Should parents stand back or push kids in sports?

She jumps and leaps around the yard, practicing her cart wheels, flipping herself around on the rings. A neighbor comments on her skills and she proudly beams, “I learned it in gymnastics”.

Someone at school comments on how strong she is to be able to pull the big school door open all by herself “Of course I am! I’m in gymnastics!”

My daughter has been doing gymnastics since she was 18 months old. She has always had incredible upper body strength, even as a very small child. I think she was 10-11 months old, a new walker insisting on hanging from the monkey bars, parents shot us all sorts of crazy looks, but she loved it. She has always loved her gymnastics classes too. She quickly moved up from the tots and recreational classes to the more rigorous trainer classes. Now that she is in kindergarten she is in a pre-team training program. We will essentially have to decide at the end of this year, or (since she is small) possibly next if she will continue on and start training with the competitive team.

That decision, moving towards a competitive team or not, is one we have been grappling with all year. As excited about her gymnastics as she sounds from the above sound bytes, and for as much fun as she has when she is there; she is ambivalent at best. She is only five, and she is small (under 30 pounds) compared to other girls in her group. She has never been super competitive with anyone other than her brother. December was really busy with school performances and holidays and she was complaining a little bit about how hard the training was, so we took a month off, hoping it would become clear that she either was done, or missed it.

We’re in the same place. How do you decide when you, as the parent, need to push the child because they have a talent but maybe not the drive? When do you need to back off and let them quit or change course? How do you decide when the child is one that always needs a little push to start?

We try hard to not let the kids get too busy. To preserve family time and allow them lots of free time to play. The older they get the harder that is. There is school, and opportunities, clubs, and hobbies and the ever present sports. As kids get older the pressure to be in sports and on a team becomes especially intense. We have kept our kids out of soccer and baseball (the biggest in our area) simply on the fact that neither have been super interested and all the leagues play on Sundays. We made sure our children understood early on that Sunday’s are family days. We go to church and if we do anything it’s as a family.

One of the reasons we chose the gym we are at and have put in her in gymnastics is not because we have illusions that she will be the next Gabby Douglas bringing home olympic gold. No, I put her (specifically in the gym we choose) in gymnastics instead of dance so she would learn to use her strength. So she would learn how powerful she can be and learn to love her body and it’s strength. To never give up and keep trying.

So what are we teaching her if we let her quit? What are we teaching her if we force her to stay in it when she doesn’t’ really want to? I don’t know, I don’t have any good answers, I think it’s all so dependent on the child and their personality. I know her personality needs a little prodding. I also know that her personality does not handle busy or high pressure, she needs downtime. Since we’re about to have a new baby, and she is going through big changes at school – working on reading, we’ve opted to take it down a notch. We’ve pulled her from the training program and are doing a recreation class once a week. Not totally pulling her out, but letting it be fun for her again.

Like many things in parenthood whether we made the right decision or not won’t make itself clear, perhaps for years. We can only do our best for right now in this moment and hope its for the best in the long term.

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