To quit, or not to quit? When kids stop playing sports, sometimes it’s adults who are to blame.


For The Beachcomber

Nobody wants to be called a quitter.

The act of quitting earns one an assortment of derisive labels — quitter, loser, wimp, chicken, slacker, loafer, backslider and even “scrimshanker,” a British word that somehow comes off worse than wanker.

Everyone loves a person who perseveres, but we pillory those who fail to notice when “perseverance” has decomposed into futility. In boxing, baseball, football and other professional sports, we all know of people who missed the bell for when it was time to quit, and in so doing sullied their legacy.

If knowing when to quit is tough for professional athletes, imagine how difficult it must be for kid athletes. How are kids supposed to know when it is time to stop playing a sport?

Like it or not, quitting is inevitable for most kids. Research shows that 70 to 75 percent of children who play sports will have quit playing by the time they are 14.

Most kids quit when they feel a sport is no longer fun, but a cause and effect relationship is not as simple as it sounds. There are lots of underlying reasons why kids might say a sport is no longer fun.

As time passes, sports become more competitive, and the very nature of the fun evolves. As kids age, their sports practices progress from fun and games to serious business.

Clowning around is more readily tolerated in the United States Marines than in a major college football program.

The beatific smile of an 8-year-old enjoying a snack with his buddies after a Sunday soccer game is very different from the lachrymose joy of a college athlete savoring a bowl game victory.

The experience for the losers is also disturbingly different. A kid who cries after losing a soccer game is thought to need perspective; an adult who cries after losing the World Cup gets his picture on the front page of dozens of papers.

If you accept that sports change as kids change, and that deciding when to quit is difficult at any age, then how do we, as parents, support a child’s desire to quit? Conversely, how do we know when to ignore their requests and to instead push them on?

In my opinion, kids quit sports too soon. By the age of 14, kids need the exercise, structure and camaraderie of sports more than at any other time in their lives.

If they forgo sports because they have moved on to other interests or hobbies, particularly those that excuse parents from having to save for bail money, then I support the decision. But if they quit for some other reason, something ultimately controlled by the adults involved in kids’ sports, then the decision warrants scrutiny.

Vince Ganzberg, director of education for Indiana Youth Soccer, sets out the basic reasons why kids play and why they quit.

Ganzberg argues in his Aug. 28, 2008, note at the US Youth Soccer Web site that kids play sports to become competent, to be around other kids, to get fit and to have fun, with fun being the principal reason most kids give for playing sports.

Kids quit for several reasons: lack of play time, too much emphasis on winning, other activities seem to be more fun, coach is a jerk, recognition that they are not as good as the others (and it’s starting to bother both the kid and the others) and lack of social support (bullying and harassment are extremes of this reason).

Ganzberg argues that everything except finding other interests is an adult-controlled criterion. I am more skeptical; I believe that even finding interest in other activities, though benign, can be rooted in one of the other reasons above.

It depends on the new activity. There is nothing wrong with door-to-door square-dancing or extreme accordion, but you might ask a few questions about why your child eschews more conventional activities in favor of such things.

In sum, we adults may be jumping to conclusions and asking the wrong questions when our children announce they no longer want to play. Perhaps we should ask whether some adult or adult behavior is causing (or precipitating) the decision in the first place.

The hard part here is that “some adult” may be looking back at us in a mirror. When I coach my boys, they receive the occasional benefit of opportunity that springs from having Dad as a coach. They pay for it, dearly, by facing almost impossible expectations.

I learned the hard way how a parent’s personal expectations can prompt a child to quit.

My son suddenly announced that he would not play my favorite sport. It killed me, especially when it became clear that I had driven him out with my expectations.

In our case, the only way I could encourage him to return, after a one-year hiatus, was to promise to drop my expectations. The deal was that he could play wherever he wanted and could practice as infrequently as he desired. No extra practice would be required.

The result was that my son had fun for the first time in years. It was an adult’s behavior, my behavior, that drove him away too soon.

There are no easy answers for solving problems caused by adults in kids’ sports, but as parents we can and should probe deeper when our children decide to drop a sport.

If there is bullying or harassment, we should inquire whether adults missed it, allowed it or perhaps even encouraged it.

Too much emphasis on winning? Adults always place more emphasis on winning than kids do. (I am consistently amazed at how my players recover in 10 minutes from a crushing loss that will take me days to emotionally process.)

Practices no longer any fun? There are ways a coach can make practices both vigorous and fun. Watch a good football coach go about his job. To the parents on the sidelines, football practice looks like child abuse. To the kids, however, it’s often their first exposure to serious structure and discipline, and most kids end up loving it.

No play time? There is nothing wrong with having kids earn their play time, but all players should be given some time.

Disappointment with their own performance? Remind them that everyone changes, and point out how many of the kids who once dominated a sport, such as basketball, no longer even play. Remind them also that most of the kids who excel do so because they practice.

If your child says the coach is simply a jerk, carefully explore whether there is consensus on the conclusion. Everyone has had a boss or teacher whom we felt didn’t like us, and thus was a jerk or worse.

Mature adults learn to ask, about themselves and even their children, if a negative opinion may somehow be justified. (Unfortunately, sports are pocked with successful coaches who show the emotional maturity of 4-year-olds, and with unsuccessful coaches with the bearing of Lincoln or Gandhi.)

Finally, when our sons and daughters announce a desire to quit, we should explore the most difficult question of all: have we, as parents, done something to take away the fun? Better yet, ask this question now, while they are still in the mix and having fun.

— David Jennings is a sports dad.

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