January 21, 2021

Quitting Soccer: Thoughts From Mom and Dad

dad.son-749992.jpgFrom time to time I like to do something on here for the parents in the audience. This post will require you to read a post at Clay’s blog, but it will be worth it to read Denise’s excellent response.

Clay Spencer has written a post recalling one of the most painful episodes of his life: the death of his dream of playing soccer. It’s a fine post, but particularly interesting to me because of my own memories of the same events. Read Clay’s post, then come back and read some thoughts from Denise and me that we hope will be of help to parents working through this stage of life or similar issues. Now go read while I put on some coffee. (Here’s a non-Xanga version of Clay’s post for those of you who can’t get to Xanga.)

Denise’s Thoughts

Some of what Clay wrote read like news to me. Some parts I dimly remembered; others I recalled well.

I don’t think I ever knew that soccer meant as much to him as it did. I certainly never thought of it as any kind of lifelong dream. My recollection is that when he announced he wanted to go out for the team, it caught me quite by surprise. Sorry, Clay, but in all honesty my gut response was, “You? Play soccer? Give me a break!”

I felt that way partly because it did catch me off guard. I figured it was a passing fancy that would wither and blow away after just a few weeks. I wanted to be supportive, but I was reluctant to invest much time or emotional energy into this endeavor, since I didn’t see it lasting.

The other reason I remained doubtful was that, as Clay and Michael have already stated, my son was not an athlete, had never been athletic, and was not in the best of shape. It’s a terrible thing to admit, even to yourself, that you don’t have faith in your child. But I really didn’t think Clay could do it or would stay with it.

I suppose that’s why we made rather a big deal out of making him promise that if he made this commitment to us, to the coach and to the team, that he would stick it out for one whole season. (And there was also the little matter of those cleats we had paid for.) So Clay promised. I hoped he could keep his promise; I really did.

I do recall his going to summer practices faithfully, and coming home excited. I also remember thinking, “But they haven’t started the running yet.” We encouraged Clay to run on his own that summer. He said he wanted to. He said he would. But it never really happened. Perhaps he was trying to postpone the inevitable as long as possible in an attempt to keep the dream alive.

Once practice became torture, his dad and I tried to hold firm. Clay begged us to let him quit. We said no. He begged harder. I talked with a friend, another mom who I knew was big on making her kids take on responsibility and keep commitments. “Oh, no, you can’t let him quit,” she encouraged me. “He needs to hang in there for a whole season. He promised he would.”

I really didn’t want Clay to give up. We hadn’t raised our kids to be quitters, and that seemed like a most dishonorable choice. What effect would it have on his self-esteem later on? How would he feel on the day of our fall sports awards when the other guys were up on stage getting the “110% Award” and “Most Valuable Player?”

I don’t remember how far we were into the season before the breaking point came–a couple of weeks, I think. Clay came home after practice literally crying, pleading with me to let him jump ship. I knew at his age it must have been embarrassing for him to let me see him cry, and it made me want to cry. I identified with him. I was never athletic myself, and middle school P.E. class still brought back some pretty awful memories. I had held out as long as I could. He was miserable. We were miserable.

I think you have to know when to say, “It simply isn’t worth it anymore.” It’s not always easy, though, to know when to say that.

I’ll close with another real-life story on the same subject, but with quite a different result. Four years later Clay was in serious academic trouble. The reason: anatomy class. He was close to failing the course. If he flunked, he wouldn’t even get a diploma until he completed summer school make-up credits. Well, that was not an option for us or for Clay. But what to do?

Michael and Clay were both all set to ask to have him removed from anatomy and put into a lower science class, but I hesitated. I knew he was plenty smart enough to pass this course. Maybe it was because of soccer, but I couldn’t stand the thought of letting him quit this time. So I prevailed, and we all witnessed an amazing transformation.

As a senior, Clay finally learned how to listen in class. He took notes. And he discovered that the teacher made the subject way more interesting than he had originally thought. Clay also learned the fine art of studying. Each night he and i would review the section of the chapter they had covered in class that day. “Oh!” he would exclaim. “I remember that! Dr. Phoenix said…” and we were off and running. Not only did he not fail, but his grades rose to C’s and B’s. I don’t know who was more proud, Clay or his parents. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons he’s now enthused about college is the fact that he proved to himself he could be a successful student.

In one instance my instincts led me to let my son bail on a pretty major commitment. In another, my gut told me to make him hang in there. How’s a parent to decide which path to take? I think it takes knowing your child. Is this something he’s really capable of? What will likely happen if he quits? If he doesn’t?

There are no magic answers, though. Sometimes you have to just follow your heart.

Michael’s Thoughts

One of the things I am dealing with now in my life as an “empty nester” is looking back at how I raised my children and asking where I went right and wrong. Christians put enormous pressure on themselves in the raising of children, and now that we are in the empty nest, I actually look back at parenting as two completed chapters of life, with little that I am going to add.

