Parenting a True Champion – Interview with Kirk Mango

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BecomingATrueChampion Book - Kirk Mango
When I came across Kirk Mango’s website, Becoming a True Champion, it immediately caught my attention! That same day I reached out to him and asked if he’d be interested in talking about this topic with me and I’m so happy he graciously agreed!

We exchanged a few emails back and forth and, as you’ll see very soon, Kirk provided some in depth answers to many of the questions I asked. I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I do…

Stacie: When I saw your FanPage on Facebook, I was immediate intrigued because of the phrase “True Champion.” For me that communicates a mindset, a way of being each day, more than a trophy or title.

Kirk: Yes it does…that is an important piece of becoming a True Champion.

Stacie: What is a true champion to you?

That is a great question…and one I wished was asked more often. In short, a true champion is one who has a much stronger focus on the process of becoming the best they can be (applying all the intrinsic components necessary to achieve that) rather than the outcome…like winning.

They do win, even championships, but they seek reaching their true full potential, all while following a more positive code of ethical standard than what we see from so many these days. And they do this both on and off the field. It is a standard one aspires to reach. An important piece of becoming a True Champion is demonstrated through the prose The Code of a True Champion Code (middle and last link, at the top of that page).

Stacie: On your site, you mention that true champions are made, not born. What makes you say that?

Kirk: One is not born with the attributes that it takes to become a true champion…they acquire them through the choices they make as they move through the athletic experiences they have. It is a mindset (as you indicate in your first point above) that one adopts…chooses to follow…at least to the best of their ability.

A true champion is not about being perfect…that is impossible …it’s about striving toward something more, something better…and this better is not an inborn characteristic, but a path one makes a conscious effort to follow.

Stacie: Recently, I’m becoming increasingly more aware of how beliefs we hold can affect our daily choices, our bigger choices, and therefore, many “outcomes” in life. Tell us a little about limitations and being governed by ones own imagination. Why do you believe in this concept?

Kirk: There are many examples of individuals, athletes, who have faced daunting challenges due to unforeseen circumstance; adversity that creates a supposed impossibility. Wilma Rudolph is one that immediately comes to mind, an athlete who contracted polio, was told she would never walk again without a crutch and steel braces on her legs, yet…goes out and wins three Olympic gold medals…in track nonetheless. Or Bethany Hamilton, the surfer girl who lost her arm (and almost her life) in a shark attack at 13, yet…STILL drives toward and realizes her dream of becoming a professional surfer. Or how about Anthony Robles, the one-legged wrestler who became an NCAA Division I National Champion in spite of the likely impossibility of that task.

These are all representative examples of athletes who simply would not accept the limitations…adversity…they were faced with. It did not matter what anyone else thought or said…what mattered is what THEY thought, what they IMAGINED themselves accomplishing, what they themselves envisioned as being possible. I myself faced a supposed impossibility, something based on all practical knowledge and belief could not be accomplished.

However, when one goes through a challenge like that, one learns a lot about themselves, about what one can accomplish with a little imagination, a little vision…and one’s perspective changes. And there are countless examples of athletes, individuals, who have faced similar circumstance…only to have come out on top simply because they allowed their imagination to take them places others are afraid to go.

Stacie: Regarding being limited only by your own imagination…What about those who haven’t faced overwhelming odds? I see some athletes who truly are LIMITED by their own imagination.  What can they do to change that or remove the limits they have?

Kirk: Yes…the examples I gave (Wilma Rudolph, Bethany Hamilton, Anthony Robles, etc.) are all individuals who have faced overwhelming odds to accomplish what they wanted. However, their examples do demonstrate to competitors, whether they face adversity or not, what is truly possible.

For those who “truly are LIMITED by their own imagination,” it is best to find examples they can relate to. The kind that demonstrates the possibilities available to them when the right amount of effort is applied and focused in the right areas…something relative that might inspire them.

The key here is finding some way of “sparking” their imagination. Writing down goals…objectives…and encouraging the athlete to think “outside the box” so to speak. When they do, this could be helpful. You know…asking them what they would really like to accomplish, what they truly want out of their sport, all while encouraging them to dismiss any limits they think they might have. Coaches writing down their own goals/objectives they have for the athlete, then comparing notes, prompting a discussion with the athlete why the coach’s expectations are higher than the athletes…why the coach believes they can.

