Pure Motivation and Natural Potential For Kids
"Results Happen Naturally When Motivation is Pure”. That is my favorite one liner to capture the most important lesson I learned competing as a professional triathlete for nine years. When my motivation was pure, I trained and competed with great joy and a fearless disposition, ideal attributes to enjoy the “zone” experience of peak performance. In contrast, what we see often in the modern world are motivations that are impure – an obsession with superficial results from a culture that measures and judges everyone by superficial accomplishments and appearances. As I learned, an athlete who embodies these traits commonly gets torched by the competition.
In my experience as a youth athlete and now a parent, I’ve seen many examples of impure motivations from parents. All parents want “what’s best for their kids”, which usually means wanting them to excel in something so they can be proud and gain a sense of security that their kid will be positioned for a promising future. School, sports, music, the arts and other avenues of personal achievement are certainly important, but unless motivations are pure, the value of accomplishment is severely compromised.
Most every red-blooded American parent would not mind if their kid was a superstar athlete or high school valedictorian and its great to encourage competition, goal setting, focus and discipline. However, there is a line that must not be crossed or negative consequences will be suffered. The extremely successful people I have had the pleasure of associating with in my life have certain common qualities. Chief among them is a pure love for their activity and unconditional supporters - coaches, parents, siblings, peers and other positive role models. In the autobiographies of Lance Armstrong and his mother, Linda Armstrong Kelly, a common theme appears: Lance was given an open road and all the support his mom (essentially a single parent) could muster to pursue and achieve goals in his greatest area of interest. Absent were the silly over-indulgences of affluent families, unreasonable expectations heaped on him by “need to get a life” parents or coaches.
Lindsay Hyatt-Barr was the 1999 valedictorian at Placer High School in Auburn and one of the greatest track and field athletes in history of California – a three-time national high school champion and four-time state champion (the only in history) at 800 meters. She explains that her journey was more one of destiny than of unreasonable discipline or unhealthy external pressure. “I studied because I loved learning, inspired by my parents who are both educators (mom Jan teaches Kindergarten at Skyridge Elementary in Auburn; Dad Ron teaches at Placer High School and coached Lindsay during her career). I ran because I loved the competition. Winning was secondary to my desire to simply compete and challenge myself. I definitely was blessed to experience academics and athletics without pressure from my parents, coaches or even the community. Unfortunately, I see so many pushy parents down here in this environment (Lindsay graduated from and now works in External Relations at Stanford University). It's really frightening. I’ve seen athletes become physically ill before races because of nervousness and external pressures. I can’t even imagine; the competition was my favorite part! It’s critical for all those involved in youth sports, and even academic achievement to get some perspective that “more is better”, and “push your kids until they don’t like it anymore” does not work.
This brings into focus the important theme of Natural Potential which we emphasize in the Running School program. As a parent, your most important mission should be to help guide your kid(s) to enjoy the experience of their lives and help them achieve what my wife calls their “natural potential”. If your kid is destined to be a superstar athlete, Ivy league student, award winning actor, or political leader, this path will run its course with your support. If you pay attention, you will notice signs along the way (e.g. - are they having fun yet?) and respond appropriately, nurturing the child’s dream as expressed in their own words and at their own pace.
In an ironic twist on the ‘education is everything’ maxim spouted by everyone, Linda Armstrong Kelly’s experience, paraphrased from her book commentary, went more like: “Gee Lance is really not taking well to high school, but he’s beating the top adults in the world in triathlon – maybe I’ll nurture his athletic dreams and let go of my dream, obviously unrealistic at this point, for him to attend college.” If that’s how it’s going down with your kid, then sometimes you have to stop blocking the road and start directing traffic.
When I entered high school and was quickly cut from the basketball team, I found myself on the cross country running team. While a naturally talented runner, I lacked passion for this difficult sport at that time in my life. When the team departed campus for our daily distance runs, I would duck in the gas station bathroom a quarter mile from school, wait till everyone passed and then head home to jump on the trampoline or shoot baskets. I was not subject to ridicule or punishment from my parents nor pressured by a militant coach (not that they knew anyway!). Instead I took the freedom to find my own way in the giant new high school and let things play out naturally.
