We live in a culture that enjoys sporting events, that celebrates athletic competition, and that places a lot of pressure on athletes – from highly paid professionals all the way down to happy-go-lucky Little Leaguers. And as parents, many of us feel pressure from family members and friends to get our kids involved in sports starting from the time they are still technically toddlers. I am absolutely a proponent of kids playing organized sports if they themselves are interested and enthusiastic about it, and if they consider it to be a fun activity.
Both of my children played on organized sports teams while they were in elementary and high school. They learned some valuable skills and life lessons while participating in their chosen activities. Things like self-discipline; respect for rules of the game and for coaches; teamwork and support for teammates; how to win and how to lose gracefully.
But as any parent who has watched their children play on sports teams for more than a couple seasons, we know that there can be negative aspects to participation as well. There are injuries, out-of-control parents, politics when it comes to making a team and who gets playing time, and over-zealous coaches that place winning above everything else.
Any number of these issues can contribute to a child developing a bad attitude about a sport or becoming burnt out. The pressure to win becomes even more intense as kids get older and talk of college scholarships begins. Participating in club sports is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor which ratchets up the stress level for many kids who are often reminded of the sacrifices their parents are making for them to play.
All of this explains why so many people celebrated or were shocked by what Simone Biles decided to do during her gymnastics experience in Tokyo this summer. There are very few people on the planet who can fully understand the amount of pressure she felt to perform and to live up to the expectations that had been placed upon her.
While feeling unsure of herself and her abilities, she had to grapple with letting down not only her coaches and teammates, but an entire country full of fans – in addition to her corporate sponsors who pay her millions of dollars to wear their clothes and pitch their products.
This made her decision to put herself first that much more admirable. It took immense strength and bravery to step away and decide that her mental health was the priority, and I hope her decision will be an example to families everywhere, particularly those who have kids playing sports.
Participating in youth sports should be fun. The focus, especially for younger athletes, should be on making friends, engaging in healthy activity, and learning to play as part of a team. As kids get older, they come to understand that there is also hard work involved. Many want to keep playing, but for some, the fun ends or their interests simply change.
As parents, we need to truly listen to how our kids express their feelings regarding their sports experiences and their coaching. If they are feeling a lot of pressure about any aspect of playing, a family should discuss all the pros and cons of continuing to play that sport. Let your child be the ultimate decision maker of what they want to do or not do. Their mental health should always be the priority, and they should never put up with any kind of abusive behavior from coaches, teammates, or family members.
At the end of the day, if a kid is not having any fun playing a sport, they should not be pressured to continue just because parents have paid a lot of money or think they might get a scholarship.
Let’s all remember Simone Biles and her courageous decision in Tokyo to put herself first, no matter what anyone else thought or said. As a parent, I applaud her not only for her incredible determination, work-ethic, and amazing athletic skills, but more so for her being a shining example and mental health role-model for young athletes and their parents everywhere.
It’s OK to say “No.”