How to Support Athletes Quitting a Sport

Kate Fagan’s book What Made Maddie Run forced me to consider how to listen to an athlete that is attempting to quit. Here is a quote that concerned me from the book. “I had come to view quitting as synonymous with laziness, weakness, and selfishness.” All three of these elements can be applied in some circumstances, but more often the decision to give up is more complex.

Any person is going to quit jobs, sports, habits, and relationships in a lifetime. In the case of athletes, it is essential for a coach to learn why. If there is a perceived better opportunity for the athlete, then generally quitting is a good decision. When the athlete quits because of a short-term slump or frustration, the coach needs to impose on the athlete’s idea and reset their mindset.

Coaches might become defensive when players start to use the Q word. We are deeply passionate about the sport (often more passionate than any player) and we have a vision in our minds carved out for that player’s role. Seeing the problem’s impact on ourselves is selfish and will fail to reach the heart of the player. If the athlete is courageous enough to have a conversation with the coach about such a sensitive topic, they will eventually value a coach’s input.

What to Say When the Athlete Wishes to Quit

An athlete will often leave out details in their reasoning, but does have a general idea. Often times there are multiple reasons. Given how millennials prefer to communicate, many will attempt to quit via text message or an email. Encourage the athlete to speak with you face to face because it will allow you to read body language.

Athletes do not want to hang teammates out to dry and directly confronting any conflict with the coach is difficult. I do not think a coach needs to probe if the athlete is hesitant to vent. Most coaches can probably read into obvious problems once the athletes provide a general statement. Here are five steps that are worth consideration after the athlete states their intention to quit.

Verify that You Are Listening

The athlete should speak first and then the coach can reply. The very first thing the coach needs to do is to clearly articulate the problem back to the athlete. This is important because we might hear one detail and get hung up on it. It also allows the athlete an opportunity to clarify another detail that got left out in their opening statement or expand upon a thought. The more information we hear from the athlete’s perspective, the more likely the athlete and coach will find an appropriate solution.

Determine if Quitting Is Appropriate or Not

Second, if the coach judges that quitting is a valid idea, support the athlete’s decision and the courage taken to convey it. Supporting an athlete in such a vulnerable point will hopefully empower them down the line to advocate for healthy change. The coach should then offer to help the athlete with transitioning to whatever alternative opportunity the athlete wishes to pursue. It is not in the job description, but it is the right thing to do. In the long term, the job will feel more rewarding than if you perceive quitting as a direct threat against what you do. This closes the remaining loop of action steps if the athlete and coach agree quitting is best.

If the coach judges that the reason for quitting is more related to a temporary frustration or injustice, he or she should acknowledge the emotional pain that the athlete is experiencing. And then move to step three.

Offer Multiple Ideas to Confront the Problem

Third, suggest a couple solutions to the problem. The type of problem would impact what solutions could be possible, so one size fits all it is not applicable. Some ideas could be to give the athlete an in-season break, monitor or alter the dynamics of the team, eliminate or modify certain routines, or remind the athlete of the peaks and valleys. You also could be open to thinking about it for a day to give you and the athlete time to consider more alternative options.

Give Athlete the Opportunity to Modify Solutions

Fourth, get their input on your solutions. There could be a high degree of back and forth here. As the coach, your role is to listen throughout this step. Do not meet the athlete in the middle – meet them past the middle. The higher degree that they provide input to solving the problem, the more likely there will be buy-in.

Validate Courage and Determine Follow Up Appointment

Fifth, leave the meeting on good terms. Thank them for taking the courage to speak up about their frustrations rather than holding it in. Quitting is easy if we expect immediate results and do not get them. Remind the athlete that most problems in life including the current circumstances will not take a 180 degree turn.

Lastly, suggest a follow up meeting a few days into the future. Both parties should consider how the agreed upon solution is working in solving or at least curtailing the problem. The athlete might still want to quit and come to the decision that quitting is best. If that happens, the coach still demonstrates a willingness to help the athlete. Quitting is an option for the athlete, but in the process he or she learns considerations for how to quit. Spontaneous quitting and making an important decision without consultation in the future are avenues that will hopefully be avoided.

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