Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Disappointment is Good


The 2010-11 race season is approaching its conclusion. The Nor-Ams, J2 Nationals, and JOs have just ended and the World Cup has only a few remaining races left. Many racers are heading into the final stretch of races hoping to continue a successful season of high results and improved points and rankings. This group looks back on the race season with pride and looks forward to next season with excitement. Other racers are trying to finish on a positive note after a season of sub-part results and unfulfilled goals. This group reflects on its season with disappointment and may view next season with doubt and worry. For this group the operative emotion is disappointment.

As parents, you hate to see your children disappointed. They are sad, downtrodden, and seem to have the weight of their lives on their shoulders. Your hearts ache for their pain and you want to do everything you can to relieve them of that disappointment. But that would be a mistake!

Certainly, disappointment is not a unpleasant emotion; it feels really bad, in fact. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad emotion to be avoided at all costs. To the contrary, disappointment is actually a very healthy and positive emotion that plays an essential role in children’s pursuit of their ski racing (and other) dreams. If, and it’s a big if, parents and young racers understand what disappointment is and how it can help racers to ultimately achieve their goals.

What is Disappointment?

Disappointment is perhaps the most immediate negative emotion children experience after a perceived failure. Disappointment involves the feelings of thwarted desire, loss, and discouragement when children fail to fulfill their hopes and expectations—or those of others. Children are going to feel disappointment when they don’t achieve their goals or believe they have let you down. Disappointment is a natural response to failure, but some children react to their disappointment in ways that increase the likelihood of more failure and disappointment. These children who are faced with disappointment reduce their effort, give up easily, or quit all together. This reaction to disappointment can cause them to feel incompetent and inadequate, which, if persistent, will lower their self-esteem and will definitely prevent them from achieving their ski-racing goals. Though some disappointment following failure is normal, children who are hit hard by disappointment mope around the house, look demoralized, and feel sorry for themselves for far longer than they should.

“Protecting” Your Children From Disappointment

Your natural tendency when you see your children feeling bad is to try to make them feel better. Mollifying your children with excessive expressions of affection or by buying them gifts, though it may bring them some immediate relief and make you feel better, does more far more harm than good. Writes Allison Armstrong: “Many parents today try too hard to smooth away life’s rough edges in the hopes of keeping disappointment at bay …Children with no experience solving life’s little setbacks have a much harder time when they’re faced with the big ones.” Placating your children doesn’t allow them to understand what caused the disappointment and figure out how to not feel disappointed in the future. Your children need to be able to just sit with their disappointment and ask “Why do I feel so bad?” and “What can I do to get over feeling this way?” Pacifying your children may also communicate to them that you don’t think they are capable of handling and overcoming the setback. Your reaction will only interfere with your children’s ability to surmount future obstacles and it will make disappointment more painful in the future.

The Right Attitude Toward Disappointment

Disappointment is a normal, though difficult, part of ski racing and childhood in general. Your children will inevitably experience disappointment in ski racing, school, other sports, the arts, and friendships. How your children learn to respond to disappointment will determine its impact on their future achievement and happiness. You can teach your children to see stumbling blocks as opportunities to improve and grow. Offering your children a different perspective on their disappointment—“I know it feels bad right now, but what can you learn from it?”—gives them tools they can use to avoid or minimize their disappointment in the future, and to turn the obstacles to their advantage by increasing resilience, motivation, and confidence.

After “falling off the horse,” your children will naturally feel a brief period of letdown, but then you must encourage them to pick themselves up and get back on the horse, that is, get back to pursuing their ski-racing goals. By staying positive and enthusiastic, you can show your children another, better way of feeling in response to failure and guide them in finding a way to overcome their setback and return to their path of achievement.

Rather than the disappointment disheartening your children and causing them to feel bad about themselves, you can help your children use the experience to affirm their capabilities by showing them that they can conquer their past failures. For example, if your young racer isn’t improving as fast as she wants in her slalom skiing, you can tell her how common it is for racers to reach plateaus in their skiing and how these “flat spots” in their progress are necessary and usually a prelude to another period of improvement. You can also encourage her to keep working hard and express your confidence that her progress will continue.

How You Respond to Your Children’s Disappointment

Your attitude toward your children’s inevitable disappointments will influence how they responds to life’s obstacles. You should view your children’s disappointments as training for adulthood. “Childhood disappointment is actually a practice lap on the course to adulthood. If you run interference whenever disappointment threatens, you’re setting kids up to run a marathon without ever letting them train for it,” adds Allison Armstrong. You must convey to your children that failure and disappointment is a part of life and what matters is how they react to it. You can also give your children a boost by showing them that you believe in them, that they should have faith in themselves, and that if they keep trying, they will probably reach their goals: “Life is full of setbacks and disappointment, but if you keep working hard, I know you can do it.”

Here are some suggestions on how to respond to your children’s disappointments:

•    Don’t distort the situation to make your children feel better.
•    Allow your children to express their feelings about the setback and offer a perspective that may give them another way of looking at it.
•    Support your children, but don’t give them a consolation prize.
•    Be realistic about your children’s capabilities.
•    Give your children feedback that considers their true abilities.
•    Help your children find ways to surmount the causes of their difficulties.
•    Finally, tell your children that they will survive these disappointments and will achieve their goals if they keep trying hard.

Note: This article is excerpted and modified from my book, Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or
YouTube. Watch my 2010 Winter Olympics Discovery Channel interview on fear in high-risk winter sports here.

Dr. Jim Taylor drjimtaylor.com,
knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for
Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado.
For the past 25 years, Dr. Jim has worked with many of America’s leading
junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many
countries. He is the author of
Prime Ski Racing Triumph of the Racer’s Mind. Dr. Jim is also the author of two parenting books and speaks regularly to parents, students, and educators around the U.S..

Click here to view the Inside the Ski Racing Mind archive

Image by Gepa

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