The Harsh Realities of Quitting

70% of kids drop out of youth sports by age 13. What’s a parent to do?

Dr. Andrew Jacobs

| 5 min read

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You’ve signed your child up for a sport, bought new equipment, gone to the preseason meeting, met the other players, parents, and maybe some of the league officials. You’ve made sure all of the game days and practice times work for your child’s schedule. As a family, you have locked in and committed to the time and energy needed to make your child’s sports experience a good one. The practices start, everything seems to be going as planned, and then out of the blue, your son or daughter drops a bomb.

“Mom, Dad, I don’t want to play anymore. Can I quit?”

This can happen at almost any age. But before you push the panic button, find out the reasons why he or she wants to quit, and then go from there. It is important, almost imperative, to give complete credence to the child’s notion of wanting to quit. You need to hear and acknowledge this desire, even if it may be fleeting.

Parents should always do everything possible to protect their communication with their child. You don’t want to say something or act in such a way that makes the child not want to discuss these types of matters with you. You need to make sure you’re talking with your child and not talking at your child. That can help filter out what you may not want to say — something you may end up regretting.

But like a lot of things children feel and experience, there’s a good chance that the quitting notion is a spur of the moment thing, a short-lived reaction to a problem or unexpected challenge.

First, ask what they plan to do with their time if they aren’t playing the sport. Is there something else they would rather be doing? Discuss their response. Chances are, though, they don’t have an alternative plan.

Then, have them think of three reasons they want to quit — it’s never too early for them to learn Pete Malone’s “Principle of Three.” The reasons can be anything from not liking the sport to the length of practice, but find out what they are as they may indicate a bigger, underlying issue.

You may have to help them vocalize what’s really bothering them by asking some tough questions if their reasoning seems vague or superficial:

  • Are they being picked on by the other athletes?
  • Are mean things being said to them?
  • Why did they want to play in the first place?
  • Is the coach yelling at them?

If any of these answers are yes, it is time to contact the coach. An unhealthy environment presenting itself might be the only time that quitting the sport or transferring to a different coach, team, or league is acceptable. Before any decision is made though, you as the parent must address your concerns with the coach. The coach may challenge you, but in the end, you’re your child’s best support and advocate. Coaches won’t know what’s going on with your child, psychologically or otherwise, so you may need to educate them.

Negative issues aside, one the most common reasons for young athletes wanting to quit is they realize they actually don’t like the sport, do not like playing the game or competing. Inside this reason there might be many factors as to why they don’t like the sport — maybe they didn’t fully understand how hard the sport was going to be. Or the demands are simply too much for them to handle. Maybe they just don’t like it, period.

You may hear: “I don’t get to play,” “I don’t like the coach,” or “I don’t like the other kids.”

These are legitimate reasons, but you still shouldn’t support them quitting just yet. It is extremely important to avoid giving them the message that quitting is OK. Sports is a vehicle for personal and community growth, a chance for children to learn about themselves and others while engaging in physical activity. And, as importantly, a chance to learn that it’s always important to finish what you start.

That’s not to say there’s never a time to quit. But those are guidelines, instead of black-and-white rules. And that’s where the adults come into play. If you feel the sport or the environment it creates is detrimental to your young athlete’s long-term, emotional welfare, then that’s not quitting, it’s moving your child to a healthier situation. So you need to measure the choice to quit against allowing your child to deal with adversity and setback. The most important thing to remember in cases like this is that you are the one who will make the best decision for your child, not the coach, when it comes to moving on.

Before the decision to quit is made, you need to have a candid conversation with your child to make sure you know exactly what’s going on. 

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Excerpted from Just Let Them Play: Guiding Parents, Coaches and Athletes Through Youth Sports. One of the country’s most respected sports psychologists, Dr. Andrew Jacobs works with athletes of all ages, from youth athletes to collegiate, professional and Olympic competitors.

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