Help! My teen is losing interest in sport
Kids go through natural peaks and troughs when it comes to competitive sport, especially as they get older and develop new hobbies. Dr Justin Coulson explains the best way to manage your child's goals and reservations when it comes to playing sport.
Dear Dr Justin,
I was hoping you could me some advice?
I have a twelve and a half year old daughter who is the youngest of four children. Let’s call her ‘L’.
My worry with L is that she has been doing gymnastics since she was six years old. She is now in year seven and still doing gymnastics. When she originally started, it was in the recreational program, which was one hour a week every Saturday morning. Towards the end of that year, she was asked to join the squad program, which means more hours of training and doing a number of competitions throughout the year. She always enjoyed this and I find it keeps her busy. But the last year or two, especially this year, I have noticed a lot of negativity from her. She constantly complains about one of her coaches, talking about how mean she is, etc. She also seems more concerned about what the other girls are doing and have said etc.
Both my husband I have noticed that since she started being so negative, she hasn’t been doing so well in her comps. Please understand, we don’t expect her to win every comp she enters but we both feel her attitude isn’t helping either. When we suggest she give up gym if she’s no longer enjoying it, she ends up with her in tears. She still tells me she loves gym and doesn’t want to quit. This year she’s in what’s called level 5A (International) which is about 2 steps away from being Olympic level training. She’s never going to make it to the Olympics and that’s fine with us, we just want to keep her mind and body busy (and we’re aware of keeping her off the streets, because we’ve had a lot of problems with our eldest daughter in the past). The other thing is, she is actually very good at gymnastics, which I keep to myself but would be a shame for her to quit now after the number of years he’s been doing it so far. This year she trains 4 days a week, with a total of 14hours of training. Her comps don’t start till August this year.
How do we help her through this?
Dr Justin says:
When it comes to kids and their involvement in sport, music, or other extra-curricular activities, there are a variety of ways that we can try to help them. Some are more effective than others. What matters a great deal is that our children are able to participate, just like your daughter, in activities that stimulate and stretch them.
Research has convincingly shown that kids who are involved in extra-curricular sporting activities do better physically, socially, academically, and psychologically. It’s good for them! But as soon as it gets challenging if they don’t seem to like it so much.
In reading your email, it seems to me that there are two central concerns (among others). I’ll address the issue of motivation first, and then turn to the challenge of understanding one another.
Tiger mum strategies have become increasingly popular in recent times, but research suggests such an authoritarian approach can be soul-destroying for kids. They struggle to develop their own identity, and instead allow us to choose it for them. This approach to parenting teens is shown to be ineffective in the long run and lead to negative outcomes including depression, aggression, and low wellbeing.
Similarly, the snow plow style of parenting, where we push all obstacles out of the way and make life easy doesn’t work so well either. Kids whose parents are permissive and give in to their demands tend to underperform academically, develop a sense of entitlement, and lack motivation and respect for other people and property.
I get the feeling that you’re trying hard to find the appropriate middle ground. You know it’s important for your daughter to pursue her interest. And it also seems as though she knows it. Your email makes it seem as though she likes gymnastics, but there are a few things impacting her motivation: the long hours, the coaching staff, and perhaps also her goals.
In dealing with the long hours, there is probably not a great deal you can do. I suspect that appropriately managing the other two motivational factors might actually be enough to make the hours no longer an issue.
In terms of the coaching staff, what options do you have? What would your daughter like to see happen? Are coaching staff and management open to discussions about style of coaching, and the reciprocal relationship staff have with gymnasts? I suggest a number of gentle conversations with your daughter and with the gym around this particular issue.
In relation to goals, it seems as though your daughter is less motivated to attain the high goals she previously set. I recommend asking her questions like, “If everything was perfect at gym, what would you want to achieve?”, “You used to want to get to such and such a level… is that still a goal for you or have you changed your mind?” and other questions. Try to discover what she really wants, and what she’d go for if everything was perfect in terms of time, money, coaching staff, equipment, etc. Does she still want to be a coach or does the future now hold alternative exciting prospects? Having a clear vision/goal will impact on what decisions L makes now … and it may or may not be gym.
The second major issue I see relates to the manner in which you interact with L. In your responses to her concerns, you are saying things like “be positive”, “don’t worry about them, worry about you”, “if you’re not enjoying it, quit”, and so on.
These statements are completely normal, but they’re not necessarily helpful for L. When we respond in these ways, we might be entirely correct in our comments, but we’re missing the point of L’s conversation with us. She wants her feelings to be understood, to be validated and to be affirmed as normal.
L is not seeking your approval of her feelings. She doesn’t even need you agree with them. But she wants to know that they’re normal feelings, and that it’s ok to feel like that. The difficulty all parents (and partners) have is that our natural response is to either fix the problem or push it away – and we can do it with the best of intentions. So rather than understanding, we often deny, dismiss, or disapprove of the feeling she is experiencing. And those statements I’ve highlighted are examples of denial, dismissing, and disapproval.
What do you do instead? The best way I can describe it is that we turn towards the emotion she feels. This is in contrast to turning against it (disapproval) or turning away from it (denial or dismissal). When we turn towards the emotion we do a few things: we recognise the emotion for what it is – an expression of difficulty. We give it a name. So we might say “You’re feeling really anxious, or frustrated, about things.” Then we talk about the emotion together, with you mainly listening, affirming and labelling emotions, and asking gentle questions. My book, What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family is a useful resource in learning more about this skill.
The final step
When your daughter feels really understood, you can ask her what she thinks the best solution is. I believe that you’ll find that the answers are all inside of her. She doesn’t actually need you to fix things (most of the time). On the odd occasion when she does, once she feels understood she’ll ask for your help. But in the main, she’s frustrated and a little confused. A soft, listening ear is what she will do best with. And when she is calm and understood, she’ll be able to generate ideas to solve her own problems – which is great for you because you probably have enough problems to come up with answers to!
In summary, it sounds like L loves gym. But it also sounds like things are frustrating her. You want her to be great, be active, and be involved. But more than that, you want her to love what she’s doing.
The best way to help her is to listen and understand. Turn towards her emotions rather than dismissing, denying, or disapproving. And have a chat with gym staff to see how you can work together as a team to make L’s experience more positive.
PS – There are other issues we could talk about in relation to your daughter’s attitude – things like development of identity (which may be creating some of the attitude challenges you’re experiencing), the changing social context as girls get more competitive and older, and the issues around motivation in competition. These are all relevant points. But we only have so much space! And I think what we’ve discussed above is likely to be the central solution.
This article was written by Justin Coulson, and is a parenting speaker and author, father of six and a Senior Associate at the Positive Psychology Institute.