Let Them Do What They Want?

By Brian Gotta

I have read recent interviews with parents and parents-to-be who say they are not going to force their kids to play sports. The sentiment is that some parents are so over-the-top, so hungry to live vicariously through their children to regain their own unrealized glory that they’ll drive their offspring into an unwelcome world of competition and duress.

I am obviously biased on this topic. I played sports and gained phenomenal value from my experiences. My four kids all still play and I never had to force them. If anything, they wanted to participate in too many sports and sometimes we couldn’t do it all. They, like me, have also benefited tremendously from their athletic endeavors. They are all in great physical shape and, my guess is, will stay that way long after their playing careers end. They’ve learned the value of teamwork, made lifelong friends and, most importantly, they’ve lived through the proverbial “thrill of victory and agony of defeat.” I believe this will make them much better equipped to face what the world is going to throw at them down the road.

But what if your kids don’t want to play sports?

Well, what if they don’t want to eat their vegetables? What if they don’t want to go to school? What if they don’t want to clean up their rooms or brush their teeth? Until they are mature enough to make decisions on their own, our job as parents is to decide what is best for them.

I’m not even saying a kid should be made to play a particular sport. There were certain sports my kids took to, probably because they were the ones I was most interested in, but had they asked to play another team sport instead I’d have been fine with that.

I also don’t subscribe to the idea that if we just make them “try” it once and they don’t like it, then its OK to let them quit. So a child plays T-Ball, has a poor coach, doesn’t enjoy it and that means he will never play baseball again? So many things may change if he’s made to go back again next year and give it another go. Maybe this time he has an amazing coach. Maybe when the kids are a little older and more skilled the game becomes enjoyable. Wouldn’t it be awful if a youngster would have grown to love a sport, would have played it all the way through high school, but we didn’t give him the chance because we let him decide at age six or seven to drop out?

I have an experience of being forced to play. While I loved all sports, middle school tackle football was no fun. I was stuck with the double negative of not only being one of the youngest in my grade, but I was also a late bloomer and among the very smallest. That meant I couldn’t match up against the bigger kids and I had no chance of ever seeing the field in a game. The practices were grueling and without any glory. After the seventh grade season I probably would have hung it up if left to my own devices. It was not my parents who demanded I continue, it was my older brother. He was in college at the time and “suggested” I play at least as long as he did, which was through Freshman year. I idolized him and was not going to do anything to disappoint him. I weighed 89 pounds my freshman year but went out anyway. I can remember hating it so much I actually crossed off days on my calendar until the season ended.

I didn’t have an “Rudy” moment. I don’t think I ever saw the field, except maybe for a play or two in mop-up time. But do you know what? I wasn’t traumatized. I don’t look back on the experience with any negativity. Frankly, I hardly remember it at all. And it didn’t make me hate the sport. I played four years of intramural football in college. And now I wish someone had made me stick it out through high school because I finally started to grow a little by my senior year and I may have had some success.

But even staying with it as long as I did, I have to believe that somewhere in my psyche I learned something about perseverance, discipline, battling against the odds. I learned that sometimes you can work really hard and things don’t turn out like a storybook, but you go on. And there is value to that.

Not all kids are athletes. I get that. I coached several young neighborhood boys who were sweet and gentle and didn’t have a competitive or athletic bone in their bodies. They played a few years of baseball on my teams but I knew that when it got more intense they were probably going to drop it. I hoped though, that they would still play rec soccer, tennis – something to stay active. Every parent has to make the decision when to stop making their kids do things, including sports. I am not going to speculate on a certain age or grade when this is appropriate. It is a case-by-case, family-by-family decision. But what I do know is that if your kids are on a team, on a field, outside, what they’re not doing is getting in trouble or mindlessly playing video games. Their time is being spent in an activity that is enriching and healthy. And as parents, what more can we want?

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com