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The Ask the Author feature of www.whosegameisitanyway.com is a resource for general questions of sports development and experiences, and should not be used for urgent questions or as a substitute to seeking professional assistance.  A professional health care provider should always be consulted for specific questions and concerns.  Due to the volume of questions received not all questions submitted will be answered and individual responses are not possible.

QUESTION

I have a 15 yr. old 6 ft tall beautiful and talented volleyball playing daughter. She earned MVP on high school freshman volleyball team (Fall 2005) and the coaches are very interested in her playing but she insists that she does not like volleyball and she is not wanting to play.

I feel her friends that are not involved in any sports have a strong influence on her feelings. She also has had an issue with depression and anxiety attacks for a while. I am debating forcing her to play volleyball at her high school this year. I feel justified with this because she has such potential and I feel she needs the activity for her depression and hopefully a new group of friends could come about.

She says I have been the reason she has played to this point. I just have been supportive and pointed out the many benefits to her. I have told her I can't make her take the court with the passion and drive to earn the MVP award, she has this responsibility.

She sends mixed signals all the time as the next 2 paragraphs will portray. She jammed her finger bad enough a practice one night that we went to the Dr. and he had it X-rayed, he advised her not to play the remainder of the week to let it heal if was not broken. She stated to me she was playing the next night in the game and for me not to say anything to the coach.

She was also sick on a Monday so she missed practice ad the rule for the team is no practice the night before a game no play in the game. She sat out that game and was so disgusted with the situation but supportive of her team mates.

I am confused and concerned as to how to proceed?? Help of any kind would be greatly welcomed.

Sincerely,
Concerned Mom

ANSWER FROM THE AUTHORS

Dear Concerned Mom,

As parents, it's always important for us to get as much information as we can. Sometimes on the court behavior is a reflection of something happening off the court. Dramatic shifts in family life such as a new job or drastically different routines can unsettle our kids. Fifteen year old girls are going through puberty and may be having social issues that affect their energy and commitment to sports. The fact that she seems invested in playing at certain times suggests she is somewhat conflicted. I would want to know as much as I can about this.

Perhaps the most important question is why doesn't your daughter want to play? Why does she want to play at some times and not others? Is she enjoying the game, the coach, and or her teammates? Is she feeling too pressured to perform? Is this reaction related to her anxiety and depression? Are her panic attacks less frequent? Do you feel she is getting adequate help for her emotional difficulties? What does your husband think? Is he agreeing with you that she really should play? If your daughter were to quit, what would she do instead? Exercise is definitely known to improve mood and decrease anxiety, and we strongly believe in the importance of structured activity, but clearly something is amiss with this experience.

We have spoken to many parents who are concerned about their child quitting a sport, and unfortunately, there is no easy answer. More often than not, we encourage parents to help their kids understand what the problem is and encourage them to address it directly on their own. If the problem cannot be resolved and quitting is the only option, we might encourage a child to stick it out for the rest of the season, fulfilling her commitment to the team, and then she can choose not to play the following year. (Quitting before the end of the season could be an option if there are abuses occurring that jeopardize her safety). In the end, however, choosing not to play any sport the following year should not be an option. So, if it's not volleyball, then suggest another sport to participate in for example that she's either going to need to swim or play basketball. Research supports that the times between 2-6 PM during the week are risky periods for adolescents as they are vulnerable to delinquency, substance abuse, and early pregnancy. And as Mark Twain writes, 'Leisure time is the devil's playground.' While we recognize the problems of overscheduling, no scheduling at all is a greater problem.

While it would be great if we could make our kids love a sport or see their potential in it, parents who accomplish this overtly are more the exception than the norm. Love of a sport comes naturally, possibly through witnessing our love of sports, but mostly likely through their own experience. The drive to achieve excellence often comes from a joy of the game and an internal desire. As parents, we cannot implant these elements directly. We can try to support them as they discover what they love. And in the end, our kids will not continue a sport or excel in it if they do not feel ownership and personal investment.

As parents, we are often most effective with our kids when we present a unified response to our kids. So, we encourage concerned parents to have a sit down with their spouse, review why they want their children to play sports in the first place and apply the Three-Step- Approach. Initially we should ask, what values are we trying to instill?

Step 1 of the Three-Step, what do we know is going on with our daughter?
Step 2, how are our experiences and biases as parents affecting our child?
Step 3, how is our daughter's environment affecting her experience?

Once we have taken these steps, we can begin to address our concerns directly with our child with a strong sense of our values and a belief in how we can be most helpful.


QUESTION
As a parent and a coach, I am wondering whether our middle school athletic teams should have cuts?

