On parenting an elite athlete ...
I found a journal under my bed in one of my bi-annual attempts at cleaning. A few years ago, a couple of parents of children a bit younger than mine encouraged me to write a book. I got as far as two pages and then it fell behind the bed and things settled over it, kind of like what happened with those saber-toothed tigers that they now have on display at the La Brea tar pits. Here is what I had written years ago...
There is a great big hole in the picture of parents in sports. Between the Little League dad and the figure-skating mom living vicariously through their children are the thousands of parents I have met. These are the moms and dads who take their child to 5 a.m. swim practice or who sit in grid lock L.A. traffic for two hours to get their children to practice at 7 p.m. They have to work all day, they are tired and sitting in that car on the 405 or on that bleacher at 6 a.m. is hardly the one thing in the world they most want to be doing by a very, very long shot.
Here is how it happens to most parents that you become the mom or dad of an elite athlete ...
You are not the fanatic parent portrayed in the media. You have your own life and you are happy with it, or at least as happy as most people are, anyway. You have a job, you have friends, a husband or wife, maybe, and, of course, a child. You are pretty much like the rest of America.
Except ... somewhere along the line, something happens and your story changes. You take your child to the local class and she does well. You take her to the local meets and she wins. Everyone is having a nice time. Your house starts to fill up with trophies, your child starts to get invited to 'traveling teams' or out-of-state tournaments. You start to notice that your child is different. She does things other kids her age don't do. You probably notice it before anyone else does, because who knows your child better than you. Other people will chalk it up to you just being another "Little League parent", but you know. You see this sport becoming your child's life. Here is one of the first heartaches. You see your child lose, maybe for the first time, or the first time in a long time. I have never seen a world-class athlete who took losing well. You see your child walk out of the gym, sit down in the car next to you and burst into tears. You have the picture of your child standing on the podium trying bravely to smile, when her eyes are red from crying under the bleachers ever since the finals ended. Don't kid yourself that it is any easier if you have a son. At that moment, when you see your child's heart breaking, you resolve to do whatever you need to see that your child never, ever has to feel that way again. And so, here you are at the pool before dawn or on the freeway moving at 5 miles an hour.
Most people would think that having been a world champion would prepare you for being the parent of an elite athlete. Most people have no idea what the hell they are talking about.
Nothing prepares a parent to raise an elite athlete in any sport. There have been so many times when everyone else seemed to think they knew more about what my daughter needed than I did. There were a lot of days when five or six different people would call me up to tell me what I was doing wrong. Did I ask their opinions? No! And I just wanted to scream at them,
"There isn't a book for this, you know! I'm doing the best I can!"
One advantage I do have of being a former world champion is that I have been in this sport a very long time, long enough to realize that almost all parents will face the same challenges.
How do you tell if your child really is as gifted as you think? How can you know if you are letting a God-given talent slide or pushing a child to unreasonable limits. This is easier to see in timed events like swimming or track. If your child has broken his or her age group record every year since age six, you have a pretty good hint. What about Ronda? She came into a sport at age 11 and did not compete in her first junior nationals until 12. At 14 she qualified for her first junior international team, at 15 for her first junior worlds, at 16 for her first senior U.S. team.
There are probably 100 divisions in the junior nationals, by age group and weight, and three national events and one junior U.S. Open each year. Out of those 400 possible gold medalists, what set Ronda apart?
There are a couple of factors. One is the conditions under which she was winning. Many of the kids who win junior nationals at twelve have been in judo six or seven years. With all of that training, they should be coming out ahead. Ronda had been competing for one year and was beating kids who had six times as much experience. Some children mature early, physically and mentally. They are essentially adults competing in the junior divisions. Ronda was not like that. She matured late in every way. At 12, she was such a skinny little beanpole we called her Beanie. In fact, I still call her Bean. As the youngest child, and having lost her father at a young age, she was pretty much babied. When she first came to live with him, Jim Pedro, Sr. said to me one day,
"When my daughter, Tanya was 16, she was going on 21. Your daughter is 16 going on 13,"
then he added,
"but, God that kid hates to lose!"
If your child has not had every advantage in terms of private lessons, extra practices, starting years earlier than the competition, in fact quite the opposite...
If your child is not physically and emotionally more advanced than the other children, in fact, quite the opposite...
.... and your child is still winning, that is one sign.
The biggest sign I see, though, is that child who HATES to lose and doesn't think anyone on earth has the right to beat her. Years ago, I fought a 15-year-old girl in the senior nationals. I was supposed to win. I had been beating everyone. In fact, I never lost a match at 48 kg. This kid came out and tried to beat me. She didn't have a prayer. I was ungodly strong for that division, I just held her still, knocked her down and pinned her. That wasn't the point. The point was that she was the only person that day who really came after me trying to win. That kid, Darlene Anaya, from New Mexico, got a bronze medal in the 1984 World Championships at 48 kg (I grew. She didn't.)
Congratulations.... I guess.... your child is amazing. Now what?
How do you get her the training she needs? How do you make sure she gets to enough practices, gets the cross-training in, gets the coaching she needs?
Are you thinking to yourself, "No problem. I would do whatever it takes for my child."
Then you, my friend, are probably one of those people who have perfect theories about raising children and no actual children. What if you have other kids? Ronda has three sisters. When Ronda won her first junior nationals, her youngest sister was a year old. How do you choose between paying for one child's college tuition or sending another to training camp in Europe or putting a third in preschool? Thank God I was helped by some very, generous wonderful people who helped with Ronda's expenses.
One year, some idiot who thought he was a great coach approached me and started telling me in a very pompous manner all of the things he was going to provide for Ronda that she needed. Then, he asked me, very condescendingly,
"What do you think you need from our organization to help you?"
I think he was very surprised by my reply, expecting I would say she needed a great coach like him. I said,
"You really want to help my daughter? What she needs is a car pool! She needs to go to practice seven days a week and I usually work six days a week to make money to cover her trips and everything her sisters need, too. She needs a car pool to get to practice."
No one ever helped get together a car pool. I did buy my oldest daughter a car for her 16th birthday on the condition she took her sister to practice twice a week. Ronda dubbed her "the chauffeur from hell". Maria often came straight from cheerleader practice to pick Ronda up, then drove to Hollywood and sat at Hayastan Dojo doing her biology homework while her sister practiced for two hours. It was a bit incongruous, Maria in her St. Monica's cheerleader outfit doing her AP homework while Ronda went head to head with several guys who grew up to be fighters in the UFC. They couldn't have been more gentlemen to my daughters, though and it all worked out.
Then there are those other decisions you are going to face later on.
What do you do when your child outgrows his or her first team or coach, or the second one after that?
What do you do when your child needs to move away from home? How do you decide where is the best place to go?
Ronda left home at 16 to train for the Olympics and there has never been a day go by that I haven't second-guessed that decision.
And that is the point at which the journal fell behind the bed....