Ski racing/parenting: do you want a gifted or hard-working ski racer

Giftedness is revered in our culture; inborn talent — whether intellectual, athletic, or artistic — ensures that children will be successful. How many times have you heard “Bode Miller was born to ski race” or “Lindsay Vonn was destined to greatness?” Well, let me clear something up: No one is born to do anything, certainly not to ski race. The only thing that can be reasonably said is that some children are born with certain physiological attributes (e.g., body type) that can help them excel at ski racing. However, giftedness is no guarantee of success; the ski-racing world is full of gifted failures. Yet so many parents hope beyond hope that their children are gifted (and, by the way, 80% of parents surveyed believe their children are above average which, of course, is statistically impossible).

Children have also fallen for this myth of giftedness. Whenever I speak to young ski racers, I ask them whether they would rather be gifted or hardworking. With almost complete unanimity, children say they would rather be gifted. When you’re gifted, they say, everything is easy. Yet parents and young racers don’t realize that giftedness can be as much a cross to bear as, well, a gift.

Though I don’t admit it to them, I would probably have to say that it is better to be gifted, because you can develop the hard work, whereas you can’t be hard working and develop the giftedness. But it doesn’t really matter because you have the ability you are born with and the only thing you can control is how hard you work.

Problems with Giftedness

Because gifted children succeed at an early age with little effort, they often have no ownership of their successes (“I won the race, but I didn’t even try.”). Without ownership, gifted children have difficulty learning the connection between their efforts and their outcomes. They can’t say, “I did well because I worked hard.” They may also develop the belief that they will always succeed in the future without effort.

Another problem with being labeled as gifted is that natural ability is not something that children can control. Gifted children don’t earn their giftedness; they were just lucky that their parents gave them good genes. Also, when gifted children succeed, they, of course, attribute their success to their ability. Unfortunately, when they fail — which they inevitably will sooner or later — they tend to attribute their failures to their lack of ability and, as I just noted, there’s nothing they can do about it.

Challenges of Being Gifted

Because they’re gifted, these children experience early success and little or no failure. These young racers win JOs ,qualify for Topolino, and are on the fast track to the U.S. Ski Team. But sooner or later they reach a level where everyone is gifted (e.g., the USST). At this point, giftedness isn’t what makes these children special, because they’re all gifted. And their giftedness isn’t what ultimately determines who becomes truly successful. What separates those children who are simply gifted from those who are gifted and successful is whether they developed the skills to maximize their gifts.

Unfortunately, these children will find that their inborn talent is no longer sufficient to be successful. Because everything comes so easily to them, many never learn the skills — hard work, persistence, patience, perseverance, discipline — that will enable them to become truly successful.