Many parents find themselves in this predicament at one point or another: Your kid isn’t enjoying sports. Do you push them to keep with it? Or do you let them quit?
On the one hand, you want to instill values like perseverance and commitment. But on the other, you don’t want to force them to continue with an activity that’s doing more harm than good.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a cut-and-dry answer on how hard to push. But talking to your child, understanding their personality and doing some thoughtful reflection can help guide you toward the right decision for your family.
There are benefits — and drawbacks — to pushing your kid to stick with it
It could be an opportunity to teach your child important life skills, like learning to tolerate discomfort, which will bolster their confidence when they’re confronted with other challenging situations in the future. It could also be a lesson in the importance of following through on your commitments. For example, if they agreed they were going to play soccer for the season, they should honor that (unless they’re dealing with a physical or emotional injury).
“Perseverance often makes the critical distinction between whether kids succeed or fail. Will they have the inner strength to keep on or be plagued by self-defeat, unwilling to give it their best shot?” said educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of the upcoming book, “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.” “Children who learn to bounce back and not let setbacks get them down have gained a valuable skill for life.”
“Children who learn to bounce back and not let setbacks get them down have gained a valuable skill for life.”
By the same token, there are lessons to be learned by allowing them to quit — things like the value of listening to their gut and honoring their needs, said clinical psychologist Cindy T. Graham, founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center.
“Forcing kids to stay in sports, or any activity for that matter, when the sport is aversive for the child can lead to a child putting the wishes of others ahead of their own well-being, needs, wants or preferences,” Graham said. “In a nutshell, it can teach children to diminish their own intuition, thoughts, and feelings, rather than learning when to listen to these aspects of themselves.”
First, talk to your kid about why they want to quit
Have a conversation about why they changed their mind. Maybe it’s a conflict with a teammate or coach, frustrations about their skill level, a waning interest in the sport or something else entirely. But you won’t know unless you ask.
Broad questions like, “Why do you want to quit?” may yield vague answers like “I don’t know” or “I just don’t like it,” said psychotherapist Amy Morin.
“Instead, ask questions that will give you more insight, such as, ‘Are there some parts you do like about it?’ or ‘Is there anything that would make it better?’” she wrote in a piece for Verywell Family.
Other good ones to ask: Would you like to play the same sport, but with a different team? (A more or less competitive group or new teammates might make a difference.) Or is there a different activity you’d like to try instead?
Then do some self-reflection
After talking to your kid, take some time to reflect. When trying to come to a decision, there are a number of factors to consider.
1. Is the sport doing physical or emotional harm to your child?
A sports-related injury could be causing pain. Or it could be emotional distress due to a difficult coach or bullying from another player.
“All too often this can be the underlying trigger for a child going from loving a sport to wanting to quit,” pediatric psychiatrist Joseph Austerman told the Cleveland Clinic.
In some cases, it’s worth trying to help your child problem-solve before throwing in the towel. In others, the issue might be so distressing to them that quitting the team is the healthiest choice.
“In general, parents should keep in mind how sensitive their child is,” Graham said. “Highly sensitive children will perseverate about [negative] encounters or may feel particularly bad about themselves afterward. Parents should keep in mind the extent to which the child is able to shake such incidents.”
2. Is your child exhibiting other signs of depression or anxiety?
Know that loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities — such as sports — can be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue. However, there would likely be other signs, too: changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawing socially, excessive worry, increased irritability or declining academic performance.
“It is best to allow a child to quit an activity when the child is showing signs of distress, anxiety or depression,” Graham said. “A child may become anxious or have difficulty sleeping leading up to the sport activity. They could also begin isolating themselves from others or may lose interest in more than just the sport.”
“If the child shows signs of negative self-esteem, parents should strongly consider whether remaining in the sport is in the child’s best interest,” she added.
And if you suspect an underlying mental health issue may be at play, reach out to a mental health professional for further guidance.
3. Is your kid playing the sport for them or for you?
Are you really acting in your child’s best interest? Or are you, perhaps unconsciously, pushing your child to keep playing for more self-serving reasons?
“Parents should consider whether the sport is in some way tied into their own self-concept or view of themselves as a parent,” Graham said. “Perhaps the sport is something the parent took part in or always wished they had taken part in. Keeping in mind whether staying in the sport is actually for the child or because the parent is living vicariously through the child is critically important.”
4. Is there a pattern of perfectionism that’s making them want to quit?
Perhaps your child has decided to quit because they’re not able to meet their own impossibly high standards for performance. If they’re not the star of the team, they’d rather stop playing altogether than work toward improving their skills. This could be a sign of perfectionism.
Another sign to look out for, Graham said, is getting caught up in “should” thought patterns. Kids with perfectionist tendencies believe they “should” succeed no matter what — without taking into account situational factors that could have affected their performance.
“For example, ‘I should have made the goal no matter how much time was left’ or ‘It was a difficult block but I should have stopped the other kid,’” Graham said. “Children who have these thoughts tend to hold themselves to a very high standard of achievement that they expect themselves to reach at almost every opportunity.”
Parents can help their kids work on this by praising their efforts, rather than the outcomes. So instead of celebrating how many points they scored, you would commend them for the hard work they put in during practice.
“Teaching kids to focus on the process, learning new skills and forgiving oneself for mistakes are skills for navigating life while wins and perfection serve the purpose mainly for momentary accolades,” Graham said.
5. Would a different sport or other activity be a better fit?
Be open to letting your kid pursue other hobbies: art, theater, music, running, cooking or volunteering, just to name a few.
“Children can learn valuable lessons in resiliency in many extracurricular endeavors,” Graham said.
“Resilient children recognize that losing is part of life and sometimes you have to quit.”
Encourage them to explore different things until they find something that lights them up.
“Some [kids] don’t find joy in team sports or clubs, and there’s something to be said for that,” writer and mom Katie Bingham Smith wrote in an essay for Grown and Flown. “If they decide it’s not for them and focus their attention on finding something that sets their soul on fire, it gives them room to consider other options and hobbies.”
If your child gives it their best shot and things don’t improve, let them know it’s OK to move on
This can be a crucial lesson too: Some things just aren’t the right match. Help your child view the experience as a learning opportunity, rather than something to beat themself up over.
“We want our kids to never give up but sometimes the task is mismatched to the child, beyond their abilities, and despite their best efforts it’s just not enough,” Borba said. “Resilient children recognize that losing is part of life and sometimes you have to quit.”
Parents can offer reassuring statements like, “I know you tried your hardest” or “I love how you gave it your best effort” to show that their love is unconditional, Borba added.
Take time to reflect back on the experience with your child. Ask them what they learned from it and what they might do differently next time.
“Resilient kids are less likely to be derailed from a failed experience because they figure out a way to learn from the experience,” Borba said. “Brainstorm those ‘next time’ options: ‘Next time, I’ll find something that is more in my ability range,’ or ‘Next time, I’ll find more time to practice.’”