Parenting Lessons to Learn from the Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal

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My husband and I have been following Lance Armstrong’s career since he started racing in the Tour de France following his battle with cancer.  We read his books, bought LiveStrong bracelets and clothes, and in 2010 we even went to Paris for the last stage of the TdF, when Armstrong raced his final Tour.

Recently it was announced that Armstrong had been officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and that his best race result would have been 36th  – before his cancer diagnosis.  This story has been making headlines for weeks, and has been simmering since Floyd Landis (Armstrong’s former teammate and winner of the 2006 TdF) started commenting on the systemic doping that took place.  The recent news essentially eradicates the career that made Armstrong a household name. Pat McQuaid, the President of the International Cycling Union (UCI) said, “There is no place for Lance Armstrong in cycling.  “ [He is] a serial cheat who led one of the worst doping conspiracies in sport.”

Armstrong wasn’t acting alone.  He was part of a team of doctors, coaches, team managers and other cyclists who were all involved in the doping.  The Tour de France is leaving those 7 years without a winner, as they would be pretty hard-pressed to find a cyclist who wasn’t doping during those years. It’s when the story gets a bit deeper and shows that not only was Armstrong doping, it was how he pretty much bullied former team-mates and others who testified against him.  Many articles appeared that describe abusive voicemail messages that Armstrong used against those who would testify against him.  The wife of one of Armstrong’s former teammate “described receiving a voicemail from an Armstrong friend telling her she hoped ‘somebody breaks a baseball bat over your head,’ after her husband spoke out about doping allegations.”  Clearly doping is not good, but covering your tracks and bullying people into helping you cover your tracks?  Well, that’s quite possibly even worse.

Lance Armstrong - Credit Image: © Claus Bonnerup/Polfoto/ZUMApress.com

Why is this story so interesting story for me, as a parenting facilitator?  Well, Lance Armstrong has 5 children – 3 from his first marriage, and 2 from his current relationship.  In the past he tweeted regularly about his children and especially the joy he and his partner felt when she fell pregnant – especially after all his cancer treatment and surgery.  I can imagine that he will get through the damage to his career – as he said, “I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.”  The side of the story I am fascinated by is how you repair the damage with your family and other loved ones.  This situation provides a wealth of learning.

1. Winning at any cost will most likely catch up with you at some point
When we teach our children to play games, we teach them to play fair and to not cheat.  We’ll say thing like “cheaters never win”, and even though sometimes it seems that they do, eventually some evidence will come out that will stamp out the victory.

We can work with our children to teach them rules, to advise them about what is and is not fair play.  We can set up a system that rewards values like collaboration or accepting successes and losses graciously.  We can always be on the look out for when our children are exhibiting the behaviours we want to be seeing more of. We need to notice and acknowledge such behaviour.

We want to be raising our children to take pride in their efforts, their improvement and their attitude instead of being the best at any cost.

2. Model honesty and integrity

About a year ago, Melissa Hood, the co-founder of The Parent Practice wrote a terrific blog called 80% of Parenting is Modeling in which she writes:

“Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”.…

Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values.”

It is so important to have an idea of what values you want to be passing on to your children, to model those values and to establish rules that help you bring those values to life within your family.  One of the values we might seek to model is being happy with our own best efforts, measuring our value, not by outcomes, but by our efforts. Model enjoying sport or other games, even if we don’t win. Focus not on the results of our children’s  matches but on their enjoyment of the game and how well they participated.

Find New Heroes
This past summer was one that will go down in history as probably the best ever for UK sport.  Bradley Wiggins with Team Sky won the General Classification in the TdF, Mark Cavendish had his 23rd TdF stage win and that was all before the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics where this country saw incredible athletes pushing themselves to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.  We’ll never forget Jessica Ennis, or Mo Farah or the amazing Paralympians.  It is so important to learn from our own limitations, as well as from those of others.  In doing so, we can be honest, authentic parents who set an example of integrity and passion that will empower our children.

3. Make Amends and Move Forwards
One word that Lance Armstrong often used in his Twitter posts was ‘onward’ … continuous positive momentum.  It’s a powerful notion that will serve him well after he takes responsibility for the mistakes he has made.  Like Armstrong, we can all move forward once we take responsibility for our mistaken behaviour, put wrongs to right, and explore ways to make sure that the same thing won’t happen again.  We like to call this The Mistakes Process (or the 4As). It goes like this:

1.    ACKNOWLEDGE
Explore (without judgment) what happened and why it was a mistake.  Use the mistake as an opportunity for everyone to learn.  Acknowledge the courage required to fess up to having made a mistake.
2.    Make AMENDS
This is all about putting wrongs to right.  This can look many different ways ranging from a sincere apology; cleaning up an actual mess; fixing something that got broken; writing a letter; or doing something nice for someone else.  Often, it is the simple act of fixing the mistake that provides the lesson so the same thing doesn’t happen again.  And it is so much more effective than shouting!
3.    ALTER
This is where you want to take some time to explore what could have been done differently so that it will be less likely to happen again.
4.    ACCEPTANCE
This is where ‘onwards’ comes into play.  You have taken responsibility for the mistake, you have cleaned up your mess, and you have looked at how to make sure to get it (more) right next time.  It is done.  It is now in the past.  It is time to acknowledge that a positive lesson has been learned.  Onwards!

I imagine that Armstrong’s oldest son has always seen his Dad as a hero, and it must be very hard to hear that your Dad won because he cheated and to witness the fallout.  The damage to Armstrong’s career is vast, but quite possibly, cleaning up this mess with his family and other loved ones will be an even greater challenge.

While cycling has had an inspirational summer, it is likely that the repercussions of the doping scandal will be felt for a while.  But will the sport move forward?  Of course!  As Pat McQuaid said, “My message to cycling, to our riders, to our sponsors and to our fans today is: cycling has a future.  … This is not the first time that cycling has reached a crossroads or that it has had to begin anew and to engage in the painful process of confronting its past. It will do so again with renewed vigour and purpose and its stakeholders and fans can be assured that it will find a new path forward.”

The message from the Lance Armstrong scandal is a clear and inspiring one for parents: acknowledge your children’s strengths and weaknesses and celebrate their effort and improvement; model honesty and act with integrity; take responsibility for (and truly learn from) your mistakes.  By modeling your own ability to take responsibility and clean up your messes, you are sending a very powerful message to your children.  And when you can teach your children to clean up their own messes (both literal and figurative), you are giving them a real gift.

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