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Contingency Planning — in Go-Karting and in Life

My son skipped into the go-kart facility, and his energy quickly matched that of the speedway — loud and zooming this way and that. We had arrived to celebrate the birthday of one of his classmates, and the highlight of the party was the go-kart race. "I'm going to be No. 2!" he proclaimed, planning to leave the No. 1 spot for the birthday boy.

When it was time for my son to get into his go-kart, I watched intently from the sidelines. It was impossible to hear the orientation the kids were getting, but I had a nagging feeling that my eight-year-old son needed more time, more information, more something before this first time on a go-kart.

I stepped over to him, all strapped in, helmet on and ready to go. I asked him how he felt, and he gave me a thumb's up.

Even so, knowing my son's sensitivity to sound and new experiences, I worried about what could go wrong. I never want to hold him back from trying new things based on my fear about potentialities that may not materialize, so I always check to be sure I am acting out of well-placed precaution and not unfounded worry.

I remembered Plan B

"Plan B" is something I'd recently begun putting in place after discovering that he could be easily upset and discouraged when things did not go as expected. It was our own little version of contingency planning.

Standing there, knowing they were about to take off in minutes, I said: "Let's have a Plan B. Just in case. If you don't know what to do, or get scared..." I looked at the employee for input; he met my glance, instinctively nodded, then looked at my son and said, "If you need to get out of the race for whatever reason, do this: Stop your car and raise your hand. We will come and get you."

My son shook his head in that giant helmet, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had a contingency plan in place, so I felt he would be safe, and I could let him be free to try this new experience.

Shortly thereafter, the kids were off! It was amazing to watch them zooming around the track! Being first in line, my little guy was ahead of the pack most of the first lap, but then he slowed, and others caught up and closed in on his lead.

Then it happened

All was going according to plan with all the cars whizzing around the track, but then I saw him: stopped in his go-kart at the farthest end of the track, with his back to me and his little hand raised in the air. In the next second, all the cars on the track were halted and the employee who helped us with Plan B jogged from the control station out to my son, helped him out of his car and back to the starting gate, then jogged back to retrieve his car and push it all the way back to the staging area. I was so grateful to him.

As the race resumed, my son exited the track. He looked up at the screen and saw that he was, in fact, #2 on the leaderboard. That was a tough moment for him to see he had forfeited his personal goal. Later discussion revealed that it was the other cars getting close to him that made him feel he was about to be hit, and that is what frightened him.

This is a memory that makes me simultaneously sad and proud. Sad that he got scared, but proud that we had a clear and simple Plan B, so he knew exactly what to do and could act on it even amidst all the noise and the cars whizzing past him. Without planning for this contingency, it is likely that he would have panicked, stopped his car, gotten out and ran across the track. He could have been seriously hurt.

Contingency planning in the real world

True contingency planning involves planning for answers questions such as these:

  • What could happen?

  • What would be needed to alleviate the situation?

  • How would action be taken?

  • What preparation is needed in order to take necessary action when needed?

  • What is the cost to take action?

This approach to anticipating and planning for failure is utilized in business and disaster prevention.

Contingency planning on our world

For us, contingency planning looks like this:

  • What could happen?

Potential failures or crisis points are typically revealed in day-to-day conversation with my son. When he becomes emotional or avoidant while discussing something, I know that is a cue to explore this topic, but I do so gently to be sure to de-escalate the emotion.

  • What would be needed to alleviate the situation?

For my son to feel reassured and comfortable enough to execute the Plan B.

  • How would action be taken?

Most often, our Plan B's are in place to deal with a situation where I would not be present, so action hinges on him feeling empowered to respond in a calm, effective way.

  • What preparation is needed in order to take necessary action when needed?

​Once the potential pitfall is discovered, we prepare by talking it through, and I try to minimize or neutralize the significant negative consequences he perceives in order to empower him. Then, I script a response, and say the words in a strong voice to model the self-confident speech for him. It is my hope that in moments of stress, anxiety or fear, he will be able to easily access this in the moment. In the future, after enough Plan B's, he should be able to generalize to new situations.

  • What is the cost?

In most situations for us, Plan B's are mostly a matter of communication and coaching, so there is rarely a dollar cost, though there certainly can be. In terms of emotional cost, that is a factor. In this situation, the loss was the potential of ending the race in a top spot, standing on the platform and receiving a trophy in the race that was sacrificed.

Planning for contingency is planning for success

Next time, I could possibly prevent scenarios like this in novel environments by exposing my son to them beforehand, but I know that can't always happen. I could take one step further to empower my son after this experience, so it doesn't have a lingering negative effect. Finding a facility with two-seated go-karts would give us the chance to ride together, so he could become completely comfortable before the next party at a go-kart racetrack. Then, he can aim for No. 2 without hesitation, and I watch him whiz around the track knowing his confidence has increased and his risk has been minimized!

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