Editorial by Crew Chief Marcus McBain
December 8, 2013
SUCCESS WITH KIDS IN RACING PART ONE
Copyright 2013 – Marcus McBain/RPSRaceTeam.com
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE CHALLENGES TO SUCCESS
UNDERSTANDING THE LANDSCAPE
BRINGING THE DISCUSSION TO THE POINT
EVALUATING YOUR CHILD AND COMPETITION
MONEY, PUBLICITY, AND THE IMPACT ON YOUR CHILD
UNDERSTANDING WHAT TO PLAN FOR
REVIEWING THE LANDSCAPE AGAIN
FINALIZING THE PLAN
STARTING YOUR CHILD ON THE TRACK
THE SUCCESSFUL ATTITUDE
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR CHILD’S SKILLS
COMMON SENSE RULES
RULES OF STUPIDITY
WHAT DO I DO IF I THINK MY CHILD IS EXCEPTIONALLY TALENTED?
CASE STUDIES/REVIEW (WESTBY & ROBERTS)
I. THE CHALLENGES TO SUCCESS
Having success with kids in motorcycle road racing is difficult. The reasons for this have nothing to do with results, talent, or goals, but rather from a lack of common sense, structure, and the “unique scale” of the sport itself. This article is provided to add some insight from experience and mostly a review of common sense that we should employ whenever we work with kids in racing.
II. UNDERASTANDING THE LANDSCAPE
The first thing that creates an opportunity for a negative experience regarding kids in racing is that motorcycle road racing’s scale is really small. There are not many other sports that you can literally see, experience, and participate at the highest levels with the most minimal experience.
Here are some unique things to think about:
A child has a chance of about 1 in 5 of being an “emerging star” at the club level. It really doesn’t take much before “everyone gathers around”. With just an adequately prepared motorcycle and basic training…any child has a good chance of being the local “emerging star”.
That same child has a 1 in 50 chance of being an “emerging talent” at the AMA Pro level. Simply put, if you have the money to put a decent machine together and put a kid through an average training/school regimen they will be good enough to finish top 20 in the Supersport class.
Any rider that spends more than 4 or 5 years riding and is even marginally talented with average results has a 1 in 75 chance of being “visually successful” in the AMA Pro Racing premiere classes (Superbike/Daytona Sportbike).
When you think about what is stated, this is what leads many parents, sponsors, and wannabe “talent finders” to quickly escalate a kid’s “career” to a professional effort before anyone really has time to think about what is going on. To put this in comparison, any rider that is supported and can reasonably develop will likely have a better than 1 in 100 chance of being a recognized “star”. If you look at any other sport though, you will see a much more “tilted” opportunity range.
Collectively, your kid likely has less than a 1 in 30,000 chance of becoming a “professional athlete” in any other sport (baseball provides the highest opportunity for professional participation with 2% of college baseball athletes being drafted and actually playing in the minor leagues or higher). With the low amount of competition relative to other sports, it is entirely too easy for parents to “drink the punch” in regards to the motorcycle road racing and believing their child “will be a star”.
III. BRINGING THE DISCUSSION TO THE POINT
This article started off with these generally reasonable projections for one reason. Almost every parent that starts their kid off in motorcycle road racing does it for fun. When you look at the numbers and opportunity and the “close proximity” to the premiere level of this sport, it is easy to see how things quickly escalate to the point of “borderline insanity”.
Can you imagine going to the Superbowl and sitting on the sidelines because your son plays freshman football? Well in motorcycle road racing you can go to a MotoGP event and be invited in the paddock if you have a child mildly successful. A child can actually be involved in the racing schedule with the various events that are scheduled on MotoGP weekends. Think about it. The parent has to understand these things to make the responsible decisions that are necessary for healthy participation in this sport. A parent has to constantly take a step back and objectively “keep things in perspective” and make sure they “keep things in check”.
I think every parent and sponsor has to understand what the goal of participation in any sport…including motorcycle road racing. The primary goal of organized sports for kids is an opportunity to be mentally and physically challenged in an activity that starts to develop independent decision making, judgment, and physical skill building that leads to personal growth. The result is your kid begins to develop their own sense of themselves and what they are capable of independent of the parent(s). When done correctly, sports are a critical part of your child’s growth. When done wrong, sports become a barrier of healthy development for the child and the relationship with the parent.
