Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Forced vs. Guided Participation


The journey of raising your children to become successful begins with their participation in achievement activities such as ski racing. The goal of this involvement isn’t necessarily to find success in those early activities; that’s not always possible. Rather, this participation should initiate the process of instilling the values, attitudes, and life skills that are necessary for becoming successful in later life. Participation in an activity should teach your child about the fun and satisfaction of engaging in and committing to an activity. It should stimulate interest, exploration, and motivation to achieve.

Experimenting with a number of activities, including ski racing, early in your children’s lives will help them find those they love and which may lead to continued involvement as a vocation or avocation throughout their lives. Involvement in an achievement activity, such as ski racing, that your children choose freely provides the opportunity for them to eventually experience ownership of that activity and recognize the value of ownership in everything they do.

Your challenge as parents involves maintaining a delicate balance from the very first experience that your children have with an achievement activity. This equilibrium involves providing the impetus for them to participate in new activities long enough for them to decide whether they want to continue. At the same time, you don’t want to push so hard that it acts to stifle their interest and motivation, and interfere with the development of ownership. This distinction is between forced vs. guided participation.

Forced Participation

“So, the paradox is that parents who try to ensure their children’s success, often raise unsuccessful kids. But the loving and concerned parents who allow for failure wind up with kids who tend to choose success,” the authors Foster Cline and Jim Fay have written. Forcing your children to participate in an achievement activity can produce a wide range of difficulties. Their most common reaction to being forced to participate in something is anger, resentment, and resistance toward their parents and the activity itself. This response will increase as your children get older and begin to assert their independence. Some negative feelings toward parents are a natural aspect of adolescence, but when the negative feelings become fixated on one area, for example, feeling forced to ski race, are unusually strong, and they persist, the negative emotions can become destructive and lasting.

If you force your children to ski race, they may express their anger by showing little desire or effort in training. Your children may sabotage their participation by losing their equipment, behaving poorly at races, giving up easily, or directing their anger at their coach. Your children may sabotage their own skiing, intentionally skiing poorly or skiing out of the course when they get into the slightest bit of trouble. If you are overly invested in your children’s ski racing, their actions are calculated to embarrass and anger you, thereby exacting revenge for their forced participation.

Forcing your children to ski race when they have little intrinsic interest hurts their desire to achieve in other activities by producing negative thoughts, emotions, and behavior that they associate with achievement. This forced participation also removes any possibility of your children gaining ownership of their ski racing because they are doing it for you. The anger and resentment interfere with the possibility of future enjoyment and success in skiing (which you want them to develop so it becomes a lifelong sport for them). Says Dr. Ron Taffel, “The more you try to mold your child in ways that run counter to her temperament, the more she will rebel when she hits her school years. You still won’t get what you want, and your relationship will suffer.”

Forced participation occurred with the son of a couple I knew who were passionate about skiing. The father, Tim (names have been changed to protect their privacy), was an absolute skiing fanatic and he and his wife, Debbie, made skiing a central part of their lives. Tim decided early on that his son, Trevor, was going to be a skiing champion. Having started skiing as soon as he could walk, Trevor became an amazing little skier by the time he was seven years old. His parents began to enter him in races when he was eight, and Trevor immediately showed promise.

Tim coached Trevor throughout his development and provided him with every opportunity including summers at training camps in Mt. Hood and in South America. Early on, Trevor couldn’t say he ever really loved ski racing, but it was something he had grown up doing and it was important to his father. But by the time Trevor was 13, Tim wouldn’t let him try out for other sports and Trevor was devoting so much time to skiing that he began to lose touch with his friends at home. Trevor was becoming angry, but every time he tried to talk to his father about it, Tim would tell him that he would never be good at those other sports anyway and he had good friends in the ski world. Trevor’s anger at being forced to race increased and, having no effective outlet for releasing it, he began to resist his father’s efforts in his ski racing.

Trevor stopped taking care of his equipment and showed little effort in his training. He would bail out of courses at the slightest wobble. His father became angry at Trevor’s “laziness”  and “lack of commitment.” Their relationship deteriorated quickly. Finally, Trevor decided that enough was enough and told his father that he hated skiing and would never put on a pair of skis again. And he hasn’t.

Guided Participation

“The greatest power parents have is the power to guide their children,” Dr. John Gray has written. Raising children to become both successful and happy involves guiding your children along that path, not forcing them down a path of your choosing. Guided participation gives your children the support they need to overcome the many challenges of achievement. It also gives them the freedom they need to choose their own route.

Guided participation provides your children with the initial impetus to achieve, but more important, it allows them to gain ownership of, motivation in, and desire for the achievement activity. You need to strike a balance between giving your children the first push toward achievement in terms of direction, opportunities, and resources, and then stepping back and enabling them to find their own personal connection with the activity. Your involvement must shift from direction and guidance to encouragement and freedom, and your involvement must decrease as time goes by. As your involvement decreases, the opportunity and space for your children to develop ownership will increase, enabling them to make the activity, in this case ski racing, their very own.

More on guided participation in two weeks.

Note: This article is a modified excerpt from Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.

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About Dr. Jim Taylor:

Dr. Jim Taylor 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, Jim has worked with many of America’s leading junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many countries. He is a clinical associate professor in the Sport&Performance Psych
ology graduate program at the University of Denver. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind and his latest parenting book is Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.

Click here to go to Dr. Jim’s archive.

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