Two years later I crossed a finish line in Lincoln, Nebraska in the 1,500 meter finals of the National Junior Olympics, ranking 12th in the United States in my age group. The switch came on for me and I became an extremely competitive and driven distance runner, pursuing my natural potential which found me competing at a national level. Sure, I was greatly assisted by positive forces in my environment, but it was I alone who flipped the switch and decided to apply myself.
If you pay attention only to your own signs and ego demands and project your dreams into your children’s lives, you are quite likely going to suffer disappointment, distress and a fractured relationship with your child. Forcing, criticizing and pushing children to achieve is impure, ill-advised and ineffective by any reasonable definition of success – which must include intangibles like happiness and enjoyment of the process. Even something seemingly benign like incentivizing your kid with a dollar for each soccer goal, home run or report card A can invite impure motivations to cloud the picture of enjoying peak performance intrinsically.
Kids have to learn many lessons in their lives. Some valuable lessons are learned when kids persevere under extreme competitive circumstances. Equally valuable lessons can be learned when kids decide to quit something they don’t like. When I played in the 100lb Pop Warner football league as a 71-pound 12-year-old, I got my body bashed every which way at practices and played only the obligatory “four plays a game” per league rules, usually at the end of blowouts produced by our undefeated team. I hated practice and hated games more. I wanted to quit in the middle of the season, but after consultation between coach and father about this issue, I stuck it out, buoyed by the “great potential” I had according to my coach’s phone conversation with my dad. The lessons I learned from sticking it out? 1) I was not naturally suited for football and 2) Coaches bullshit parents in order to have more warm bodies for their star players to bash at practice. I didn’t need to continue with the season to learn these lessons. If my son were to become disenchanted with a sport and a coach and have the courage to quit, I would be proud of him. Life is not something to endure, it’s something to enjoy. And sports, of all things, are supposed to be fun.
So is school! And if it’s not, we have to delve into these problems and try to make positive changes. Yes, it’s critically important to complete school, but that doesn’t give parents open license for force schoolwork down the throats of kids. There is enough culture pressure to excel and make money that parents might be better served to encourage open exploration of learning passions instead of keeping kids’ toes on the linear path.
My college experience consisted of cramming my degree in Business Economics/Accounting emphasis into three years of pressure packed, grade obsessed performance. Then, I was going to law school and surely destined for the big bucks as a “tax attorney”. The problem was this had nothing to do with my basic nature or natural educational interests and talents. During the final quarter of my senior, when I mercifully was able to choose whatever classes I wanted to merely accumulate necessary units, I was captivated by classes in Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science. Whoops!
When the law school applications came, I noticed I needed a teacher recommendation. Being a back of the class/rarely attend kind of guy, I didn’t know a single teacher. Nevertheless, the teacher I made a request to changed my life. I said something like, “Hey, you don’t know me, but I got a couple A’s in your classes as you can see here on my report card…can you write me a rec letter please?”. He said, “I’ll be happy to write you a letter, and UCLA Law happens to be my alma mater! But you have to answer me one question. Please, don’t answer right away, take your time and come back tomorrow. If you can answer yes, I’ll write you a glowing letter: ‘Are you passionate about the law?’” The law school application ended up in the trash and I never saw the professor again. Thanks dude!
Hopefully gaining an understanding of natural potential and pure motivation will help parents relax and enjoy the experience of your kid growing up. With a supportive, non-pressurized approach, maybe the switchboard can light up for more kids in more areas and we can all realize the highest expression of our talents as parents and kids and as role models for others.
How To Emphasize Competition Properly
It’s tough to know how much to encourage and challenge your kids without making it a “pushing and pressuring” negative. I think the best approach is to be a role model, as in, “Hey I’m going to the park to kick the soccer ball, wanna come?” I recently read a book called Sports Without Pressure (or something like that) where the psychologist/author said that kids are quite perceptive about what they want and don't want, even at a young age. While their vocabulary and ability to convey complex thoughts and emotions is not there, it's a safe bet that a kid who says, "I'm tired; I'm thirsty; Can we do it later?" is probably not too psyched to do what you are trying to encourage. And thus its probably not a good idea to cajole, beg, bribe or force them to do it.
