It caught me off guard the first time my son got off the bus after school and announced, “Mom, I’m not going to practice.” He had just started football a few weeks earlier. I thought of the hundreds of dollars in registration fees and equipment purchases and I brushed it off with a simple: “We’re going.” But then it happened again, and again. So there I was: My son wanted to quit football, and I was torn between teaching him perseverance and the importance of showing up to his commitments, and preserving his mental health. Was my kid being lazy, wishing he could iPad the afternoon away instead of doing something challenging? Or was something else going on?
After some in-depth conversations, it became clear that my son was going through a mental health challenge — specifically, anxiety — and that competitive sports weren’t helping. In fact, the competition was exacerbating it.
And my son is one of thousands of kids every season who, just a few weeks in, decide they wish they hadn’t signed up. Here’s how to handle this potentially stressful parenting moment, for the physical and mental health of your child both.
The first sports experience matters
Adam Geisler, co-Founder and CEO of Youth Athletes United, a national youth sports platform encouraging kids in athletics, says that first experience in sports is pivotal — you’ve got to think longer-term, and you don’t want them to walk away hating it. “If it’s a great experience, that kid will stay in sports much longer. If it’s a bad experience, that kid may decide I never want to do soccer, baseball, or tennis or golf ever again,” he told Scary Mommy. He calls introducing young athletes to sports both a big opportunity and big responsibility, adding that that part of a proper integration into sports that leads to lots of fun without all the stress is choosing the right age to introduce kids.
In looking back at my early years of parenting, with the first of my four kids, I succumbed too early to the pressure to put him in a bunch of activities. When his friends started doing t-ball at age 2 or 3, I thought, “Oh, this is what you do with little kids,” and did so as well. But Geisler says that instead, the first six years of a child’s life should just be on “unintentional play.” This doesn’t mean they can’t be exposed to sports, which is helpful, but it should be all fun and positive.
“If they are into sports, at 6 years old, then you actually want them to move into what’s called intentional play, and to make that decision on their own… that the child wants to do.” He says this leads to higher success rates, and not wanting to quit but actually participating because it was their choice and they were developmentally ready. Geisler’s words ring true for me, looking back at my son’s complaints about practice; just one year later he was more than ready, jumped right in, and loved it.
I learned you don’t need to pressure kids to take sports deadly seriously to get the benefits, either. Lynn Lyons, LCSW, psychotherapist, and author of “The Anxiety Audit” coming in October, told Scary Mommy that the age 5 to 8 window carries great learning opportunities in the sports world. “[It’s] a way to learn social skills, to connect with peers, to move and be physical, and to begin to practice the ability to be a good teammate, a good winner, and a good loser,” she said. “If a young child is on the shy side, this is a great chance to help them step into a new situation. If a child is on the bossy side or has great difficulty losing, another great learning opportunity exists.”
Set expectations from the beginning
While it’s essential to listen to your own child’s needs if they are asking to quit — and to put mental health above most other things — Geisler said sports do help build “physical literacy,” meaning they help create healthy habits for life and teach the fundamentals of sports.
Lyons said setting the expectations at the beginning will help prevent too much starting and stopping, which can be stressful to families' schedules and finances: “You can agree that you both will try it out as an experiment. Maybe you agree that they will go to four practices before quitting.”
“If you are making an investment in equipment, then perhaps you tell them ahead of time that the expectation is that they finish out the season. Seeing something through is another good skill, the same as if they had a part in a play or agreed to feed the neighbor's cat for 2 weeks,” she adds.
But if partway through a season, a kid starts begging to quit, Geisler said it’s important to get down to the “why” and see if it’s something that can be remedied. “Are they not getting enough playing time? Are they not having fun?” he says. “If there are barriers we can help remove and keep them at it we should, but we should never force our kids into staying in a sport if they’re not happy.” He recommended choosing programs that are shorter in length for young kids, such as six weeks, which can give them a true idea of the sport but won’t drag on forever if they don’t like it.
Distinguishing between red flags they need to quit vs. a little apprehension
Many parents have been in a situation where their child complained leading up to drop off, but came bouncing out of an activity happy to have done it just a few hours later. Bethany Cook, psychologist and author of “For What It’s Worth,” said that a bit of drop-off dread can be normal, but if it’s impacting other aspects of their day or becoming a major issue, it’s something to reconsider.
Another red flag is a major change in a child’s opinion towards the sport. “One of the biggest indicators would be if your child was enjoying it, and practically has changed their tune about it but not only during [drop off] but throughout the week, they start dreading it. Maybe they are starting to become ill. If they are prone to anxiety anyway, it can be worse so that it’s negatively impacting their ability to function in daily life,” Cook said.
She added, though, that knowing your own child is key — “Is this their typical thing?” when it comes to dreading something then loving it, or is it abnormal? Considering these questions can help parents decide if it’s time to quit, or to revisit the sport later. I knew my child well enough to realize that as a kid who deeply loves sports, something wasn’t right. I had to do more digging, and finally realized he simply wasn’t ready that year, and it wasn’t the best environment at that time for his mental health.
In our case, letting my kid quit seemed at first like admitting that I’d failed him in some way, or that I’d failed to implement the lesson that he needed to see their commitments through. Quitting ultimately eased my son’s anxiety, and just a few months later he was ready to try a different sport. This one stuck, and now baseball is the sport in which he counts down the minutes to practice. He did try football again this year, and was much more ready, and even enjoyed it as well.
I realized that this was a parenting win, not a failure. We’d read the situation, had conversations with my son that mattered, and helped him explore his own feelings, building essential skills he’ll need long after the Little League years. Nobody had scored on the field, but it was a victory, nonetheless.
Our son’s therapist reassured us that not every lesson has to be taught at the same time. When we brought up the “to quit or not to quit debate with us”, she had some advice that will stick with me as my next three sons enter sports: “This will not be your only chance to teach commitment, and the lesson wouldn’t stick anyway until his mental health is under control.” Her lesson even went beyond sports — I don’t have to teach my kids all of the values they need at once. There’s a time and a place for each one.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.
Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.