Parenting a Talented Kid: A New Approach

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Mikaela Shiffrin, age 7

Quick thought experiment:

Let’s say you’re the parent of a kid who really, really loves skiing. (It could be soccer or chess or tennis or math, but let’s make it skiing.)

Let’s say that by grade school, your kid is dominating their peers. Stories about their prowess begin to spread. Then it happens: you get approached by coaches, scouts, national-team types. They have an important question for you:

Your child is brilliantly talented, and their talent requires support. We can provide your child with expert training, the best coaching, and world-class competition. Let us take charge — let your child join our program, train and travel with us — and we will help them reach their potential. 

What do you do?

For many of us, the answer is simple: we’d say yes. It’s the same logic you use when you take your car to a mechanic instead of fixing it yourself: experts know best. (Never mind the dizzying contact high you’d get from having a kid in a world-class talent-development program.) It would be almost irresistible.

And it also might be exactly the wrong thing to do.

Meet 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin. Everyone will be meeting her soon enough. As a World Cup slalom champion, she’s likely to become one of the big stories of next month’s Sochi Winter Olympics. (I recommend reading this marvelous profile by Bill Pennington.)

But to understand why, you should understand that Shiffrin is a useful case study for the reverse approach to parenting a talented kid — what you might call the Do-it-Yourself approach to talent development. It’s an approach that focuses on 1) valuing the daily skill-development process over competition; 2) maintaining family normalcy.

As her father Jeff recalled:

“These top-level coaches would tell me that Mikaela was just ripping up a racecourse. And I would say: ‘Yeah, I agree, but she’s just 9 years old.’ And they’d say, ‘What are your plans for her?’ And I’d answer: ‘Plans? Well, tomorrow she’s trying out for a part as the angel in the Christmas play.’”

In the Shiffrins’ telling, much of Mikaela’s development was built on homespun methods. To teach balance, they bought a unicycle. Instead of racing big courses, Mikaela spent time skiing an icy 300-foot hill, working on perfecting her technique. In summer, they used in-line skates and broomsticks to simulate slalom gates.

To be sure, Shiffrin competed at a high level, and worked with some of the finest coaches around. But every decision was  built around the daily process of mastering skills — which captured Mikaela’s imagination more than any medal. As Kirk Dwyer, Shiffrin’s coach and headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, puts it,

“She truly believed that the focus should be on the process of getting better and not race results. She does that to this day. Everyone on the World Cup says they want to race like they practice, but how many actually do it? Mikaela can because she’s not thinking about trying to win. She’s thinking about getting better.”

If the big sports programs are akin to the factory-farm approach to developing talent, you might call this approach Free Range Mastery. It sounds revolutionary, but it’s really not all that different from the approach followed by Bode Miller, Serena and Venus Williams, and of course, Tiger Woods. A few reasons why it works:

  • 1) True ownership of the skill-development process. In big programs, the power is held by the coaches, creating a tendency for the kid to become a highly obedient automatons — achieving for others, not themselves. In the free-range approach, however, the dynamic is reversed. The kid (and parents) remain the master of the daily process, able to innovate, test, and ultimately drive the improvement process.
  • 2) More adaptability. Big programs, by necessity, tend to put everyone into categories and timelines, with the associated grid of expectations. If you don’t achieve X by age Y, then you have the risk of being perceived (and perceiving yourself) as a failure. But talent development is never a one-size-fits-all experience, and the line of progression is rarely smooth. Keeping things loose — being able to take some time off, or test-drive a new coach or fresh approach — is beneficial in the long run.
  • 3) Fewer demotivating experiences. A kid’s desire is a fragile thing, and nothing extinguishes it faster than getting crushed on a big stage. Controlling the big-pond competitive environment allows skills (especially emotional skills) to grow at their own pace.
  •  4) Embracing the power of normalcy. Doing chores, homework, and being a regular kid whenever possible acts like a powerful drug, helping to build emotional skills, resilience, and the foundation to deal with whatever comes along.

But perhaps the biggest reason the DIY approach works is because it is aligned with the way skill actually develops: not through splashy public accomplishments but by something quieter and closer to the bone.

Jeff Shiffrin put it best:

“Some people might call our approach intense. But it’s not, because the motivation is not to be better than other people at something. The motivation comes from a belief that almost anything can be mastered if you’re willing to put in the hours to master it. If you’re going to do something, do it as best as you can.”


