I’ve seen this before – a half-assed tryout, making the track team and, suddenly, floating the idea wanting to quit before the second practice. Yes, my seventh grader, Lynden, hopes that his subtle hints about leaving the school track team will garner my support to do so. He must not know I value the act of participating more than he does.
“Dad, track is boring,” he mentioned in passing the morning after tryouts.
I said nothing and picked him up from practice later that day.
That evening, on the van ride home, Lynden escalated the quitting chatter, “With everything else going on, track is gonna get in the way of soccer.”
Again, I remained quiet and stoic – taking note of his hope for my agreement wane.
By day three, Lynden resorted to feigning illness to avoid track practice, “Dad, I have a headache. There is no way I to go to track and soccer tonight.”
I’d had enough.
“Lynden, you’re not quitting the team. Nope.”
He shot back, “Why does it matter? You’re not out any money – it’s just the school track team! I’m not even good.”
Sparing him another “it’s not the act, but the principle at work” talk, I kept it simple, saying, “Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you’ll be tired from running at track practice before soccer. But you tried out and took a spot that someone else could have earned. That means you’re sticking it out. Tough. You’re on the team for the season so you better learn to like it.”
The truth is, Lynden quitting the team didn’t have me as annoyed as his nonchalant attitude about being on the squad in the first place.
As I thought about Lynden’s logic, I came around to the idea that he wasn’t technically wrong. The school track team was a free, throw-in for his normal, more expensive, more serious, more inconvenient-to-the-family team activities. This rationale, though, clearly does not value participation as a valuable use of his time. He isn’t alone in the line of thinking, I see the numbers of kids on the field at school reducing universally.
As the act of trying new activities at school has given way to paying-to-play, the quality of middle school sports have suffered. My family has a front row seat to witnessing the plight of the school team fueled by an invasion of uber-serious, uber-expense “travel” teams that do little to fortify friendships and do far too much to allow parents to live vicariously through their exhausted young athletes.
I began unpacking Lynden’s mentality as follows:
- School sports are free and, therefore, not as valuable as the other (ie: higher priced) options.
- School sports are less valuable, so my commitment to the team doesn’t matter.
- Commitment does not matter so quitting the team carries no repercussions.
Parents cannot allow this – I won’t. We must band together to stomp out these flames before they ignite the lacquer of the middle school gym’s floor. Worthwhile commitments must not be dependent on the financial cost of admission or perceived ability level. Having fun is worthwhile!
Maybe some of Lynden’s “quitting doesn’t matter” way of thinking can be traced back to the way parents have devalued the act of participating. The rush to disavow the “participation trophy mentality” may have inadvertently discouraged kids to try anything new. Our kids would rather sit out than entertain the idea of making an ass of themselves in front of classmates, friends and family by giving a new activity a shot.
But, not Lynden, not this time. By making him stick out the track season, I hope to change his view of what is important (and not) – and, potentially, test my own biases about the importance of participating.
Picking Lynden up after his fourth track practice, I explained to him my point of view — that his bellyaching to quit the track team was about something bigger to me. Sure, the most obvious lesson was about perseverance and integrity. Less obvious, though, are lessons about value – looking for intrinsic worth through friendships and owning the courage to step outside of a comfortable zone. These lessons are about placing more value on systems that care little about the quality of play relative to the qualities developed by simply taking part. These lessons require participation.
Kids cannot quit on school activities. Let’s tell our kids that trying is OK. In fact, participation is what it’s all about – absent the trophy, of course.