A girl sits on the floor of her ballet class, looking sad.

If your child wants to quit their sport, let them

Being active was always an expectation when I was growing up. From basketball and volleyball to soccer and dance, we had opportunities to try many different team (and individual) youth sports. The other hard and fast rule was that if you start something, you need to finish it. Being a part of a team meant it was essential to follow through, and even if you weren’t, quitting wasn’t an option. 

I tried soccer throughout elementary and middle school but preferred to pick dandelions. Next was basketball, and I literally threw the ball into the crowd because I didn’t want it. The summer before I started high school, I landed on a dance team. This was it—dancing was something I loved to do. Unfortunately, it didn’t go on that way for long.

Quitting isn’t always a bad thing

Long story short, instead of letting me quit the dance team in my second year, my parents forced me to continue throughout high school. I didn’t want to quit because I was lazy, and I didn’t want to quit because I was trying to be difficult. I wanted to quit because I was facing burnout and struggling with my mental health.

Quitting used to feel synonymous with giving up and not trying hard enough—like it was something bad and shameful, but that’s not the case at all. Looking back, I’m not sure how clearly I explained the why behind it all to my parents. Middle school and high school are trying times for tweens, teens, and their parents. 

What’s the why? Validating your child’s choice to quit

Understanding why your child wants to quit their sport helps you find out if there is an underlying reason. Maybe they’re outgrowing the sport. Or maybe they’re interested in trying something new. But other times, it could stem from feeling overwhelmed and burnout.

Psychologists Caitlin Slavens and Chelsea Bodie, co-founders of Mama Psychologists in Alberta, acknowledge the difficulties parents face when deciding if they should support their child quitting their activity.

“There can be a mixture of emotions about how to handle this. Many parents want to teach the importance of commitment and fear that allowing a child to quit will instill the value of giving up,” they say. 

There will always be challenges to navigate, but it’s worth saying that open communication between everyone involved results in better experiences for all. Remember, there are valid reasons why kids quit sports, and it isn’t necessarily bad. 

A young girl wearing a swim cap and goggles on top of her head rests her arms on the edge of a pool.

Making the decision to quit

How do you decide to let your child quit their sport? You don’t want to encourage a pattern of not following through, but you also don’t want to invalidate their feelings. There are lots of great benefits that come with being part of a team in addition to being active. These include positive trends related to cognitive development and brain health, academic achievement, self-esteem, and social and emotional functioning.

Slavens and Bodie encourage parents to consider both sides of the circumstance: “If parents continue to push their kids to continue a sport, there could be negative consequences. It all depends on the communication and understanding.”

A few of these outcomes can look like:

  • Building up of negative emotions like resentment, frustration, or guilt. 
  • Feeling overscheduled increases anxiety, stress, and sleep-related problems. 
  • Having negative feelings for the sport overall. In my experience, because I was forced to continue on the dance team, I started to resent everything related to dance, even on an individual level.
  • Kids continue to be in unsafe environments. For example, dealing with bullying, “mean girls,” or other self-esteem-crushing situations.

In my experience with the dance team, there was a combination of factors at play, making for the perfect storm. The other dancers were mean and bullied girls who had curvier bodies, like me. Eventually, I took their criticisms to heart, which contributed to an already complex relationship with my body image and with food. 

Could any of these struggles have been avoided if my parents just let me quit? Maybe. But the reality is, like most parents, they did the best with what they knew. Now that I’m a parent to kids involved in sports, I’m choosing to do the best with what I know—which is, if they want to quit, I’m going to let them. 

When we know better, we do better

My oldest daughter has been playing soccer for three years now. Starting in a recreational league, she made the leap this year to try out for a club team. So far, things are going well. She’s developing her skills on the field and making lots of new friends.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been bumps and learning curves along the way. After her first tournament, she was sure she wanted to quit. After long conversations over a few days, we reached a sweet spot—we agreed to take it week by week. If she starts feeling really unhappy or distressed, it isn’t worth pushing her further into frustration. Don’t get me wrong, she enjoys the game, but I don’t necessarily see a World Cup in her future, and I’m not going to force her to continue just so I can say she didn’t give up.

At the end of the day, if your child wants to quit their sport, it can be okay to let them. Most of the time, they aren’t quitting the sport, they’re quitting situations that taxed them emotionally and mentally. As parents, what we want most is for our kids to be happy and emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy—and, of course, just to have some fun.

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