IV. EVALUATING YOUR CHILD AND COMPETITION
Probably every person remembers being just a child and lining up against your friend and betting who can run faster to the street post. Most children have a “sense of competition” and often like to compete. “The competitive spirit” is a healthy makeup for any child. Many times this allows the child to focus and improve skills in many facets of life.
At the same time, it is really important that parents allow their children to compete mostly “at their level” when it comes to motorcycle road racing. Yes, all parents need to “give their child a nudge”, but at the same time understand children use different outlets to exercise their competitiveness.
The purpose for evaluating your child’s level of competitiveness is to be able to set an outline for participation in motorcycle road racing for your child. You don’t want to be pushing your child “to improve” when their competitive spirit is more likely ignited playing another sport or video games (sad, but true). Just remember that all kids are “revved up and ready to go” about a great many things in life until the work, responsibility, and sacrifice are put directly in front of them.
Kids are smart. They know you just dropped $6,000.00 to get them an EX-250 and the gear to start in this sport. They know how much that is relative to your household finances and may be inclined to “put the happy face on” in hopes of not disappointing you. Make sure you make an objective decision about their competitiveness (as well as yours for that matter) so that you can put a program together to ensure that everyone can walk away from each weekend with healthy lessons learned and smiles while allowing the child to have a healthy outlet for their competitive spirit.
Lastly, think of “pushing your child’s competitiveness” like trying to move a water balloon…move it too fast…and you have a big mess, but move it slowly and methodically and you will get that water balloon right where you want it with no mess. As parents we all have to “push our children”, but we also have to constantly evaluate if we pushing at a rate that is safe and sane.
V. MONEY, PUBLICITY, AND THE IMPACT ON YOUR CHILD
Children have a sense about money relative to your household income and standard of living. The two most significant items to understand is that your child will know if you are spending an inordinate amount of money on their racing program relative to your standard of living. They may not completely understand why you are spending the amount your do, as well as why they are being “marketed”.
It can confuse the child about what “all this is supposed to lead to”. Children need to keep things in perspective when they see press releases, website/social media, and other media attention about them. You (as a parent) have to keep them grounded.
Overall it is really important to not have your child get a “false impression” of themselves, why they are racing, the value of money spent, or lose their humility. You have to step in and really talk to your child to ensure they realize that no matter what happens, school, education, career planning, and their family are the most important thing. Emphasize that “all the racing can go away tomorrow” and that the racing should be appreciated for the opportunity to be involved in a sport, but not coveted.
Your child may be fortunate and maybe a sponsor comes along with a bike or even a team. This situation can quickly introduce over $25,000.00 or more of help to your racing program. You have to help your child “keep things in perspective”. Your child knows someone thinks well enough of them to basically put $10,000.00 or more cash at risk. Think about it. Your child realizes what is going on. Talk and reinforce the terms of participation to keep your child grounded.
NOTE: If you are fortunate and do indeed gain attention and sponsorship, make sure you look at the sponsorship. If the sponsor is someone that routinely “drops riders” or does not follow through on the commitments, you may want to pass. Although they may put your child on a nice machine, if they don't “do what they say” and drop your child from the sponsorship when the wind changes direction (and have a history of doing it), then think about how that will affect your child? Again we are talking about developing a child into an adult. Don’t get involved with someone that cannot provide the stability for your child to grow from.
Things you can do “to keep them grounded” is have your child do some extra work around the house or for the sponsor/team (wash/clean the trailer, make the child responsible for keeping the bike cleaned and polished, have them do odd jobs like mowing lawns, etc., or when not at the track and make them put the money into costs for the weekend). The point is don’t allow your child to participate in the sport or receive assistance without some kind of countering work or sacrifice. It will keep them grounded.
With some of the internet, print, and various social media attention, it would be really easy for a child to “lose some touch of reality”. Going back to the original points, your child has a VERY, VERY SMALL CHANCE of having a career that they actually get a paycheck. With that in mind, don’t allow your child to believe that “they are a professional motorcycle racer”, and that racing is their main obligation in life. Too many parents are quick to also think their child is a “Pro”. Keep your child grounded.
