Motocross parents: don’t get confused

It’s important for motocross parents to be supportive of their children whether they are winning or losing a race

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A father helping his son across the dirt track.

We need to be there to support our kids when they’re down, not to kick them! — Jim Muir photo

My beautiful wife, Donna, and stepson, Tanner, guided me as I backed the trailer into the driveway. As quick as I heard Donna yell, “Good!,” I was putting the truck into park and jumping out to help unpack. Donna was already heading into the house with the first load and the dog, and Tanner was jacking the trailer off the truck.

Our trailer has a weird jack. You undo a pinch bolt that drops the jack to the ground, then you tighten the pinch bolt again and jack the trailer up. I’ve never fully trusted the pinch bolt, so I always give it an extra kick after I can’t tighten it anymore with my hands. I’ve warned Tanner a few times when he didn’t do this. I’ve told him how dangerous it could be if that pinch bolt ever slid.

On this night though, I was too tired, cold and wet to think about it. When I got to the hitch, Tanner had already lifted it. I wasn’t sure he’d lifted it quite far enough though, so I passed my hand between the ball and the socket to make sure it was clear. At exactly that instant the jack let go. I felt a pinch on my finger as I jerked my hand out of the way. When I looked at it, it wasn’t a “bad cut.” It wasn’t one of those ones people describe as “down to the bone”—it was just gone.

Tanner evidently saw it at the same instant I did. He stepped back, put his hands to the sides of his head, and started crying and screaming, “It’s my fault! It’s my fault!”

It was exactly in this instant that I knew Tanner was no longer “just” my stepson. He was more than just the kid who came with the package when I fell in love with his mother. After living with him half-time for five years, Tanner was, for all intents and purposes, my son. I know this because in the instant I saw his face turn red, and the tears start to flow, when he screamed, “It’s my fault!,” without any consideration I suddenly had zero concern for my own missing digit.

I put my hand under my armpit and yelled, “Tanner!” When I had his attention, I continued, “It is NOT your fault. It’s a stupid jack, and I did a VERY stupid thing. You were just being good and helping unload.”

As Tanner began to collect himself, I told him to go get his mother. I wanted him gone while I tried to find my finger. This, to me, is the normal and natural response a parent has when they see their child in pain, or traumatized in any way. We want to protect our children, save them from harm of any sort. We want to shield them from anything that will hurt them, either physically or emotionally.

The next weekend, I carted my heavily bandaged half finger off to the arenacross races in Chilliwack, B.C. It was perhaps at least partially due to this recent epiphany involving my stepson Tanner that the events that unfolded there affected me so profoundly.

A heated dispute arose

Like many others, I was angry, but even more so, I was confused. I just couldn’t understand it. The first half of the night’s racing was drawing to a close. One of the Vancouver Island kids, a promising young Intermediate rider, was having a rough night. He was leading his first race and pulling away when he crashed hard. He crashed again in his next race, and then had a mediocre finish in the only race he stayed upright throughout.

As I wandered back into the pit area at the intermission, I saw there was a huge crowd around the Vancouver Island pit area. Virtually everyone in the pits was there. I suspected the promoters had called an impromptu rider’s meeting, but when I got to the melee I discovered it was something altogether different.

Apparently, when the Intermediate rider having a bad night had come back to the pits, his father was livid and started going off on him. He was yelling and screaming so loud the entire pit area was alerted to the ruckus. As the 14-year-old son cowered, the father’s tirade went on. People witnessing it became uncomfortable and eventually another father stepped in. Within seconds, there were fists flying and track promoters running to the scene.

The details beyond this point are irrelevant to me. I remain stuck on the instigating factor of it all. It just baffles me, and runs so contrary to what I feel and believe about this, or any sport we involve our children in. I know that parenting is the hardest job in the world, and I have felt moments of simmering anger and frustration when Tanner puts in a lacklustre effort at a race. Sometimes Tanner “just isn’t feeling it,” and he just goes for a casual trail ride on race day. When this occurs, I can’t help but think of all the money and time we spend to keep him racing, and I admit, it frustrates me.

On these days, I rely on my amazing wife to remind me that we don’t race for trophies, or the ego inflation involved with winning—we race to have fun and spend quality time with our friends and family. She’s so smart, my wife! So on these days when Tanner “isn't feeling it,” or when he is feeling it but crashes, or just doesn’t perform up to his own expectations, we usually end up taking him for ice cream to console him. He, like most racers, beats up on himself more than enough when he has a bad day and he doesn’t need us beating up on him as well.

The pressures of racing

Anyone who has raced knows there is more than enough pressure on a racer without any more being piled on by an overzealous parent. In fact, it seems to me that virtually every instance I have witnessed of a parent putting undue pressure and expectations on their kid has been from a parent who has never raced. There is, in fact, so much pressure just from the act of lining up to race that it’s not uncommon to hear of racers at every level vomiting before a race.

