I put my son in peewee soccer at age 4, playing with his friends. He ran off the field crying every single session. Sometimes it was because he missed a goal. Sometimes it was because the other team scored against his. Other times he would cry instead of celebrate if one of his own teammates got a point.
At the end of the semester my friends, who watched me chase down my distraught son every weekend, asked in all seriousness if I would join them for the next round. "He's starting to get it!" they said. I replied that I would happily spend several hundred dollars to never attend peewee soccer again.
I knew—in the way that mothers know—that organized sports are not for my Joe. But refusing to put a son in sports is not smiled upon in America or anywhere else in the world. Gently, pretty much everyone in my life suggested that Joe could learn sportsmanship and gain mastery over his frustrations if we would try soccer again, or baseball, or track.
Related: Taking the Pressure Out of Sports
They also pointed out this: Joe is good at sports. He could hit a baseball by age 3, and has always been the fastest runner in his class, tested each year by the gym teacher. I have had hundreds of playground conversations with moms who, while watching Joe leap around, suggest "he should really be in ____ sport" followed by helpful suggestions of specific leagues and camps.
Except, as any expert would tell you, attitude and loving the game are as key as having the skills. That doesn't just go for sports. It's true of music, dance, and pretty much anything. And Joe hates organized sports.
Only two people in my life seemed to be in total agreement with me keeping him out: My husband, who never liked competition either, and a grandfather figure we have who said simply, "forcing a child to do an activity that he hates is terrible."
But wavering, I posed the question to my colleagues at Parents this leading way: Should you insist a child try an activity? Of course the answer was "sure" unless you knew it wasn't for them. And sports aren't for Joe. But my mama instinct wasn't holding up in the face of a thousand comments from other parents who suggested we try, try again.
So five years after that disastrous peewee soccer, I put 9-year-old Joe back in the game. We ended up with exactly the right coach, a man who looked at Joe and "got" him from day one. He let Joe stay on defense, where he had no pressure to score, and had Joe lead the team onto the field to help him feel invested. Joe made friends with the other boys and played really, really well, with only one wobbly meltdown when he needed to play offense for a quarter. Joe earned the top trophy, presented with a long, earnest speech from the coach, and we walked away from one fall's soccer season feeling victorious. I could also tell that Joe was relieved it was over. His attitude was, well, now that's done.
Immediately friends suggested we go up to the league that plays several games a week, or at least sign Joe up again for spring.
But no. Last month Joe turned 10 and with double digits comes a blunt eloquence. "I don't like the pressure of the uniforms and referees and people watching," he tells me. "I just like to play with my friends on the playground."
I know. I've always known. And now I will let him be, and tune out everyone else.
Jessica Hartshorn is the Senior Lifestyle Editor for Parents and American Baby and gave up fast on her short-lived fantasy that her son might become a kicker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
How to Talk to Kids: The Importance of Communication