The Privilege, Confidence (and Illusion) of the Ski Slopes

We had a fantastic weekend with friends in Hakuba, Japan in late February – our first ski vacation as a family. I felt nothing but gratitude throughout, as the scenery, snow, comradery and sun was majestic at times. The nearby city of Nagano was the host of The 1998 Winter Olympics.

Our children learned to ski (daughter) and snowboard (son) in 2 days. My wife hadn’t been on a snowy mountain in over two decades, although she picked it up again rather easily. As a beginner, I wasn't nearly as good as my son but could confidently snowboard down the hill (including a Red run) after one private lesson and a few days on my own.

The privilege and joy of being on the Japanese Alps brought back memories of when I gently burst a teenager’s privilege bubble after he said to me - without me asking – “I'm a great skier”.  He’s a good kid and I like him, yet it never fails to concern me when someone proclaims greatness out of the blue.

Since I knew about his ‘below average to average’ history in non-snow sports and had seen him in action, I let him know that most able-bodied youth can learn to ski within a few days. He was surprised until I asked him this question:

"Tell me another major sport where you can learn to do it competently as a beginner in a day or two?" 

He had no answer.

I told him that one can't do it in basketball, golf, baseball, swimming, cycling, hockey, soccer, cricket, tennis, athletics or American football. For beginners, those sports take much more time just to feel confident on a pitch, court, field, course… or in an arena.

I mentioned that to be a college or professional skier (or high-level in any major sport) is impressive, with most considering it a great achievement, and that maybe he would fall into that category one day. I didn’t want to discourage him from dreaming. Judging from his lack of athletic ability though, I doubt that he could be great in any major sport.

He seemed to be in that privilege bubble of thinking that he was a special skier, unaware of the family finances that allowed him to be on the slopes, along with not realizing that he wasn’t particularly good in other sports. Why is it that far too many youth (and often their parents) have an inflated opinion of their athletic prowess? If he was a better athlete, I would have been more inclined to believe his claim of greatness. For some, skiing can give the illusion of significant athletic accomplishment.

His confidence is off the charts (which will serve him well in life), not unlike my own 10 year-old son, who not only thinks he can do most sports well, but was making declarations about being a very good snowboarder before he ever put two feet on one. I also have to bring him down to earth now and then.

During our 5 days in Hakuba, I saw two young men who looked like they had been snowboarding for years. Impressed at their skills and after chatting with one for a few minutes, I found out that they were only beginners – having snowboarded for 2 days. I wished that the aforementioned teenager and my son could have witnessed this twosome.

Most of those I know who ski or snowboard do it well, although interestingly, a good portion don't perform capably or have interest in any other sports. If it wasn't for the privilege of their yearly trips to the mountains, they wouldn't have a sports rack to hang their hat on - not unlike this young man. In his defense, he was probably elated to find a sport he was actually good at, thus the abundance of overconfidence.

My hope is that I opened his eyes with a small dose of reality, including (and maybe most importantly) how we are amongst the fortunate few in our world who have the luxury to ski. He knows about my college basketball background so he seemed to respect my words.

Wealth and/or access to opportunity (like the slopes) can be a blessing, as it gives many youth a strong belief in their abilities, which is useful in getting jobs, networking effectively and advancing in the business world, but it can be detrimental as well, when they think that they are better than they actually are due to the privilege of having access to things that most don’t.

This kind of privilege can manifest in the worst way when a child grows up in a thriving family business, gets his/her choice of job and then proceeds to not only be underwhelming, but in some cases harm the brand that was so carefully built.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), there is at least one child of privilege (Jim Buss) who got a high profile management job from a father (NBA Lakers owner Jerry Buss) who was not only ahead of his time, but also a diligent and smart visionary. I often wonder how he couldn’t see that his son was ill-equipped to follow in his flourishing footsteps. As EVP of Basketball Operations, Buss was recently fired after years of dismal results. As a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan, I’m thrilled that we now have the chance to rise again.

Privilege and the confidence that comes with it can be a wonderful thing, as long as the picture of who people are or what they can become is not lost in a distorted reality.

Guess that is where strong, competent and wise parenting comes in.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

Hakuba, Japan