Giving athletes a visual (in some way) of what is possible is an important aspect of sparking their imagination. It is difficult, for some, to imagine things that they simply have never seen.

In review…and from my perspective…there are two interrelated pieces to getting athletes who are limited by their own imagination to open themselves up to bigger possibilities:

  1. Finding some way to “spark” that athlete’s, or team’s, imagination by helping them create their own vision for themselves.
  2. Discovering something that is relatable to them personally, something inspiring, that demonstrates a path they simply were unable to see without this.

Every athlete, every team, is different. There is no one answer to this question. It can be very difficult to get someone to see something they limit themselves from seeing. One might even have to hand walk an athlete through the process of setting smaller achievable goals for a while, all relative to the bigger goal at the end (the one they have yet to see), encouraging them along the way, showing them their improvements as they go.

However, the bottom line will always be, eventually, this will have to come from the athlete themselves…the key will be finding innovative ways to get them there.

Stacie: One question I am asked often is about my kids. How do you get them to…You’ve raised two athletes, so I’d like to talk about that for a bit. Obviously, most parents, parents of athletic children included, want what’s best for their child. But we all make mistakes. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see parents make with their athletic child?

Yes…mistakes are inevitable…it is part of life. Kids do not come with a handbook that is for sure. In thinking about your question a couple of things come to mind:

  1. I would say the #1 biggest mistake I see from parents centers on NOT allowing their athletic kids to take responsibility for, and ownership over, their athletic experiences…both successes and failures. Whether through disagreements with coaches on playing time, player position, starting…or jumping from team to team in order to circumvent adversity…or looking for favoritism (directly or indirectly)…or the countless verbal/physical confrontations between parents and coaches we read about in the media…or any number of similar circumstance, all encompass some level of removal of responsibility and ownership away from the athlete. It is important to keep in mind that it IS about the athlete…not the parent…AND with strong intrinsic foundations athletes will learn much more from the adversity they face and failures they experience than they will through their successes. Of course the above statement will need to be age appropriately applied as one should never allow an emotionally, physically, or socially damaging situation to continue; however, it is much more common for parents to “enable” their athletic youth.
  2. Next on my list would be accountability. Not holding athletes accountable for the choices they make creates an environment where they are taught entitlement…that is not a good thing and it is rampant in our current sports culture.
  3. Supporting, and directly or indirectly conveying to their kids, a belief system of winning (outcomes) over and above simply working toward doing the best that they can…through a focus on the process.

Even though there are others…these are probably the BIG 3 in my book!!!

Stacie: How was the ride home handled in your family?

Probably the most consistent statement I made to both of my kids throughout their athletic careers was “Man…I really love watching you play!!!” The only time I ever took any issue with them regarding their sports was if the efforts they put in were lacking. We, as a family, encouraged character and effort above all else and used their sports experiences as a means to teach those things. They could choose what they wanted to play, what they wanted to do, but they were always expected to do their best at whatever they chose to do.

Stacie: What do you feel is the key to helping kids develop a positive attitude, perseverance, a good work ethic, etc?

Giving them the responsibility for, and ownership over, the choices they made when it came to their sports and holding them accountable for those choices. Setting up a family unit that contained solid structure…one where expectations were high but reasonable and where character was a top priority.

Encouraging kids to always do their best, to face and tackle the challenges, obstacles, and adversity they face, to always finish what they start and follow through on the commitments they make, and creating a solid support system to fall back on. Even though there are likely other things….it is these that come to my mind first.

Stacie: What does this look like to you?  Can you give us some examples of what an athlete with a solid support system has behind them?  What can parents DO (or refrain from doing) to provide this support system?

Kirk: To me, a solid support system has open lines of communication (whether from parent or coach or both) that incorporate understanding, empathy, honest assessment – when appropriate, etc., and sometimes just listening. They are individuals that an athlete can go to for advice, compassion or consoling…people who truly care about the athlete…not only as an athlete but also as a person. They can include parents, siblings, coaches, teachers, friends, etc. It doesn’t have to include all of those…but it can. The key is having someone to go to that has the athlete’s best interests at heart…something that a deep sense of caring is an important part of.

