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Sorry Mom & Dad "I Quit"

Fun versus Pressure


How often have we heard the tale of the young sports star having the world at their feet only to give it all away? There are parents across the planet that still agonise over the reminders of the "could have been", "should have been" and the "what ifs?".

As an athlete manager I see the frustrations and utter desperation of parents when their highly talented son or daughter "quits" without any hint or warning.

As a parent I can relate directly to this situation as Michelle (better half) and I have experienced this firsthand. Our eldest daughter Maddy at a very early age was talent identified as a gymnast; it seemed that gymnastics and Maddy were a perfect match. She simply could not get enough of the sport and in what seemed to be a blink of an eye, went from training two hours to 20 hours a week.

Maddy loved it and we equally enjoyed being part of her journey. We also felt in some way "special" to have a High Performance athlete and who knows perhaps a would-be Olympian under our roof. We were all in!! And as many parents have done we packed up the family and moved to QLD so Maddy could attend the QLD Academy of Sport (QAS) that boasted arguably the best High Performance Elite gymnastic program in the country. I know its sounds like a huge undertaking but this is exactly what parents of our brightest talent are committing to every day.

We settled into Brisbane; found a great school for the kids and Maddy started her new training program (28-32 hours per week). Two years on Maddy looked to be coping with the high demands of elite gymnastics and seemed to be thriving in this high performance environment.

There was nothing to indicate that Maddy was about to drop the "I quit" bomb. And then one day she came home like any other day and said "Dad, I don't want to go back to training in the morning, I don't want to be a gymnast any more". Those words literally took my breath away, it was so unexpected and the resolve in Maddy's decision was brutal in its finality. There was nothing we could do to change her mind, it was over.

As a business that works with young high performance athletes we do from time to time have to deal with these "I quit" moments. Ironically in the last six months we have been associated with three brilliant teenagers that have quit the sport in which they seemed to be thriving. What is perplexing is once the "I quit" decision is made, in most cases there is absolutely nothing a parent, coach or mentor can do or say to flip this decision. It's like our kids go from loving the sport one day to loathing it the next ......or do they?

I recently spoke with Warren Kennaugh who is a Behavioural Strategists, and the author of FIT The Truth Behind High Performance. Warren specialises in working with high performance individuals and teams. Warren shared a theory that behind the "I quit" decision is a much longer period of deliberation that a young athlete wrestles with for some time. It appears that young athletes are reluctant to discuss their thoughts with their support team for fear of negative feedback, or being 'talked round'. Warrens's theory is based on the diminishing 'Fun Factor' versus the increasing pressure that their chosen sport is demanding from them.

As a visual person I wanted to view this in a chart format that made sense of the 'Fun Factor' theory (See Above)

Importantly I'm not trying to generalise that the 'Fun Factor' is the primary reason for athletes deciding that professional life in sport is not or can't be for them. Sadly injuries, financial circumstances, location or the realisation that their talent may not take them to the level they need to achieve also come into play.

I do however subscribe to the very logical theory that the balance between serious training and fun time is a dynamic that we don't have a good enough handle on just yet.

A few thought starters to manage athlete life balance include:

  1. Checking in with your child regularly to see how they are enjoying their sport.

  2. Organising holidays after competitions where the child has a complete mental and physical break.

  3. Ensuring that their sport does not dominate family life and other siblings.

  4. Encouraging them to have time for their friends and other interests where possible.

  5. Asking them to think about what their life beyond sport could look like. An example of this is one of M5's elite swimmers who is very interested in fashion as a potential career. We put her in touch with a leading fashion house where she has an open opportunity for an internship.

If the athlete does want to quit, parents can suggest they take six months off to think about it before they make a final decision as some athletes experience regret later in life when their window of opportunity has closed.

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