As history reveals, the Cochran family genetics carry something special as far as ski racing prowess. Three generations deep in world-class achievements, passing the Cochran torch is not that straightforward when it comes to parenting. Take it from a family member whose perspective was built from every angle of the experience, as one of four successful child athletes of famous coaches and as the mother of a burgeoning star.
Olympic gold medalist Barbara Ann Cochran, who now runs a coaching consulting business (https://sportssuccesscoaching.com/) believes that nurturing the talent and drive it takes to become one of the world’s best at any sport is a fine balance that most ski racing parents simply miss.
“The majority of parents who get involved in their kids’ sports are not helpful,” says Cochran, who grew up in her family’s backyard ski area in Vermont with two sisters and a brother who were all multiple national champions.
“I don’t know where I read or heard this, but it’s something like 2 percent of parents are beneficial [to their children’s developing sports careers] and 98 percent are not. I feel my dad was in that 2 percent. He just had a way of coming out and saying the right things that put me in a great spot and changed my thinking. But I actually think my mom was in the 98 percent,” Cochran says.
The approaches Cochran’s parents took supporting her own race career varied tremendously, at least the way she perceived it. The former slalom star recalls a particular race in Val d’Isere in which she struggled with the conditions. It was her father’s focus on the necessary adjustments that helped her prevail.
“I remember this race was a sheet of ice. I was horrible. I couldn’t ski on it. I was so discouraged at the end of that race. I talked to my coach and I felt like he was pointing out all the things I did wrong. It didn’t help at all,” she recalls. “Then I talked to my dad. He said, ‘no, you’re not doing a lot of things wrong. What’s happening is when you ski on ice, you have to change the way you’re skiing a little bit.’”
Mickey Cochran – who was by then the U.S. Ski Team’s Alpine Director – advised his daughter to keep her skis vertical, initiate turns sooner and wrap them up earlier to maintain speed and control in such conditions.
“I did what he said and it was like magic. I was like, oh, I’m not doing that much wrong, I just have to change how I approach ice,” Barbara Ann says. “I think it’s tough for parents to have that knowledge and be positive.”
In reflecting on her mother’s approach, Barbara Ann was often left with negative feelings.
“My mom was supportive in the ways she knew how – going to any activities her kids were involved in, substituting for me in the parent cooperative preschool when my kids were in preschool, babysitting, cleaning my house, paying for opportunities for my kids that I didn’t have money for … but I didn’t trust that she knew a lot about actually coaching or the emotional intelligence involved with sports psychology, both the mental piece and the technical aspect. She was a great mom in a lot of ways, but I did struggle with the feeling that I wanted to please her and felt that I often disappointed her,” Cochran says.
She offers an example of her very first FIS race as a J2, a competition in which her sister Marilyn and brother Bob also participated.
“Dad had taken us to the race and I actually won,” she says. “Marilyn must have fallen or something. I remember going up to the porch afterward and my dad had my trophy. He showed it to my mom and said, ‘guess who won?’ She said, ‘Marilyn?’ He said, ‘nope.’ ‘Bobby?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Then, who won?’ In her mind, she didn’t think I could do it. She kind of categorized us. Marilyn could do extremely well. Bobby could do well. With me … she just didn’t see that with me.”
As a mother herself of adult children, including Ryan Cochran-Siegle, currently one of America’s most successful multi-discipline World Cup alpine racers, Barbara Ann has been extra mindful of providing ample support, but just the right amount of feedback.
Her tips for what parents can do to support their athletes, include …
Allow the athlete to process his/her emotions, especially if a competition has not gone as hoped:
“I always want to stay in touch, no matter what the results are,” she says.
Cochran recalls watching a live stream of her son’s first World Cup race in Soelden. She knew he didn’t make the flip and suspected he was disappointed.
“They didn’t show much of the steep part. I was texting him. I said, I saw you at the start, saw you at the finish, how was the steep? His one-word response back to me was, ‘steep.’ I’m thinking, aw shoot, he doesn’t want to say anything. So I said, how did it go on the steep? He said, ‘I was slow.’ That’s all he said. I’m saying to myself, you know better than to try to push him on it. So I just said, ‘bummer,’ then I changed the topic, probably told him what was going on here. The interesting thing was, a couple of days later, he talked about it. He told me about his frustrations and what had gone on with his skiing. So it’s really about backing off a bit, letting your athlete process that time frame. When things have not gone well, that’s not the time to try to help them talk about it and get over it. They need space.”
