By Dr. Chris Stankovich
What do you do when your kid is one of the best athletes on the field, and shows great promise to be even better in the future? While it is exciting to share in your child’s athletic success, being one of the most talented athletes can also bring along unforeseen consequences and questions. For openers, how should you help and guide your talented athlete? What if he is really good at sports, but doesn’t appear interested in committing a lot of time toward improving his skills? Or tougher yet, what do you do if your child tells you directly that she really doesn’t want to play the sport — do you continue to push her play, or do you allow your child to quit sports? Many kids each year show an above-average ability for sports, but not all of those kids love — or even like — playing sports. Assuming that kids with great athletic talent always love sports is simply not true, as many kids can excel athletically but rather be doing just about anything other than sports.
Reasons why some kids steer away from sports
While it is true that many kids with athletic talent love playing sports, what about those who don’t? It has been my experience that there are several reasons why kids lose interest in furthering their athletic careers, even when their talents allow them to excel:
- Lack of interest. Some kids are born naturally coordinated, fast, and strong, but simply do not enjoy using those abilities to play sports. Or, some of these kids might enjoy playing sports part-time, but quickly find out that these days if you are talented you might find yourself playing year-round — a proposition that pushes some kids away more than excites them.
- Pressure. Another common reason I hear from kids why they do not want to play sports has to do with the pressure to succeed that they experience. Today’s kids regularly see their parents devote time and money toward their sports careers, and often there is an expectation to see results. Some kids have told me that they feel pressured by their parents, and in other cases pressure is felt from teammates, coaches, and even school and the community.
- Expectations. Some kids like sports, but feel overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon them and as a result lose interest in playing. When you’re good, you are expected to lead by example, go the extra yard in training, and live as a role model to others. While there is nothing wrong with those expectations, some kids would rather spend their time simply doing other things without having to impress anyone, or lead others to excel.
What do you do?
Unfortunately, there is not a “one size fits all” template that can be applied to families struggling to guide their athletically-talented child through confusion and questions around interest in playing. Do you push through, with hopes your son or daughter will suddenly find interest in sports and possibly one day earn a college athletic scholarship? Do you instead allow your son or daughter to make this choice independently, without input or pressure from you? Or do you not push at all, take your child at his or her word, and simply re-direct to other interests and activities?
Regardless of how your family handles these kinds of situations, there are a few basic tips you can use to help navigate toward an answer best for your child:
- Listen to your child. Ask open-ended questions, allow your child time to reflect, then really listen to what he or she says. For example, rather than asking “do you like sports?” you might instead ask your child to discuss the pros and cons of playing sports, then take time to work through each response together. Paraphrase, clarify, and summarize what your child reports to check for accuracy, and show your appreciation for having your son or daughter as part of the problem-solving team.
- Watch for trends and themes. Are you regularly witnessing your child voice his displeasure about playing sports? Does he engage in passive-aggressive behaviors (i.e. like purposely being late to practices and games)? Does your child regularly state that sports are no fun? Or directly say that he wants to quit? If you are picking up on one or more of these things happening, and they continue to occur consistently over time, you might want to revisit whether or not to continue with sports.
- Evaluate interest level more than accomplishments. While it’s easy to focus on individual awards and team championships, try to regularly ask about your child’s interest level in sports. You might even want to state that you don’t want to assume that sport success = interest in sports, as your honesty and candor might invite your child to do the same, and without fear of disappointing you.
- Show love and support regardless of choice. Make sure you regularly tell your child how much you value him or her, regardless of sports. Yes, this might sound like common sense, but you might also be surprised at how regularly kids tell me that they feel much/all of their value is attached to sport success.
- Refrain from saying “I told you so.” If your child does decide to quit sports, then later regrets the decision and wants to play again, make sure to refrain from telling your child how you knew he or she would regret the initial decision to quit. Some life decisions are tough, especially for kids, and the decision to quit sports is one of the bigger decisions kids will ever make.
While it is easy to make the assumption that if your kid is good at sports, he must also love playing sports, this is not always the case. Some kids have a natural ability to play sports, similar to how other kids have a natural ability toward music, art, or even math. It is important that we view talents and abilities separate from interest level, as sometimes they overlap but other times they have no relation whatsoever. The truth is that kids — like adults — can have a talent in something and not like it, and also have other things they find interesting but are not very good at doing.
Dr. Stankovich has written/co-written five books, including Positive Transitions for Student Athletes, The ParentsPlaybook, Mind of Steel. All of this and much more available at https://drstankovich.com/