One of the goals of any organized sporting activity is the development of sportsmanship. Make sure your child practices good sportsmanship. This means they “run clean races”, don’t run riders off the track, don’t routinely disparage their competitors, congratulate their competitors when they get beat by them, have some humility when they win or beat those same competitors, and generally don’t act like a little snot when they win or lose.
Sportsmanship is about respecting your competition to the point that the child will work harder, train harder, and understand “you just don’t go out and expect to beat your competitors” without the appropriate amount of work, preparation, & effort. If the child’s routine is to simply disparage their competitors as the primary way to improve, it is unacceptable. It is your job as the parent to control this behavior, NOT TO DEVELOP OR ENCOURAGE IT. Think about it.
VII. SPONSORS RESPONSIBILITY
If you choose to help/sponsor/promote a child (as a sponsor), you need to understand that you not only are trying to help them in their racing career, but also as a person. As a sponsor, do not disregard the personal development of a child. Just because you wrote a check, provided a bike, or bought the child forks, shock, engine, etc. your responsibility is not over. You must always remember that you’re a developing a child into a young adult too.
Set requirements for the child to receive the “help”. Make sure the child realizes they need to dress, behave, and act responsibly as a condition of the assistance. Make them keep the bikes, paddock, or trailer clean. Don’t give help without some token of “having to earn it”. The child will lose touch with reality at a certain point without putting responsibility on the rider for the assistance received. Again, you want the child to come out of this sport having learned important life lessons that come along with the participation in an organized sporting activity…not as some little spoiled brat.
The parent has to be the “primary control” for ensuring that sponsorship comes to the child in such a way that a sense of responsibility is incorporated into the help received. For the parent, you would not allow your child to inherit $10,000.00 and send them down to the store “to have a good time”, rather you would setup a responsible structure for that money to be used so they would come away with appreciation for that money. Sponsorship for your child is the same situation.
VIII. UNDERSTANDING WHAT TO PLAN FOR
If you compare how parents prepare a child for motorcycle road racing versus football, baseball, or basketball, you would find some similar patterns as well as some insane tendencies (related specifically to motorcycle road racing). Almost every parent is the child’s “first coach”. We throw a ball with them…get them started with one or more sports through direct participation. At the point that the sport becomes “organized competition”, that is where things are much different. We then send our children to Pony league, pop-warner, etc. to participate…and the child for the first time develops relationships with coaches and peers that is unique and separate and from the normal “parent-child” relationship. This does not routinely occur in motorcycle road racing and it is arguably one of the worst aspects of the sport in regards to the healthy development of a child.
Ask anyone that has played football, basketball, or baseball, and they likely can tell you who their first coach was. For many kids, it is the first time they are referred to as an adult. Lessons we learn from our coaches going through sports live with us a lifetime. Because of the unique nature of motorcycle road racing, this is not entirely possible. The small scale of the sport (in regards to participants, businesses, etc.) doesn’t provide a traditional structure. Through good parenting though, you can create this structure for a marginal cost.
The main goal of the participation in the sport of motorcycle road racing is the healthy development of your child…NOT HOW YOUR CHILD WILL BE THE NEXT WORLD CHAMPION.
IX. REVIEWING THE LANDSCAPE AGAIN
Again, you have to realize that even if your child turns out to “pretty damn good”, there are only a handful of “paid rides” in the AMA Pro Racing paddock. The highest likelihood of you “grooming your child to be a pro” is that you will have to write six-figure checks for 2-3 years to place them on a team that MIGHT enable your son or daughter to shine…AND POSSIBLY get a ride that is either “no-pay” or even an actual salary. This is not reasonable for most as a plan. AGAIN, keep it fun and employ some of the methods that are recommended further in this article.
X. SETTING EXPECTATIONS
There are three historically consistent trends that happen when a parent and their child “go racing”. Although you can dissect these to a larger degree, these are the most consistent scenarios and it is really important if you are going to allow your child to race to understand what will likely occur and the possible results.