One of the best things a parent can do is to really listen…refraining from seeming to give “lectures” or “advice” all the time. At times…this can be difficult as a parent’s vision and experience is normally much broader than that of their young athlete’s. However, keeping in mind the goal to simply help support the young athlete through their experiences and give them someone to “lean” on when necessary, will be an important key. Other pieces would include helping the athlete come up with their own solutions to problems, making them feel empowered, giving them options; these are all important pieces to keep in mind when building this support system.

And lastly, but most importantly, giving the athlete the sense that you truly believe in them. This is an essential piece to that solid support system we are talking about here…AND it was the main piece behind my own solid support system coming mainly from my father and brother.

Stacie: What are some things parents can do to help their children overcome adversity or rise up from failure?

Kirk: A lot of this has been answered in various forms above. This is true because a lot of whether one will be successful or not centers on the foundational pieces that are built up on the inside…and they are very much interrelated to each other. Thus, much of what has been said applies here, to this question, as well.

However, it is also very important that kids have someone that truly believes in them…much more difficult to do so without that support…not impossible…but much more difficult. My own experiences with my father taught me that very important piece of the puzzle.

One of them occurred during my high school athletic career (Section III of Becoming a True Champion)…and it changed my perspective dramatically. The other happened when I was very young, setting down the foundations necessary to face obstacles and rise above challenges. I was a mere 5 years old…small…tiny in fact compared to my peers. One morning a couple of larger, older boys were picking on me relentlessly. I ran home in tears looking for my father to help. He was in the bathroom shaving getting ready to leave. Sobbing…I explained my circumstance to him, about these two boys teasing and picking on me. He listened intently never interrupting and never taking his eyes off the mirror as he shaved. When I had finished, asking him to come out and take care of these big kids, he turned to look at me stating how awful that was, downright mean he said…but his next statement was telling…

he said, “So Kirk….what are YOU going to do about it.”

The message was crystal clear…if I did not like something…did not like the way I was being treated…it was up to me to do something about it…no one else. I ran off to do just that. Now I don’t remember what happened after that…or even if I ever saw those two kids again…but I do vividly remember the lesson my dad taught me that day…and at a very young age. He demonstrated to me, through his action (in this case…inaction), that he believed I was more than capable of handling this myself…my problems…myself. He BELIEVED in me!!!

Stacie: What are some things parents can do that actually make it HARDER for their kids to bounce back?

First word that came to mind when I read that question was enabling them…doing for them things that they are more than capable of doing themselves. Making life too easy…coming to their rescue every time they have a problem…never letting them solve problems on their own…come up with their own solutions.

Another piece would be expecting them to be perfect…much different than having high expectations…and when they aren’t (because no one is)…the parent taking charge themselves which demonstrates to them that they really weren’t capable in the first place. There are others…but these were my first thoughts.

Stacie: As a parent and coach, I understand the feeling of wanting to take charge.  You see your child (or your players) flailing and struggling and they clearly don’t know what to do and you want to help. Instead of jumping in and taking over, what can parents do instead?

This is a great question. From a parent’s, and also coach’s, perspective…it is much easier to just jump in and take over. AND there are times where that does need to happen, especially when coaching.

However, often, it is a good idea to mentally take a step back from said circumstance, giving thought to how best to get the athletes themselves to see the issue you see and to come up with solutions to those issues or problems. Sometimes, simply explaining the issue that presents itself…then asking the athletes their suggestion to fix the problem is helpful.

Another possibility is coming up with alternative options that the athletes can pick from. This way you do have some control over the direction the athletes might travel…but…they also feel empowered in the process. You are stepping in…but they are gaining ownership over the choice that is made. In fact, any creative way where they become part of the problem solving process would be great…rather than always having the athlete being in a subordinate role in this process.

This is all keeping in mind that, most of the time, athletes will learn more from their struggles and failures, when given the opportunity, than they will from their successes. Too many forget this important piece.

Stacie: What words of wisdom would you give to a parent who’s child wants to quit their sport?