Aside from the pressure to perform, there is also the necessary concern for personal safety; every race has the potential to be the one where you hit the ground hard enough to fracture bones and crush internal organs.

As a parent we need to encourage and support, not disparage and tear strips off. To my mind, what I witnessed in Chilliwack borders on child abuse. When I think of the kid involved, and every kid’s desire to earn their parent’s approval, it all just makes me queasy in my tummy.

Dealing with the ups and downs

I spent both arenacross weekends staying with the Waddells. Wyatt Waddell is not only a racer—he is one of those rare, gifted racers who has the potential to one day be a top level pro.

If it’s tough to be a racer’s parent at times, you must imagine that the difficulties increase dramatically when your child shows real pro potential. When there are sponsorships and factory deals on the line, many parents become insane with desire and put crazy pressure on their kids.

After the night’s events, the conversation back at the trailer naturally turned to parenting a racer. I was so impressed with the things Wyatt’s father, Laurie, said, and his general demeanour, and I was so relieved to be reminded that the vast majority of MX parents are rational beings who put their children’s welfare first.

Laurie pointed out that motocross provides unparalleled opportunity to forge bonds with our kids.

“I love the racing, but for me the best part is the long drives home afterward, with me and my son in the truck driving through the dark night,” he said. “We put on good music and just talk. Sometimes we talk about racing but often we just talk about ‘stuff.’ These are the moments I really cherish. It’s the opportunity to spend so much time with my kids that’s most important to me.”

A good example

Laurie is exactly right. As most kids hit their teens, they start disappearing with their friends on weekends, and time spent with parents dwindles away. Racing motocross usually requires a family be together for the duration of the weekend, and the result should be a tighter bond than others manage—as long as that is the prize most valued.

It was easy for Laurie to be graceful the first weekend when Wyatt won every race, but it was the second weekend when Wyatt struggled that Laurie most impressed me. Nothing changed. His demeanour and attitude were exactly the same, and he treated Wyatt exactly the same, except for maybe a conciliatory slap on the back. Like any good parent, he did step in at one point and attempt to help Wyatt understand where he was losing time, and why he was having such a hard time with the whoop section, but when Wyatt made it clear that he didn’t want to hear it, Laurie smiled at me, shrugged his shoulders and stepped back.

Over the course of the weekend, it was clear to see that Wyatt and Laurie shared a bond of trust, respect and mutual admiration that any parent would envy. I can’t help but believe this bond was largely formed as a direct result of the time they spend together racing motocross.

Valuable lessons learned

This opportunity is why I am so puzzled by the behaviour I witnessed by that particular parent the first night in Chilliwack.

Doesn’t every parent want what Laurie and Wyatt have? Why would you take such a glorious opportunity to form a lifelong bond with your child and waste it, and let it fester into an ego-inspired tirade that drives an indelible wedge between you and your child? When you see that your child is hurting, and suffering through a bad time, why would you want to hurt them more? Yes, it angers me, but it confuses me even more.

I tried to imagine that night we got home from the last race of the year. In my mind, I picture the instant Tanner witnessed my dismembered digit, stepped back with his hands on his head, went red in the face and began to cry and scream, “It’s my fault! It’s my fault!” Then I imagine screaming back, “You’re bloody right it’s your fault, you useless, worthless, talentless, waste of time!”

When we express anger at our kids after a poor racing performance, this is exactly what we’re doing. We are piling irreparable damage onto an already wounded child. It confuses me why a parent would do this, but at least I am confident that I am not the one who is most confused. While this behaviour baffles me, at least I know my priorities and values are not confused. We race for the experience of spending time with our children and the opportunity to teach them invaluable lessons of humility, sportsmanship and overcoming challenges. We do not race to turn our children into extensions of our own ego.

I write this in hopes that every parent, from time to time, will examine their priorities and behaviour at the races, and make sure they aren’t getting their values confused.

As I am about to publish this article, I’m struck with the realization that the father at the centre of this story might be upset reading it. Yet I remain undaunted, because I think it’s something that needs to be dealt with. If he was the only parent I had ever seen acting this way, it wouldn’t really be an issue, but he certainly isn’t.

There are too many parents capable of what I witnessed in Chilliwack. I know this man just well enough to know that he isn’t some kind of monster, but he’s had a few bad moments that have been witnessed by others. He may already feel some contrition, but if this article moves him to remorse—so much the better.

I happen to believe people can change. With the recent tragedy in Connecticut, and the ensuing holiday season, people’s minds are on their children. I happen to advocate stricter gun laws and better mental health care, but we also have to ask, “Where does all the anger, violence and hatred come from?”  Sometimes, we need look no further than ourselves.

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