But, we shouldn’t be packing our kids off to sports clubs or encouraging them to take part with the aim of discovering the next Carlos Alcaraz or Katie Robinson.

Instead, parents should simply be supporting their children to experience the joy of being part of a community, having fun, being active and healthy.

When we lived overseas my daughter started rowing, and it turned out she was really good at it. We soon were encouraged to push her to train hard and aim for the GB rowing team. Getting up at 5am two days a week and driving long distances. All that happened was that the fun was taken out of rowing for her, and she stopped. The pressure was too much, and she had other plans for her life anyway. She started rowing because she loved the social side of it and loved being out on the water but what started out as fun just ended up feeling like a chore.

The same happened with both my sons. My middle son is in a wheelchair, and he absolutely LOVED table tennis. He had so much fun with it and soon got really good at it, at which point he was advised to try for the Paralympic team. He started down this road, but it just put him off because it changed from ‘play’ to ‘work’ – with training schedules and so on – and he stopped. And my youngest, was really into hockey, he played brilliantly in goal but the year he got ‘sportsman of the year’ he stopped. He said it just wasn’t fun anymore.

My worries were always, ‘I am a doing the right thing by letting them quit’. I was afraid that one day they would say ‘mum why didn’t you support us to keep going, be better and the best’. They didn’t, and it all turned out ok and they have all since found sports that they love and they know that they can play sports ‘just’ for the fun of it OR I take it to the next level if they want to. 

So I really empathise with parents who get confused about when to ‘push’ their kids to next level of a sport, stay at a sport they want to quit and when to let them stop and try something new.

Seek a balance.
Firstly, have a think about WHY you want your child to play a sports? Is it because YOU never played sports or weren’t encouraged, so now you want your child to have something you missed out on? Or perhaps you DID play, maybe you were really into rugby for instance, so now your child has to play rugby too? Or is there an element of wanting to tell other people all about your child’s sporting achievements, yes be a proud parent?
These are all natural and understandable feelings and motivations, of course we want our kids to have these opportunities, and of course we want to be proud of them. But try to come from a place of sport being something fun for them to do in a safe community, and let them develop it how (and if) they want to. Once they are involved with a sport, find a balance between encouraging them to do their best but also just having fun and enjoying the game.

Keep the communication open.
Check in with them on a regular basis to see how they feel about their sport: are they ‘just’ having fun and enjoying it? Or do they have a deep passion for it and want to take it further? But no matter what, make sure that this is your child’s choice, not yours or school’s choice.
How to they behave when they come home after a sport? Happy? Tired but in a good way? Sad or down?

They need a place to chill
Children nowadays have a lot of pressure on them: school exams, homework, social media expectations etc. So, we need to give them a break and a place to have fun, de-stress and be themselves without unhealthy pressure.
It can be a great social opportunity to become part of a club sport, as opposed to striving to be the best at a particular sport. A great counterbalance to the very virtual life that children have today, and parents should see it as an opportunity to develop their children’s social skills as part of a sporting community, as well as getting exercise.

Be a great role model
Do you play sports to have fun? Or to win? To get skinny? Or be the best?
Or do you show your children that you enjoy sport just for the fun of it, for the community and belonging?
There’s nothing wrong with exercising to stay fit and healthy but maybe we also need to find something where we just have fun. Maybe you don’t necessarily like running but it keeps you fit, but you might have fun playing tennis or golf.
So, align your child’s sport with fun, a sense of community and balance in life. Winning should be low on your list of priorities. Maybe you can even have fun with sport as a family: go bike riding, walking, swimming etc. Make the joy of the moment more important than the end result.

How to encourage fun and participation
Use your words and emotions to show that it’s more important to you that your kids have fun and feel good about their sport than winning:
● Did you score today? >< Did you have fun with your mates today? ● Did your team win? >< Did you have fun with your team today? ● Wow you were the best! >< You looked really happy and confident out there today! ● You played so well! >< I really enjoyed watching you today!

So, focus more on how they feel and the their effort than what they did. This will also help you with how to respond when they DIDN’T win or score. They can lose and still have fun!
● I know you wanted to win, but did you have fun?
● I know you wanted to score, but I enjoyed seeing you and James having a laugh after the game.
● I know you wanted to get picked for the team, but are there some nice people on the current team?

I remember when my handball team kept losing and my dad said afterwards with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘well done you made the other team happy by letting them win’. I was confused at the time but now I see what he tried to do. Tell me, that it is not about the winning, but the fun as a team and being part of a community.

When to stop and when to encourage them to keep going
This can be a tricky one. When should we say, ‘OK, you can stop because it isn’t fun anymore’. And when should we encourage them to continue?

Know your individual child:

But it can be hard to find that balance; knowing when to take them to the next level and when to hold back. Here you really need to tune into your child, know your child. Can they handle the next level? Can you?

Are they competitive by nature and enjoy the pressure and can deal with it. They need to have some of the key components that make a healthy sport person. It is not enough to ‘just’ have the physical skills needed for a particular sport, they also need to have the right mindset, a healthy mental health because going to i.e., elite sport can be a rough and hard road, So what do they need?

Passion: let’s start here. Do they have a deep passion for that particular sport, or do they simply just enjoy it and have fun? My daughter was very good at rowing but outside rowing club she wasn’t too bothered about it. It was the social side and nature that drew her.  

Mindset, resilience and persistency:

In Denmark we have a saying, ‘tab og vind med samme sind’, meaning ‘win and lose with the same mindset’.

We can’t win all the time, so can your child deal with failure and setbacks, and can you? To handle the pressure that come with elite sport they need to be able to lose (yes fail if you like) – pick them self up, move on without feeling they are ARE a failure. As Michael Jordan said ‘Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it’.

Self-esteem: again, your child can’t win each time so will your child beat themself up each time they lose? Will they regret not have trained harder, blame you, blame self? Or will they be able to stay positive and move forward?

Positivity: It can be so easy to ‘go down with the flag’ as soon as they lose or don’t get the score or reach the next team. But can they stay realistically positive in a somehow rough situation? Will they be able to say ‘well, I didn’t make the team THIS TIME, but I will work harder – I did my best and enjoyed it’. Also, will they be able to ‘learn from each situation’, good or bad? They might not have won or made the team etc, but can they extract some learning from it, something positive?

Patience: now that is a hard one for children to have. But get good or the best at a sport can take a long time. Are they willing to wait and work hard in the meantime? Or do you think they will lose patience and give up and come out feeling like a failure?

So what if they really want to stop:

Again, know your child….and the situation

It could be that they want to stop because they didn’t win, and we need to help them deal with those thoughts. Or maybe they are being bullied, or feeling left out. Or maybe they just don’t like it or aren’t having fun.

Here there is no one straight answer. So just be curious about the WHY. Have a chat with your child, go to the sports activities and observe, speak to the coach or trainer etc. to find out what is going on for, or around, them. Maybe they just need a break. Or maybe they do just need to stop and then together you can find another sport that suits them better.

After I have investigating that everything was ok I used to say to my kids that they had to sit the term out since we had paid for it. For me, it was important that they finished what they started and didn’t let their team down in the middle of a season.
Whatever happens, remember that sport is supposed to be fun!

Let’s end this article with a dictionary definition of sport where the key bit being “entertainment” 🙂
sport “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”

Best wishes

Mette Theilmann Founder of Predictable Parenting and Founder of the Parenting Community App