Asking about School
The Myth of the Perfect College
Preparing Older Teens for the Workforce
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If your teens and tweens have played team sports, you've
probably chauffeured to practices and games;
spent weekends on soccer fields or beside swimming pools; laced up ice skates for a 5 AM practice;
paid for new equipment, clothing, and lessons; and possibly gotten involved in parent booster/fund
raising activities. Sports are a family commitment. Plus, if you're like many parents, you've become
emotionally invested in the outcome of your kids' efforts, sweating right along with them during tense
tryouts, close games, and exciting tournaments.
Besides the well-known benefits to their health and well-being,
you've seen how sports gets teens and tweens involved in school and community groups; facilitates
friendships; and provides an outlet for stress. Ideally, sports teaches kids to cooperate as well as
compete; to win and lose graciously; to persevere with setbacks; and to see their hard work pay
off—whether that means making premier teams, breaking records in the butterfly, winning a state
championship, or just getting off the bench.
So when teens announce they're quitting, sometimes after
spending as much as a decade at their sports, many parents are upset, disappointed, or angry. After
all, you've already invested so much time, energy, and money. Maybe you've wanted to cultivate a
lifelong love of the sport. Or perhaps you're hoping for an athletic scholarship or college recruitment
offer. Why would your teen decide to give up now? Understanding their reasons is the first step in
knowing how best to respond.
No matter their stated motives for joining teams, at heart
teens hope to have fun. After all, they already have plenty of time-consuming and stressful obligations.
So what makes activities fun for teens? When participating makes them feel good about themselves. During
adolescence, as they self-consciously scrutinize how they stack up against their peers, teens gravitate
to experiences that add to their self-confidence—and avoid those that make them feel inadequate. So if
your daughter is telling you she's quitting, more often than not something has shifted and is undermining
her esteem. It could be the sport itself or your son's relationships with teammates. It could be the coach.
Or it could be that you, as the parent, are doing something that's unwittingly depleting your son or
daughter's fragile well of self-regard. These scenarios most commonly provoke teens and tweens to give up
Out of Love
Sometimes, the activity itself loses its luster. Teens say they're
"tired" or "bored" of a sport when the commitment required is more than the gratification it provides. At
some point, kids become aware that to truly shine in their sport they need to develop certain skills. They
compare their progress to that of their teammates and siblings, concluding either that they have what it
takes to excel—or they don't. That's why it's so common to hear, at age 12 or 13 or so, "I'm never
going to be good at this, so I might as well quit." By mid-adolescence, when teens are thinking of their
futures, they may say, "I'm never going to be a professional athlete or play in college, so why should I
At a certain point, continuing in a sport entails a substantially
greater commitment. For example, girls who as preschoolers or young elementary students enjoy weekly ballet
classes find just a few years later that several different classes are needed if they are to advance. During
adolescence, a time of discovery, teens may drawn to different activities or sports that suddenly seem more
enticing—either because of their novelty, prestige, or chance to be with coveted friends who also
participate. Many times, kids think there's a better chance they'll shine in new sports. Margot had always
played soccer, but on a lark took a fencing lesson. Not only did she love the sport, but her instructor said
she had tremendous talent. Much to her father's chagrin, Margot gave up soccer for fencing. These sorts of
situations often call for a break from teens' usual commitments to explore other options. Given that freedom,
they are best able to decide if they miss their sports (and return to them with renewed enthusiasm) or if
they quit because their hearts really aren't into them anymore.
While some teens and tweens thrive with competition, others lack
that extra competitive edge that separates highly performing athletes from those who are merely talented.
They hang back, reticent to put themselves in the fray, and lack the aggression to go after the ball or
opponents in their way. This often mystifies and frustrates their parents. Mark, for example, is a gifted
lacrosse player with a gentle soul whose father constantly yells to him on the field, "Get in there, Mark;
hustle!!" He is one of the many teens I see who become so intensely uncomfortable and anxious in the face
of competition that they suffer physically as well as emotionally. Although Kate loves and excels at swimming
(she even wakes up for 4:45 AM practices before school several days per week), she works herself into such a
state before meets that she is sick to her stomach. Wisely, her parents accept this about her and work hard
to find a swim group that allows her to attend practices without competing.
It's easy to underestimate the effect of social dynamics on teens'
level of interest in—and willingness to continue—their sports. But at a time when many teens'
self-confidence hinges on feeling accepted by and included with their peers, social dynamics are often the
key factor in this decision. No matter how talented they are, if kids don't feel as if they fit in among their
teammates—or, worse, if they experience teasing, exclusion, or rejection—participating becomes
demoralizing or devastating and they opt out. This is fairly common in those who particularly struggle with
Sometimes the goings-on are more subtle, flying beneath the radar of
parents and coaches. For example, as a
junior Jill was overjoyed to make her high school's varsity field hockey team. But she quit shortly thereafter.
