Start Early, Leave Later; "There Is No Advantage to Starting at 6 or 7 If a Child Will Be Tired of the Sport by the Time He Reaches His Physical Capability." - Richard Stratton, Associate Professor of Health Promotion and Physical Education at Virginia Tech

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Byline: Karen Goldberg Goff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The hockey skates are gathering dust in the basement. The violin sits unplayed. The soccer ball, once a source of athletic pride, has been shelved in favor of the football. Any parent who has signed up his or her child for an extracurricular activity knows the slow drill: excitement at the prospect of participating, brief enthusiasm, waning interest and, finally, the admission that the child wants to move on to something else.

Sometimes, though, it happens like this: After four years on the select team and thousands spent on fees, coaching and uniforms, Junior suddenly announces he is through.

What is a parent to do? It depends on the child, the activity and the situation, says Joel Fish, a Philadelphia sports psychologist and co-author of the new book "101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child."

Parents need to talk to their children and find out the real issue. Reasons for leaving a team or a program can run the gamut: Is the coach too rigid? Is practicing a bore? Is the child overscheduled? Does he want to make time for a more passionate interest, such as leaving the swim team to play in the marching band? Or does practice interfere with teen desires such as hanging out at the mall or going to parties?

"I always tell parents to figure out the real issue," Mr. Fish says. "There are right issues, such as wanting to try other things, and I support that. There are wrong issues [for staying], such as they are only doing it because their parents have invested so much money."

Whether a child stays with or leaves an activity, Mr. Fish says, everyone needs to keep the move in perspective, a tough task in a culture that values excellence. In fact, he says that even using the words "quitter" or "quitting" brings up a host of emotions.

"It doesn't matter at what age you are doing it," he says. "Quitting is rated as a negative term. We are raised with certain attitudes, like 'Quitters never win, and winners never quit,' and we tend to take that seriously with our kids. We have to be careful with that term. It can have a long-term, negative impact."

In fact, Mr. Fish says parents could call it "choosing not to continue," which takes some of the pressure away from the situation, particularly for younger children who are trying many things.

"'Choosing not to continue' is a much more positive and empowering term," he says. "It can be damaging for a child to get the message that he is a quitter. A child can feel bad about herself or feel guilty for letting you down."

Who quits?

It is hard to track who is a serial quitter and who is leaving one activity to concentrate on another, says Richard Stratton, associate professor of health promotion and physical education at Virginia Tech. However, Mr. Stratton estimates that about 30 percent of children who play youth sports quit to play another sport.

That is just what should be happening before about age 10, he adds. Children should use the elementary school years to try different things and figure out which ones fit their personalities, body types, skills and interests.

Children are starting organized sports much earlier than they were a generation ago, Mr. Stratton says. That has trickled down into the idea in some communities that young athletes should be committed to a team and immersed in that activity before they lose their baby teeth.

"There is this idea that it takes about 10 years to become an expert at something," he says. "Unfortunately, this has been translated to sports. There is no evidence of a long-term value to starting early. Kids reach their optimal performance level in most activities late in high school. There is no advantage to starting at 6 or 7 if a child will be tired of the sport by the time he reaches his physical capability. …