'I'm No Good at Sports!'
Not every teen comes equipped with athletic prowess. Here's how to help your guys find a team where they can star.
Illustration by Sean McCabe
Shooting hoops one day, 13-year-old Luke Majewski kept trying to make a basket and kept missing. He grew so frustrated that he yelled: “I should be able to do this! I’m no good at sports!”
No matter how parents or Scouters stress other skills, boys notice if they’re not as talented as their peers in sports and athletics. And that can quickly sack their self-esteem and confidence.
“Sports are a huge part of our culture for boys,” says Andrew Smiler, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. “Like it or not, athletics is one of the ways that boys sort themselves out.”
Libby Majewski, Luke’s mom, says that in his pre-teen years, Luke began to notice that most of the boys in his troop (Troop 26 in Medford, N.J., Burlington County Council) were bigger, faster, and more coordinated—and it hurt.
That’s typical. “Between the ages of 10 and 12, boys start to notice what makes kids popular,” says Gerard Banez, a pediatric psychologist in the Cleveland Clinic and a youth soccer coach. “Physical abilities seem to matter over and above all other things.”
Boys who lack sports skills, or who are smaller or weaker, often will become targets for bullying. “They may get called ‘girls’ or ‘gay,’ which is a boy’s worst fear because the culture tells boys not to be like girls,” Dr. Smiler says.
How can Scouters help? Stay attuned to the way other Scouts treat an athletically challenged boy. Refrain from intervening too much, but don’t tolerate bullying or excessive teasing. Never single out a boy’s lack of ability.
Emphasize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, Banez advises. Give the boy who lacks athletic talent another role or job in the troop that highlights his competence and contribution to the group. And get him started on merit badges that suit his skills or interests such as Environmental Science, Music, or Automotive Maintenance.
Question the value that’s placed on sports, too, Dr. Smiler says. “Ask: ‘Why are sports emphasized to the exclusion of almost everything else? Why aren’t other skills just as valued?’ Have the conversations that question that hierarchy.”
Parents also can help boys assess their athletic abilities realistically. In athletic competition, Banez says, some boys get discouraged after just one or two mistakes—even if they’ve performed well otherwise. Among younger boys, big kids often emerge as sports “stars” mainly because of their size—a difference that evens out later. Parents can explain that, too.
But don’t “baby” a boy who doesn’t have sports ability, and don’t let him retire to the couch, says Majewski, who works as a consultant with autistic children.
“I see this all the time: A boy who’s not good at sports discovers he’s good at video games,” she says. “The games become a source of confidence, but there’s an addictive quality to these games.” She cites the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that parents limit kids’ “screen time” to two hours or less per day. She steered Luke toward swimming, an individual sport that poses less chance of embarrassment and frustration than team sports.
Remember: Boys have a deep need to feel competent. Scouting is an excellent outlet for boys who don’t excel in competitive sports, according to Jason Wasser, a licensed marriage and family therapist who grew up in Scouting.
“There are 122 merit badges in the program,” he says. “A Scout can find some area where he can shine.”
With that in mind, Luke has gained confidence by honing his Scouting skills and building knowledge in areas that do come easily: debate, military history, and politics, for example.
“I told him ‘Everybody has obstacles and challenges, and this is his,’” Majewski says.