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When Sports Aren't Fun

November 07, 2018

Whether it's soccer, baseball, gymnastics or any of the sports our children participate in, we want them to enjoy athletics. We want them to have a good time pursuing the activity they love. But the joy of competitive sports — whether during elementary, high school or college years — easily dissipates when youth find themselves unduly stressed by their own perfectionism, a burdensome sense of obligation to fulfill the expectations of parents or coaches, or a loss of balance between sports and other parts of their lives. For those whose core sense of self-worth is tied to athletic success, the stakes can feel particularly high when the joy slips away.

For so many reasons, youth often hide the stress and discouragement they're feeling, but here are some telltale signs to look for:

  • chronic fatigue or chronic injuries (especially for youth who partake of multiple sports year-round)1
  • regular complaints about going to practice or to competitive meets
  • sadness, discouragement or irritability as a frequent mood state
  • infrequent expression of pleasure or satisfaction following practice or a game

It's not unusual for well-intentioned parents (and coaches) to push kids so hard that our formerly sports-loving sons and daughters have lost their athletic spirit. Many don't know how to tell us when they've reached their limit, especially when they sense it's less their wish than our wish propelling them forward. Sometimes we're blinded by a belief in their "potential" and fail to hear and see their own experience of the sport, especially when their talent is undeniable.

What can be gained from competitive sports is in many ways immeasurable and fuels so many parents' desire to encourage and support the pursuit:

  • appreciating the role of practice as a precursor to mastery
  • learning to cope with disappointment and failure
  • learning how to accept constructive criticism
  • setting realistic short- and long-term goals
  • caring for both body and mind

One need not be a champion to derive from athletics so many valuable life lessons.

But when the telltale signs point to something awry, our devotion to athletics shouldn't blind us to what's wrong. That's when family counseling with a professional who understands the challenges of an athlete's life can make a difference. Sometimes a simple course correction will preserve a youngster's relationship with the sport they love.2

References & Citations

Brenner, J. S. “Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes.” Pediatrics, 2007; 119; 1242-1245.

Content for this Tip was provided by Ali Davis, a licensed marriage & family therapist and youth & sports specialist on the staff of The Family Institute at Northwestern University.