Parenting an Athlete: It’s Life on a Razor’s Edge

By Danette "Dizzle" Rivera

As the parent of two young athletes I often ride a razor's edge. The blade get most dangerously sharp at those moments when I'm trying to figure out when to push them or not. It's a call that complicated enough when you realize they're good at something. When you realize they may be great at it, it feels like juggling knives.

My oldest daughter Maya became a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo being primed for the national team by her world-class coach. "Olympics some day, Maya!" he yelled during especially grueling workouts. She was twelve. At that age the competition separates girls with natural ability from athletes with life-changing potential. I monitored her closely during the elite training. Was this fun? Is this what she wanted? At the time, it was.

Kicks to the head in Taekwondo matches are legal during the competitions in which she participated. On a couple occasions, I watched my girl get kicked hard enough to send her to her knees. Time slowed for me in those moments. My baby was down. Long braids skimmed the mat as she chewed her black mouth guard. Tears pooled. Then she managed to stand back up, tug hard on her uniform, and reassume her fighting stance. I always fought back tears myself when I watched her fight. She was steeling a resolve inside the ring that easily spilled outside of it.

These were big-picture moments. I couldn't have taught her better myself. And if Maya loved Taekwondo, then I loved it, and I watched all of her matches with enormous pride, at the edge of my seat and sometimes through the fingers that covered my face.

My instinct is to protect my girls, but deep down I know, especially as an athlete myself, that despite the risk of injury they learn amazing things about themselves that will last a lifetime.

After a disappointing showing at the Junior Olympics, I watched Maya's coach push her even harder. I also saw her wear down mentally. I constantly wondered when I should push her natural talent and when I should lay off to let her enjoy herself. If the overall joy leaves, then what's the point? Would she end up hating all training and any sport? By 13 she was done with Taekwondo. She was burnt out, and all she wanted to do was play basketball. She craved a team sport. Despite the pleas from her Taekwondo coach, that's what I let her do. We talked about it from all angles. It was beyond a matter of persevering. The flame had simply gone out. And this is when you have to know your child's personality. I realized her drive had been exhausted, and she no longer enjoyed the pressure.

This year Maya, now 17, is on a varsity basketball team that made it to post-season play. She's a small guard that plays like a power forward. She's good and I love to watch her play. She was more gifted at Taekwondo, honestly, but basketball brings her more joy.

Ultimately, I've discovered my role is to help her examine her decisions thoughtfully, and then support them. Coercing her too much toward my own wants for her doesn't teach her how to be independently strong. Her coach can be single-minded about a task--to the end of grooming her as a top-performing athlete. But as a parent, my job is to guide her through every facet of life on the foundation of good character, and teach her that life should be fun even when it's hard work.

My younger daughter, Mina, 13, is an impressive tennis player. Ironically, she decided against basketball, a team sport, so she could play tennis, a solo sport. In contrast to Maya, she wants wins and losses to fall on her shoulders only. We push her, probably more than we did Maya, and she responds well to it. Losses don't discourage her, and pressure doesn't faze her. She loves a good performance almost more than a win. I have to restrain her from being too cocky sometimes.

I scratch my head at the differences between my girls, but I know I have to give Mina the guidance unique only to her to keep her motivated, progressing and, most of all, loving the sport she's in.

But with either child, I always ride the razor's edge hoping that I'm doing it right.

Danette "Dizzle" Rivera, of Santa Monica, CA, was once a salsa dancer, an ocean swimmer, and a street baller. Along with having a day job in a company, she coaches teens in Crossfit techniques. She's a regular contributor to, a site for elite athletes, trainers, and coaches.