When Quitting Sports Is The Right Thing To Do
by Kim O’Rourke
Recently a star athlete from my area, on a Division 1 scholarship decided she no longer wanted to play. The word spread like wildfire and the question on everyone’s mind was “How could Sara quit, why would she throw it all away?” Many of us watched her play since she was young and saw how diligently she worked to fulfill her dream of playing the sport she loved in college. As a Mom of college athletes, my reaction to the news was how brave she was for making such a difficult decision. It is not easy to realize that something you have pursued most of your life is no longer good for you.
We live in a culture that equates quitting with weakness and laziness, especially within sports. Inspirational quotes fill social media, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” And while it’s true hard work and perseverance can lead to great success, for some a previously sought-after goal can change. Yet the shame associated with quitting makes it extremely difficult for an athlete to walk away from something they were committed to achieving. After all, Hollywood defines heroes like Rocky, the Karate Kid, and Rudy as underdogs who never gave up until they achieved their goal. So, what are you if you are not a hero, a loser?
The Instagram post of Sara smiling as she signed her letter of commitment is still her profile picture. Like many of her teammates, she had been anticipating this moment and was proud of her accomplishment. Years of training and attending tournaments and ID camps across the country had paid off. But many athletes like Sara, are surprised that the commitment they made in high school was nothing like the intensity and competitive nature of college athletics. In a survey from 2019, the NCAA reported that college athletes spend approximately 30-44 hours a week on their sport. A typical day in the life of a D1 athlete may look something like this, 6am-8am lift, 8:30am-9am team meeting, 9am-2pm classes, 2pm-3pm film review, 3:30pm-6pm practice, 6pm-7pm recover/shower, 7pm-7:30pm team dinner and 8pm start homework. And this does not account for the days they spend hours on buses and overnights in hotels traveling to away games. Despite the time commitment involved many athletes would have it no other way. The bonds formed with teammates, the opportunity to play the sport they love, and the prestige of being a college athlete outweigh the drawbacks. But this is not true for everyone. The pressure to perform, fear of disappointing others, fatigue, and feeling of being stuck can affect mental health.
In her book “What Made Maddy Run” Kate Fagan, a former ESPN host, and New York Times best-selling author describes her experience as a freshman basketball player at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“A month into my freshman year at CU, I began to dread practice. This is not an exaggeration; I once swallowed an entire bottle of iron pills in the hopes that I would become violently ill so I could be excused from that afternoon’s session. Apparently, I believed that spending hours hunched over a toilet was more pleasant than being on the court.” Fagan would go on to set a Big 12 Conference record by making 44 consecutive free throws during the 2002-03 season and was a perennial First-Team Academic Big 12 performer. But unfortunately, not every athlete’s story has a happy ending.
Madison Holleran was a freshman at a prominent university on the East Coast who after her first semester desperately wanted to quit track, the sport for which she was recruited. She struggled with disappointing her family, teammates, and Coach but ultimately decided it was the only way for her to be happy again. After getting the courage to meet with her Coach and tell him how she felt, he offered her an option instead of quitting. He had seen many talented players feel the same way after their first semester freshman year only to later be grateful they didn’t walk away. She could return slowly by just attending practices and not competing until she decided she was ready. On Jan. 17, 2014, Maddy Holleran jumped off the rooftop of a parking garage. Perfectionism, pressure, depression? It’s hard to know exactly why Maddy chose to take her own life, but it was a tragic perfect storm that we are seeing repeated far too often. Earlier this month, Katie Meyer, the Stanford goalie, captain of her team, and soon-to-be graduate, took her life. Her parents, never saw it coming, but they acknowledge the incredible pressure student-athletes endure. “There is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be number one,” Katie’s mother, Gina Meyer, said, choking back tears during an interview on “TODAY” days after her daughter’s death.
Recently high-profile athletes deciding to no longer compete have made headlines. The world watched as the Olympic gymnast Simon Biles chose to step away from gymnastics to focus on her mental health. She has publicly spoken about her decision saying, “I wouldn’t change anything for the world, I gave an outlet for athletes to speak up about their mental health and their well-being and learn that you can put yourself first as a person before the athlete.” Her decision followed Naomi Osaka’s choice to withdraw from tennis tournaments in order to protect her mental health. Naomi Osaka told reporters “I feel like for me, recently, like when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad.” Hopefully, their stories as well as the many other athletes who have made the choice to step away from their sport will help end the stigma associated with quitting.
My youngest daughter decided to stop playing club soccer in her junior year of high school. I knew she was anxious about telling us and afraid we would be disappointed. For a moment I thought about trying to convince her to stick it out, it would be her senior year and I was sure she would miss it. But I gave her a hug and told her it was okay, I understood. I wasn’t surprised by her decision; she knew she didn’t want to play in college, and lately, it seemed as if she wasn’t enjoying playing anymore. As I had anticipation a few of the parents approached me to ask me why she was quitting, she was such a good player. They looked disappointed and I began to feel like I owed them an explanation. Their intentions were good, they were fond of my daughter, but I knew I needed to support her choice. She came home from school last week and informed us she was trying out for indoor track, a sport she has never done. I could tell she was excited and the smile on her face was enough to make me happy. While it’s important to teach our kids the significance of not giving up when things become difficult, they also need to know that someone else’s definition of success may be different than theirs and that is okay.
Kim O’Rourke is a soccer mom to three daughters who play on college and high school teams. She estimates that she has been to over 4,000 soccer games in the last 15 years. She tries to find humor in the crazy world of youth sports. She shares her stories about parenthood, health and relationships on her blog www.madcrazylife.com, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mymadcrazylife/Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mymadcrazylife/