Parenting a Talented Kid: A New Approach

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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