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How to know when to quit youth sports—from a family therapist

portrait of girl at soccer practice when to quit youth sports
Walter and Deb Hodges Photography/Stocksy

Youth sports have become their own phenomenon. They become invisible members of our families, holding the prized seat at the head of the table. In my family, we wrestle every season with finding the line between giving our children opportunities we never had and allowing our family schedule to be at the mercy of practices and games. As someone who grew up in a rural area, pre-internet, I would have loved desperately to have had the opportunity to play elementary youth sports and find an outlet for my energy. Once we had children, more opportunities were a major factor in our decision to relocate from a rural state to an area where they could be exposed to many activities.

However, more opportunities have also brought more confusion and blurred lines regarding knowing when it’s too much. As a mom and family therapist, I always ask my children before I sign them up for a particular sport. Whether they choose to pursue it as a passion is up to them. But my firstborn is strangely like me—she wants to do it all.

She loves team sports and can easily manage her academics while doing multiple sports a season. I want to give her the chance to try it all, so we spend some seasons eating dinner in the car while driving to practice several nights a week. I love watching her come alive when she plays something she truly enjoys. I love watching her make mistakes, learn from them, push herself, persevere, win, lose—every single moment. I love watching her do something she loves.

However, she is only 10. Sports, hormones, drama, other interests and the likes are only going to increase in intensity. And something she loves right now, may be loved less as she enters her teenage years. My advice to her is that I hope she quits if it stops lighting a spark in her. I hope she walks away. I hope she costs the team the championship, loses the scholarship, disappoints her teammates and coaches. I hope she leaves it all, rather than lose herself.

My daughter is a good athlete, but so are the many other 10-year-olds playing various sports. While I love to watch her play, I don’t consider her a budding Olympian. In my eyes, she is simply doing something she loves. However, in one area, she is a bit of an outlier. She is and has always been an abnormally fast runner. She was always a wild one in the womb, and was no different once she was on the outside. She ran before she was a year old and since she was my first child, I didn’t realize how abnormal it was for her to always be running.

Recently she ran a 5k and completed it in a whopping 26:10. I finished a solid 20 minutes behind her. (The love of running was not an inherited trait.) She had no idea how fast she had run. She also didn’t care. Speed was not the reason she ran the race. She ran because she truly loved running. She ran for herself. When your child shows promise in an area as cutthroat as youth sports, it’s easy to envision potential high school and college opportunities. Could she maybe even get a scholarship?

In recent years, I’ve seen news stories about female athletes in college who ended their lives. My heart breaks for them. I often wonder when those athletes stopped loving the sport they once adored. When did it become a burden instead of a joy? Did they know that they could quit? It seems a strange concept to embrace a culture that idolizes the hustle of life. Knowing when to quit is an incredible skill that I have yet to fully master.

So, I planted the seed. Recently, while driving to a practice she was excited to attend, we had a discussion about quitting. She struggled to understand what I was saying. I have taught my children to persevere, that we don’t quit things simply because they are hard. After all, everything is hard. They often recite a mantra that I have drilled in their brains, “If you want to be good at something, be bad at it first.” I believe in putting the work in, I believe in team mentality and I most definitely believe that nothing comes easy. But most of all, I believe in preserving my daughter’s mental health.

My explanation will be more detailed as she matures, but for now, I explained it like this:

If the activity you love becomes something you dread, walk away.

If you feel bad about yourself every time you lace up your cleats or running shoes, walk away.

If you would rather lay in bed all day than face practice, walk away.

Quit. I will not be disappointed. Your team will be just fine. The sun will still rise tomorrow. Know the line between digging deep and giving it your all for something you adore, and despair taking over your soul and your light being crushed by the activity you once loved. Know the difference between playing the sport for you, and playing it out of fear of letting others down. Know the difference between the sport being your freedom and the sport being your chains.

Like the rest of you, I am trying to navigate this season of parenthood with caution. I often wonder if I’m doing it right, if I’m doing enough or if I’m doing too much. I wish I could say for certain that my steps were on solid ground, but I can’t. So I empower my daughter, every game, every season, every activity, to decide if she wants to play. I empower her to play hard, give it her best, learn from her mistakes, and above all, know when to quit.

And if the day never comes where she loses her spark, I remind her that I will always be her biggest cheerleader, strongest supporter and protector of her mental health.