I was always a sporty, competitive little kid.
So when the opportunity to sign up for Little Athletics at the tender age of nine, I jumped at the chance (pun intended, not sorry).
A few months later, I qualified for the state champs and was flown to Townsville where I took out first place in long jump.
Over the next couple of years I dramatically improved and ended up travelling from the Gold Coast to Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne to compete in state and national championships.
I took home countless medals, broke national records, competed (and medalled) in the Pan Pacific games and was guaranteed a place in the prestigious, once-in-a-lifetime Little Athletics State team.
Somehow I’d become an elite athlete, training alongside future Olympic champion Sally Pearson (yeah, that’s the trajectory I was on) – all by the tender age of 13.
And boy, did I feel the pressure.
It felt like it was coming from all angles – from my family, from school, from the athletics community, and from within myself.
I trained up to six days a week for hours at a time, giving up evenings and weekends to train near and far, sacrificing my social life and time to study during my most critical formative years.
One day, it got too much.
I didn’t want to go to training. I wanted to go home, watch Home & Away, do my homework and go to bed. Like a ‘normal’ person.
I remember my heart thudding and my palms sweating as I shakily told my mum I wanted to quit, expecting a lecture about the role of discipline in success.
But, that lecture never came.
Instead, my mum was gentle with me.
She asked me why I wanted to quit a sport I’d loved so much, and I answered honestly: that it all felt too much. That I was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure. That I just wanted some time to myself.
And do you know what she did?
She listened to me, gave me a hug and took me home, where we watched Home & Away, and I did my homework and I went to bed.
Just like I’d wanted to.
Did I still want to quit the next day?
In fact, I was itching to get back to training. I’d almost regretted not going, cause I had to wait a full 24 hours for my next session.
Cassy Dittmann, a psychology lecturer at CQUniversity Australia explained in The Conversation that this kind of approach can be effective in preventing children from wanting to drop out of sport.
While she says “there are no easy answers and the response will be shaped by factors unique to the child and their situation,” there are a few strategies you can employ as a parent.
- Talk to your child
“Ask them what they don’t like about the sport. Is there anything that would need to change for them to continue? Would switching teams or dropping down a division make a difference?” Dittmann says.
Then, Dittmann recommends asking your child what they do like about their sport.
“This helps shift their thinking to what’s fun about it and what they might miss if they quit. If your child can’t name anything they like, this might be the red flag you need that this sport isn’t for them.”
- Reflect on your own behaviour
Dittmann also suggests that you as a parent reflect on your own hopes and expectations (and whether it’s possible you might be putting a liiiiiiittle too much pressure on them).
“Let your child know they can be open with you if they feel you’re pressuring them. You might need to work with your partner or other adults in the child’s life to come up with a plan to temper your expectations or behaviour around children’s sport.”
- Consider other options
Lastly, Dittmann urges parents to remember that every child is different.
“Some thrive on competition and performance, others find it anxiety-provoking and distressing. Others don’t much care if they win or lose,” Dittmann says.
“Most children, though, enjoy personal accomplishment and the opportunity sport provides to challenge themselves and improve skills. So, if the old sport isn’t working out for your child, consider looking for something different.
“Many activities build fitness and a sense of accomplishment but don’t necessarily involve competition.”