She was barely 6 then, and for the first time was able to handle the hilly cross-country ski trails without holding my hand or skiing between my legs. As we skied side by side, my daughter, Bronwyn, kept up a constant, enthusiastic chatter. She sang going downhill; she encouraged herself going uphill; she laughed when she fell.
When she saw two men behind us wearing spandex and skate-skiing (obviously racers in training), she flaunted carelessly, "Let's beat those guys! Come on, we can beat them!" Her spirits were not a bit dampened when they blew by us a few seconds later. "Oh, well," she burst out laughing, "at least we're beating the trees!"
This incident holds the key, I think, to what I have learned about helping kids succeed in athletics. Especially in the years that our two older children (18 and 21) have gone from "skiing" in backpacks to racing at the national level.
When Bronwyn said, "Let's beat those guys," she was setting up her own game. She had the idea (maybe from us) that pushing yourself is fun, but she was in control of the challenge.
That's very different from a parent saying (either audibly or to himself, as I have), "See if you can beat that kid. You should be able to beat him." She was so full of joy in her own accomplishment - being able to ski better and faster than she had before - that comparing herself to others took a back seat.
I used to worry that growing up in a family where race results are typical dinner conversation might be detrimental to this little girl. I began to notice that her first question to her brother or sister after a race was, "What place did you get?" Concerned about this, I renewed my efforts to emphasize participation over winning in the kids' cross-country program my husband and I run at our local ski club.
But a few nights ago, my concerns were put to rest. Bronwyn, now 8, and I were discussing a race that her brother had won that day, and I mentioned how glad I was to see him shake hands on the podium with the boys who finished second and third. Bronwyn agreed and recalled a race she'd been in recently.
We have it on video. In baggy green wind pants and a puffy fleece pullover, Bronwyn comes scrambling up to the finish line in the lead, glides to a stiff-legged stop, then turns and hugs the little girl who came in behind her, almost losing her balance. They both wear big smiles and exchange words unfortunately drowned out by the cowbells and cheering.
"Why did you hug Sophie?" I asked. "Was it because you had just made a new friend, or because you had seen other winners shake hands?"
"Because she was a new friend and because it was like saying, 'I'm not the only one who won. Other kids did a great job, too,' " she replied. "And anyway, winning isn't what racing is really about."
"What do you think racing is about?" I probed.
"I think it's about three things," Bronwyn concluded. "Going fast, having fun, and being nice to your friends."
This attitude will carry her a long way if she chooses to keep racing. And when she gets so fast that she leaves me in the dust, I'll find comfort in remembering that at least I'm beating the trees.
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