When Your Child Won’t Play Sports

Is your child not wanting to play sports? Is she the weakest player on the team? Are you ready to quit your sports team because your child is unhappy? Are you using negative reinforcement to try and get your child to “perform”?

Hayden’s Story

In the summer of 2009 my daughter Conley joined the YMCA co-ed soccer league for 3-5 year-olds. One of Conley’s teammates was a boy named Hayden. Hayden’s mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles all gathered every Saturday morning, decked out in burnt orange, to cheer Hayden on.

But Hayden hated soccer.

When he was chosen by the coach to join the game, Hayden clung to his mommy and screamed in terror. His foot didn’t touch the ball the entire summer season. Hayden’s family cheered for the other teammates and never criticized Hayden for his lack of participation.

Based on their enthusiasm, you would have thought Hayden was the star player of the team. He was far from it. I didn’t expect to see Hayden on a soccer field ever again.

The Fall season rolled around and Conley was on a different team. One crisp Saturday morning I happened to glance at the opposing team. I see Hayden. This time his team colors were lime green.

Quickly I spotted mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt and uncle on the sidelines with their lime green gear hooting GO HAYDEN WHOOP WHOOP! Ten minutes into the game the coach called for Hayden to play.

He walked onto the field without mommy and his foot connected with the ball twice. YEA HAYDEN! THAT’S OUR BOY! GREAT JOB! Then he quickly escaped the field. Still not an eager player, but much improved since the first season.

Then the winter season approached. This was Conley and Hayden’s third season playing YMCA soccer. About the third game of the season, who did we see on the opposing team? Hayden. This time he was the starting player.

When the whistle blew, Hayden was the first to the ball. Score! A few minutes later, score again! I was so thrilled for him, I started rooting for Hayden’s team. I had tears of joy running down my face. Score again. Score again. Hayden scored 5 goals this game an annihilated my daughter’s team.

After the game I approached Hayden’s family. I want to tell you not only how proud I am of Hayden for doing so well today and having so much fun, but I really want to commend you for never giving up on him. You encouraged and supported him just as much when he sat on the sidelines in tears as you did when he scored 5 goals. Most parents would have given up on him long ago – but you didn’t. From one parent to another, thank you.

Participating in team sports with my children is like a parenting science lab for me. There are 10 kids on a team at the beginning of a season. When any of the kids are like Hayden and are not mini-Cristiano Rolandos, the parents disappear after two games. This accounts for at least 3 of the parents.

Then another 1-2 drop out because their kid is not on the winning team or the parents are too lazy to get their kid to practice during the week. There are 3 more parents whose “encouragement” comes in the form of criticism, threats and verbal assaults You will get in there and play right now or we are going home! If you don’t get your act together you’re getting a spanking. I didn’t come here today to watch you moan on the sidelines!

Out of 10 players, only about 1 or 2 have parents who instill them with positive reinforcement – whether they are a Ronaldo or a Hayden.

3 Tips to Helping Your Child Enjoy Sports:

1. When your child wants to sit on the sidelines and not play, it’s OK! When my daughter has her “moments” I simply say, “You don’t have to play, but we are going to cheer on your teammates and encourage them to do well.”

When I take my focus off my daughter and put it on the game (enthusiastically) she usually turns around and asks to go back in the game. If you pack up and head to the car, you have taught your kids that it’s OK to quit and you lose the chance to teach them what it means to be part of a team.

2. Sports are supposed to be a fun, self-esteem building opportunity for kids. If you are critical of your child’s lack of participation, they will never, ever enjoy the sport, you will shatter their self-worth and resent you in the process. Negative reinforcement might work for 10 minutes, but it is devastating for the long run. Always use positive reinforcement with any activities your children participate in.

3. Not all kids are natural-born athletes. It’s the parent’s job to identify where a child’s strengths are. Sometimes we push our kids into a particular activity because it’s our dream, but not theirs.

Some kids are not suited for contact sports – so golf or tennis might be a better option. Could you see tennis star Rodger Federer on a football team? I don’t think so. And some kids have a greater talent for art or music rather than sports as well. Just because the cool sport in your community is football, hockey or soccer doesn’t make you or your child inadequate if he/she isn’t fit for these sports.

