My musings on this topic started as I watched my eight-year-old daughter finish dead last, with the cheers of an appreciative crowd pushing her the final 100 meters of her 1500 meter race. I wondered, what is this teaching her? As I watched the rest of the meet from different perspective. I’m sure there are many things my children will learn from their track and field experience, but here are the three that kept running through my brain over the weekend.
1. Work hard and appreciate your own efforts, but understand that rewards only come from results.
In a culture that increasingly seems to reward effort over results, it’s nice to be part of a sport where the crowd appreciates and applauds the effort, but the awards only go to those who achieve results. The medals at this past weekend’s invitational only went to the top three finishers. This fact was not lost on my children, and this is an important lesson.
I loved some of the comments that came publicly as a result of yesterdays thoughts after a weekend watching children race. I especially liked this from Bob Dailey. “We experienced the same “everyone gets a trophy” syndrome when our daughters were in soccer and softball. I don’t remember this when I was a kid (makes me feel a bit like an old curmudgeon saying this),” he said. “In competition there are winners and losers. Experiencing both is an important part of growing up. Understanding that there is a difference is a big deal, and something that we are losing by giving everyone trophies. If everyone gets a trophy, then nobody is receiving anything special. Most kids realize the difference, even if their parents try to take the lessons of competition out of the equation for their kids.
“That’s a bit different from applauding the effort and determination of the last runner,” he added, and rightfully so. “We applaud their refusal to quit, their focus on winning the battle with themselves. We applaud the potential that this experience will propel the runner to train harder, prepare better, and possibly win their next race, or the one after that.” This is exactly what I concluded after some thought as I watched the remainder of the races. There is a huge difference between rewarding mediocrity and encouraging hard work, encouraging your children to keep pushing, to finish.
Many people also commented privately on my post yesterday. One private comment that I have permission to share really stuck out with me. “We have totally made our kids think they can get by in life with just being mediocre when the truth is, there is no second place when it comes to winning a sale or a job interview,” Joanna Brooke Williams shared with me in a private message on Facebook. She had just dealt with a situation with her 21 year old daughter that had impacted her greatly. “You have to lay 110% on the line every time you are called to duty. Yes, I cheered her on, not being the best soccer player or runner. I participated in the awards ceremony every time,” she added. “But really, they need to learn, they have to win sometimes. It’s an insane world for these kids after college. You have to be the best of the best or find your place in a low end job.”
A child’s need for love and affirmation cannot be taken for granted.
Even as adults, we need to be encouraged for our efforts. Our children need it too. But they also need to understand that there are consequences for trying, but not succeeding. “A child’s need for love and affirmation cannot be taken for granted,” Eukay Chukwumerije commented. “Nevertheless, there’s a fine line I find myself walking on a daily basis with my kids as they get older. It’s the balancing act of applauding their genuine efforts yet having them realize that mediocre work is not rewarded.”
I am not rewarded for effort. I am rewarded for results. I want my children to fully comprehend this. I believe track strikes a perfect balance in this regard. They get to feel good about working hard and putting forth the effort, seeking to beat their previous times each week. And they also see clearly that you don’t get to stand on the podium just because you tried really hard.
2. Don’t take the easy road. The harder road is often the one that will get you results.
There were 110 heats of 100M races over the weekend. 885 kids, or 66% of the 1388 athletes that competed, competed in the 100M event. If you’ve spent any time around track and field, you know that the 100M finals is the “money” event. It’s the one that everyone looks forward to. Close finishes in other races draw large cheers, but the 100M events get the loudest screams and the most attention. It’s true at the olympics. It’s true at the youth level.
It’s not surprising that these events draw the most young participants. For younger kids, these are the easiest events. This has a good and bad side to it. Speaking for my kids only, they are pretty good 100M runners. They have bee blessed with their mother’s speed genes, so they can hold their own. In the past, they have been able to compete on the “A” 4 x 100M relay teams based on their times. Two of our kids 4 x 100M teams hold the all time team records for the event in their age groups. But as they get older, their performance, compared to the other top sprinters has dropped off, even though they have improved. If they want to excel, their best chance of that is now more likely to be longer races, like the 400M or the 800M.
Our eleven-year-old son ran his first 400M this year at the invitational. He had not trained for it, and yet he finished just .5 seconds off of the podium. After the race I sat him down and told him that I didn’t want him taking the easy road and continuing just being “better than average” at the shorter distances. I asked him if he would consider working harder, training for the longer distance, and setting the goal of improving his time enough in the 400M to make the medal stand for the IEC meet at the end of the year. To my delight, he agreed.
The 400M race is a tough race. It’s almost an all-out sprint for four times the distance of the 100M, and training for it requires a different level of discipline and commitment than training for the 100M. He’ll have to work harder in practice, run longer distances to train, but it’s his best chance of experiencing the rewards of pushing himself farther than he thought he could. It won’t be the 100M glory race. It might even end up being the 800M that he is most suited for, but his efforts are likely to be better positioned.
Life is more like a long distance event than a sprint. Lots of people fall for the “get rich quick” schemes that promise results without the work, but there are very few who actually see any fruit from that. I want my kids to understand how to assess their personal skills properly and then be willing to work as hard as necessary to maximize those skills. I love that having my kids participate in track gives me the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations. They’re important.
3. In life, the difference between winners and losers is less about your talent than your ability to work well with others.
It happens almost every meet – A talented 4 x 100M team loses to a less talented 4 x 100M team because their handoffs weren’t executed properly. It happens even at the the elite levels. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the USA Mens’ 4 x 100M relay team had the talent to wind the gold medal, but they dropped the baton in a qualifying heat and never even made it to the finals.
On Sunday, in the Bantam girls final, the most talented team on the track rounded came into the hand off to the fourth leg clearly in the lead. But the baton exchange between the third and fourth leg was muffed and the baton bounced off the track onto the infield grass. The fourth leg girls, to her credit, ran off the track, picked it up and still finished in the third best time. The team was disqualified, of course, and our girls team ended up winning the event.
Did they have the most “talent?” I guess that depends on how you define it. In a team event, there is the factor of physical ability, that is one form of talent. There is also the factor of the ability to execute properly. That is another kind of talent, and one that can be learned. What I have seen over my 25+ years in business is that talent alone is not enough. Talented teams that haven’t mastered passing the baton properly, who don’t know how to communicate properly, don’t know how to work together properly, are often beaten beaten by less “talented” teams who simply execute beautifully.
Listening to my wife talk to her team about how they can shave off seconds, not fractions of a second, but seconds, by improving their teamwork is magical. The analogy to business and life is direct. And it’s important.
I want my kids to understand that their natural talents will take them only so far. Life is a team sport. They must learn to work and play well with others. They must learn how to be a part of a team, how to bring the best out of their team members by paying attention to their role in the team’s success and working with them to improve their “handoffs.” There are few sports that illustrate this more clearly than track does via the relays. They are my favorite events to watch.