On June 29th, I spent more than seven hours on my bike riding with my eighteen year old son Alex. We were riding from Snowmass to Crested Butte Village in Colorado. We rode about 170 kilometers and climbed almost 10,000 feet together. It may sound like a lot of riding and climbing, but in the grand scheme of things, it was just another day on the bike. To be more precise: ‘It was just another day out of seven long days of the Mavic Haute Route Rockies.’
The Mavic Haute Route Rockies is a timed and ranked competitive amateur cycling event which takes place in the Colorado Rockies. This year the event was held from June 24th to 30th. It started in Boulder and finished in Colorado Springs. That week, my son and I – and about 350 other cyclists – rode 817 kilometers and climbed 50,000 feet.
While it was my third participation in an Haute Route event (Haute Route also runs seven-day events in the Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites) it was Alex’ first participation. The Haute Route is a very good test of mental toughness. It is so long and so difficult that you cannot possibly replicate it in training, especially if you have a full-time job or go to school full-time like Alex. If you are a true amateur, you go from doing the odd long four-hour ride to riding five, six and seven hour for seven days in a row. If you have done the training and you are mentally strong, you will get through it without a problem. If you are weak mentally, you are in for one pretty miserable week.
I enjoyed riding with Alex on what was the longest stage (stage 6) of the week as I had not had an opportunity to ride with him much during the first five days; Alex is a much stronger rider than I am – although he only picked cycling in September 2016 – and he preferred to hang in front with the ex-pros, Olympians and Cat 1 racers. On day six, Alex was not having his best day (like many other riders) and that gave us an opportunity to hang out together. I didn’t see him much on stage 7 as he reverted to his favorite spot: at the front of the pack.
On the bus transfer from Crested Butte Village to Colorado Springs the next morning, I wrote a long private email to my family and a few close friends detailing my thoughts about Alex’ achievement, the importance of competitive sports in kids’ lives and how it can contribute to raising well-adjusted adults. I later told myself that the email could serve as the basis on a blog post on my experience as a father whose kids started competing in sports at a very early age. Yes, competing, not participating. I’ll explain later.
I never got around to writing the post as I have been travelling extensively since Haute Route. On a bike ride with Alex along the California coast today, I convinced myself to just start writing and see what this post would read like. So here we go.
To better understand the positive impact of competitive sports in children’s lives, let’s first analyze its opposite of it which is the concept of safe spaces.
Have you ever heard of a safe space?
It is a recent invention by unwise university authorities to insulate students from real life, ensuring they remain child-like and dependent on either their parents or, more likely and problematic, their professors. Safe spaces are mainly used by immature students to avoid having to hear ideas they were programmed to reject or that they feel could offend them. Imagine having a real job and being offered a safe space in lieu of a bad job review. Wouldn’t that be great? Imagine coming home from work and your wife unloads on you about what a terrible day she had because your four kids were sick all day and vomited all over their beds. Wouldn’t it be great to just ignore it and go to a safe space? Imagine your spouse having breast cancer and you having to deal with the disease and taking care of your three children on your own. Wouldn’t it be great to just not having to deal with it all and go to a safe space?
It might feel good for a short while but how can safe spaces be good for society? We need society to raise men and women, not grown-up male or female children, don’t we? I can tell you that at eighteen, my son Alex is much more of a man than the average college student out there who needs a safe space; he proved it in spades in Colorado at the Haute Route.
Competitive sports are the opposite of safe spaces: In competitive sports, you get the chance to win and to lose, to be on top of the world or be humiliated. You will never get good at any sport if you don’t train hard. If you train hard, the sky’s the limit. In competitive sports there isn’t anywhere to hide as the results will be posted online for everyone to see as soon as you cross the finish line or the game ends. I do know that some kids’ sports leagues don’t post results, they don’t keep score or they will stop the scoring if one team is losing by a lot. That isn’t competitive sport and it isn’t what I am writing about. Those non-competitive sporting events are meant to be the sports’ equivalent of safe-spaces, so before registering your kids in any sports league or team, make sure you pick one that understands the nature of competition and do your kids a favor and offer them an opportunity to lose, feel bad about losing and having to deal with negative feelings.
Alex did great in his first seven-day competitive cycling event in spite of his age and the fact that he only got serious about cycling last September. He did well in great part because he was serious about his preparation: training, nutrition, hydration and recovery. Unlike so many teenagers, Alex would regularly wake up at 5 am or 6 am on the weekend to go train with his team. He never allowed himself to get discouraged and he found ways to remain motivated when the going got tough.