“GRASSROOTS FAMILY RACING” – Simply put, many families will fall into this scenario. Lack of financial resources will prohibit the opportunity to get a qualified riding coach, capable mechanic, latest spec equipment, etc. to allow a child to fully experience motorcycle road racing as an “organized sporting activity”. This is not a bad thing to any degree. When properly managed, this allows the child and parent to share the activity in the same manner as hunting, fishing, or other similar sporting activity. The result can be a bond between the child and parent that will last a lifetime in a positive manner.
The “downside” to this though is that almost every family experiences some negativity when the child or parent takes on the “over competitive attitude”. Simply put, when either the child or parent “wants to perform at the next level”, but the other “is not on the same page”, it causes a lot of angst and can quickly drive a wedge between the child and parent. THIS WILL HAPPEN TO ALMOST EVERY FAMILY. It is up to the parent to keep things in perspective. They have to be the one that keeps “everything in check”.
It is important that the parent talk to the child and explain the financial limitations so that the limitations are fully understood. In addition, the parent needs to put together a financially reasonable program that does not interfere with the normal family budget.
“BLEACHER PARENT” – This arguably is the most successful formula, but it is generally only possible when the parent has some financial means to allow this to occur. The Bleach Parent will assemble a riding coach, suspension tech and mechanic so that the child independently participates in motorcycle road racing. This provides a great opportunity for the child to mature and develop adult relationships. At the same time, the parent will still oversee everything…from a distance.
This really doesn’t have to cost much. Almost all clubs have affordable suspension services from vendors, and depending on the scale of mechanic services needed, it may only cost 300.00 a weekend to fully employ this structure.
The most successful employment of this technique I have witnessed first-hand was with Tryg/Dane Westby. Tryg was a successful racer, but he chose to use local vendors to provide a “quasi team” at a very affordable cost to help his son grow as a racer as well as an adult. Tryg stepped in when necessary, but was mostly hands off. The results should be self-evident.
“OVER COMPETITIVE PARENT/RIDER/SPONSOR” – The name says it all. What many find surprising is the fact the sponsor is listed. Although everyone guilty of this will outwardly “says the right things”, the truth is that the child’s safety and long term well-being are at risk when one of the parties is “over-competitive”. Remember, the child’s long term physical and mental health are the priority…not winning a race.
The culprit in this circumstance will generally want to move up to expert or AMA Pro quickly, insist that any time the child is beat on the track the other riders were cheating, had a faster motor, etc., or will disparage the equipment they have when beat. That is crap…and you should quickly “get things in check” if you witness this. Remember, we are talking about kids that are likely under 17 years of age and are still developing mature decision making skills. This behavior is very destructive to the child when they have to be part of the rhetoric, temper tantrums, and otherwise ridiculous behavior.
The father is usually the culprit…and mom knows it is going on. The tendency is that the mom is bullied by the dad…and no action to stop the insanity takes place. This circumstance usually never ends well, and puts a wedge between father and son after the racing is over.
“Over Competitive Dad” will spend more money than the household can afford usually and feels “this is an investment” in the child’s future, routinely tell their child they are “not riding hard enough”, or otherwise constantly push the child to “get faster”. Truth is, this is mental sickness.
XI. FINALIZING THE PLAN
It should be apparent that “Bleacher Parent” is the most successful structure in terms of the child’s personal development and the opportunity for long-term competitive development. It does cost money, BUT almost any trackside vendor will cut you slack on costs, etc. if your child is presentable and looks like he may have “some talent”. You may even get sponsorship for the help you seek. Strive to put a “crew of professionals” around your child. This doesn’t mean you are getting them ready to be the next MotoGP champion…it is simply an opportunity for your child to get the full value of motorcycle road racing as an organized sport.
A recommended strategy on “how to do this” based on what has been observed as “successful” for many young racers and families would likely follow these schedule(s):
Years 1 and 2 (or until your child moves to “big bikes”) – Go “Grassroots family racing”. Just like any other sport, you as the parent are indeed their “first coach”. Unless their lies a gross lack of mechanical aptitude that interferes with safety, “dad can get it done”.
