What do you do if your child is really good at a sport, but you're not sure if he really likes the sport? This is a fairly common question I receive at my office from sports parents who witness above-average abilities from their child, but aren't sure that their child's interest level match up to his talents. As you can probably imagine, this disconnect can be quite frustrating for parents, especially when dealing with kids who are really good at a sport.
Athletic talent and personal interest
When delving into the discussion of human interest and talent, it is important to note that while these variables can overlap, they are, in fact, two separate constructs. What this means is that as humans we can be good at something and not necessarily like it; and conversely, we can really like doing something yet not be very good doing the activity. For example, you might have superior typing skills but not at all enjoy the act of typing; or you might really love to cook but not be very successful when it comes to producing gourmet meals. The point is that we shouldn't assume that when a person is good at something that they also enjoy doing it.
There are actually four different combinations when it comes to kids and their interests/talents in sports:
1. They like playing the sport, and they show athletic talent (best case scenario).
2. They like playing the sport, but aren't very talented (still not a bad thing as often interest level propels motivation, which in turn can lead to future athletic skill proficiency).
3. They don't like playing the sport, but are athletically talented (arguably the toughest situation to deal with).
4. They don't like playing the sport, and they aren't very talented, either (actually not a bad thing as usually these kids are supported by their parents to eventually quit and try something different that they enjoy and do well).
Kids and sports
A big conundrum for sports parents is when they invest time, money, and energy toward their child's athletic endeavors, witness positive results from those efforts, and then come to learn that their child really doesn't enjoy playing the sport. In that moment of realization parents tell me they feel like they have been hit with a ton of bricks, and confused at why they invested so much only to receive such little return on investment. These parental feelings sometimes become amplified when their kid's talents are so good that potential college athletic scholarship opportunities loom, yet their child views the chance of playing college sports more of a burden rather than unique opportunity.
Regardless whether you are a youth athlete or a corporate executive, the ideal life situation is to find joy in the things you do well in life. Often our best work comes about when we love what we are doing, and that our interest in the activity propels our motivation, sharpens our focus, and galvanizes our resiliency -- qualities that allow us to do our best. Some kids experience this same thing with sports, where their interest is high and their sport proficiency matches their love for the game. But, it's also true that some talented young athletes are falsely assumed to have a deep love for their sport based solely on our perception of them and how well they play -- but deep down their proficiency is only temporary until their lacking interest finally catches up with them.
Kids who are good at sports but don't enjoy playing sports sometimes get caught up in tough, potentially dangerous situations. When parents fail (or refuse) to see the signs relating to the disconnect between lacking interest and on-field proficiency, kids can feel trapped and begin to see their self-worth tied exclusively to their athletic abilities. In these situations, kids can experience depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse while trying to cope with playing a sport they don't like, but also feeling trapped to the sport because of parental expectations.
Gauging interest level
While it is strongly advised that parents tune in to ensure their child enjoys the sport he or she is playing, it's also important to realize that even kids who love playing their sport can see their interest level wax and wane throughout their playing days. For example, a kid who loves baseball may feel emotionally burned out at the end of a long summer of travel ball, but this kind of burnout is different compared to another fatigued kid on the same team who simply doesn't enjoy playing baseball. The point here is that sports burnout, typically not a permanent condition, needs to be viewed differently than situations where kids simply don't want to play the sport anymore because of lacking interest.
The big takeaway when it comes to kids who appear disinterested in sports is to accept the fact that not every talented student athlete loves -- or even likes -- playing the sport he or she is good at playing. In fact, some kids have told me over the years that they feel "cursed" to be good at a sport because their parents continue to push them -- even though they hate playing the sport. Talk to your kids regularly about their interest level in the sports they play, and allow for them to have a part in the decision-making when it comes to what sport(s) they want to play.