Does your kid suck?

Are you concerned that your kid sucks at their sport or activity? Do you feel that the other kids are way better, and your child is getting left behind?

Through years of being a soccer coach, I have often heard parents express worry that their kid isn’t keeping up. I’ve often heard the same anxiety when they see other kids who are better at playing the piano, or drawing, or dancing, or singing, or doing math. I’m sure you’ve heard the same.

So many parents constantly worry about how their kid “measures up”. Most of the time, the concern is overblown.

When I look at this question with parents, we often find that the issue has little to do with the child, and everything to do with the parent’s preoccupation that their child is “keeping up” with the peer group.

It’s not hard to address these fears. If you’re worried that your child may be falling behind in their sport or activity, consider these points.

1. Whose emotions are these?

Firstly, do you know for certain that your child is falling behind? Do you get the feeling that your child feels badly about not being the most skilled in their peer group? If not, then you may be projecting.

When parents watch their child practicing an activity, it often makes them recall a bad experience that they had as a child, or it stimulates current fears and anxieties about being inadequate. As parents, we need to step back and consider our child’s experience from a neutral perspective. A lot of kids don’t mind being the slowest runner or the least proficient ball dribbler or the least recognized mezzo soprano. Really. They don’t. It’s not the end of the world for them.

This book excerpt from retired Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims talks about the fear element in parents. She describes how it gives rise to helicopter parenting, and how helicopter parenting slowly incapacitates our children. When we overprotect our children, we prevent them from learning how to stand on their own and how to take charge of their life.

2. Your child is feeling bad. This is an opportunity for you to provide some wise parenting

If you discover that your child truly feels inadequate about their abilities in a particular activity or sport, be a wise parent. Talk with your child about their feelings and discuss possible solutions.

When children lag in skill development, the activity often becomes less fun for them. Does your child want to get better in the activity? Or do they simply want to cut their losses, quit, and take up another activity instead? Sometimes it’s okay to quit.

If your child wants to get better, then discuss ways to get better. Sometimes the activity is poorly run or badly coached, so you need to find a new quality program.

Other times it means that your child simply needs to practice more, or practice with more diligence and intentionality. Kids are capable of learning all sorts of stuff if they try, but you need to cultivate a growth mindset in your child so they actually make the effort.

3. But the other kids are making fun of your child

If the other kids in the activity are making fun of your child, that’s a problem. In the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix, “that ain’t too cool”.

Is there a coach or a teacher or an instructor overseeing your child’s activity? Find a quiet moment outside the activity time to talk with the coach-teacher-instructor about the culture of the group.

If they have any skills as a leader, they should be able to set a better tone among the kids. And if they demonstrate that they are not able to do this, then they either suck as coaches and teachers, or they don’t actually care enough to create a good environment for all of the kids.

This is basically what happened on my eldest daughter’s basketball team years ago. We took her out of the program.

4. Wouldn’t it be better if every child and every person on earth could be exactly the same with the same degree of talent or lack of talent as everyone else around them, so everyone could feel at ease with themselves knowing that they are not any better or worse than anyone else?

Would the world be a better place without Albert Einstein, Amadeus Mozart, Maria Callas, Michael Jordan, Marie Curie, Meryl Streep, Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis, and Wayne Gretzky?

Genius is a beautiful thing. When we witness genius, we catch a glimpse of the potential of humanity. Framed the right way, it can inspire us to strive to be better.

Does it matter that some of us may never achieve that measure of brilliance in our respective fields? We can teach our kids to appreciate genius as part of the rich diversity of human experience. Sure, it might humble us to realize that we don’t possess the same genius—but a little humility can be a good life skill.

5. Remember to examine beliefs

If you worry that your kid is getting left behind, take time to examine the situation. Is there a real issue present? Or are you simply projecting your own fears? Deal with what’s real. And be confident that there are solutions available.

In reality, your kid doesn’t suck. They might need to develop some skills, or find better coaching, or discover an activity that they like more, but they don’t suck.

20 responses to “Does your kid suck?

  1. Need a little insight,

    My son has been playing sports since he was 5 years old. He is very athletic, and is very gifted when it comes to sports. His love has always been football. He’s been a starter on offense and defense since he started playing. Very aggressive, and would run “sideline to sideline “ either while running the ball(RB), or to get a tackle (LB). Would do everything he could to to help the team win.
    My son is now about to turn 12 and things have changed he no longer hustle on defense and have been seen just letting opponents run by. His running on offense is still good, but it’s not inspired like when he was younger. He says he still likes football, but his play says he’s not that into it anymore. I ask him why isn’t he tackling anyone, he states he doesn’t know. I ask him if he’s hurting, or intimidated. He says no, and that he is not sure why he’s not going hard. Football is a rough sport, I’m afraid his lack of effort is going to get him or one of his teammates hurt.
    Any ideas on what you think is going on? Is this normal?