I’m not an athlete, but I love athletics. I value their place in life and in the community. At the same time, I know how off-balance things can become. I have worked with a lot of parents who were off the wall, off the rails and off the planet with their intense dedication to childhood athletics. I’ve run sports leagues for churches, but most of Clay’s life we were here at OBI, where there were simply no athletic opportunities for young children anywhere comparable to the suburbs or a megachurch. Sometimes I was sad about this, and other times I simply never thought about it.

So we tossed a football a few times. We played catch a bit. We played Frisbee. He never had the slightest interest in basketball. By the time I had any desire for him to be a great baseball player, it was really too late. He did play a bit in a local kids program, but it was so far away that it just couldn’t work out. By the time I was willing to send him to camp to become a big league pitcher, he was not interested. He was captured by music and his own imagination.

My dad wanted me to be an outdoorsman, and I wasn’t interested. I regret the fact that I didn’t respond to my dad’s many invitations to do things together, but I also realize that I was following my own path (and I have my own regrets and treasures on that path.) I do regret that “dad time” that I missed…a lot. So I regret that I didn’t get involved with Clay more in athletics, and that I didn’t pick up on this interest in soccer. I simply didn’t take it very seriously.

Clay had other interests that we shared, especially theater, music, movies and the imagination. Do I regret that I didn’t build more memories by actively encouraging athletics? Yes, I do. I could have done a lot more, even here at OBI, but I have been so impacted by the abuse of sports in my culture, that I never could get in gear. My dad never took me to Little League. I would have taken Clay if I could, but I didn’t and that is my fault.

I also have to admit that, frankly, I never saw Clay as an athlete. I can’t say I ever had an image of what I wanted him to be, but I have to plead guilty to making that perception more in my own image than I should. I’m pretty unhappy with what a selfish parent I was, and part of that selfishness is not taking the time to help Clay do things and experience things that were outside of my own experience. Was I afraid for him to be an athlete because of my own failures in the same arena? Possibly.

The actual events that Clay writes about (playing and quitting soccer) are fresh in my memory because I was so excited that after that failure to encourage him in athletics at all, he’d found the courage to go to soccer camp and to join the high school soccer team. It was completely out of character for him, and I knew it would be a tremendous challenge. I was very, very proud of what he was doing. Little did I know he was motivated by a desire to be Brazilian. I’m not surprised impressing women was in there somewhere. Why else do men anything they do?

We were encouraging, and invested financially and emotionally in what Clay wanted to do. I’m sure we were a bit stunned, actually. We also knew our son very well, and we knew that we would likely come to a crossroads where the physical conditioning would present the possibility of Clay quitting. When this possibility finally appeared on the horizon, I wanted to “hold the fort” and insist that Clay stay with the team. I believed he would make it through the fear of pain barrier and achieve something I’d never achieved: the ability to be part of an athletic team.

When the crisis came, Denise and I had many conversations about what to do. (I have to say that Denise is the greatest mom ever, and we always worked together on parenting, even when we were dealing with some serious problems in our relationship. She’s why I have two great kids.) We both had a lot of compassion for Clay, but we also believed sticking with the decision would be the best for him. Clay had struggled with ADD type behaviors as a younger child, but we believed he could learn to deal with his own nature and limitations. We also knew that there was a tendency in Clay, as in many children, to move from one interest to another. Like many good parents, we had lots of pep talks about “finishing what you start.” We would say the same things today.

So, why did we compromise and finally give in, letting him quit? Parenting a real child is different from a resolution or a case study. You see the impact of what is going on, and if you are a reasonable, loving person, you calculate where this direction is going, and where it is going to end up. We did not like where this was going to end up.

There comes a time in parenting that you have to measure the short and long term benefits of your strategy. Yes, long term benefits were going to be good…IF we didn’t ruin the entire project on the short term side. We became convinced that’s what was happening, and we let Clay decide for himself. It was more important to us for Clay to experience this decision and it’s aftermath, even if that was depressing, than to hold him in place and force him to physically endure what he hated. We may have been bad parents, but we were parents who loved our child, and didn’t want to create a situation where our power to enforce broke his heart in ways we couldn’t restore.

After this decision, we had a lot of encouragment and support to give. We didn’t want Clay to be bitter and depressed. I commend his coach and friend, Scott Self, for treating him with respect and love afterward, right down to today. Clay came through this with his self-esteem intact, and while his dream died, he had little to regret in his school experience. He made good grades, has wonderful friends and received many recognitions. He managed for the baseball team and has always been a strong fan of his friends’ teams.

I think we did what good parents do: we looked at the overall life of our child, measured the situation for its lasting effects, and let him make an informed choice. He knew what he was giving up, and it did break his heart. It also made him the person he is today, and will make him a better man. I’m proud of him and glad he was able to write about this episode with grace, truth and humility.


  1. Berean Girl says

    Poignant post…one my husband and I can identify with having a not-so-athletic son finishing up a soccer season this weekend. Would it be possible for you to reproduce Clay’s post on your website? We have a filter that won’t allow us to access anything on Xanga. I really wanted to read your son’s post after getting your perspective…

  2. Very nice. I coach my young son’s travel team, and he and I have, shall we say, a different opinion about what “hustle” and “effort” mean!

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