Volume 19, Issue 3 | September 10, 2019
Is It Ever Okay to Just Quit?
The sports world was stunned in late August when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired from the sport due to the chronic pain he was experiencing from injuries. Far from just an issue with professional athletes, we believe this is an important issue to consider at every stage of the game. Here is some Play Like a Champion advice on this topic for sports parents.

If you have been following the Play Like a Champion Today Coach and Parent notes for any length of time, you're probably familiar with the statistic that around 70% of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of thirteen. The most common reason given by kids for quitting? “It's just not fun anymore.” But according to a Washington Post On Parenting article, “It’s not fun anymore” isn't the problem, it's the consequence:

It’s a consequence of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them the most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences to working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens (Minor, June 2016).
Yet while many kids are turning away from sports, there remains the expectation that most youth athletes will at least "stick it out" until the end of the season. But should this always be the case? The answer, according to experts in youth sports and psychology is NO.
Much has been written about the importance of developing character, perseverance ( grit ) and the ability to manage through adversity; youth sports can be a perfect vehicle for developing these skills and tools. But what should a parent do when those cultural, economic and systemic issues create a psychologically unhealthy atmosphere for a young athlete – should their kid still be expected to stick it out for the entire season?
According to Frank Smoll, PhD, a sports psychologist at the University of Washington who specializes in the psychological effects of competition on children and youth:

If the problems are sufficiently severe, the decision to drop out may be in the best interests of your child. In this case, you would want to communicate to your child that although it’s important to live up to commitments, you understand that the principle is outweighed by the nature of the problems. If the child does drop out, there may be other opportunities to play in a sport program that doesn't have the negative factors that prompted the decision to quit. (Psychology Today, December 2018)

According to the website Competitive Advantage , valid reasons for a young athlete to consider quitting a sport include:

  1. Their Heart Isn't In It Anymore – not the same as being in a slump or in the midst of a losing streak. This is about the PASSION being gone, "meaning that you’re not really interested in the process or the outcome, are distracted with thoughts about other things in your life, are no longer having fun and basically can’t wait for it to be over, then maybe this just isn’t the sport for you, and that’s OK”, especially in pre-adolescent athletes.
  2. Having an emotionally or physically abusive coach – “if your coach uses excessive punishment, humiliation, ostracizes you for no good reason, encourages bad behavior on the team, yells and gets angry in disrespectful ways or employs any other form of abusive behavior, then you must remove yourself from that situation. Stopping abusive behavior directed at you or teammates is a sign of strength.”
  3. Having an Injury that Greatly Affects/Restricts the Ability to Play – “Injuries will happen on occasion, and when they do it’s important to get treatment and take the appropriate amount of time to rest and re-enter your sport slowly. But sometimes that’s just not possible, and the risks of re-injury or otherwise damaging your body in a more permanent way are just too great. No sport should leave you broken physically and this is a fine reason to leave the sport behind and follow another dream.”

Hardy, Jones, and Gould identify three significant reasons for withdrawing from a sport – burnout, over-training and coping with injury. They cite the sudden withdrawal of tennis players Bjorn Borg and Andrea Jaeger as examples of young athletes who “burned out”. The authors define burnout as: generally regarded as a syndrome brought about by continuous exposure to stress associated with performing some particular activity...It is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, together with a lowered level of functioning. Ultimately, burnout leads to psychological, and sometimes physical withdrawal from some previously enjoyed activity (p.95)
Hardy, Jones, and Gould point to over-training as a leading contributor to burnout, affecting not only the body, but athletes' moods and a lowering of the immune system (p.100). It is not surprising then, that athletes who begin specializing in a single sport at an early age are more prone to burnout and physical injury according to the literature (1996, New York: Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport:Theory and Practice of Elite Performers, John Wiley & Sons).

Other valid reasons according to Competitive Advantage include thinking about quitting to focus more on schoolwork (or when the athlete has definitely over-extended him/herself), when sport is imposing a financial burden on the athlete or his/her family that they can no longer meet, or the athlete has decided that they need to be more present with other equally important priorities in their life (e.g. a job). Reasons NOT considered valid include: a string of bad luck, losses or protracted “slumps”, typical player/coach disagreements or problems with teammates. If losing or being in a slump is an issue, it is better to adopt an attitude that you will learn something from the experience and look forward to the next chance to try again and improve. Using some mental toughness techniques to stay positive in the moment is a much better option than outright quitting. 

Catherine Holecko, a writer and editor specializing in parenting and health, provides sound advice on how to handle a young athlete's desire to quit in her Family Fitness blog. According to the same Psychology Today article referenced above, she recommends asking questions of a young athlete to better understand what's behind the desire to quit. She recommends choosing a time and place that’s comfortable to your child, and asking (with sensitivity) some of the following questions:
  • You seemed really interested when signing-up. What’s changed?
  • Do you remember the two conditions of the contract we made?
  • Is there something going on that you’d like to talk about?
  • Are you disappointed about your performance, or your team’s?
  • Is there something else you prefer to do instead?
  • Would you like to play the same sport, but on a different team?
  • How do you think your coach/teammates would feel if you quit the team?
According to George Scarlett, PhD., deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Education at Tufts University and author of The Baseball Starter: A Handbook for Coaching Children and Teens , if you force a child to play a sport when they don’t want to, that won’t make anyone happy. "The goal at [a young] age is to help foster a life-long love of exercise, not turn them off to it.”  And what about commitment to the team? Scarlett says that shouldn’t be a factor for younger kids, “Usually the child doesn't know what he or she is getting into,” he says. “Commitments are for high school and up, not for children” (WebMD ,”When Is It OK to Quit a Sport?” 2013).

So, while sports can be a great vehicle for teaching children skills to overcome obstacles and develop perseverance or grit, at a young age this shouldn't come at the expense of FUNdamentals such as participation in multiple sports, the development of speed, power and endurance, learning appropriate and correct running, jumping and throwing techniques, and the introduction to the simple rules and ethics of sports ( Sport for Life ).

When young athletes reach the age of 10-12 and have experience with competition and teamwork - when they have already demonstrated a passion for the game - then perseverance and grit are skills they are developmentally able to learn and commitment can be expected. But if your young athlete is having a bad enough experience at a young age that they already want to quit, it may be that the best solution is to find another team, another league, or another sport all-together. That may prove to help them "stay in the game" in the long-run.
Continue to GROW Throughout the Year
Champion coaches continue to learn every day, so Play Like a Champion works to provide continuing education and resources to support sports parents throughout the year. One of the ways we provide resources and interact is through our social media channels. Follow us on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram to get daily news, notes and resources you can use to develop yourself and your athlete. Then interact with our staff and the national Play Like a Champion community to ask questions, learn from others and gain valuable insights from coaches, administrators and experts across the country.
A Prayer for Parents
Play Like a Champion has hundreds of prayers available for sports parents to pray with their children and teams. We'll post a prayer here each month, but you can visit the Prayers for Champions section of our website anytime for more!
God, I thank you for the wonderful blessing it is to watch my children play sports. Thank you for the smile that it brings to their face and for the ways in which sports help them to grow in virtue and skill. I ask that as they participate you protect them from injury and harm and bless them with the grace to reach their full potential. May child, coach and parent glorify you through our actions and come to know you better through this sports experience. I ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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