It's OK to be a quitter
It’s usually treated as some sort of national tragedy that, depending on what statistics are pulled out of what ass, anywhere from 70-80 percent of children in organized sports quit by the time they’re 13.
If you believe that all those quitting kids are a result of them being drummed out of sports they love because of too much organization and too many yelling coaches, then, yes, that’s a problem. However, I’m not sure that — if I may reach into my own ass to pull out some statistics — that 85 percent of those children leaving sports are doing so because they’ve found something else (hopefully productive) they’d rather do.
As a coach and a parent, I’m a big believer that a child, even in the face of a lousy coach and a poorly run program, doesn’t quit a sport he or she truly loves. Also, I believe that part of childhood is flitting about from activity to activity, taking what my wife cheekily calls a logical path of self-discovery (a term she coined for my peripatetic early employment career) to determine one’s passions. So, quitting teams becomes a fairly frequent occurrence.
That’s the mindset I brought while reading this Los Angeles Times article in which a mother wrings her hands over the ass-pullingly high quit rate as her 8-year-old son tells her he wants to quit football in an article titled, “When is it OK to let kids be quitters?”
The issue of kids quitting — music lessons, summer camp, sports — has long been tough on parents.
My own quitting dilemma began the way many parent-child negotiations do: with begging. My son Bob had been pleading with me for months for permission to play tackle football. He offered to take out the trash. Clean his room. He even promised to be nice to his sister. Finally, when his teacher told me that Bob had taught his classmates how to go out for passes, I caved. …
But the intensity of the conditioning was unlike anything Bob had experienced. The boys did up-downs until their faces turned purple. They were forced to run laps holding hands as a punishment. While there was an emphasis on teamwork — in theory, football is supposed to be the ultimate team sport — there was a profound absence of positive reinforcement.
So after 13 weeks, and just before the season ended, my son did what his gut told him to do: He quit.
“It’s not fun,” he said wearily. “And I’m tired of the coaches making me feel badly about myself.”
It was a difficult moment. I didn’t approve of one coach’s treatment of the boys, but was it really OK to quit? Would it make Bob a quitter? How does a parent know when it’s time to quit or when it’s time to insist that children stick to what they start?
My only ironclad rule, for my own kids, in quitting is this: Once you commit, you’re in until the season or activity is over. It’s fair to no one if a child quits in the middle of something. It also doesn’t teach your child anything about sticking out a promise, one made implicitly to you as parents, to coaches and to teammates.
At the end of the season, it’s a different story. My 12-year-old, my eldest, has been his three siblings’ sport and activity canary in the coalmine, trying out soccer, baseball, wrestling, basketball, volleyball and hockey, as well as theater, band, robotics, battle-of-the-books team, so with him in particular we’ve had a lot of conversations about quitting sports that ended with my son, indeed, quitting sports.
As a coach, I’ve dealt with players who clearly want no part of playing a sport, on a team, under any circumstance. Instead of the parents trying to convince their kids to stick with it, they would be better served figuring out another activity. It happens. My 12-year-old son, who quit baseball at 9 because, I thought, of a bad experience with a coach and teammates, will not play organized baseball, even intramural wiffle ball, again under any circumstances. He was never interested in playing catch, unlike his siblings, so it was clear he was wired not to care about baseball.
It also happens that sometimes there is a mismatch between the kid and the organization in question, that the child likes a sport, but not how it’s done in a certain league. The L.A. Times writer found a flag football league for her son that was much less intense, and he’s enjoying the game again. If you’re concerned that your child is quitting because of a bad experience, finding another league — if possible — might work, at least to find out for sure if your child just doesn’t like a sport after all.
So before you, as a parent, beg your kid to keep playing, ask yourself whether the child actually enjoys the sports, and the organized nature of it, or whether it’s time to bag it. Remember, you’ve probably watched your child play, so you have a sense of whether this is working out. If a sport doesn’t work out, there are a lot of activities out there for kids. A big reason for that stat on 13-year-olds quitting is not just because they’re weeded out along the way by zealous coaches and the youth sports-industrial complex. Children also weed themselves out in favor of activities they feel passionate about.
Quitting a sport doesn’t make your kid a quitter. It makes your kid a kid.