    Rob

    1. Hi Rob,
      It’s entirely normal for kids’ feelings and motivations around sport to change over time, and it’s especially common when they reach middle school age and start heading into puberty. Whether or not your son is gifted as an athlete may have little or no bearing on his motivation for playing his sport. Sometimes kids simply tire of a sport — it becomes less interesting for them for any number of reasons, and maybe there are other interests and factors that are taking greater precedence in their lives. It’s also common for them to keep their reasons to themselves as they enter adolescence and start to seek a little more independence and privacy from their parents. My instinct would be to ask if he is really and truly having fun in the sport anymore, and let him know that you are completely accepting of his answer if he says “no” or “not too much.” In my experience as a coach, when kids’ effort drops off, most often it’s because they have lost interest (or some interest) in the sport, and to some degree they are just “going through the motions” in continuing to play because they don’t know what else to do. For this reason, I would also ask him if there is another sport or activity that he might rather be doing (skateboarding? baseball? golf? rockclimbing? hiphop? distance running? etc.). He might not know the answer right away — he might not have even thought about it yet — but opening the door to the possibility might get him thinking and re-engage him in activity through another sport.

  2. Thanks for a great article! I am trying to read up on things that may help me with my 12 year old and this really hit home. Every school year he has been involved in some type of sport. Years of rec soccer and baseball/t ball. We ended up leaving rec because the coaches were parent coaches who had no coaching ability and weren’t great with the kids. This is our second season on a travelling team. My son struggled last year, we chalked it up to playing with kids who have had years of serious coaching and said it would take time to catch up. This season has been terrible. He looks so unhappy while on the field, has no confidence, and his team mates are starting to make comments. He hates being aggressive and looks scared when the ball comes his way. When we try to talk to him about how he feels he gets very defensive. When asked if he’s enjoying playing he says he is, but I feel he says that because he thinks it will shut us up. I’m afraid we focus on it too much so we try not to bring it up. But I don’t know what to do to help him gain confidence and enjoy himself. Is there some type of extra one on one training we can get him so he’s more confident and aggressive? I’ve suggested other sports and just get shrugged off. Please help me help my son. It kills me seeing him feel so bad about himself.

    1. Hi Amber,
      I’m not clear if you are talking about your son playing soccer or baseball in this particular instance? It makes a bit of difference when it comes to being “aggressive” in his play. But first let’s talk about confidence — this comes from having a certain level of mastery of skills and feeling competent. If you live in a city larger than perhaps 200,000 people, you can probably find some kind of soccer or baseball academy for personal coaching, and assuming the coaches are good coaches, your son’s skills may improve a lot. However, keep in mind that age 12 is a very difficult time to be introducing fine motor skills (e.g. dribbling in soccer) due to the challenges of the growth spurt and different rates of growth in bones, muscles and ligaments, etc. Skill training can help, but it will be extra challenging during the growth spurt. As for being aggressive, this is very personal and should be respected in the individual — some people simply aren’t “aggressive,” and that is perfectly okay — don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. And there are many different degrees of being “aggressive” or not aggressive. If your son really and truly dislikes physical contact (e.g. thinking about soccer here), then maybe it’s not the sport for him. I still play men’s soccer, I am not “aggressive” per se, but I am comfortable getting run into or tackled hard. Some people are not comfortable with this — such as my son — and that’s why he went to tennis and still plays tennis to this day, despite having been a very good soccer player in his early teens. My advice is don’t try to make your son “more aggressive” — that would be going against his character — but look at finding ways to develop his skills, and thereby his confidence, and see where that takes him. Eventually he may decide / recognize that he really doesn’t like soccer (or baseball), so be prepared for that. He might be staying in the sport right now simply because he wants to be with his friends, but when it comes to actually playing the game, his heart is not entirely into it. If that’s the case, he will need to come to terms with that. Down the road, there might come an opportunity to introduce him to a sport or activity more to his liking — such as a racquet sport, or rock climbing, or cycling, or martial arts, or any number of different things — so keep that in mind. I empathize completely with you and your son. Hang in there — I know these situations are challenging, both as the parent and as the child.