Give your kids the chance to experience many types of sports and activities. Utilize positive reinforcement at all times. Identify where your children’s strengths are. Most importantly, have fun along the way!

when child won't play sports






What is your youth sports story? What has worked (or not worked) in helping your child enjoy sports? Share your experience below.

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  • Kira

    I just want to say thank you so much for telling this experience with Hayden.
    My daughter, age 4, recently joined a soccer team and is just like Hayden. This story has inspired me to continue hanging in there and never give up on my daughter.
    This story will always be in my mind anytime my daughter is attempting to play soccer.


    April 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm Reply
  • Laura

    Thank you for this write up. Last week my 4 year old daughter didn’t want to participate in her soccer game. I did the exact opposite of what I was supposed to. I resorted to threats and then left before the game was over. I’ve been questioning my actions and how to deal with this ever since. This is very helpful and puts things in perspective for me. Tonight will be a completely different experience. Thanks! !

    July 22, 2010 at 8:32 am Reply
  • Sammi

    This is a great article. My son also refuses often to play and I’ve gotten mad at him. It’s frustrating because I’m a single mom and I have to scrap up the money for him to play, then leave work early (or go in late on Sat) so he can play and then he sits on the sidelines after the first few minutes and won’t go back. I’m going to try to be more encouraging and supportive and see what happens.

    May 7, 2011 at 6:47 am Reply
    • kateraidt

      Hang in there Sammi! The past 2 years my daughter has wanted nothing to do with soccer. SHe did great as a toddler, but when she moved up to the next league, the boys are so fast and aggressive she just mentally checked out of the sport. We went through FOUR seasons where she literally sat on the sidelines, until this season. I have to give her new coach all of the credit. He has made soccer fun for her and pulled confidence out of her and now she is scoring a goal at every game. 180 degree turn-around. So I also encourage you to share with the coach that you really hope he/she will be a big encouragement to your son. Sometimes when the coach says “Get in here and play” it makes a bigger impact than when mom does. All you can do is be positive and his biggest cheerleader. Good luck!

      May 7, 2011 at 7:55 am Reply
  • Christine Martin

    Thank you so much for your advice!!! I was feeling so helpless as my child would not participate in t-ball. I felt like a failure as a parent when nothing I tried worked. I don’t want him to end up like some of the kids in my class who walk all over their parents, but I don’t want him to be unhappy either…

    June 7, 2011 at 4:57 am Reply
  • Kirsten Martin

    Thanks for this wonderful insight into starting sports with small children. Our son had his second multisport class last night (he’s three) and didn’t want to participate at all. My husband and I reacted incorrectly, and I see now that positive reinforcement and support is the only way to go here. I can’t wait to attend next week’s program and cheer EVERYBODY on!

    July 15, 2011 at 10:44 am Reply
  • roncap

    Nicely written

    May 24, 2012 at 11:13 am Reply
  • rachdemots

    I needed this…thanks

    May 28, 2012 at 8:52 pm Reply
  • Lynette

    Thanks – my 4 year old daughter has been doing just this for 4 weeks now and I have been reacting really badly, partly cause she seems to be the only child even at practice that will not join in – I will change what I do from this week on – but she as we have been saying to her she will have to finish the season. Thanks so much.

    June 1, 2012 at 3:57 pm Reply
  • Amy

    My daughter 5, has been doing this very same thing. And I did the complete opposite of what I should have been doing. Which now makes me feel awful that I thought I was doing the right thing but in fact I was only doing more harm. I’m so frustrated that she is frustrated and I felt like I had no idea what to do to make her happy and be okay with the fact that is she not the fastest or the best on the team. Next season, or sport I will be more positive and let her know it okay if she doesn’t want to play. Thank you so much for this.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:22 am Reply
  • Kandace Tyler

    Thank you!!!! My son is 4 and on his first tee ball team and I’ve been getting so angry with his lack of trying and attitudes he gets with us and the coaches and his refusal to even try that I also have been doing the opposite of what I was suppose to do threatening and yelling or bribing him and nothing is working. My husband has been going in the dug out trying to encourage him and he shuts down even more… so do we stand back and leave it to the coaches???

