Management and Leadership Lessons from Skating Parents

As an adult skater, and as someone who only started skating seriously as an adult, having a parent involved in my skating career is something I missed out on entirely. But for many parents, having a child in skating is like managing an organization. The parent has to recruit and hire staff to work with their child (coaches, choreographers, off-ice trainers, dance teachers, costume designers); they have to schedule their child’s training and other activities related to the sport; they have to make sure the child gets to everything on time and is prepared for the activity they’re going to; and they are the “investor” in the business, i.e. the one that pays for everything (which can be very expensive).

And the questions that skating parents often struggle with are very similar to the questions faced by many business leaders and managers. How intensely should they be involved with someone’s progress or skill development, particularly if that person is going through a difficult time? How can they facilitate a positive experience for everyone involved in the organization? How can they help people become independent and responsible, and to develop the ability to make the best decisions for themselves?

Surprisingly, despite how much parents are involved with their children’s skating, there isn’t a lot of formal support or guidance for parents within the sport. But some skating federations are trying to change that. The US Figure Skating Association (USFS), for example, holds workshops for parents during competitions and training events. And Cheryl Davis and Jacqui White, the mothers of world and Olympic champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are presenters at some of these parent workshops. Cheryl and Jacqui are known in the skating world as “the moms” because at least one of them has attended every competition that Meryl and Charlie have participated in.

“The moms” have a unique perspective on parents’ role in skating, not only because their children have skated together for 17 years – it’s extremely unusual for an ice dance partnership to last that long – but also because managing a skating partnership requires even more coordination, communication and planning than managing a singles skater. And when skaters are partners, the relationship between their parents is crucial to their success. I have personally seen very promising ice dance and pairs teams break up not because the skaters didn’t have potential or didn’t work hard, but because the skaters’ parents didn’t get along or couldn’t agree on things like how often the skaters should be training. However, by all accounts, the Whites and Davises are very close friends, and their children are not only tremendous athletes but also mature, sensible and thoughtful adults.

For the past two months, USFS’s SKATING magazine has been running a fascinating feature based on Cheryl and Jacqui’s parent workshops, in which “the moms” share what they’ve learned from being the parents of two very successful skaters. Although Jacqui and Cheryl’s insights are presented in the context of skating, a lot of what they have to say is applicable to leading or managing any kind of organization. Here’s some of their wisdom.

Jacqui White, Charlie White, Meryl Davis, and Cheryl Davis at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Jacqui White, Charlie White, Meryl Davis, and Cheryl Davis at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (credit: meryl-charlie.com)

Don’t let external pressures or expectations distract you from your long-term purposes. Jacqui and Cheryl were often asked before the 2014 Olympics, “How do you raise an Olympian?” Cheryl’s answer was: “You don’t. Just like any other parent, your goal is to just raise a really good kid.” They also tell parents, “If your child never won another medal, think about what you want your skater to learn and take away from the sport.” Not everyone in an organization is going to be a top performer, so managers and leaders have to think about how to help everyone get something out of what they’re doing, and to focus on what’s truly important to achieve.

Encourage people to take ownership of their choices. Cheryl says, “If your child is complaining, ‘why do I have to go to the rink today’, you can remind them that they do not have to go, they get to go.” Managers and leaders can help their employees focus on the choices and opportunities they have within the organization, rather than the obligations.

Recognize that different people may need different types of support. Jacqui and Cheryl mention that young women may benefit from extra encouragement and validation to recognize that their contributions are important. They helped Meryl to make her voice be heard and to be assertive in expressing her concerns and perspectives. Managers and leaders shouldn’t assume that one type of motivation or facilitation is effective for everybody, or that what they just read in the latest business book is going to work for all their employees. They need to understand each individual’s situation and be able to offer appropriate support for that particular situation.

Don’t be more committed to something than the person you are supporting. Skating parents may become so invested in their children’s skating, or in dreaming about what their child might achieve, that they ignore signs that their child is no longer enjoying the sport. And children may feel obligated to continue participating just because their parent has spent so much money on them. Forcing someone to continue in an activity, or making them feel they have to continue when they don’t want to, is unproductive and damaging for everyone. Managers and leaders should be sensitive to indications that something isn’t working for an employee. They also need to be willing to help the employee decide what they want to do, even if that choice is not what they personally might want.

Recognize that how you say things is as important as what you say. Cheryl and Jacqui emphasize the importance of body language, voice tone, and facial expressions in conveying messages, especially in difficult situations. Managers and leaders need to be aware that they are being watched by their employees, and may be considered role models by them – and non-verbal expressions are part of what’s being observed and interpreted.

Help people focus on what they can control. Skaters can control how they perform in a test or a competition. But they can’t control how they are evaluated by judges, or where they end up placing in relation to other skaters. Managers and leaders can help employees focus on maximizing their potential –  and, like skating parents, should realize that comparisons to others’ performances can be more harmful than motivational.

Don’t expect people to be something they can’t be. Cheryl and Jacqui tell a story about when Meryl and Charlie’s coaches told them that their skaters needed to look more “mature”. After several attempts at “makeovers”, they eventually realized that nothing would “speed up time or give them the experience in life they needed to look mature.” Managers and leaders need to learn to work with what they have, even if they wish they had something else.

Failure is part of learning. Jacqui remembers that when Charlie started skating, he did not get through all of his basic skills classes on his first try. But he enjoyed working on skills and seeing how he improved, so they encouraged him to focus on that rather than how quickly he was or wasn’t completing classes. Effective managers and leaders recognize that failure is part of progress, and acknowledge and accept that rather than treating it as something to be avoided.

Help people find positive ways to get past negative events. In one of Meryl and Charlie’s international competitions, Charlie fell twice during their first program. But in dealing with that disastrous performance, he, Meryl, and their coach came up with a strategy for getting through the other program they had to perform: “one element at a time”. And there were no mistakes in that second program. Managers and leaders should focus on being positive and constructive in helping employees to learn from their experiences and move forward.

Effective communication is based on mutual respect, honesty and listening – and it doesn’t always look like you think it should. According to Jacqui and Cheryl, Charlie and Meryl didn’t speak to each other (at least not out loud) for the first several years of their partnership. It wasn’t because they disliked each other; it was because they were shy. But through working together and working with their coach, they developed a trust and a friendship, and were able to achieve goals they set for themselves. And they eventually learned to talk to each other, and to use mutually respectful discussion to work out any problems in their partnership. Managers and leaders need to support employees in developing effective communication with each other, and be willing to facilitate whatever form that communication takes.

And….respect the expertise of the professionals you work with. Jacqui and Cheryl are very clear that they “left the critiques [of skating] up to the coaches.” If managers or leaders have hired someone because he or she has a particular expertise, they should support that person in using their expertise to contribute to the organization- and not try to take over what that individual was hired to do.

If you would like to read the complete articles about Jacqui and Cheryl’s experiences, the articles are available here and here.

 

3 comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Fiona. It’s full of important and timeless lessons — including my favorite (to focus on the things you can control). And fair play to you for taking to skating as an adult! Through your actions, I think you’ve added an 11th lesson: Never stop learning new things. Well done!

  2. I really enjoyed the read. I wrote something similar on my blog talking about the things I learned while taking my daughter to skating lessons. Thanks for the well thought out post.

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