Year 2/3 and onward – Become the “Bleacher Parent”. Your child will appreciate it, and again it is likely cost will be minimal as most vendors will offer you help/discounts/sponsorship.
In regards to training the rider, don’t trust the “5 year hero”. Every region has riders in track day organizations, etc. that “know how to teach”, despite not being MSF certified, ever holding a professional license, OR only having only a handful of years actually involved in racing. Find the guy that has been at it for more than 10 years and has some measurable history of coaching/training. Ask them to help/give pointers. You likely will get the help for low cost as most riders that have “been around for a while” (involved with racing…not track days) really do want to sincerely help you.
Also, the guy that “has been around for a while” will likely have contacts to help you with other things too. Most guys want to help you that have been out at the track for 10 years or more. They do it as much for safety as anything else and that is critical to the quality of assistance you will receive. Don’t spend exorbitant amounts of money sending your kid to “Johnny go-fast school”. It is not necessary in most cases. Just get solid basic help up front.
Author’s note: I really like to see kids ride on the dirt for 2-3 years at a minimum before they start road racing. The knowledge gained is invaluable and it is MUCH CHEAPER in most cases. As a parent just because you don’t ride in the dirt, don’t rob your child of that fun.
XII. STARTING YOUR CHILD ON THE TRACK
Putting a plan together to address “the expected learning curve” is a good idea. There are two primary reasons for this. First, you want to keep you child safe. If your kid is going light speed fast, but doesn’t “really know what he or she is doing”, well that is not safe. Secondly, you want to keep your child challenged.
In the “true mini classes” (i.e. 50cc-80cc two strokes/125cc four-strokes and below), it is as much a “bike builders” class as it is a racing class. Mini classes are great for introducing your child to motorcycle road racing. At the same time, you may save money and have more fun racing at the local motocross track/series. You can spend as much as a “big bike” running these classes because the difference between 9bhp and 15bhp for similar machines is significant. All parents are guilty of loving their child and wanting them to be able to win. It is easy to drop $1000.00 on building a “mini engine” with a piston, headwork, rod, etc. There is no “perfect answer” other than use your best judgment as a parent.
When the child is able to move to the 250/Formula 3 & 4 classes the field levels a bit in regards to machinery. Ninja 250’s and 80/125 2-Stroke GP machinery will be the optimum choice and likely the machinery will exceed the riders skill level relative to lap times. The rider will now be challenged to develop consistency. At this point, put a solid plan/goal together to develop the child’s competitive growth.
Think about this…if a child only improves 1% every race weekend, then within 12-18 weekends (about 2 seasons), they will improve their lap times by about 15%. That is huge. To put it in real world numbers, that means if the “fast time” is a 1:30.00 and say your son/daughter starts off running 1:50’s, then within 10 race weekends…they would be running 1:39’s, by the 20th race weekend, they would be at “winning pace”. THINK ABOUT IT. Keep it in perspective. You don’t have to push your child to “make big leaps” to keep this fun and competitive. It easily happens on its own. “Moving slowly” allows the rider to more thoroughly learn many of the details in road racing. Fast leaps in performance many times will cause many young riders to “miss learning opportunities”. Push your child only to put their own effort in.
In the mini classes, keep the competition about “finishing without crashing” and just trying their best. The goal is for your child to make the most laps, have the most fun they can, and to develop their own ability to road race. Once you move up to the Formula 4 classes, etc., make the racing still about finishing without crashes, but from a distance keep the goals in mind. Plug in a suspension tech to start working with your child and let them help. The main goal is safe operation of the motorcycle by your child and for your child to have consistent challenges set for them to grow not only in this sport, but for their own personal development.
As a parent or sponsor, you can use your stopwatch to keep track of development and the child’s performance. DON’T MAKE every session about lap times. You don’t want your child going out there trying to beat some arbitrary lap time. Do use the stopwatch though to understand the pace of development. A key thing you can pay attention to is if your child's lap times vary more than 3% “lap to lap”. If this is the case then your child is “guessing” every time they go around the track. Try to get your child to slow down and work on consistency (its hard work to do this) vs. overall speed when you start them out. Any trainer/coach will tell you that if the rider can replicate their lap times to within 2% every lap, they are going to be able to learn easily.