“The other thing really key for parents is to acknowledge the emotions. Like, ‘I can see that was a frustrating run for you.’ Or, ‘wow, you must be really happy with how you skied that run.’ Help them figure out how they’re actually feeling. Once you identify an emotion for them, if that’s not how they feel, they’ll correct you or you’ll get more information.”
Acknowledge that your opinion is not prescriptive, but simply an opinion
“To say something about a competition, it is really important the parent acknowledge that it’s their opinion. To say, for example, ‘I was impressed with how you turned in that third gate.’
Point out the positives but don’t issue empty praise
“I don’t think it’s helpful for parents to tell their children they’re skiing well when the athlete knows that isn’t true. There was another time, I think it was 2016, when [Ryan] wasn’t able to get the results he wanted, but I wanted him to know I was still really proud of him. I texted him that. I knew he was frustrated and discouraged, so this was my trying to be positive. He immediately wrote back and said, ‘mom, you shouldn’t be proud of me. I was really slow.’ I wrote back and said, ‘I’m proud of you for your persistence, your positivity in coming back from injury.’ He never gave up. That’s what I was proud of him for. So he begrudgingly said, ‘OK, but don’t be proud of that effort.’ When a parent is trying to be positive, know that it may backfire on you.”
Be present, emotionally if not physically
“My mom, one of the best things about her, she went to everything. If we were in a school concert, if we were in games, she went to all of the things. I remember my first year teaching. I was an assistant field hockey coach. There were very few parents at our games, but one of the parents there was my mom. She didn’t know any of the players, but she was there to support me. I’ve talked to some kids who say, ‘I don’t like my parents there,’ but if they don’t like the parent there, it’s because they’re feeling judged by them or that they’ll disappoint them in some way. I think it’s healthy for parents to go. The ultimate message you want to give your kids is, ‘I love you. I love being here and watching you participate in your sport, but with no judgment.’”
Focus on the development, not on the results
“There’s something called The Growth Mindset or the Fixed Mindset. In talking about the Fixed Mindset, the reason an athlete might give up or not try as hard is because they measure themselves on what they believe they’re capable of. Their results define them. So if they’re racing and they think they’re having a horrible run, when they make a mistake, they will give up rather than see that even if they haven’t done well, they can still learn something from their skiing. With a Growth Mindset, that is not so important. They can still recognize successes, even when they haven’t had a good run. A Fixed Mindset puts more pressure on them and over time, can become unbearable,” Cochran says, quoting the book Mindset by Carol S. Dweck.
Cultivate the growth of a child’s activity
“You focus on the process and finding the successes. ‘I really like how you made that third turn.’ It’s like what my dad did in Val d’Isere. I didn’t see anything positive about it, but he said, ‘here’s what you have to do to change that.’
Point out the value of mistakes
“The athletes I talk to sometimes, they’re so afraid of making a mistake. You see them in a bit of trouble, then they’re out of the course because they have a Fixed Mindset. If they recover and keep going, that’s really healthy.”
Nurture the expansion of the comfort zone
“I talk a lot about the zones: comfort, risk and danger zones. For a Fixed Mindset, when you get into your risk zone, it’s pushing you back into your comfort zone. To get into the risk, it’s to accept they put their best effort into it. If you’re making a mistake, that’s a good thing, because it means you’re beyond your comfort zone. What I tell athletes having trouble finishing a course, ‘I challenge you to start and get to the bottom. If you were snowplowing, you could finish that course, no problem. That’s your comfort zone. When you start to push yourself through the flush, you’re going to let yourself really go. That is pushing yourself into a risk zone. Then you see what happens. Were you able to handle it? The more you’re able to handle it, it becomes more of your comfort zone.”
Let the coaches coach
Finally, the parting words of wisdom from Cochran are perhaps as gold as her Olympic medal. “As a parent, let the coach, coach,” she says. “That’s not to say that parents can’t coach. If that is their position, they just have to be clear when they’re talking to their kid as a parent and as a coach. But if they’re not part of the coaching staff, don’t coach.”