Every parent can relate to the frustration and disappoinment that comes from signing your child up for a sport or activity only to have him decide he hates it and wants to quit just a few weeks in.
Even when they beg to join up, even when it’s their idea, there’s no guarantee they’ll stick with it. For a lot of kids, game or competition scenarios are fun, but practices suck. “Why do I need to practice? I already know how to play hockey!”
Part of parenting is helping our kids find their “thing,” and it’s normal for them to want to try stuff out. In fact, most of us want our kids to experiment, we want them to discover what they like and what they’re good at. But the amount of money spent on fees and equipment, and the time spent cajoling them into going when they’ve lost interest, can all add up to a less-than enthusiastic approach to extra-curriculars.
Boredom, fear, loss of interest, feeling like they’re not good enough, and conflicts with teammates or coaches are many of the reasons kids lose their enthusiasm for sports and activities. My youngest daughter is obsessed with Cheer Squad on Netflix, but three weeks after joining her own cheer team she was dragging her feet about going to practice and talking about quitting.
“It’s not what I thought it would be,” she said, and I realized I hadn’t prepared her for the fact that cheer teams are 5% hair, make-up, fancy outfits and bright lights, and 95% learning to do a back bend in a smelly gym on a Wednesday night.
“The hard part is finding what motivates them to participate; if it’s only about winning and things coming easy it will be hard to keep them engaged,” say Tanya Mruck, Executive Director at MLSE Launchpad, a 42,000 sq ft facility in downtown Toronto that promotes sport and youth development.
A mother of two, Mruck suggests that when faced with a child who wants to quit a team or a sport, parents should find and remind their kids about the things that drove them to participate in the first place. “Find the small victories, like a friend that counts on your child’s energy, or the time you get to spend having fun and playing, or the social connection” she says.
Keep Reminding Your Kids
Reminding kids about what they love about the sport or what interested them is one strategy, and it might help you cut down on the complaints when it’s time for practice. As they get older, many parents use sports and activities as a way to teach their kids about the importance of sticking with commitments, and the importance of teamwork. When my kids ask why they have to go to practice I remind them that their teammates are counting on them to show up, practice and try their best; that if they don’t put in the effort, they’re letting their friends down.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But as my kids get older I’m learning to understand their desires and what’s motivating them to do (or not do) something. I’m also learning that they know themselves better than I give them credit for, and just because they like flopping around in our backyard pool doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy competitive swimming.
“The biggest mistake parents make when putting their kids in sports is making the decision for the child on what sport they should participate in,” says Mruck. “Talk to your kids and explore their interests so there is a better chance they will enjoy the experience.”
The Importance of a Good Coach
For my kids, the number one make or break in any activity is the coach. If she doesn’t like, connect with or feel valued by the coach, she’s guaranteed to lose interest. Considering the impact – positive or negative – a coach can have on a child’s life, this isn’t uncommon.
“One bad experience can influence a person’s perception of sport throughout their life.Youth sports, when done correctly, should provide a platform to learn life skills and be a positive experience that encourages kids to continue being physically active,” says Mruck. “A relationship with your child’s coach is a lot like the relationship we as parents want to have with our child’s teacher: We want to ensure the competencies, confidence and motivation to be engaged in sport for life are being re-enforced.”
But many of us don’t have the opportunity to vet the coach beforehand, to make sure our goals and values are aligned. And most kids don’t have the vocabulary, or the confidence, to speak up if things aren’t working. So then what?
“I like to have an open conversation with the coach to give them insight on how my child is feeling,” says Mruck, who works with coaches in a dozen different sports at MLSE Launchpad. “Coaches should learn the right way to inspire performance from each child, and parents can be instrumental in teaching coaches how their child likes to be motivated.”
Some kids and parents want a coach that’s tough, that pushes the child out of his comfort zone. Others prefer a more nurturing, less competitive approach. For some, it depends on the level of sport that’s being played, and the time being invested. What one parent might see as a coach doing his job and trying to get the best out of his athletes, another might see as pushing too hard, even bullying. If you’re concerned about the coach’s style, or worried his tactics aren’t the right fit for your child, try asking her straight out how she feels, and be clear that you’re not asking about the coach’s game strategy, but about how he behaves and communicates.
What makes a “good” coach? Mruck says the most important factor is the development of a relationship with the child. “A good coach is enthusiastic, caring and communicates effectively with children and parents.”
Every parent will have to decide for themselves if or when to let a child quit a sport. When it happens, some parents insist the child pay back half the registration fee if she drops out before the end of the season. Some flat out refuse, believing in the lesson of finishing what you start. Others chalk it up to typical childhood learning and soldier on in an attempt to find their child’s passion.
Regardless of the sport, and no matter where our child is at in his love affair with it, parents need to understand that they can play a make-or-break role.
Says Mruck: “The best advice I read when my kids started sports was this: Before the competition, say: Have fun, play hard, I love you. And after the competition say: Did you have fun? I’m proud of you. I love you.”