Her reason, which was hard for her stunned parents to comprehend, was that she wouldn't have fun because of the
other girls. Jill thought she was not as experienced as the seniors on the team, who were serious players who
would get angry if she messed up, and was not friendly with the few other juniors. At another time she might
have tolerated or worked through such feelings, but at that moment she was coping with other challenges. Unless
kids believe their teammates accept them, will be allies, and are forgiving of mistakes, they may prefer
individual sports that eliminate the need to navigate peer relations.
Often, kids give up sports because of discomfort with their coaches
who make them feel slighted, criticized, or unfairly treated. Andrew, for example, became disillusioned with
basketball because he thought his coach played favorites, didn't like him, and wouldn't play him no matter how
hard he worked in practices. If they think the deck is stacked against them, teens prefer to quit than to risk
feeling worse about themselves. If your teen complains about a coach, it can be hard to know how to respond. Many
feelings can be aroused, based on how you see the situation, your own experiences as a young athlete, your beliefs
about the role of coaches in teams sports, and your judgment about when it's appropriate to get involved. When you
give your teen the chance to express what is troubling and serve as a sounding board, you encourage as
much independent problem-solving as possible.
If you've ever watched a child's game, chances are you've witnessed
extreme parents who get so caught up they forget to monitor themselves and scream harsh or inappropriate
suggestions from the sidelines or berate their own kids from the bleachers. But there are far subtler ways in
which parents inadvertently pressure their teens and tweens to the point that quitting feels like their only
option. Of course, it's perfectly normal to be proud of and savor kids' athletic achievements (who wouldn't wish
for the glory of pitching a no-hitter, pinning an accomplished rival wrestler, or earning a hat trick?). It gets
unhealthy, however—and no longer fun for teens—when sports become more about their parents.
This most often happens when mothers and fathers become overly emotionally
invested in their teens' athletic performance. All sorts of lines can be crossed. Blurring the boundary between
parent and coach, some parents give their teen unsolicited advice. Doug, for example, felt so torn when his father's
opinions contradicted his coach's that he no longer wanted him to attend football games. Parents who identify too
much with their teens sometimes project their own past hopes and dreams onto them, regardless of kids' actual talent.
As Deirdre said, "My mom always tells me I'm the best, but I'm not. The other girls are way better." Because they
desperately want to please their mothers and fathers, teens suffer exponentially when they fail to meet those
expectations. Burdened with this pressure, many want to quit their sports. This is when it's helpful to remember: Be
disappointed for your young athletes, not in them.
It's this same emotional over-investment in kids' sports that often prevents
parents from responding helpfully with
the dilemma of whether to continue. When teens quit sports, parents suffer a loss, too. You may fear losing your
shared love of a sport that created a bond between the two of you, like skiing, golfing, or throwing a football
together. When teens are gravitating to friends, this may feel especially disappointing and even hurtful. You may
also miss having a community of other parents with whom you've spent many years cheering from bleachers. However
understandable these feelings, teens should be able to decide what sports are right for them and when it makes sense
for them to join teams.
What Else Can You Do?
Teens and tweens who struggle with the dilemma of whether to quit or
continue their sports tell me this is what they most want from their parents:
Try not to have preconceived notions about what kids are thinking and feeling. Hear them out and reflect back what
they are actually expressing. This may help teens to clarify what's troubling them.
Even if you already have a strong opinion about whether they should or shouldn't continue in a sport, try to
appreciate teens' perspectives of the situation. Give them a chance to voice their own decisions before offering
your opinions (and avoid threats or ultimatums).
If your assessment of your child's athletic talents is different from his, get an unbiased opinion. That way, you
have shared facts on which to base decisions. The same goes for college recruitment and scholarships; find out if
hopes are realistic.
Ask your teen to brainstorm solutions (besides quitting) to address a troubling situation. Anticipate their
consequences and role play scenarios.
If appropriate, reduce pressure by scaling back on time commitments and/or intensity of competition (e.g., from
travel to house teams), by arranging for teens to skip some practices or games, or by giving them a break for a
Ask before intervening.
Before speaking directly to a coach or athletic director, discuss your intent with your teen. Respect and honor
their reaction. Many feel betrayed and infantilized if they learn parents had contact behind their backs.
Remember that despite your loving support, you can't make teens or tweens
love sports. Regardless of their talent,
unless kids are passionate about what they do, feel good about their performance, and enjoy participating, they
won't be motivated enough to persevere and excel. What you can do is encourage their self-reflection, support them
in paying attention to their inner voices, and guide them to solve sports-related problems in the most constructive