I wrote on my Facebook during the event that parents who want their kids to learn about life should avoid paying $150,000 to send their kids to college to attend social studies classes and instead should get their kids to pick up a tough competitive sport and learn life the real way: through experiences, the hard way. After past eight months of preparation and one full week of bike racing, there is nothing life can throw at Alex that he won’t be able to deal with (or at less not get discouraged about).
I believe bike stage racing is the toughest sport in the world. Every day you are on your bike competing for five to seven hours, you sleep in a different bed every night, you need to consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day in the form of gels, bars and sports drinks (in addition to real meals), you have to get up at 5 am and force yourself to eat. When you are off the bike you barely have enough energy to get to your massage, the restaurant and to then to your bed.
Bike stage racing is also the perfect microcosm of life.
You have moments when you feel you are on to something and then the next hour, you feel totally bad about yourself, questioning why you signed up for the event. You regularly question your ability to do well and sometimes you even wonder if you will be able to finish. No matter how you feel, you need to drive on, dig deep and confront your challenges head-on otherwise you will carry forever the one feeling you don’t want to live with: “I quit because I let my mood and the elements around me dictate the outcome of what I trained so hard for.” If you keep your emotions in check and properly deal with outside forces, you will forever live with the pride of having set an ambitious goal which, both before and during the event, often felt unachievable.
In order to do well in a bike race and get to the finish line as quickly as possible (and conserve as much energy as possible), you need to work with a group of riders who all have different styles, fitness levels, cycling abilities and attitudes. You have no choice but to integrate and contribute to making the group work well together. Also, you need to remember that bike races are only possible to cyclists thanks to hundreds of volunteers, including my wife Mary Lou and daughter Gaby, who donated their time (marshals on the course, people in feed zones etc.). So no matter how you feel, you better be nice to these people otherwise those around will call you out. The same thing applies if you do not follow the rules, such as not crossing a double yellow line: again, those around you will call you out immediately as you are putting yourself and others in danger and jeopardize the permits for next year’s event. Bike racing toughens you up, requires that you be a fighter and have the courage to take calculated risks. You can’t call it quits because the going is too hard and hope that you can continue the next day no matter what. If you quit, it means you are a quitter.
Most days you wake up and feel like sleeping in but you don’t have a choice, you need to get out there and get the show on the road at a set time otherwise you will be disqualified. In other words, there isn’t any place to hide. There are no safe spaces in bike racing. You can’t call your mommy or daddy to do the job for you (of course, being more experienced than Alex I was able to give him tips and advice on how to survive but he did 100% of the work by himself), you cannot have the race director change the course for you because you think it is too tough. No one cares about how you feel; a certain behavior is expected of you. If you don’t find a way to fit in, you will be a very lonely person and won’t get any help out there on the road. Finding a way to fit for Alex was particularly interesting for him as he was a young men surrounded by older A type males. He had no choice but to have adult-like behavior to completely blend in.
What bike racing also teaches you is that no matter how fast you go compared to the fastest or slowest riders, we all having the same things in common: like in life, we all experience good and bad moments, pain, suffering, joy and self-doubt. No one is exempt from this. When racing, the only difference between riders is the speed at which they go and that is based on many factors such as experience in group riding and fitness levels. Otherwise, just as there is only one race, the human race, there is only one category of racers, those who get on the bike and turn the pedals.
I am proud of my son and I believe he can be a great inspiration to many young folks who are stuck in an infantile phase, including those who look for their parents or the government to take care of them and even those who get offended by most meaningless things in life. Alex lives by the cycling motto HTFU (Harden The F&@k Up). Nothing in life is too tough for him to confront, tackle.
Alex’ focus is on bike racing but the same principles of learning life apply to so many other competitive sports. I am obviously not knocking parents who put their kids in sports for health reasons or to learn certain neuro-muscular skills. What I am advocating that if you push your kids to find their limits in competitive sports (not in sports just have fun) not just show up, you will teach them very valuable lessons. In life, as in competitive sports, if you just show up, you go backwards, you build nothing and learn nothing, you earn nothing.