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18 Responses to “Parenting a Talented Kid: A New Approach”

  1. Dave says:

    Everything is DIY in developing a master, it’s the only way. The best coaches are the ones that facilitate “self learning” a skill so that the subject can surpass the coach. That is why so many world class athletes or artists can come from clubs, or locations, with no winning team or performance company. These people are taught to measure against themselves each day, toward a goal, so becoming better is not measured by beating a training partner or opponent. Tough to teach this to young elite coaches but often understood intuitively by introductory instructors or coaches.

  2. Rich Kent says:

    In 2011-2012, I conducted research at Burke Mountain Academy. I learned from another of Mikaela Shiffrin’s BMA coaches, Adam Chadbourne, that she “writes and journals extensively on her own” about skiing. The reflective stance that athletes maintain while writing in journals about their training, equipment, coaches, and competitions complements your “Free Range Mastery.” There’s nothing “splashy” or “public” about sitting and writing in your hotel room; it is, to be sure, “something quieter and closer to the bone.” It’s also about learning.

  3. Mike says:

    Children have to be allowed to play something to develop a love for it. The motivation is then more internal. Too often, children are encouraged to train rather than play, where the motivation is often more external. The article mentions Missy Franklin who against ‘expert’ advice swam with her high school team, so she could swim with her friends. Training is often hard work where play is always fun. If kids aren’t given a proper amount of play, they are more likely to burn out from training.

  4. Fantastic Article, would be delighted to post in on my blog. With the correct amount of coaching and not over coaching a child can achieve so much. The problem is the adult have so much involvement in kids development and want to control everything they do. We need to let children be children before they become adults and stop trying to alter a natural process. This reflect how we react to kids on playing fields, we want them to do things we can do (and in most cases can’t do) without letting them discover it for themselves. We expect them to understand the game of football, before they can understand it for themselves. As we control so much of their lives, we think it’s ok to control their sport and how they learn and develop. We control their recreational time from start to finish, we bring them to it, we give our opinions during and after it and we don’t allow the kids freedom to think and explore for themselves.
    What the children see on a sports pitch and what you see is completely different. The sports pitch can in some case be the only place a child has the opportunity to experience freedom, make mistakes but even that is taken away by the consistent actions and demands by adults from the sidelines. I always tell the player I coach to focus on the things they can control. Focus on effort and trying to execute a skill with speed. Winning comes natural to kids, but balance, Speed, co-ordination, technique are all skills that can be developed and improved by practicing day in day out. Majority of adults focus on winning over development, there-in lies the biggest issue with kids sports.

  5. Great article.

    Its great to hear an example of a family-developed star that emerges from the development process well rounded and with the family in tact, dare I say it she appears to be a happy young adult too. Unfortunately these reported cases are rare.

    I believe the reason why these cases are rare is that there is a large amount of assumptions operating as fact in the talent development process.

    Some suggestions of what the healthy talent development process looks like:

    1. The No 1 job of a youth coach is to help his/her athletes fall in love with the game – help them have fun. How do you know how to find such a ooach? He/She will be having the most fun in the coaching staff – just watch for 10 minutes and you will spot him/her.
    2. Whose dream is it? Once a child falls in love with their sport a parent can support that child by helping them nurture and protect the dream, and inspire them to find steps towards it.
    3. If you make it all the way you will be the exception – so what is your plan to be exceptional? One of the things that make Mikaela exceptional is her bias towards improvement over competition. Another is her dedication to world class technique.
    4. You have to be a great learner. As Rich shared journalling is often unglamorous work, however it can provide gains every day, and who doesnt want to gain everyday on the way to being their best?
    5. You need to learn the difference between self esteem and self-confidence. This allows a child to experience healthy self-esteem regardless of any sporting ability or result, rare, but often found in values driven, close-knit families.
    6. Earl Woods, Richard Williams and I am guessing Jeff Shiffrin all modelled two things, one which is obvious and the other subtle, but I wager more important. They all loved their chosen sports, however what they also loved was the process of improving in their sports, and that is what their kids picked up too. (Earl started playing golf a year before Tiger was born, Richard learned the game of tennis so he can teach his girls) Its not only what you say, its what you do that impacts young talent.

