When they see their children having difficulty in physical activity, parents tend to experience a range of doubts and concerns. In writing “Does your kid suck” in 2015, I asked parents to reflect especially on the fears and judgments that arise for them when they witness their children struggling in sport.
My 2015 column still generates regular responses from readers, and the comments often address important nuances that I was unable to capture in my original article. In the interest of continuing the discussion, I share a few of those comments below, together with my replies, for other readers who might be struggling with similar concerns.
Note: Some of these responses have been edited for length and punctuation.
Soccer Mom says: Should my son still play or try something new?
My son will be 10 in November and desperately wants to be on the travel team (it’s been two years since he tried out and hasn’t made it). He is not a strong player and still can’t kick a ball straight or make a goal. He likes to play defense and can pass a ball, but that’s about it. Should he still play the game or try something new? Should he have the basics down by now? Any hope when he reaches puberty? He really loves the sport, but it’s a struggle.
Jim Grove replies: If your son really loves the sport, that’s the only thing that’s important—there’s no shame in playing rec soccer. However, if he is really desperate to try to play on the travel team, then he could look at joining a soccer academy of some kind to get extra skills practice. Either that or watch YouTube videos of soccer skills and practice at home. Age 10 is not too late to learn the necessary skills and get good at them—he just needs to spend lots of time with a ball, practicing skills every day, and hopefully getting some good coaching along the way. I would start by asking at your soccer club if there is any additional coaching available, such as an academy. If there is nothing, then try looking online for local private academies in your area.
Amina Yehia says: Our son loves football, but he struggles with it
I have a sweet eight-year-old son. His father and me see that he is not gifted at all in football. He doesn’t get the game, nor is he fast, nor can he strike a strong shot, but he loves it. We are from Egypt where it is very popular especially among boys and me. He is always excited about his trainings and always bragging about what progress he did and so on (though we see no progress whatsoever). When I try to engage him in another sport, he doesn’t mind and gets excited, but doesn’t want to leave the football. It is really expensive where we live, around $1000 US per term, but we are willing to pay if it is something good for him. Shall we continue to support him in football, or shall we try to direct his passion somewhere else?
Jim Grove replies: If your eight-year-old son loves football that much, I would definitely continue to encourage him to play. There are very good reasons to do so. First, at age eight especially, the most important thing is fun and enjoyment—he’s enjoying his sport, so you’re wise to continue to support and encourage him in his activity of choice. Second, it is entirely possible that as he grows, his coordination and other necessary physical capacities and skills will develop to the point that he becomes a truly good if not great player. This happens remarkably often as children grow and develop. Imagine how thrilling and satisfying that will be for him if that happens! It hardly matters either way as long as he is having fun now. Same with whether he’s “performing” well at age 8—the important thing is his joy and enthusiasm continue. If his enjoyment disappears in coming months or years, then he might consider leaving football behind. I like your son’s enthusiasm—he sounds like the kind of kid that I most like to coach!
Allie C says: Am I failing my son?
Feeling this hard. My son is 11 and just not good at sports. He’s a tall kid—five feet and three inches, and just very gangly. He’s in basketball and his team is really good. He wants to play so bad but my mom made a comment to me in private that he’s not good. It brought up my worst fears that others become agitated with him being bad too. He’s the second of five kids, surrounded by siblings who are naturally good at school and sports, whereas he’s had a lot of challenges with being dyslexic and just socially awkward. Am I doing the right thing by having him play? He’s just in a Catholic parish team which anyone can join and it’s no tryouts. But I feel horrible if my own mom thinks he’s bad. Does everyone else feel the same? Am I failing him? I don’t know what to do.
Jim Grove replies: It sounds like your son is facing difficult challenges, and those need to be respected by everyone involved, including your mother. If he loves playing basketball, and he doesn’t feel bothered by being a weaker player on the team, I would simply support him and encourage him to continue playing. If his feelings change in the future, then he could consider doing another sport or physical activity, and I would draw your attention to the story “It’s okay to quit” linked under point #2 above. These are delicate situations to navigate. If one day he starts to question playing basketball, then remind him that there are other things he can do (and may want to do). Be sure to tell him that there is no shame in “not being good” at basketball either. As Cat Stevens sang, “There’s a million ways to be,” and that means 999,999 of them are not basketball. I am deeply sorry to hear about the response of your mother. Your son needs support and compassion, not judgment. You are not failing him.