Too many parents have been programmed to think that their kids should do sports for ‘fun’. This is a concept I cannot relate to. Should Alex have stopped riding every time he stopped having fun? Should he have received a starter’s medal regardless of everything else? Participation trophies in sports only achieve one goal: ‘Teaching kids that life is all good (which it isn’t) and fooling them about the true nature of life.’ The quicker kids understand how relentless, unfair and difficult life is, the quicker they will become accustomed to dealing with it and become adults. Competitive sports are hard, humbling and if you are going to get through them, you better toughen up and learn to deal with defeat, others getting more recognition than you and not getting your way.
Alex performed extremely well in the first five stages of Haute Route and then life solidly kicked him in the teeth on stage six. He responded by picking himself up and working hard to do better on stage seven and he did. Isn’t that how life is? You never know when life will kick you in the teeth but you better pick yourself up and drive on.
Prior to picking up competitive cycling, basketball and other sports, my kids were all competitive ski racers. From the early age of three, through competitive sports, they were put in situations where they learned that in life, their are winners and they are losers. In life, their are people who do better at certain things than you do. In life, no matter how much talent you have or think you have at doing something, you are never immune from the proverbial reality check: you can’t wish away reality. From the early age of three, my kids learned to fall, pick themselves up and keep driving on. They learned that to close the reality gap between where you are (ex. average skier) and where they want to be (ex. be on the national ski team) there are some essential things you must go through, something that applies to all equally: hard work, learning to deal with disappointment and perceived injustice (ex. I think I am better that this person but I didn’t make the team and he did), frustration, humiliation and learning to turn these negatives into motivation and a will to move forward. You may as well learning life essential skills are a very early age, just like learning a second or third language.
What kind of parent are you? A parent who isolates their kids from reality (participation trophy parent) or a parent who teaches real life (Little Johnny has a medal because he beat everyone today and you don’t because you came in last)?
What kind of parent are you? Doesn’t that imply what generally the role of a parent should be? When it comes to their role as parents, people must ask themselves first: “What is the primary responsibility of a parent?” I have devoted the better part of my life thinking through this question. While I always thought that my number one responsibility was to raise my kids to have good values, it was about twelve years ago that I was finally able to summarize my role as a father in just a few words.
As an avid listener of the Dennis Prager Show, I kept hearing Dennis ask this particular question repeatedly on the radio which I now enjoy asking parents: “What do you most want your kids to be: 1) famous, 2) wealthy, 3) good or 4) happy?” I sometimes ask this question simply out of curiosity but I mainly ask it to better judge someone’s character. I have thought a lot about adding ‘good grades’ to Dennis’ original list and maybe one day I will. I am afraid many parents have lost sight of what matters most in a child’s life and have instead focused on secondary goals such as grades and degrees. If grades and degrees are your favorite way of judging your children’s accomplishments, you are doing them a disfavor.
Going back to Dennis’ question, while I have rarely heard someone answer ‘famous or wealthy’, believe it or not, I have heard parents pick these answers on occasion. Most people pick ‘happy’. While I do believe happiness is a moral obligation (thank you Dennis), answering ‘happy’ onto itself doesn’t mean much if it leaves out goodness as the #1 objective. Happiness is a choice anyway, not some condition that they may or may not inherit. Hoping that that your kids will be happy as opposed to teaching them about happiness is delegating your responsibility to chance and I am not ready to do that.
My wife and I are solidly in the ‘good’ camp. Goodness is much more likely to bring happiness than happiness bringing goodness. What do we mean by ‘good’? We mean good character. To be precise, we view our main role as parents as raising our children to become adults who have good character.
Raising kids who remain children isn’t what I am talking about. What I am talking about is raising real men and women. Unfortunately we live in a generation where too many kids refuse (or are not taught) to become adults, let alone good adults.
As a mentioned above, happiness is important but why doesn’t it Trump goodness? Why not chose happy as the most defining trait for your kids? Here is one of many reasons: There are a lot of happy kids who cheat on tests at school. Do kids with good character cheat on tests? Would you prefer your kid to be a happy cheater or a good person?
Why not famous? Tiger Woods is famous but has had affairs with about a dozen different women. Do good men cheat on their wives? Would you prefer your kids to be famous adulterers or good people?
Why not rich? Bernie Madoff used to be rich. I bet you he was also a pretty happy guy. Do good men steal?
So the question becomes: ‘How does one raise children to become good adults?’