  6. Danny Southwick says:

    Love it Daniel! Great post.

  7. John says:

    Daniel,

    Great post!

    This post reminds me of Carol Dweck’s growth-mindset. You mentioned a focus on improvement is critical to success. This intense focus on improvement is exactly what Dweck’s extensive research supports.

  8. harold burbank says:

    article captures the essence of why shiffrin, miller, mahres, ligety,and others are so good. add to this what warren witherell, burke’s founder, told me: thst mikaela is ‘a genius; she sees in courses what others do not’. probably, but having been a seriius racer, ski coach and school teacher, i support the idea that mikaela’s writing a journal on her racing, and improving, is something most have overlooked in her case. the effort it takes to write in detail about improvement engages the mind and imagination in a way to help the athlete visualize on and off snow what needs improving, how to get there, and what it looks and feels like. i do not think that this exercise has been ‘tested’ for its impacts, but the shiffrin case surely suggests some research in the area might prove a great deal about this technique can improve sports performances, especially over time.

  9. Hogan Nago says:

    Love this article, if you look at most elite level athletes that reach the pinnacle of their sport they come from a nurturing environment that gives them easy access to the sport they love. Even though their are plenty of elite coaching camps many of them work with athletes that have already reached a high level of success, they help refine their skill set but they seldom create it. If you had to take a lesson in any sport would you rather take one from the best coach in the world or the worlds best in that sport?

  10. Mark says:

    Very interesting and some good parenting ;-)
    This is related to the article
    http://footblogball.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/physical-literacy/

    Best
    Mark

  11. steve says:

    How do you square this story with that of Leo Messi? Sent to La Masia in Barcelona, a whole continent away, at a very young age? A very specialized school and training environment. He was even injected with expensive growth hormones, so that he could effectively compete on the soccer field as a pre-teen.

  12. Jodi Murphy says:

    “Keeping things loose — being able to take some time off, or test-drive a new coach or fresh approach — is beneficial in the long run.”

    I think that’s a valid point. Just because you don’t follow a certain time line that doesn’t mean you can’t excel. Some players need a slightly more flexible approach in order to really succeed.

  13. Robert says:

    she won by .8seconds in her last world cup slalom event.
    on track for the olympics.

  14. mukatsuku says:

    steve,

    the euro soccer club academies have a focus on skills, not games (results). however, they do have an up-or-out system that is not ‘nurturing’ – based solely on the coaches’ annual evaluation of the future value of their soccer commodities (the students). see the piece on Ajax academy in the NYTimes http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/magazine/06Soccer-t.html

  15. Ian McClurg says:

    Great article Daniel. We have sent this out to all the parents in our academy and also posted it on our Facebook site. In soccer, many parents get concerned about whether their children are playing at a certain level by a certain age or being challenged enough during training or games. We focus on transferring skills development ownership to our individual players and stress that becoming a better player is not dependent upon the level of competition in games.

  16. James says:

    I agree with John’s posting on the 14th regarding Carol Dweck and the growth mindset. There is also a link between happiness and performing at your best (see attached link).

    Not every parent can create this optimal environment and then step aside removing their own ego from the equation and letting the kid have a normal life while maintaining an optimal learning mindset.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html

  17. Stephanie Ann Middleton says:

    I Agree with Dave 100%. Helping someone help themselves self correct IS the joy in the journey for both coach and kid. I have found that insecure coaches (insecure about their own abilities or lack of reaching their own potentials) focus on beating someone else, and coaches secure with their own lifelong journey convey the most important message of improving yourself, doing better than yourself on the path to mastery, not someone else. It’s how I coached and coach and how I have raised my kids….Zakki Blatt is only one example. What is intolerable is coaches honoring a code that says do anything to win, even cheat. The product of this thinking is an insecure mind set. Do everything to improve upon your own best, creates winners in life and sport :)

  18. We at A1 Seaysuccess! work with talented youth of all ages in sports and entertainment. We feel that a child is best served when they do what the love because they LOVE doing it. Anything less is a disservice to the child. The ones that become truly great are those that excel because of the LOVE of the activity. The focus is always on the child FIRST, not the activity or what can be gained from mastery of the activity. Check us out at a1success.net

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