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The Stress of Youth Sports

Why three out of four kids hate sports by age 13.

Parents' Role

"I call it 'keeping up with the athletic Joneses,'" Wolff says. Parents want so much for their kids, he says, they spend several thousand dollars a year, commit to traveling almost every weekend, and will do almost anything to help their children excel. "Parents with a shred of sports interest think their kid could be the next Michael Jordan, but they should know that fewer than 5% of kids continue to play beyond high school, if that."

Of course, this level of commitment can lead to tragedy, which it has in several fatal incidents involving parents who got carried away at a child's game. Sometimes, literally carried away.

When Kids Rebel

"Burnout usually comes around age 13," Wolff says. "For years, the kid has loved playing soccer. In winter he or she plays indoors. During summer, it's soccer camp. Maybe it's a travel team. It's just not fun anymore."

Around the age of 13, kids develop their own voice, Wolff says. "They can talk back to mom and dad and say, "I don't want to miss a party to get up early for swim practice.'"

How should parents handle that moment? Connellan and Wolff have some suggestions.

First, try to find out why the child wants to drop out, Connellan urges. "Ask when did you first think about dropping out?" You may find that an incident months before set the child to thinking -- that this is not a recent decision, but that the child has not wanted to let you down.

Watch for symptoms of burnout such as a stomachache on practice or game day. "You don't have to be Dr. Freud," Wolff says, "to see if a kid is unhappy."

Remember, kids do leave sports. This is not the game of sandlot kids played 30 years ago. Leaving does not mean they are quitters. It can mean they are taking responsibility for their own actions and directing their own life. Wolff urges kids who have committed to a travel team to wait until the end of the year so they don't let their teammates down. "Commitment is important," he reminds. Connellan says some younger kids shouldn't even be on travel teams and may need to do what they have to do.

Wolff recommends asking the child what he or she intends to do instead of the sport. "If you leave, you will now have more free time -- what do you intend to do with it? Video games are not an option."

What Parents and Coaches Can Do

Connellan says parents and coaches should have positive expectations. "When little Mary was learning to walk, you said, 'Come on, you can do it, OK, get back up, you're doing it!' You didn't say, 'You clumsy idiot!' Concentrate on the parts the kid did correctly. Be reasonable. Feedback, he says should be 3-1. Three parts positive to one part constructive -- not every comment, but over the course of time. "Coaches instinctively correct," he admits.

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