Four weeks into basketball season your kid comes home and says, “I want to quit.”
Parents often look to youth sports to teach athletes the value of sticking with a task or job even when it gets difficult.
Instead of relying on power of authority or fear of punishment to keep kids from quitting, it is better to address the underlying problems that create the urge to quit.
Dropout vs. Burnout
According to the study done by sports psychology researchers, Greg W. Schmidt, PhD and Gary L. Stein, PhD, there are important distinctions between quitting because of a short-term conflict (dropout) and quitting after a long period of increasing dissatisfaction (burnout).
“The most prevalent reason youngsters drop out of sport is because they are attracted to other activities,” said Dr. Schmidt.
In contrast, athletes reach the point of burnout when they have been highly invested in a sport for a long time. Athletes at risk for burnout are often those who have practiced and competed for years, and who have built their identity and group of friends through sport. Fear of losing friends and social status, as well as uncertainty about what else they can do, can lead athletes to stay committed long after the sport ceases to be fun.
Tips for Preventing Short-Term Dropouts
When your child wants to drop out after a few weeks or months in a new sport:
- Find out why. A sudden desire to quit can be a reaction to bullying, a conflict with a coach, or an inability to quickly grasp a new skill. They may really like the sport and want to continue, but need help resolving a problem they can’t figure out on their own.
- Create a learning opportunity. If the environment is supportive and the sport is just not living up to an athlete’s expectations, it may be a good moment to teach the lesson that it’s important to finish what you start and do what you say you’re going to do. Provide a firm and reasonable end point, like the end of the season.
- Create value. Maybe your young athlete wants to quit because the team isn’t winning or they’re not getting enough playing time. Try to help your child find other things they value, like being a great teammate, improving sport skills, and spending time with friends.
Tips for Preventing Burnout
When your child has been playing sport for years and is losing interest:
- Add a new dimension: Monotony kills passion. Athletes who have been doing the same thing for years can lose sight of their love for the game. Adding a new dimension, like volunteer coaching with younger kids, can help an athlete see why they loved a sport in the first place.
- Reduce specialization: Researchers Smith and Stein describe a scenario where athletes feel trapped because they don’t know what else to do. Athletes can prevent this by playing multiple sports and having friend groups that extend beyond a single sport, team, or club.
Change can be good
Commitment to a sport or team does not mean staying forever. To keep kids engaged long-term, youth sports have to be fun and fulfilling. Experiencing new sports and different teams is a good thing. Parents and coaches can help kids manage those changes so they develop the character to honor their commitments and leave on good terms when it’s time to go.