Knowing when to call the game: we don't care if our son doesn't play team sports

July 2 2012 | Guest post by Amy M. Miller
Photo by halahmoon, used under Creative Commons license.

Despite the fact that the fields were a mud pit worthy of trapping a wooly mammoth, my five-year-old's soccer team had a game in the morning. The previous week it was too muddy and we received a phone call from the organization's director claiming she cared about the welfare of our children. This week, one day and night away from a tornado touchdown across town, we are a go. It was picture day.

I had a feeling this was not going to go well. My son doesn't like mess. Or mud. Or "wetness." He's also not terribly competitive so the point of the game is pretty much lost on him. As I have been diagnosed with ADD and can spot the signs, my husband and I anticipate the boy will end up with an ADD diagnosis down the line. Until it interferes with his happiness, success, and self-esteem we're quietly (nervously) watching from the sidelines.

As I suspected, he was pretty uninterested in the game and more concerned about how squishy and wet his socks were getting on the field. I watched as the teams in green and grey t-shirts swished past him to the right, then the left while he stood dead center in the field, arms extended as if to say, "Who's the wisenheimer responsible for this mess?" Shortly thereafter he walked over to me and his dad complaining that he wanted to go home but before I could discuss the matter with him, he was following his older sister and his best friend's sister to romp over the hills beyond the field. I looked over to his coach and caught her eyes. She mouthed to me, "Does he still want to play?" I mouthed back, "I don't know," but I knew. He was done.

My husband said the same thing happened to him as a kid. His mom signed him up for t-ball and he was completely miserable. He only made it to two practices then quit.

I'm not married to the soccer idea. My son has played on and off in a kiddie league since he was two and he loved the little games the coaches played. "Real soccer" was never really a goal (no pun intended, but it works). My husband and I just want him to find something or somethings that he does excel at or at least enjoys doing in his free time. We want him to feel proud and successful. He has lots of time to find his thing.

Neither I nor my husband were ever good at sports. We never cared about it, either. We didn't have that need to win, to be the best. My brother threw tennis balls at me from a lawn chair he sat in in the middle of our street — I was that bad. You know the kid who has to hit the ball against the wall? That was me. In tennis. In volleyball. Bowling. (Just kidding.) Team sports were anathema to me.

Not that I didn't try. I tried every ball sport I could think of and failed at all of them. But I did excel at school and writing and art and music and theater. My mom should have gone ahead and had the word GEEK tattooed on my forehead to save potential friends the effort of asking me to play on their kickball team. To save me the humiliation of running to first base after striking out.

If my heart could climb out of my chest cavity this morning it would have leaped into the muddy grass and slithered its way to my son, with his outstretched arms. It would have covered him with kisses and reassurance. When he came off the field I knew he wasn't going back, but I did have him tell the coach and I did suggest he pose for the team picture and I did kiss him on the head and tell him he could change into dry clothes once we got home.

I think he'll make an excellent drummer or comic book artist or speculative fiction writer one day.

  1. I love that you are going to support your son in whatever he loves to do, I think that that is absolutely imperative as a parent. 🙂 He will find his niche with parents like you.

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  2. Thanks for the post! My fiance and I don't plan to push our kids into organized sports, much to the chagrin of our extended families. There are lots of ways to build character and discipline besides sports, and I'm glad to see this alternate perspective!

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  3. While I agree with the general sentiment of the article, the one thing I wonder about *and is something I've discussed at length with my partner* is still getting our future children involved in healthy physical activity. We both agree that team sports don't necessarily have to be that thing, but we have talked about family running or karate or other physical activities to get our children involved in. This comes from the belief we both have that the rise in childhood obesity is extremely terrifying and we want our kids to be healthy.

    So I guess my comment comes down to while I think it's excellent that you and your husband are so supportive of your son, we have to all still be mindful of how much physical activity our geeky kids are getting. I'm sure you and your partner have thoughts about this, and I'd love to hear more, as my partner and I are always looking for new ideas!

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    • I don't think the author means to say "we don't care if our son isn't physically active," but I do sort of get that impression. As a child, I was chubby and introverted and not a good fit for team sports, though I did try (five years of rec soccer and two of softball). After those failed to take, I pretty much gave up on "exercise" for about fifteen years. I'm still a chubby and introverted adult, but in recent years I have found activities that I love for intentional exercise (Wii games! Dancing! Walking! Swimming!). I wish I had known as a kid that there are many ways to stay active, not just "sports" (and, frankly, that it was important to do so, even if it didn't lead to weight loss).

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      • Interestingly, this was one of the reasons I loved my high school gym classes so much. There was a really strong emphasis placed on life-long fitness, so we did way more than just the typical team sports like basketball, volleyball, and soccer (although there were definitely units on those too).

        I remember doing a week of bowling, going canoeing on the river next to our school, learning how to use the machines in the school's weight room once a week, taking a bunch of kick boxing classes, and working out to fitness DVDs, all in our gym class. I totally agree that it's important to introduce kids to the idea that fitness doesn't have to just be all about team sports. Although I did used to enjoy organized team sports when I was younger, I don't really any more, and I'm glad I had the chance to experience a range of fitness options when I was younger.

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        • I despised gym class until I reached high school and it was because of all the things you experienced in your classes. We had a rock climbing wall and archery and yoga videos, although we spent a great deal of time pretending to do yoga in the wrestling room but playing cards instead 😉

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        • I WISH I could have had a gym class like this. My gym classes were all centered around team sports, with no attention at all paid to the concept of lifelong fitness.