ANSWER FROM THE AUTHORS

Many middle school programs nationally are struggling with how to manage competition and cuts effectively. And while it would be ideal if there were one definitive answer, the reality is that there can be a case made for no cuts or some cuts. Much of this decision will be guided by your mission statement, your philosophy about athletics, and the communication you have had with parents about this issue. In high achieving communities and school programs, this question is particularly challenging. Each parent wants their child to have the best possible opportunities, and this can lead to covert and overt forms of competition and pressure among children and most concerning, among parents.

All of this is being driven by a culture that is becoming increasingly competitive and outcome focused. Travel teams, early specialization, extra training etc. are becoming commonplace as folks are seeking ways to get the edge without thinking of the potential risks of such steps. The fact of the matter is that overly competitive environments undermine the development of skill, the joy of participation and ultimately the quality of performance, particularly for young children. This is the most common misunderstanding in youth sports, namely, that coaching kids as if they are adults will improve performance. For young kids, it often has the opposite effect. So, we have to do a decent job of creating the best environments for them to grow.

It’s a hard message to communicate but adults need to understand that kids won’t learn or play well under intense scrutiny and competitiveness. Young kids are not designed to understand or compete at the adult level. They have to be eased into it over time. The question is when do you begin to ease them in and how?

So, without knowing important aspects of your school, mission, and philosophy, I will try to make a few general statements.

First is the story of Michael Jordan. Many folks know it, but it’s always helpful to remind them that the greatest player who ever played the game was cut from the varsity team as 10th grader. Imagine if he never returned to basketball. What a sad outcome that would have been. But he grew approximately 8 inches over the next two years and became the star we all know. The message behind this story is important. Children are physically, cognitively, and emotionally developing well into their late teens and early twenties. Given this reality, cutting children at the middle school age may be inappropriate. The great 7th grade basketball player may peak at 5’7”, while the clumsy 6th grader may turn out to be the most athletically gifted. Because we cannot predict who the great players are going to be all the time, we take risks when cutting children. We may not get it right. This story may help you manage the ambitious adults who want cuts for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. While we may be able to recognize the best players, it doesn’t always translate to what happens in the future.

Psychologically, students are dealing with success and failure at great levels during their middle school years. It seems that 13-15 years old marks the time when many kids begin to see their physical limitations and or gifts when compared to their peers. As mentioned above in the MJ story, this can change over time, but kids can start to recognize what they can and can’t do as they approach their high school years. This does not have to be a bad thing. It’s a part of learning their strengths and weaknesses, an important component of this stage of psychological and physical development. Some kids don’t get into an honors class (if you have them) or don’t score as high as their peers on a test, or they are better in Spanish than in Math. The key is that they are finding activities that allow them to build confidence and believe in their ability/competence. If they have no venue to excel then that’s where you run into problems.

If you are going to have cuts, my preference would be to limit the cuts to the 8th grade year. And this 8th grade team is the one that may travel and compete with other schools. Depending on your philosophy, these teams can be as large or small as you want depending on how much equal playing time you want to give the kids. Some programs allow talented 7th graders to play on these teams, which may or may not be a good idea. Generally, if middle school is seen as a preparation for high school, it might be useful to introduce the reality of cuts in the 8th grade as they will be facing these issues the following year. This way, the 6th and 7th graders can continue to participate in the sport of their choice, develop skills and friendships and be protected from cuts.

If you do have cuts, the big issue is to have alternatives for the kids who don’t make the team. So, if they don’t make the 8th grade basketball team, they can play on another basketball team that is less competitive. This way they can continue to play the sport they love, develop their skills, and possibly try out for the 9th grade team the following year if they so desire. It looks from your website that your high school has an active athletic, competitive program. Perhaps 8th grade can be seen as a transitional year.

If you decide to eliminate cuts entirely, I think this is a fine option. The challenge will be to convince the competitive adults and kids. They will feel robbed of a desired level of competitiveness and will complain that their preparations for the next level of athletics at your high school will be compromised. While this may or may not be the case, it could lead to a lot of tension between parents and administration. One negative outcome of this might be that your ambitious kids and parents will seek to play in other competitive leagues and programs which take them away from school sports. This can lead to headaches regarding missing school, special considerations etc, all a drain on your time and energy and may seep into your high school.

The reality is that kids are dealing with cuts in sports long before they enter your school, which is an unfortunate development in our youth sport culture. Cuts are as early as 5 years-old. Elite teams, AAU, travel teams, all-star teams are all exclusive. Generally, the key to a solid middle school sports program is to foster an athletic environment where the kids can experiment with different sports, allowing them to get a broad exposure so they can begin to focus on particular sports as they move toward high school.