Team Sports Are Not A Good Fit For Every Kid

by Lisa Sadikman
matimix / Shutterstock

There are a slew of reasons why I’m grateful summer’s finally here: no more homework, no more cajoling kids out of bed before dawn, and no more staring vacantly into the fridge wondering what to pack them for lunch, just to mention a few. Most of all, though, I’m over the moon that my tween’s soccer team is done and over with (for a few months).

When your kid is serious about a team sport, it’s a huge time commitment for the whole family. You log a ton of hours schlepping to and from practices and games, spend time volunteering as well as cheering them on from the sidelines. I love to watch my girl play, and as long as she’s happy, I’ll keep schlepping her all over town and cheering from the sidelines.

What’s been difficult for me as a parent, and more so for her as a player, is figuring out how to handle the anxiety she feels while playing a team sport.

For a few days leading up to a game, my daughter’s worry begins to build. She worries she’ll be asked to play goalie — a position she doesn’t love playing because of the responsibility. If she lets in a goal, she’s actively helping her team lose; if she blocks the ball, there’s no change — she’s just maintained the status quo. This is how her 12-year-old brain works in terms of points gained rather than points prevented. If she plays forward and passes the ball up the field like she’s been coached, she worries her teammate won’t return the pass or won’t take the shot. She worries about making a wrong decision, or that it might seem she’s unfairly hogging the ball.

My daughter’s worry goes beyond performance anxiety. Instead of dissipating once she’s on the field, it continues to tug at her. It sometimes translates into a spurt of adrenaline that sends her sprinting up the field, the goal within sight. But it can also plague her, leaving her frowning throughout a game, even one where her team is winning. It’s not that she’s a bad sport or a sore loser. In fact, she’s an excellent team player, always looking for a way to pass the ball up the field to a teammate and keeping to her position. She high-fives the girls on her team and helps opponents when they take a tumble near her. The problem isn’t her sportsmanship or her love for the game. The problem is anxiety.

My daughter is often anxious about unfamiliar situations and always needs to know the details of upcoming events. When we travel, she needs to know flight numbers and precise departure times and is often the one reminding us that we need to leave in the next 22 minutes to get to the airport on time.

When she worries, she becomes jittery, wiggling her arms, tapping her foot. When she was younger, we thought her interest in details was a sign of intense curiosity. We now recognize it as anxiety and try to accommodate for it. When it comes to soccer, we start prepping the night before. The day of, we give her plenty of time to get ready, position her shin guards just so, wrestle with the tight knee-high socks, and lace up her cleats. We listen to her worries and take deep breaths together. Whenever we ask her if she wants to continue playing, the answer is always “yes.”

We’ve supported her through season after season of soccer, helping her through her anxiety by pointing out the value of learning how to face her fears and be part of a team. We’ve sat through countless games, cheering her on, giving her the thumbs-up from the sidelines even as she took up her position with a slight frown on her face after a play didn’t go as planned. We’ve seen her brows tightly knit in concentration and worry as she staked her ground in goal, slightly bent, gloved hands at the ready.

We’ve noticed her anxiety, but we keep on assuring her, and ourselves, that learning how to handle her nerves and work through the discomfort is a good thing.

Six seasons later, I’m not so sure. There are certainly many benefits to being part of a team, like building self-esteem, fitness, working together toward a common goal, learning both verbal and nonverbal communication skills, handling a game loss and the value of commitment, practice and effort. I’ve seen my daughter hone her skills and take pride in a game well-played, even when the result is a loss. She’s made wonderful friends on her team and learned how to be part of something bigger than herself. These are all valuable skills, and I’m glad she’s had a chance to learn them by being on a sports team.

There’s a lot of talk about the benefits of team sports, but we often overlook the downside of it for some kids. According to a poll by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, about 70% of kids stop playing sports by age 13 because it just isn’t fun anymore. Witnessing how exhausting my daughter’s anxiety is for her, I totally agree: For some kids, the anxiety around playing outweighs the potential for fun.

Not every child is going to thrive being a member of a team, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make them entitled or bratty, and it doesn’t mean they won’t learn how to contribute to a group or work with others to accomplish a common goal. For kids like my daughter who experiences low-level anxiety on a daily basis, the responsibility of being part of a competitive team can ratchet that anxiety way up, making it hard for them to simply enjoy playing.

Now that soccer is done for the year, my daughter is visibly happier. It’s no surprise that she won’t be playing on a team through the summer. Instead she’s going to sleepaway camp where she’s signed up for tennis and swimming, individual sports that don’t carry as much team responsibility. My hope is that she finds an activity that makes her happy and challenges her without the worry.