Retired at 12: When competitive sports become too much
Eight years ago when my son was in pre-kindergarten, we received a flyer from the moms of two classmates. A local sports association was signing kids up to play soccer (starting at age four), and these moms wanted to create a team. This was an opportunity for fun and learning, the sort of activity we had been looking for. Our son, an introverted only child, had shown interest in playing soccer so we jumped at the opportunity to increase his little social life and get some exercise. It helped that Dad had almost twenty years of experience playing soccer himself and was willing to coach our son and the nine other preschoolers who were signed up to play.
Those early days were fun and as cute as could be, with tiny cleats and little high fives. Our son was quickly hooked. Years went by and he played soccer every Fall and every Spring. He showed promise as a defender (just like Dad). It was a win-win situation. We got to know other families and kids, and our son was getting great social and physical experiences.
A family commitment
Time went by and suddenly our son was nine years old and we were standing at a soccer crossroad. In our experience, this is around the age that kids (and their families) that play soccer must make a decision. Do they keep playing for fun (recreationally) or do they move into another level of play where there is a higher level of competition and more focus on developing skills and competing? Most of our son’s friends decided to play competitively, and we did as well.
Practices increased from once or twice a week to four times a week. The length of practice got longer. We were suddenly traveling locally for games. The competition was stiffer. The thrill of winning was sweeter. It was a lot of work for him, and for us, with the driving to practices and to games. There was a significant financial commitment. We sacrificed family time. We passed on weekend getaways and family reunions because they conflicted with tournaments. We told ourselves it was okay because it was what our son wanted. It was what we all wanted.
A different world
It was what we wanted because of the conversations that were had on the sidelines during those first few preschool practices. As I watched my husband teach four-year-olds how to dribble a soccer ball, I learned a lot from other parents. I started to learn how competitive sports had become for children. I found out that many kids that play in middle school or high school (and maybe even college!) started early- very early, like four years old. They were often essentially building their resumes before they could read or write. The parents that I knew collectively felt that this was a different world of kids’ sports- not at all what it was like when we were growing up. There was too much pressure, too many expectations, but they wanted their kids to play, and so did I. No one wanted to miss the boat or start too late. We didn’t know if our son was going to want to play soccer in high school, but what if he did? We wanted him to have a chance. So there we all were.
This Fall, we started our third consecutive year of competitive soccer. It wasn’t long before my husband and I began to sense a change with our son. He played well, but his energy and motivation were not the same. He also started middle school this year so we wrote it off as a reaction to the fact that he was dealing with a myriad of changes. However, the mood persisted so we started having conversations with him about what we noticed. After some prodding, he shared some of his feelings. Turns out there were some issues. Four practices a week (some that went on for two hours) felt like too much while balancing other commitments like school and family and social obligations. Also, he just wasn’t “feeling it” as much as he used to. It wasn’t fun anymore. He didn’t feel like he was learning or growing as a player. He said he wasn’t that interested in playing anymore.
Our son initially wanted to cut back on practices. He was tired, he had homework, there were school events to go to. In the past we would have stood our ground and given him a talk about how he made a commitment and needed to honor it, but we started to see that this wasn’t just “I don’t want to practice.” It was a change of heart. His feelings were changing. We gave him some freedom of choice with practice and let him choose to skip some as long as he went to some. We encouraged him to stick it out and to finish the season. However, the conversations evolved from “I don’t feel like practicing” to “I don’t want to play” to the unquestionable “I’m done playing.”
The words hung in the air after they were said. Our son had played soccer for most of his life. We sort of knew it was coming, but hearing the definitive “It’s over” was hard! The bottom line was that he was overwhelmed, exhausted, and over it. The excessive practices, the politics, and the grind of it all eventually wore the fun and excitement away. Our son had already hung on for months longer than he probably should have with the mindset of “I’m not a quitter.” We encouraged him to hang on while he figured out what he wanted to do. Eventually, he got to a point where the thought process changed from “Maybe things will get better” to “Maybe things will get better when I’m not doing this anymore.” Still, there was guilt and worry over the decision to walk away. We were supportive and talked about how no one is a quitter when they give something their all for eight years and decide they are done.
He was growing up before our very eyes and something that was fun as a preschooler wasn’t fun anymore as a middle schooler. He didn’t feel like he was getting anything out of playing anymore. The stress and the commitment were just too much so at 12 years old, he retired.
A new beginning
So, now what? As parents, we sensed his tiredness and his relief from having made the decision. We decided to just let everything settle down for a while. He was told all he needed to do was to keep prioritizing school for now and that eventually we would look into trying a new sport.
Why not just let it be? After all, not everyone has to be an athlete. We decided that we wanted our son to look into a new sport eventually for several reasons.
First of all, he was in middle school now and did not have a PE class or any type of recess.
Additionally, an introvert by nature, our son would happily chill in his room all day playing video games rather than going outside and playing, and that is not healthy.
Lastly, he played soccer and soccer only for many years. It was time to give something (anything) else a shot- basketball, track, yoga, whatever! We just want him to be active and healthy.
As parents, navigating this issue was a challenge. We went back and forth as we thought about how to make this the best possible learning experience for our son. Ultimately, we knew that to handle this appropriately we had to relinquish some control. It was time to start listening to what our son wanted and needed instead of making decisions for him. His happiness is what we want more than anything and we knew that pushing him to continue to do something that was not working would get us all nowhere, and fast!
As our family closes this chapter, we are saying goodbye to eight years’ worth of goals, passes, throw-ins and penalties. We are done with double headers and tournaments and watching our son run down a kid twenty pounds heavier and five inches taller than he is to successfully block the shot on goal. There will be no more team pictures of sweaty boys clutching a trophy, faces beaming with pride, and no more hugs and tears after a hard-fought loss. It is an emotional goodbye for all of us. We are hoping that 2018 brings an array of new experiences and choices.
We will all be stepping out of our comfort zone as we leave the youth soccer world behind, and that’s a good thing. While it’s hard, change is good, and I’m glad our son reminded us of that.