This being true, I also think its okay to establish some rules and mandates that are fair and sensitive to your children's needs, ability level and temperament. For example, "Before you watch TV, we have to go outside and get some fresh air and exercise. Would you like to go to the park or the playground? Or if they really don't want to get out, negotiate again. "Okay then, you can stay in and read, but not watch TV." Remember that kids have a natural desire to exercise, move and even compete. They also like to spend quality time with parents. Getting dressed in your sports apparel and setting up some cool sports/game equipment in the back yard, then actually engaging in the activity is a little different than saying, from your comfortable spot on the couch watching weekend football, "You kids are so lazy, you should get out there and exercise!" If you have no takers and start having fun by yourself, I'd bet you might see some little players soon join you.
Regarding the issue of how much to emphasize competition, I think we are making some serious mistakes and are seriously confused in kids sports (ahem, and adults sports) today. Unfortunately, our rat race world places so much emphasis on results and winning that it filters down to the point where kids who do not excel tend to dislike and avoid competition. It's possible to make a serious, intense competition a positive experience for every single kid who competes, whether they place first or last.
The world is competitive and you can't get discount or de-emphasize that. It's okay to encourage and support competition, keep score, celebrate winning, ranking against others, being disappointed after losing and all the rest. However, its also important to emphasize the process over the end result. This doesn't mean sugar coat things, as with the sometimes-criticized curent trend of always saying, "Hey you all did great, everybody is a winner, congratulations".
Kids are naturally competitive, they know what's what and you can't B.S. them. However, what you can do is take the losing soccer team and say, "Yep, we got killed again. The other team played great. And you guys did this well and that well and we're going to keep working hard and improving." The last place kid in a race can inspired to improve his previous best time, and so on down the line. Insist that kids focus on the fun and the process without negating or pretending the results don't exist.
Then the negative self-talk we hear all the time from kids can be challenged and redirected honestly. If a kid laments, "I stink at soccer", the solution is not to say, "No, no, no - you're great!"; but rather, "It doesn't matter your ability level, what matters is you have fun and work hard to get better. Let's see if you can improve your dribbling with this fun cone game."
Promoting Children's Fitness
As you may have heard, children today have a lower life expectancy than their parents for the first time in recorded history. Obesity and sedentary lifestyles are predicting serious epidemics of heart disease and diabetes when the younger generation ages. The lifestyle practices and dietary choices of American children are atrocious. If you have children or can influence them, it is time to take some simple steps to make a radical change away from the path towards a predicted dismal future.
Children have a natural affinity for exercise and play. They also have a natural affinity for healthy foods. This is an evolutionary human instinct proven true by the landmark studies of Dr. Clara Davis (conducted on Canadian orphans back in the 1930's and made famous by references in the Dr. Spock baby books) - where children were presented with a variety of foods and allowed to eat whatever they wanted. Over the course of several days they gravitated towards the most nutritious foods and ate the exact amount of calories and balance of nutrients they needed for peak function.
At Skyridge Elementary School, I witness a community effort to create healthy, fit lifestyles for kids. This public school has a lunchtime “Trekkers” jogging/walking program (where kids accumulate miles for awards), an annual Jog-A-Thon where every kid in the school runs laps and raises money for the Parent Teacher Club, a Skyridge Olympics competition where every child is timed in a sprint and distance race and awards are given to top performers, an after-school cross country team to introduce interested kids to competitive running and a morning pickup soccer game where up to 50 kids race full speed across a huge field for 10 minutes before the bell rings in a fierce "Big Kids vs Little Kids" daily battle! The principal organizes a healthy awareness week with signage, programs and guest speakers about healthy eating and exercise. These efforts are driven by concerned parents and educators and make a huge difference.
However, the momentum is huge against healthy eating and exercise habits. Mainstream food choices and advertising have made unhealthy foods ubiquitous in our culture. Read “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser to grasp just how devastating the impact of the fast food industry is on America. I ask you to place this issue high on your priority list – to become informed, focused and even militant against bad food and bad lifestyle practices for you and your kids.
If you have lifestyle elements that force inactivity (such as relying on car transportation), you must make efforts to ensure that your kids keep active on a daily basis. Even in a small area such as a backyard or family room, kids can figure out active games that will get their hearts racing and blood pumping. Kids food choices are essentially controlled by parents until they reach their teen years, so present them with healthy options and healthy meal time habits that they can carry with them into adulthood. More details about how you can take simple steps to eat a healthy diet and lead an active lifestyle are available in my book Power Month available at www.bradventures.com