      1. P.S. Amber — if your son decides that he doesn’t really want to continue in the sport, help him to understand that there is no “shame” in “quitting” the sport — it does not make him a “failure.” These are the kinds of thoughts that tend to weigh heavily on the mind of a 12 year old. Instead, encourage him to explore other sports and activities that might interest him, and help him to understand that each of us will excel at different things, and enjoy different things, and it is neither good nor bad. In essence, this is a potentially profound existentialist awakening — because this is the substance of life — none of us are going to love every activity or master everything we put our hand to, and that doesn’t make us failures. We might feel like failures, though, because “everyone else is enjoying X activity — but I have no affinity for X activity — so what’s wrong with me?!?” Help him to understand that there is nothing “wrong” with him. This is extremely important.

        1. Thank you so much! He has decided to finish out the soccer season but has expressed interest in joining a local track team, in his words, “in hopes of running faster”. I no longer ask if he wants to quit soccer, but I passively suggest he think of some ideas of non competitive activities such as climbing or karate. I reminded him that when I grew up I wasn’t even given the option to play a sport and that surprised him and I think it made him think a little differently. I’ve always told him there’s no shame in quitting and trying another sport and I tell him this is the only way he will find an activity he enjoys. He seems to feel better about the issue, knowing he can move on to all kinds of activities he’s never thought of.

          Thank you so much for your feedback, it’s definitely nice to hear from others that this is something many parents and children have experienced.

  3. Help! My daughter enjoys playing soccer, but she is rarely “engaged” in the game. We started her early, at the age of 5, and stopped her at 8 because the game was becoming more competitive and she wasn’t. Following her shadow and chasing butterflies was her thing. Now at age 12, she decided she wanted to play soccer again. She’s playing and having fun, but she is no better than she was at 8. She’s physically awkward (partly due to scoliosis), she mostly walks during games and rarely runs, is afraid of the ball and the other team, she’s not aggressive in any way shape or form, doesn’t touch the ball unless it lands at her feet and has not progressed in ball skills at all. She’s enjoying herself for whatever reason, but it’s so hard to watch because she is levels below the skills and work rate of her teammates. What do we do? She thinks she does fine, but she really isn’t. She’s always had some struggles with large and fine motor skills, so she’s never going to be the superstar, which is fine, we just want her to at least TRY, pay attention, play with some aggression, work hard and play the best she can; but, if this IS her best, should be really be playing? Please let me know your thoughts.

    1. Hi Jacqui,
      If your daughter is enjoying herself, then there’s really nothing wrong and you don’t need to do anything. I’m going to assume that this is a recreational team, as opposed to a competitive or “selects” team, so the coach and the team are probably fine with her level of engagement as well. If she’s having fun and enjoying herself, there’s no problem. The question around her skills and commitment may arise if the team moves into a more competitive stream, especially in the coming teen years. Your daughter is standing at the threshold when teams might start to demand more engagement and greater skills. If that happens with her team, then the appropriate thing would be for the coach to talk with her about the team expectations and make suggestions for improving skills, training harder, etc. That is to say, if her level of engagement becomes a problem, the coach should talk with her, and you only need to listen and be prepared to support the coach’s directions and advice for your daughter. If you are concerned that the conversation needs to happen now, then you might want to approach the coach and express that concern, and then follow what the coach says.

  4. My daughter loves soccer. She has been playing since the age of 4. She has always played on a league that everyone plays equally. This fall she is on a more competitive league. This league only requires a short amount of time to play. She missed practices at the beginning of the season because of camp and vacation. She sits the bench the entire time unless the coach has to put her in. I don’t know what I should do. She loves it but isn’t aggressive in her play resulting in less play time. I’m worried she’ll never advance in her skills if she can’t play. Maybe this league was a bad idea. I don’t know what to do.

    1. Hi Samantha,
      Wow. I am breathless. I don’t want to believe that this is still happening anywhere in Canada, but I guess there are a lot of coaches who still don’t understand the importance of game time in player development. Not to mention the fact that kids sign up to play soccer so they can … play. Unless your daughter is playing on the Canadian Olympic team or perhaps a university varsity team, she should be getting at least 50% game time (this is assuming she attends practices regularly — and summer vacation and camp are perfectly acceptable reasons to miss early season practices). I suspect you need to look at switching to a different league if that’s possible. Can you please tell me: How old is your daughter? And what league is this?