The fundamental method to raise children to become good adults is quite simple. No one needs an academic study to know how to raise good children. One mainly needs to use good judgement, common sense and reflect on what created good societies to begin with. If you find a study on a new method to raise kids, you might consider doing the exact opposite of the authors’ recommendations in order to increase the odds of success. What are the odds that, after thousands of years of recorded history, someone will come up with a new, innovative and more successful way to raise children that mankind hasn’t already experimented with? Truly, what are the odds of that?
Here is summary of how my wife and I have raised our kids with much success:
1 – Teach you kids to behave properly regardless of how they feel:
- “Have you called your grandmother for her birthday?
- I dont feel like it.
- No one cares if you feel like it or not, call your grandmother for her birthday”
2 – Teach them that the biggest hurdle in life to achieving happiness isn’t some mysterious outside force such as racism, poverty, gender inequality or society in general but rather themselves:
- “Jennifer, how come you never get bent out of shape or get offended when someone says something you disagree with?
- Being offended is a choice.
- But what about all of the sexism and misogyny in our country?
- I have a wonderful husband, great children and a very happy life. What about you?”
3 – Learn that your number job as a parent is to teach your kids good values, not to seek to be loved by them:
- “Dad, I hate you.
- You will love me for that when you have your own kids. Now go to your room to study.”
4 – Make sure that your kids have a decent dose of healthy fear of their parents:
- “Judith, why won’t you experiment with drugs with us, everyone is doing it?
- My parents will kill me if I do.”
5 – Don’t aspire to be friends of your kids but rather strictly be parents:
- “Charlie’s dad calls him buddy, why can’t you call me buddy?
- I’m not your buddy, I’m your father, get used to it. Now help your mom put the dishes in the dishwasher.”
6 – Make sure your kids obey you. Your job isn’t to stroke your kids’ egos but rather to teach them to respect and obey people in relationships that rank above them (bosses, parents, teachers, policemen, flight attendants, border patrol agents, doctors, nurses etc.) otherwise order breaks down:
- “Albert, clean up your room.
- Yes dad, right away”
- “Sir, do you know why I’m stopping you?
- Yes officer, I was speeding.
- Your papers please.
- Yes officer.”
Something happened recently in my personal life made me realize that even good people can be confused about the true role of a parent. A few days ago, I was debating a friend (who my two youngest kids adore) about the importance of raising kids to become good adults. I tried to get him to admit that my wife and I had done a good job raising our children in a manner consistent with my priority but I wasn’t successful. All I got from him was: ‘Lovely Children. A pleasure to be around.’ After inquiring about the ‘sources’ that would support my position, my friend made it clear that he didn’t share my view on goodness as the #1 goal and wished my kids health, wealth and happiness.
My so-called sources are diverse and include mainly common sense, Judeo-Christian values and my wife Mary Lou and I’s experience in raising six children and having four grandchildren. I’m not saying that having multiple kids makes anyone a better parent but it certainly makes you a more experienced parent. I do not either imply that adults without kids have no say in the matter. That would be the equivalent of using the deeply morally flawed argument of the pro-abortion crowd that only women have a say in the abortion debate as they are the ones who are carrying new life in their body.
As I mentioned above, one has to first decide what type of adults they want their children to become. That comes way before you start thinking about kids’ grades and what college to send them to. More than grades, good character is essential to a fruitful and joyful life and the best way to attract other good people into your life. I keep telling my kids: ‘The number one thing you should look for in a friend is, does he/she contribute to making you a better person?’
After I reread my friend’s answers I asked myself: ‘How can a good person not agree that raising children to become good adults is the utmost priority for parents?’ I concluded that if this wasn’t obvious to a good man then surely many people would benefit from a little wisdom from an old guy on the topic of raising children.
One might argue that maybe what my friend implied was that I have misjudged the goodness of my children. In other words, maybe he meant that they are not good people. It is important to note that my assessment of my children is based on their actions. I judge people based on their actions, nothing else. My assessment is also based on multiple statements from other parents over the years about my kids’ behavior. In conclusion, either my friend implied that my kids aren’t good and he is wrong or that goodness isn’t the number priority and then him and I disagree on that.
And does goodness apply in competitive sports? Yes. As in life, you do not ever ever cheat and as in life, if you have good character, you will make it easier for you to attract teammates or as in cycling, others to share the work. In sports as in life, good people attract good people and good people usually have a better overall outcome.