Funny…I was faced with that myself. My oldest wanted to quit soccer back when she was about 10 or 11. If this had happened mid-season, we would have insisted that she follow through with her commitment…and then…if she so decided…didn’t have to play the next season. However, this occurred after season right before tryouts for the next season. I gave this a lot of thought and came up with another option…an alternative.

I suggested to my daughter that she should go through tryouts for the next season, since if she did not try out, there would be NO going back, and if she made the team, wait the two months through summer, well before the next season started, and if she still wanted to quit, we would let her, giving the program and team more than enough time to fill her spot. However, it was explained to her that if she did decide to play…she would be committed to that for the whole season…she would not be allowed to quit on her teammates.

In the end, she stayed and went on to play soccer for Marquette University. So my advice would be for parents to take some time to think about this before just letting their child quit. Mid-season…in my book…commitment trumps most everything.

On the other hand…if there are obvious emotional, physical, or social risks in staying…that is a completely different scenario…health and safety trumps everything else.

Stacie: I would agree than many parents tend to err on the side of enabling or babying their athletes, trying to shelter them from consequences or disappointment.  At the same time, we also see parents on the complete other end of the spectrum.  Those who punish their child for anything and everything.  Is there a middle ground to be found? Does holding your child accountable mean dishing out punishments for every mistake?  Does allowing them to be accountable for their own performance and their own choices mean not helping at all and allowing them to “sink or swim” within a sports environment?

Kirk: Both extremes you’ve mentioned, “enabling or babying their athletes” and “punishing their child for anything and everything,” are likely not the best path. Keeping in mind that every child is different, and what works exceptionally well for one does not necessarily work the same for another. I believe it is important to start from a position of solid ethical standards. That, to me, is where the middle ground lies.

Focusing on things like character, sound work ethics, honoring one’s commitments, setting solid priorities, etc., are all a big part of what we want kids to learn through their sports experiences. Thus, it is important to hold kids accountable for those pieces of the puzzle. And holding one accountable doesn’t necessarily mean punishment. It can, depending on the circumstance, but that is only one of many ways to hold one accountable.

Sometimes, holding one accountable can simply mean allowing the natural consequences of one’s choices to dictate what happens. It can also mean having open discussions about certain behavior, both positive and negative, or even, on the other hand, having a home consequence on top of the natural consequences that occur. It all depends on the circumstance…as well as the age of the athlete…and the lesson one wants to teach. And yes…there are times (especially when the truth is given and mistakes are admitted) where flexibility in consequence is much preferred over punishment.

Lastly, enabling versus helping an athlete along their path is not the same thing. When one enables…they are doing things for kids that they really should be handling on their own…or shielding/sheltering them from circumstance/disappointment that they could learn from. Whereas helping centers more on encouragement, teaching, suggesting alternatives, building confidence, etc….much less doing for and rescuing and much more assisting or aiding.

Again…this is all age appropriate as well. How you might handle a 16 or 17 year old dealing with an adverse circumstance may very well be different than how you might deal with an 8 or 9 year old.

Stacie: Anything else you would like to add?

Kirk: Yes…every child is born with their own “gifts.” The key to unlocking these talents is multifaceted. However, a strong focus on the intrinsic foundations that create a mindset for success, one where the PROCESS is weighed over and above any specific outcome, will be of great benefit to achieving one’s potential, both athletic and otherwise. It is this kind of focus that will help one transcend what is learned through the competitive athletic arena (and the training experiences that come with that) to life itself. It is what I like to call…teaching of life lessons.

Kirk MangoKirk Mango is the Author of the book Becoming a True Champion: Achieving Athletic Excellence From the Inside Out, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) and retired 34 year veteran teacher. He also writes a blog for the Tribune Chicagonow blog network titled The Athlete’s Sports Experience: Making a Difference.

As an athlete, Kirk was a Division I National Champion, 3-Time All-American, 3-Time Hall of Fame Athlete, was selected in 2009 as #8 on NIU’s Top 50 Huskies of All Time list (A list consisting of NBA & NFL players, Heisman Trophy Candidates, and other elite level athletes), and is the father of 2 former Division I scholarship athletes.

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