Annie says: I just want my child to fit in on the team
My son is nearly eight. We live in the U.K. and he plays football (soccer). He’s not very good at it. He tries his best, but he’s scared of the ball and holds back and lets the “good players” take the ball in matches. He doesn’t have any passion, and I think he just goes because his friends do. They are starting to be mean, saying he’s a rubbish player. If he stops, I feel like his friends will leave him out as he won’t be part of their team, and when he gets older he will be even worse at any sport and made fun of even more. Should I make him stop? He doesn’t want to do any other sport. He does boxing training but there is absolutely no way that would progress into anything as he’s so scared. It doesn’t help his dad used to box and is really “tough” and my little boy is just not. I don’t know what to do. I just want him to fit in. Not be the best—just not stand out as the worst.
Jim Grove replies: This is a very tough situation that you and your son are facing. I say that as someone who has coached children and youth in football (soccer) for 20 years in Canada, but also understands something of the culture around football in England. In Canada, most kids have ready access to dozens if not hundreds of sports, while I think the choices tend to be much more limited in England. Hence if you don’t play football (soccer), you aren’t an athlete. There’s also the prominent class divide around the sport in England that is essentially non-existent in Canada. So what you are really up against is culture—both in the narrow sporting sense, and in the broader societal sense. These are powerful forces, so let’s be clear among ourselves: there is much more to sport than simply football and boxing (and certainly more to life).
It is also unhealthy for any child or teen to feel compelled to participate in any sport where he feels scared or ashamed: this is a surefire way to turn the child away from physical activity and sport entirely, and a very likely way to damage their sense of identity and self-esteem for the long term. There is plenty of research that shows this. So what to do? My advice is to start by having an earnest conversation with your husband so you can both be on the same page when it comes to your son’s well-being, and then talk together with your son about different options for physical activity and what he wants. If you want to look at the research in your conversation with your husband, you might start by reading the introduction to this 2014 study on youth dropout from sports.
The reality is that it might never be possible for your son to “fit in” with his football peers. However, his self-identity shouldn’t be dictated by this. I suggest investigating other options for physical activity and sport in your region, and reassure him that it is perfectly okay to NOT box or play football. I sincerely wish a happy resolution to this situation for your son.
Annie responds: Thank you so much for getting back to me. You are right, there is so much more to life than being good at sport (I need to remind myself, that when he’s an adult, it won’t matter he wasn’t the best at football). I just worry and want him to fit in with his peers. I think it’s me who cares much more than he does. Also you are 100% right, in England football is everything. I just need my son to be okay with not being part of it.
Iris says: I want my non-sporty daughter to be happy and have fun
My daughter is 11 and horrible at sports. She is fine playing with her father and brothers, but with anyone else she freezes and can’t throw or catch. She majorly zones out and stands to the side. Her self-esteem has dramatically gone down due to bullying and she now refuses to take part in anything physical. I want her to be happy and have fun. The only thing she loved was taekwondo, which we left, and she does not want to go back because “we were gone for too long.” What should I do?
Jim Grove replies: For starters, I would just keep playing with her and have fun doing it. There’s nothing weird or “wrong” with families playing together. From there, invite other friends of hers who are not critical and not bullying. Just build on the fun. From there, your daughter will develop skills, and with skills, confidence. From there, she might or might not decide that she wants to join more sports with her peers. But every situation is different. Of my three kids, my youngest daughter had the best school and sports experience. She went to a small elementary school where they had a PE specialist teacher who involved all the kids and created a culture of mutual acceptance, support, and non-bullying. It’s a sad fact, but some schools and sports clubs have a terrible negative culture that turns kids off sports and activity. You might want to talk more with your daughter about her previous experiences at school, in sport clubs, etc. to get an accurate sense of precisely where her feelings are coming from. I’m very sorry to hear that she is going through this. I have seen it far too often and it breaks my heart.
Robert says: My son isn’t into football anymore, but he says he still likes it
My son has been playing sports since he was five 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 help the team win. My son is now about to turn 12 and things have changed. He no longer hustles on defense and has 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, and 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?
Jim Grove replies: It’s entirely normal for kids’ feelings and motivations around sport to change over time. 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? rock climbing? hip-hop? 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.
Kids can have a range of experiences when they enter physical activity and sport, and they can express a range of aptitudes. It’s natural for parents to show concern and try to help if they see their child struggling. The challenge, however, is to navigate the dance that arises between what the child wants and what parents believe to be in their best long-term interest.
We need to remember that it’s not essential for our children to be the best at anything. Nor is it a shame to be the “worst” as long as our kids are having fun in their sport or activity. The key is to know our children well enough to understand their wishes, then help them to find their own right place.
Thanks to all the readers who have contributed their questions and responses to deepen this discussion. If you have questions or thoughts on this topic, it would be great to receive your comments below.