The hockey skates are gathering dust in the basement. The violin sits unplayed. The soccer ball, once a source of athletic pride, has been shelved in favor of the football. Any parent who has signed up his or her child for an extracurricular activity knows the slow drill: excitement at the prospect of participating, brief enthusiasm, waning interest and, finally, the admission that the child wants to move on to something else.
Sometimes, though, it happens like this: After four years on the select team and thousands spent on fees, coaching and uniforms, Junior suddenly announces he is through.
What is a parent to do? It depends on the child, the activity and the situation, says Joel Fish, a Philadelphia sports psychologist and co-author of the new book “101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child.”
Parents need to talk to their children and find out the real issue. Reasons for leaving a team or a program can run the gamut: Is the coach too rigid? Is practicing a bore? Is the child overscheduled? Does he want to make time for a more passionate interest, such as leaving the swim team to play in the marching band? Or does practice interfere with teen desires such as hanging out at the mall or going to parties?
“I always tell parents to figure out the real issue,” Mr. Fish says. “There are right issues, such as wanting to try other things, and I support that. There are wrong issues [for staying], such as they are only doing it because their parents have invested so much money.”
Whether a child stays with or leaves an activity, Mr. Fish says, everyone needs to keep the move in perspective, a tough task in a culture that values excellence. In fact, he says that even using the words “quitter” or “quitting” brings up a host of emotions.
“It doesn’t matter at what age you are doing it,” he says. “Quitting is rated as a negative term. We are raised with certain attitudes, like ‘Quitters never win, and winners never quit,’ and we tend to take that seriously with our kids. We have to be careful with that term. It can have a long-term, negative impact.”
In fact, Mr. Fish says parents could call it “choosing not to continue,” which takes some of the pressure away from the situation, particularly for younger children who are trying many things.
“‘Choosing not to continue’ is a much more positive and empowering term,” he says. “It can be damaging for a child to get the message that he is a quitter. A child can feel bad about herself or feel guilty for letting you down.”
It is hard to track who is a serial quitter and who is leaving one activity to concentrate on another, says Richard Stratton, associate professor of health promotion and physical education at Virginia Tech. However, Mr. Stratton estimates that about 30 percent of children who play youth sports quit to play another sport.
That is just what should be happening before about age 10, he adds. Children should use the elementary school years to try different things and figure out which ones fit their personalities, body types, skills and interests.
Children are starting organized sports much earlier than they were a generation ago, Mr. Stratton says. That has trickled down into the idea in some communities that young athletes should be committed to a team and immersed in that activity before they lose their baby teeth.
“There is this idea that it takes about 10 years to become an expert at something,” he says. “Unfortunately, this has been translated to sports. There is no evidence of a long-term value to starting early. Kids reach their optimal performance level in most activities late in high school. There is no advantage to starting at 6 or 7 if a child will be tired of the sport by the time he reaches his physical capability.”
Mr. Fish says not only has there been an explosion of organized play at a younger age, but there also has been an earlier pressure on statistics, specialized coaching and pressure to make the travel team.
“I am a big advocate of exposing kids to a variety of sports and activities right through middle school,” he says. “Kids who play multiple sports maintain the joy of sports longer and have a positive social experience.”
Debbie Kirchner’s 7-year-old twins, Patrick and Catie, have tried a whole roster of activities. Patrick used to take tennis lessons and play football. Now he is trying baseball, soccer and ice hockey. Catie plays soccer and does Irish dance but in the past has taken up tap, ballet, swimming, basketball and tennis.
“I want them to try a lot of things,” says Mrs. Kirchner, who lives in Kensington. “By about fourth grade, I would expect them to be committed to one thing.”
Stacy DeBroff, a mother of two and author of the book “Sign Me Up! The Parents’ Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars,” calls ages 4 to 10 “the trial years.”
“During that time, I expect that kids should have seven things they have quit,” Ms. DeBroff says from her home in Newton, Mass. “Instead of parents seeing that as a character flaw, we should see it as a time to match energy level, personality and interests. Some kids hate sports. Instead of saying, ‘You must play team sports,’ you should consider where else a child can get that team experience, such as Scouts or band.
“Parents’ egos have become so entwined with our kids,” Ms. DeBroff says. “We are so convinced that we are about to be bad parents that every slight interest by our child becomes part of this superstar mentality. Just think about all of the hobbies and things we adults have quit.”
The writing on the wall
Before committing to the soccer team or the cheerleading squad, for instance, it is a good idea for parents and children to sit down and discuss what it means to participate. Knowing when and how long practices will be, the philosophy of the coach and how much parents will have to be involved will make for a more positive experience, Mr. Fish says.
It is also a good idea to tell younger children the family philosophy about choosing not to continue, he says. That could be a simple statement such as, “If you start T-ball and don’t like it for any reason, you need to tell us. It might not be the best sport for you, and that is OK.”
