I’ve been fortunate to have a front-row seat over the past three years as ninja warrior emerged from obscurity to become a popular sport for kids. Riding the fame of NBC’s adult sensation American Ninja Warrior, youth ninja warrior now has two national leagues, teams all over the country and its own TV show produced by Universal Kids.
This is a crazy sport, and it’s crazy hard. Competitors see who can get the farthest the fastest through an obstacle course filled with challenges like devil steps, salmon ladders, spinning barrels and whatever else the local gym decides to add. Athletes frequently fail in this grueling, unpredictable and, at times, unfair sport. But these characteristics that make it tough also make it great. Kids follow the example set by adult competitors, supporting each other no matter the outcome; they have a camaraderie unusual in sports. Unfortunately, some parents can’t stomach the frequent failure — or stay quiet on the sidelines.
You’d think we’d know better by now, that we’d be able to keep our mouths shut and recognize the inherent lessons in the sport. After all, we’re several years out from the publication of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure and Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, which between them cover toddlerhood through college. We’ve read the articles on backing off, seen over-parenting buzzwords evolve from the “helicopter” to the “lawnmower” and “steamroller” — including my favorite, the “curling parent,” who sweeps every little speck of snow and ice off the path.
This is a crazy sport, and it’s crazy hard.
When my two sons first stepped into a ninja gym three years ago, the youth version was in its infancy and gym owners needed parents to get the word out. We were encouraged to stand on the courses with our phones, recording our kids’ runs so we and our children could post the videos on Facebook and Instagram. Since our knowledge of the sport was limited to watching the adult show and we hadn’t participated ourselves, we couldn’t coach our kids. All we could do was shout “Good try!” when our daughters and sons peeled off cliffhanger ledges and plunked down on blue crash pads.
Fast forward to this season. By now we’ve studied the sport, maybe even tried it, and some of us have even opened our own ninja gyms.
In true modern parenting style, some of us can’t resist butting in, trying to pave a smooth path for our children and eliminate whatever obstacle stands between our prodigies and the podium. A sampling of ninja parent stories I’ve seen from the past year: shuttling a child six hours to a gym two states away for weekly team practice; hiring a personal coach for one-on-one training sessions before finals; driving kids to two competitions in the same day so that they can rack up qualifier points; submitting official challenges to referee calls after course runs; complaining online and in person about obstacles being too hard.
Reading the news, I suppose this shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise. Parents continue to berate coaches and refs from the sidelines about a call and punch each other in the stands. Recently, Colorado parents had an all-out brawl on the infield at a 7-year-olds’ baseball game. We hire personal trainers to increase our eighth-graders’ chances of making high school varsity. Now we’re even paying people to help our children improve their Fortnite skills, and let’s not even get into college admissions. We can’t bear to see our kids struggle, let alone fail.
[S]omewhere along the line, our definition of victory morphed into something ugly, even in the ninja gym ...
Sometimes during ninja warrior competition, kids fail — and are disqualified — early in the event. Kids, from first graders through teens, take their cues from parents about how to react. One of my boys fell off the second quad step during his first National Ninja League competition last fall, about 10 seconds into his run. The other failed so fast in his final team competition, landing past an out-of-bounds line from the initial rope swing, that his coach didn’t have time to get to the start of the course first. The first year, I’ll admit, these types of occurrences took some getting used to. But when these things happen — and they will — you’ve got to just shrug and smile. If you don’t, you’re missing the point.
And the point is that ninja warrior is hard. Sometimes you drive two hours and are done five seconds in, so the sport can’t be about the results, or even really the participation. It’s about the community. There’s no first string or benchwarmers at a competition.
Every single kid will fail, no matter how many hours of one-on-one ninja training parents have bankrolled. The kids learn this lesson quickly from terrific role models, the pro ninjas they see on tv and the ninjas coaching them. Immediately after a fall, they’re telling their competitors how to navigate an obstacle or whether you can skip the first overhead bar on the lache. They’re helping people beat them.
The sport is still growing, and competition hosts often solicit feedback. Here’s one parent comment about this year’s National Ninja League finals, where only 3.6% of competitors completed stage 1: “Not even close to age/skill appropriate! My daughter ... expected to go much further. Not so awesome.” And another: “Lots of kids disappointed with themselves, lots of team members who practice several hours a week falling on the first obstacle. The bottom line is that it was too hard.”
We’re still measuring success using the wrong parameters, the easily quantifiable columns, instead of character-building characteristics. Wins and losses, test scores and degrees, still hold more importance than resilience and empathy. Unfortunately, there’s recent evidence to support this warped interpretation; according to a New York Times op-ed, new study results show a direct correlation between intensive parenting and high test scores.
We love our children and want them to succeed, but somewhere along the line, our definition of victory morphed into something ugly, even in the ninja gym when there’s no athletic scholarship on the line. The gym owners could relent to the vocal parents and decide it’s just simpler to make the obstacles easier.
I hope they don’t change a thing.