  5. my son often stands off to the side when his friends play football he has given up on all sports he has tried and my daughter plays soccer and is afraid to go after the ball i have to keep my kids active but they just want to quit every sport they try. It breaks my to my son just stand to the side when his friends play sports

    1. Hi John,
      It sounds like there might be two separate issues happening with your son and daughter. With your daughter, it might be a simple case that she doesn’t like soccer, and it’s time for her to try something else. With your son, it sounds a little more complicated. Have you sat down with him and asked him to talk about what he likes and dislikes about the different sports and activities he has tried, and what he might want to do instead? Maybe he needs to talk a bit and “figure it out”. Another idea: Maybe he is simply averse to organized sports, and perhaps he would prefer to do something with you as a family activity, such as cycling or hiking? These are just some thoughts — if you have a talk with him, I would be interested to know what he says.
      Best of luck,
      Jim

  6. Old thread, and just stumbled across this great piece.

    Over the past 5 years, my son has tried soccer, flag football, baseball, swimming, floor hockey, cross country, track and field, flag rugby and crossfit-kids. He’s 9 now, and to this point has yet to find something active that he actually wants to get good at (or let me rephrase – something he shows any inclination to *practice* with a goal of getting even the slightest bit better). No passion for anything active, and actively opposes encouragement to practice from coaches or us. He’s consistently been the worst on any team or group he’s been involved with, though he thinks he’s “fine”, and the reason kids don’t pass to him is that “they are jerks”…though when pressed he acknowledges they don’t pass because they think he’s not good. My husband and I are not athletes but both competed in various sports throughout our childhoods and young adult lives and both still compete occasionally in addition to maintaining regular fitness schedules. We try to be the models for our kids, but worry that our son is on the path to illness and obesity sitting in front of video games and youtube videos, which are the only thing he loves to do, though we forbid them entirely during the school week – I’m tempted to toss all of it in the bin.

    Our household rule is that everyone plays some kind of sport every season of the year. He’s picked every one of the above, but still shows no drive or grit for any of them. I’m at a loss. He’s now at a point of being too old to try new sports because every other kid will have started at least 3-4 years ago – I have checked with local programs in lacrosse and basketball (2 other things he’s intermittently expressed an interest in) and was told there’s no such thing as 9-yr-old-beginners level.

    Have you ever come across a kid who never finds anything active to love and grow with? When is the time for professional advice?

    1. If we start with “first principles” in the case of your son, it seems clear that he has not found anything that is “fun” to him. For kids, and even for most adults, physical activity absolutely needs to be fun. (No one willfully chooses to do something in their spare time that is not fun — unless they have certain physical fitness targets that are especially important to them, and that’s almost never the case with kids.) When I look at the list of things he has tried, I am inclined to say: Maybe it’s time to go way outside the box. For example, maybe try a rock climbing program? There are many indoor climbing walls everywhere now, and classes / sessions on evenings and weekends for kids. Or maybe a martial arts program such as karate or taekwondo? Or possibly a variant of cycling, such as mountain biking or road racing? Or maybe even a hip hop dance class? (Does your son have any interest in hip hop music and culture? Sometimes that can be a draw.) Or possibly a racquet sport such as badminton or tennis? I think you are wise to “require” him to do something — the key is to continue to allow him to choose what it is. He may need some help imagining what his options are, and that’s where you can help him to think “outside the box” and look at non-traditional sports and activities. Best of luck, and let us know how it goes!

  7. Great article because I believe you hit it spot on!!! My question is what if your children doesn’t stick with anything or doesn’t want to participate in any skills development and does the bare minimum in comparison to their peers?

    1. Hi Niki,
      Great question! If your child doesn’t want to stick with a particular activity, or they show no interest in practicing, and you’re confident that it’s a good program with good instruction and a good group of kids, then it’s 99% certain that your child simply hasn’t found the right activity yet. It’s time to try something else, and I recommend trying as many different things as possible until your child finds their passion. In my experience, every kid will have a passion — the problem is that most kids never get to sample more than 3 or 4 physical activities or sports in their childhood — out of possibly 100 activities and sports that are available in their community (e.g. dance, martial arts, team sports, individual sports, hiking, climbing, archery, swimming, etc.). I think parents need to be prepared to think outside the box in this regard. Here’s a good article on our site that talks about this idea: https://activeforlife.com/ask-the-expert-should-i-push-my-child-into-sport/
      Good luck!

      1. Wow, sounds EXPENSIVE!

        Yet, could be true.

        However, I think the idea of improvement with experience is also valuable, and could lead kids to decide where to invest effort as they get older.

        Thanks for the input!

        dotyman

      2. My question is difficult.

        My daughter is physically gifted. She is strong, coordinated and quick. She can do any sports she chooses. She has done well at gymnastics, swimming, track and judo…

        At PRACTICE.

        It’s been five years at judo (dropped the others after a few years).

        She has not done well in competitions (except for when she first started).

        What am I doing wrong?

        dotyman

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