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Quitting Sports: A Difficult Decision

Make sure it's for the right reasons

One of the most difficult decisions you and your child will face in youth sports is whether he should quit a team or sport he is playing. Since most athletic careers end in high school (or earlier), th chances are good that, at some point in your child's athletic career he will quit the sport he playing.

Complex issue

Contrary to popular belief, quitting isn't an all-or-nothing proposition anymore:  According to a 2008 study by the Women's Sports Foundation, "In the past, drop-out in sport was often viewed as a more or less permanent shift in athletic status, i.e., when a child quit a sport, he or she 'became' a drop-out."   The study found, however, that "the pattern of youth involvement with sports is more complex and fluid than this."  It reported that nearly half of current sport team players stopped or dropped out at some point.  One in 10 students stopped playing organized or team sports entirely, while a third resumed playing after initially dropping out.

Many times a child, especially when he is in middle or high school, will only tell you of her decision after he has made it. I think that this is unfortunate because, sometimes, just the right parental advice might help to sort out the issues and perhaps lead to a different decision. Many of the e-mails I receive seek advice on this topic.

It is a complex problem, and while there are many reasons for kids to quit, I want to focus here on just two, where, if you were asked for your input first, you might be able to do something that could change his mind. I think the  decision is ultimately up to our child; he should never be pressured to continue playing under any circumstances for many reasons.

Bullying and teasing 

While studies, including the 2008 Go Out and Play study by the Women's Sports Foundation, consistently list "lack of enjoyment" as the number one reason kids quit sports, I believe that if researchers dug deeper, they would find that one of the principal reasons a child is not having fun is because he is being bullied or teased, either by his teammates or the coach (the others are that the child isn't having fun because he doesn't think he is good enough or because the coach isn't creating an enjoyable experience). Coach lecturing sullen basketball player

While I know of no formal studies to back this up, I have an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence (in the form of 420 emails that I have kept in a "quitting" folder on my computer desktop) which support the idea that it is teasing and bullying that drive many kids from sports because, more than anything else, a child, in order to play well and have fun, needs the respect and encouragement of his teammates.

If you see your child being teased or bullied, or he tells you it is occurring, talk to the coach and tell her or him that you do not tolerate abuse and ask her to put a stop to it. Perhaps you can offer to volunteer at practices to keep an eye on what is going on.

Lack of Playing Time 

No child likes to sit on the bench (although after age 12, when a child begins to understand that talent is not based on effort alone, he may be willing to sit on the bench just to be part of the team; this is especially true for boys). If you were ever the last to be chosen in a neighborhood pick up game you know the feeling of not being considered one of the better players. This is how a child feels if she is forced to sit on the bench of long periods of time. At the developmental level (the level below high school varsity), I believe every child should get equal or at least significant playing time. If this was the rule, rather than the exception (the reason it is the exception, unfortunately, is that youth sports, even at the younger ages, are no longer child-centered), I am convinced that far fewer children would quit sports.

Even if your child is getting less playing time than he thinks is fair, there are situations where sticking it out and continuing to play is a good idea and may pay huge dividends, such as where he is a bench player on an all star team. Some years back Chris Cardone was a bench player for Toms River, New Jersey during the Little League World Series. Chris was upset about not being able to play more and actually begged his parents to let him come home. His mother told him to write his thoughts down as a way to take his mind off of the tough situation he was in. His father told him to "gut it out."

In the top of the fifth inning of the championship game, Chris was inserted into the lineup. In his first at bat he hit a home run, equaling his total for the season. In Toms River's final at-bat, he walloped a 2 run homer to give his team a 10-8 lead they would not relinquish.

"This must be the ultimate Little League moment," his mom, Lucy, told Sports Illustrated, "My son is a bench player, but we kept telling him, ‘Sit tight, your chance will come.' What an inspiration this is for every kid who is just sitting there waiting and all he needs is one chance to do something that might change his life."

Weighing pros and cons 

If your child is thinking of quitting, help her draft a list of pros and cons of continuing to play a sport. The list will give each of you a better understanding of what is driving her desire to quit. If your child is tempted to quit mid-season, ask her to consider the effect her quitting will have on her teammates, what she would think if one of her friends quit, how quitting might effect her future ability to play for this club /organization. Armed with the list, you may be able to give your child a number of options other than quitting.

From being in this position myself and from reading some very personal and excruciating letters and e-mails I know that quitting should always be the last option. When you and your child have talked to the decision over with the coach and understand that this is the best choice for your child, it is important to help your child quickly find another physical activity. If you don't, the risk that he will be turned off to exercise and become a "couch potato" is great.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.

Brooke is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM, and producer/director of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer."

Updated and revised November 6, 2013

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