‘I want to make sure I don’t teach my son to just give in’

Son (5) doesn’t like to lose and wants to drop out of football club

Q: Last term, my 5-year-old son asked me if he could start football locally as he saw the boys playing.  We brought him along and for the first four weeks he was happy. The only thing I noticed is that when they play the warm-up chasing games he does not like to lose and this can put him off.

In week five he had a cold and was not feeling great earlier in the week, but was better by the weekend. As soon as we started the session (which began with the chasing game) he started to cry and say he wanted to go home.

Thinking it was related to him not feeling great I gave him a hug and we went home. However, the next week he said he did not want to go anymore. I had a feeling this might be because he was a little embarrassed he cried. We went and that day they let me help so he was happy to play, but again the next week he did not want to go, so we took a break and have not gone back for a few weeks. I asked him why he does not want to go and he says it’s because parents don’t get to stay. We do but we have to be outside of the football cage watching.

We had a similar situation when he was four and we started swimming and we stuck it out until eventually he enjoyed the swimming but it was hard at first. There was tears the first few weeks and a lot of just sitting at the edge of the pool which is why, with the football, once he wanted to stop, we just stopped, as I thought I would just listen and not make him do anything he did not want to. He likes to play football in school at lunchtime, so he does like it.


I was more worried about him learning to swim so that he will be safe around water and don’t mind if he does not want to play football.

I just want to make sure I don't teach him to just give in. Even as I write this to you, I am thinking you will tell me he is only five so does it really matter.

And I am not worried about him giving up in other areas like homework, he is great at just getting things done.

A: Children's participation in sports now starts at a much younger age than it did a generation ago. Whereas 25 years ago formal selection on to teams started at the age of nine or so, now it can be as young as six with "nurseries" for respective sports starting from the age of four upwards.

There are, of course, lots of advantages to early involvement in formal sports such as helping children getting into habits of physical activity, belonging to different social groups and learning lots of different skills, etc. However, there are also some disadvantages, in that young children like your son may not be ready to start a particular sport, and pressure to take part can sometimes be counterproductive. (Sometimes, the early starting of sporting nurseries is driven by competition between different individual sports who want to “hook children early” into their sport rather than another one!)

In addition, at the age of five or six, some children may not yet be old enough to manage the competitive elements of a sport (eg learning to lose) and the demands and commitment it places on them. This does not mean that they will not be able to manage all this when they are slightly older – children social/ emotional development proceeds rapidly from the age of five and six.

Though your son now might find it hard to manage the upset at losing the chasing game or staying by himself with the group in year or two he is likely to have the skills to do this.

Helping your son participate

There are lots of different ways you can help your son participate in sports, many of which you are already doing. As you did with his selection of the football, try where possible to follow your son’s lead and preferences in which sports he wants to do. His passion and enjoyment of the activity is the thing that will drive him forward. Also, be emotionally supportive when he runs into challenges about participating, such as getting out on a cold day, learning to join in with the other children, not scoring all the time, etc. Talking through the issues with him and solving some of them can make a real difference.

Some solutions are easily accessed such as buying a thermal vest for the cold days, others might take a lot more patience such as coaching your son to manage disappointment or frustration. Others can be addressed creatively such as inviting some of his team mates on play dates to help build friendships so he can join in more easily.

Taking a break

While you should be cautious about letting children immediately give up on a sport, it is important to remember that no one activity is for everyone and it takes time for children to learn what they like and to discover where their talents lie. Gently, exposing children to lots of different opportunities, being encouraging and then following their lead is probably the best approach. Also, taking a break from a formal sport is a good idea especially if your son is not ready for it. Lots of sports have opportunities for children to rejoin in a year or at a later stage – I know lots of children who waited a while before they got into a team sport, but then really loved it because they were older and had made their own choice (whereas they might have hated the sport if they were forced).

During a break your son can follow his own passion for the sport informally (with kick-abouts in the garden) and you can continue to encourage his involvement in lots of other healthy activities.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. His new book Bringing up happy confident children is now available. See www.solutiontalk.ie.