Children older than about age 11 can be told more specific reasons why it would be OK to quit, Mr. Fish says. Some of them include: if the child is being mistreated or abused by a coach or teammates, feels too much pressure to win, can’t put in time without having schoolwork suffer, is injured or feels shamed by lack of skill.
Sometimes, however, reasons for leaving are not so black-and-white. Leaving in the middle of the season — particularly when the child has committed to a team sport — creates a much stickier situation.
“When a child wants to leave in the middle of [a] season, you have to look at the child’s personality,” Mr. Fish says. “Is this a typical pattern in his behavior, or is it out of character? I know my own 14-year-old, whether it is school, sports or music, his first inclination at frustration is to quit. He has learned to get over the hump and stick with it. I strongly encourage parents to work with their kids to learn to handle frustration and to finish the year.”
Lisa Ridenour, a Germantown mother of four, has set down some rules for her two sons, Michael, 11, and Richard, 13, who participate in swimming and baseball year-round.
“In our family, once you start a season, you have to play,” Mrs. Ridenour said recently as she watched Richard play baseball at Cabin John Park in Bethesda.
Mrs. Ridenour recently began asking her sons to contribute some of their birthday money toward registration fees. Because they have a financial investment in the team, they have extra incentive to stick with it, she says.
Though the Ridenour boys cannot quit in midseason, they can take a break for a while. Michael recently said he was burned out on winter swim practice and did not want to go. He enthusiastically returned to swimming in the summer.
That is a good plan, Mr. Fish says.
“I have seen a lot of cases where an athlete takes a season off and then comes back with recharged batteries,” he says.
Sometimes a child does not want to admit to parents that his or her heart isn’t in the sport anymore. Signs of losing interest include coming up with excuses, claiming not to get along with others or showing no interest in improving or performing, Mr. Stratton says. More serious signs of stress, particularly for an elite athlete, include a disruption in sleep or eating patterns.
If there is no choice but to leave the program, it is important for children to know how to do it in the right way, Mr. Fish says.
“The goal becomes to show them the right way and the wrong way,” he says. “They shouldn’t just stop showing up. They need to talk to the coach. This is an opportunity to teach your child a lesson in follow-through, responsibility and respect for others. Teach your child to say something like, ‘I’ve decided not to play anymore. I want to thank you for the time you spent with me this season.’ When your child leaves the team with dignity and shows respect for his coach and teammates, he has closure on the experience.”
M”101 WAYS TO BE A TERRIFIC SPORTS PARENT: MAKING ATHLETICS A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE FOR YOUR CHILD,” BY JOEL FISH WITH SUSAN MAGEE, SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2003. SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST JOEL FISH HAS TIPS FOR PARENTS DEALING WITH A CHILD WHO CHOOSES NOT TO CONTINUE IN A SPORT.
“SIGN ME UP! THE PARENTS’ COMPLETE GUIDE TO SPORTS, ACTIVITIES, MUSIC LESSONS, DANCE CLASSES, AND OTHER EXTRACURRICULARS,” BY STACY DEBROFF, THE FREE PRESS, 2003. THIS BOOK DISCUSSES DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES, WHO MIGHT LIKE THEM, HOW TO GET INVOLVED AND WHAT TO DO IF A CHILD WANTS TO QUIT.
“RAISING WINNERS: A PARENT’S GUIDE TO HELPING KIDS SUCCEED ON AND OFF THE PLAYING FIELD,” BY SHARI YOUNG KUCHENBECKER, RANDOM HOUSE, 2000. THIS BOOK OUTLINES HOW SPORTS AND OTHER ACTIVITIES CAN BE A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE IF PARENTS AND CHILDREN KEEP EVERYTHING IN THE RIGHT PERSPECTIVE.
MNATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR YOUTH SPORTS, 2050 VISTA PARKWAY, WEST PALM BEACH, FL 33411. PHONE: 800/729-2057. WEB SITE: WWW.NAYS.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT GROUP IS AIMED AT MAKING PLAYING AND COACHING YOUTH SPORTS A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE. THE GROUP OFFERS RESEARCH, WORKSHOPS AND TIPS ON HOW TO HAVE AN OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE.
MMOMSTEAM, (WWW.MOMSTEAM.COM) A WEB SITE STARTED BY A MOTHER OF TRIPLETS, COVERS ALL ASPECTS OF YOUTH SPORTS, FROM NUTRITION TO CAR-POOL LOGISTICS TO HANDLING QUITTING AND MOTIVATING YOUNG ATHLETES. THERE ARE ARTICLES BY EXPERTS AS WELL AS FORUMS FOR SPORTS PARENTS.
THE SITE OF THE POSITIVE COACHING ALLIANCE (WWW.POSITIVECOACH.ORG), A STANFORD UNIVERSITY-BASED GROUP THAT ENCOURAGES FAIR COACHING AND POSITIVE PARENTING, HAS INFORMATION ON MAKING YOUTH SPORTS WORK. THE GROUP SAYS POOR COACHING IS A TOP REASON CHILDREN ABANDON A SPORT.