          If anything, gym class was harmful to my fitness: Every year at the beginning and the end of the year we had to take a physical fitness test (pushups, situps, standing long jump, that sort of thing). Not once did I "pass" the test, leading me to internalize the message "I'm not good at physical activity" which I'm just now (in my late 30s) managaing to heal myself from.

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    • Hi Kate,
      Sorry if I gave you the impression that we don't want our kids to be active. Nothing could be further from the truth. My son is actually in love with swimming and if I can find him an archery instructor, we'll make that happen. I tend to agree with what Stevi said about team vs. individualized sports. He'll probably thrive more at cycling, swimming, and sword-play than at soccer, but I'm trying to follow his lead and give him as many experiences as we can afford. Thanks for the comment. –Amy M.

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      • Hey guys: I changed the title to include "team sports" instead of just sports to reflect this. 🙂

      • That's awesome! I'm sorry that my comment made you feel like you had something to apologize for. I clearly have some sort of hangup where encouraging kids to be geeky without explicitly saying that you are also encouraging them to be active means that you are not (probably stemming from my own life).

        Yay, active, geeky kids!

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  4. I've read that ADD kids (and adults) tend to do better with individual sports (like running, cycling, or swimming) rather than team sports, because they stay focused on the activity, rather than zoning out and letting the rest of the team take over.

    Supposedly these sports also train the brain to focus better, giving athletes an edge on battling the ADD symptoms. My husband swears that his daily cycling (and before that, skateboarding) is the only thing that keeps him able to focus at work (and school when he was young).

    Also (as a soccer player myself), when it comes to soccer, playing casual pick-up games is better for skill development (and maintaining interest) than organized team games & drills. Kids learn soccer better from other kids than from adults. This is how most of the world's greats start out – kicking around w/ neighbors, not doing drills w/ a coach.

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  5. I am not competitive at all and never liked team sports. However I do wish my parents had helped me to try different activities that involved physical fitness. That's my main reason for wanting my son to try sports; to make exercise fun.

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  6. Dear Offbeat Mama,

    Do you read my mind? Just yesterday I was sitting at the park having this very same conversation with my friend. At the end of it we both agreed that it make a great blog post.

  7. I played soccer for two years. It was fine the first year, but the second I just did not want to do it at all. However, in my family if you committed to something, you did it and I had committed to a whole year of soccer, so I did it. Team sports really weren't for me, but I am glad my parents made me stick through what I'd committed (and they'd paid!) for.

    I also agree with finding other outlets for physical activity. Something I suggest, if possible, would be to see if your child just really enjoys being out in nature. That was the majority of my exercise as a kid – just wandering around my grandma's farm in the summer, getting dirty and having a great time.

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  8. My kids will have to choose one musical and one physical activity every year. They get to choose what, and have to stick it through to the end of the season (or however long we have paid for) but if they wanna switch after that, they are more than welcome to. I am thinking my son will enjoy martial arts or dancing, based on the way he moves right now, but a team sport is sometimes just too much for a young child to bother with.

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    • This is what my mother did, and I'm so thankful for it! Yes, it lead to some arguing and crying over just how often I needed to practice my trombone (I thought five minutes was enough…) I think it made me and my brother more well-rounded people. Yes, you're slightly chubby and get good grades, but that's no excuse for not being physically active! For me, it was swimming and band. For my brother, tennis and choir. And we could switch after the season/year. I plan on doing something similar with my kids as well.

    • My parents also did something to this effect. My mother had her three month rule, if you choose to do something without a season (like sports) you stuck it out for three months. It allowed for my siblings and I (several of us have ADD) to try lots of different activities and become well rounded adults, but also learned the value of commitment. Three months was also a perfect length of time to be bad and get better at something or to realize you're not likely to improve. There were certainly times we argued about the committment, but as an adult it has really helped me to follow through on my commitments.

  9. My partner and I both have ADD (his is very mild, mine not so much) and we both struggled in team sports as kids and ended up hating sports in general until we found our niches. He likes swimming and cycling, I love skiing, martial arts and ballet. I know that people like to go on and on about the benefits of team sports, but it's so not worth it if it's going to give a kid an overall negative impression of sports in general. He'll find his sport!

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  10. I have no kids now, but I'm terrified that my future kids WILL want to play team sports. I have a persistent fear of becoming a "soccer mom". I never played team sports as a kid (not even in gym class. I got sent to the principal's office frequently for refusing to participate) and have zero desire to someday drive a mini-van to Little League practice to watch a bunch of kids play. I would so much prefer to have kids that get physical activity through hiking, romping in the woods, snow shoeing, etc. My husband played soccer and baseball as a kid, and I'm afraid I'm going someday going to get shuffled into the same role his mom did: soccer mom.

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  11. My wife and I are not team sports people, but we exposed our daughter and our son to sports and encouraged/enabled them try any sports that interested them. My daughter took 3 years of karate and 1 year of cheerleading, along with a lot of time spent skateboarding on her own, which is now her main physical outlet.

    In first grade my son decided he wanted to try hockey, so we went down and signed up. He enjoyed the early part of the season, where they were just having practices trying to teach the kids basic skills. Once they moved on to serious pactice and started having games, he wasn't enjoying it anymore, because he had never mastered the basic skills. He still wants to skate and hit a hockey puck; he just doesn't want to be on a team and actually play hockey. Fortunately, our new house is just a couple of blocks from an ice rink, so he and I are going to give that a shot. (Better yet, maybe it'll be cold enough this year that the outdoor rinks will open.)

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