Wednesday January 20 2021
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To Play or Not to Play: When A Child Wants To Quit

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It is a phrase repeatedly heard in every sport, every season, every year: “I quit!”... So what’s a parent to do when these words ring out across the playing field?

Their decision could be as vital as an umpire’s call in a close game. The determination could make a difference in a child’s life.

More than 20 million children register annually for youth sports, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports. Seventy percent of these children quit by the time they turn 13, and never play again.

The top three reasons: unrealistic expectations from coaches and parents, not fun to play anymore, and the child’s own belief that he or she doesn’t measure up to other athletes.

There are many factors to consider when deciding to let your child quit a sport.

“It depends on the sport and the child’s age," according to Paul Friday, Chief of Clinical Psychology at UPMC Shady Side. “At four years old, if a child wants to quit T-ball, it is not the end of the world. But if you have a 12-year-old coach potato who is lazy, sports can be a great way to channel activity. You want to encourage them to stay active.”

A parent’s first job is to investigate what’s behind their child’s motivation to quit.

“Parents need to ask some difficult questions,” high school basketball coach Rick Bell said. “They need to honestly identify the problem. Sometimes it’s the parents putting too much pressure on the kids or having unrealistic expectations.”

In his two decades as a coach, Bell has been fortunate to have only a handful of players quit. He asks the players to think about their decision to quit for 24 hours before giving him a final answer.

“Sometimes kids make decisions when they are emotional," Bell said. “I want them to think about it.”

He once had a starting player come to him and say he wanted to quit. After a long discussion between the player, coach and parents, the starter said it just wasn’t what he wanted to do anymore. After his 24-hour deadline, the player stood by his decision. He never picked up a basketball again.

“It wasn’t a question of playing time or winning,” Bell said. “He just didn’t want to play anymore. His parents were upset, but they understood his decision and stood by it.”

Bell, also a psychology teacher, said it is important for coaches and parents to work together to resolve the issue.

“We all have to remember that it’s a game,” he said. “It is being played by kids and it is supposed to be fun. If it isn’t fun, why would anyone want to play?”

The biggest, and admittedly the hardest, part of coaching is being able to understand the players, veteran youth football coach Don Bushman said. Communication is key.

“You have to know what the problem is before you can solve it,” Bushman said.

If the problem is skills-related, parents and coaches can work with the child to improve his playing skills. If it is a problem with someone else’s unrealistic expectations, the coach may need to tread lightly. If the problem is with the parent, the coach might try talking to them about their expectations and behavior, but this can be difficult. A fanatical parent may react adversely.

“Parents must ask themselves if they are living vicariously through their children, or if they are being role models,” Friday said. “Their answer will probably decide how they react to their children wanting to quit.”

The decision to quit is less significant when a child is younger. As a child gets older it impacts both the players and the parents.

“Parents are more involved in the decision making in pre-puberty years,” Friday said. “When a child is older and is quitting to take a different direction or to be in a different club, these kids are making life decisions. That is very different.”

Most parents tell their children, “If you start a sport, you’re going to finish the season,” Bushman said. It is not right to let them give up on a commitment they made to themselves or the team.

He believes there are few reasons parents should allow children to just give up and quit.

However, when safety is compromised, the situation is different.

“You don’t want a kid who is smaller and at a very different skill level playing football against bigger kids,” Bushman said. “He could get seriously injured.”

Research has shown that children who play sports tend to stay in school, get better grades and exhibit better behavior.

“There is a fine line between challenging children to expand their horizons and pushing them to participate in something because we as parents think it might be good,” Friday said. “If your child is miserable and frustrated, he might be following his instincts that this sport is just not right for him.”

Parents need to assess the situation and take cues from the children.

“Remember to keep your eye on the bigger picture,” Bell said. “We all need to remember it is just a game.”

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