    April 27, 2013 at 10:47 am Reply
    • kateraidt

      Thanks for sharing your story. Now that I have 2 kids playing sports and we have completed about 15 seasons of sports, I have seen what helps (and what doesn’t help).

      What helps:

      * Play a lot with your son at home when the pressure is off. Make throwing/swinging a ball super fun. You don’t have to be a former pro athlete to throw a ball with a 4-year old! 🙂
      * Catch him doing things RIGHT – and praise him for it. “GREAT CATCH BUDDY!”. Lots of “high fives”.
      * Have a private conversation with the coach and just let him know that his extra encouragement would be appreciated.
      * Never scold him for lack of participation. He is super young and his little brain could be overwhelmed in a competitive situation. Keep making the sport FUN and PLAY AT HOME and he will eventually be the first up to bat!

      Write back in a few weeks and let me know if this is working…even just a little. 🙂
      GOOD LUCK!

      April 27, 2013 at 10:54 am Reply
  • oneskinnycookie

    I appreciate this story but one thing just to consider in helping you to be more gracious to frustrated parents, is the monetary issue involved with activities. For example if soccer, or dance etc. was free to participate in then obviously if your child screamed and clinched to you every week, no harm, no foul but when you have to pay $100 for 2 months of an activity and you end up sitting with a miserable child, it really does feel like such a waste of precious funds, especially when they are scarce. That kind of pressure with finances can certainly cause a parents patience level to wane.

    October 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm Reply
  • toddcbrown

    Thank you from a Grandpa whose grandson is not crying, but also just not participating at soccer. I have to admit there has been both positive and negative reinforcement from parents and grandparents. We’ll be working on that.

    October 6, 2014 at 2:01 pm Reply
  • tryangle

    Reblogged this on BeachLime Bermuda and commented:
    Sadly, I had the opposite attitude to my child’s first game. Much to work on. This post shows a positive way to approach the issue of a child refusing to participate in a (new) sport/activity.

    April 27, 2015 at 7:10 am Reply
  • Mama Mia

    This was good to read. My four year old started soccer this year and the last two games didn’t want to play. Last week LO went back in after a bit, but this week he stayed out. We told him he still needed to be a teammate and watch the game (plus they were using his ball), and he did cheer quite loudly for them. After the game I had him go apologize to the coach for not playing, and she handled it really well. I didn’t yell or threaten him, however I could feel the stares when he initially melted down and ran off the field during the pre-game practice. To say that didn’t bother me a little would be a lie, but I’m also not going to shame my kid into playing just so I look like a tough parent or whatever. He’s four, this is his very first organized sport, and although I’d like him to play with the other kids, we will keep trying. When we left he asked if he could play on the playground at the field, and I said, “Not this week, but next week for sure if you play in the game.” He was 100% fine with that. I’m also taking him to a friend’s game tomorrow, hopefully that will give him some more exposure to the sport and teamwork.

    September 26, 2015 at 6:36 pm Reply
  • Janita McNemar

    This was exactly what I needed to read today. My 4-year-old is Hayden. Dad and I just decided yesterday that we would take him to the games but not insist he play, just cheer on his teammates, but as with so many parenting decisions, I haven’t been sure if this was the right choice. Your post reinforces that the decision is the right one, even if my guy doesn’t end up being a great athlete 3 seasons from now. Thank you so much.

    April 7, 2016 at 12:50 pm Reply
  • Onegod

    Reading this makes me wish I would have used more of the positive side when my son didn’t want to play soccer as the first sport . I’ll admit after the second game of him wanting to be on the sidelines I don’t go back. I don’t want to feel like i quit on him because everything is about him and we’re always so encouraging with him, so I promise I will be signing him up to different sports, and will stick around till the end even if he refuses to play. I feel kind of down tho I’ll be honest. Am I a bad mom?

    June 30, 2017 at 5:07 pm Reply
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