulfillment in their ski racing goals.
As we all know, ski racing requires that children take risks to realize their fullest abilities and attain their goals. These risks can include trying a new technique without knowing for sure whether it will make them faster, skiing that straighter line in a course that will shave a few tenths of a second off of their times, or deciding to throw caution to the wind to see how truly fast they can ski.
Taking risks is an essential part of your children’s developing a positive emotional response to their ski racing. Only if your children are unthreatened by failure will they be willing to take risks because, by their very nature, risks increase the likelihood of failure. If your children see ski racing as a challenge to pursue, they will understand that risks also provide the opportunity to achieve even greater success.
Risk-taking will enable your children to move out of their comfort zones, test their capabilities, gain confidence in themselves, and achieve new levels of success. When you look at great successes in all walks of life, you also see great risk takers. They know that only by taking risks are great rewards possible.
As the best-selling author Leo Buscaglia, observed, “To try is to risk failure. But risks need to be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing and is nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel change, grow, love and live. Only a person who risks is free.” Now that is a perspective to live by!
How your children come to understand the meaning of mistakes will have a dramatic effect on their ability to improve and find success in their ski racing. As the poet Nikki Giovanni states, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the mistakes that counts.” Unfortunately, parents sometimes communicate a very different message. What happens if you convey to your children that mistakes are bad and reflect poorly on them?
You are placing them in the vise of being expected to pursue success—which inevitably involves making mistakes—but knowing that they will be criticized for their mistakes. Your children may then become fearful of making even the smallest mistakes and eventually come to believe that if they make a mistake, they will be viewed with disappointment. Says Dr. John Gray: “To expect children not to make mistakes gives them a cruel and inaccurate message about life. It sets a standard that can never be lived up to.”
Many parents and their children hold a negative perception about mistakes in spite of being able to see the world’s most successful people make mistakes routinely (case in point is Ted Ligety’s 2013 World Championship GS victory!).
You need to communicate to your children that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of life. Your children must accept and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are guides to what your children need to work on to improve. Without them, betterment will be a random and undirected process. Mistakes can tell your children that they are taking risks and moving out of their comfort zone. If your children never makes mistakes, they are probably not pushing themselves hard enough, they will not improve, and they will never become truly successful.
The road to success is a bumpy one. It’s filled with many barriers, setbacks, and struggles. Some of this adversity is external to your children—over involved parents, demanding coaches, challenging courses, tough competition. Internal obstacles exist too, including loss of motivation, decline in confidence, distractions, negative emotions, impatience, and the desire to give up. To often, I see parents trying to protect their children from adversity in the belief that these difficulties will hurt their self-esteem, slow their progress, and prevent them from achieving their goals.
Yet, adversity is essential to children achieving their goals because only by experiencing adversity will they develop the skills necessary to overcome challenges in the future. “How can we grow without struggle and doubt and a misstep or two? If we spare our children that—or try to—we’ll not be successful anyway; we’ll end up prodding them toward other kinds of troubles, the kind we may not have anticipated,” writes Robert Coles.
How your children learn to respond to adversity depends largely on how you respond to adversity, and the perspective you teach them about the inevitable setbacks they will experience in their lives. You should be keenly aware of your reactions to your children’s setbacks. If you show frustration, anger, or disappointment when they face obstacles, you will be modeling this behavior for your children. If you remain calm, positive, supportive, and loving, they will learn this reaction from you.
Dr. Peter Goldenthal suggests the following ways to help your children respond positively to adversity (plus a few additions from me):
- Make sure that you role model a healthy perspective.
- If you can’t control your emotional reactions to your children’s ski racing successes and failures, stay away from them until you have them under control.
- Put the situation in perspective: Show your children that a setback is not the end of the world.
- Don’t rush to the rescue: Let your children try to figure things out themselves.
- Play up the positive: Point out to your children all the good things that happened besides the obstacle.
- Suggest step-by-step success: Help your children set goals using the setback as useful information.
- Admit your own mistakes: Share with your children difficulties that you have had and how you overcame them.
So what will it be? Neglect such a fundamental component of your children’s development and pursuit of success and leave them ill prepared for the future? Or give your children the perspectives necessary to master the challenges of ski racing and beyond? The answer is obvious.