Question: Lately my child stops me at the door and asks, “Do I have to go to basketball practice today?” When I ask why, she says, “It’s not fun.” But in our driveway she’ll play pickup for hours. Should I be worried?
Discussion: This is a classic warning sign that your kid may be close to quitting organized sports. Over seventy percent do so by the age of thirteen. In your backyard, your child remains engaged because she is creating her own experience. That’s great. Keep her out there playing with friends, making up games, and devising and revising rules. But her involvement in organized sports can also be beneficial as she gets older and her desire to socialize grows.
There are no easy answers here. When you think about your kid quitting sports so early, various scenarios flood into your mind. What if she becomes bored or depressed at home? Will she have trouble making friends? You don’t want her to become passive, watch too much TV, or gain weight, either. Then there’s risk-taking behavior, a worry for every parent. If she leads an inactive life and has too much time on her hands, anything can happen, right? If she stops playing sports now, will she ever get the chance to excel and play at the high school level and perhaps even in college? Let’s take a deep breath and not get ahead of ourselves, and instead just tackle the issue at hand.
Solution: Before you try to convince your kid to stay with the sport she’s playing, stop and think about it. Maybe she is right. Maybe she needs to spend a bit more time participating in free and semi-structured play. Arrange more backyard time for her. You can also take her down to a skate park if you have one nearby, or to the climbing wall at the local gym, if one is available. The important thing is to give her a chance to try out a range of activities.
Listen to her carefully. We often push our kids when they put up resistance at the doorway. We say, “Get your stuff. We’re going. You’ve made a commitment to your team.” But if your daughter is on the younger side (eleven or under), she may simply be overwhelmed by the experience of playing on a team or dislike the game or coach. She may just need more downtime, especially if she’s involved in various other weekly activities, such as music or dance. If that’s the case, it may be best to pull back and reintroduce team sports down the line.
If she’s eleven or twelve and not overbooked, more exploration is in order. Ask her if there is anything she likes about practice. How about the sport? Every child is different, but she is now at an age when you can start asking her, “What are your goals?” She can begin to formulate her approach to life and, with your stewardship, of course, test out and choose her own interests.
Your conversation with her can center on two basic principles: (1) is what she is doing helping or hindering her goals, and (2) is there something you can do to help her achieve her goals? Having a conversation like this is better than trying to convince or force your child to do what you think is right for her. That’s about your goals, not hers. So when you are at the door and she is complaining about practice, you can ask pointblank, “What do you want to do with this sport?” She may say, “I don’t know. My friends are trying out for travel.” Your conversation might continue something like this:
“Do you want to be on a travel team?”
“Well, do you think not going to practice is going to get you onto the travel team?”
If she responds by saying, “No. I don’t want to be on the travel team. I just want to have fun,” you can make the distinction clear to her. “Okay, then, that’s the rec league you are in. You only have one practice a week. But if you don’t go to it, then are you really participating?”
By having an open discussion with your daughter, you are calibrating what she really wants to do, which she may be trying to figure out herself on the fly. Because at this age (twelve, thirteen, and fourteen), she is just developing her own ideas. Listen to her carefully. Her friends, by this age, are as big an influence on her as you are, but if you listen to her, she will always come back to you and weigh your input appropriately. She may well feel heard and respected, and that can make all the difference in your relationship and her involvement in what she most wants to do. Then you can make a final decision. Because at this stage, of course, the decision is ultimately yours, but at least she will feel that she has some ownership over her destiny. ♦
From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)