My mom's one sports rule? No quitting

Samantha K. Smith spent a ton of time in swim class, despite her own hesitations. She signed up for them, so her mother made her see them through. Education Images/Getty Images

When it came to giving her children unsolicited sports advice, our mother got a lot of flack from her five kids who knew her experience was limited. The one and only story she told of her high school cheerleading days was about how the front of her skirt was longer than the back because the girl who'd previously worn it was pregnant. So we often went to Dad for help with our free throw or pitching form; we went to Mom for rides to practice, trips to the mall for new sneakers, and to locate the water bottle stash. Our mother worked late nights at the YMCA for our discounted memberships and paid our uniform and league fees without question each season. But she had one strict, abiding rule when it came to signing up for a new sport: There was no quitting.

This was why I had new, never-worn softball gear hanging in my closet for the duration of high school. I'd ordered the uniform but remembered Mom's tenet: If I was unsure whether I could make the full commitment, I shouldn't officially sign on to the team.

Now I walk into the basketball gymnasiums of my childhood and see parents storming off with their children after a bad referee call, or children quitting teams midseason because of playing time. In an age of helicopter parenting and participation trophies, my mother set out to teach us one of her most valuable lessons about commitment. If you make one, you see it through even if, and especially when, it's not playing out favorably for you.

When I felt backed against the wall wanting to quit soccer, or travel basketball, or varsity cross country, I often challenged my mother on what she knew about the hard work involved and my reasons for wanting to walk away. How could she possibly understand when she was the one waiting for me in the car, not running sprints in the rain or juggling conflicting sport schedules with SAT prep? Looking back as a parent myself, I now understand exactly what my mother knew about hard work, shuttling teenagers to late-night practices, toting toddlers to gymnasiums and windy fields on weekends, packing bags with cleats, sneakers and snacks and washing countless uniforms, towels and gear for the next day. When I mistakenly brought my white "home" uniform instead of the "away" one, it was my mother who sped home to fetch the blue jersey in time for me to start the game.

Mom lived by her rule. She never threw her hands in the air and she never stormed away from the car, or house or court because we weren't treating her fairly, which happened often. No matter how frustrated, tired or overworked she was at home, she got to those bleachers to cheer us on. And on the many nights her children begged her to quit, she reminded us how important it was to see ourselves through a tough quarter, game, season or phase in our lives.

What I didn't realize as a kid was how Mom's sports advice would follow me to college and graduate school, to my first jobs, through my marriage and my own parenthood journey. When I wanted to transfer high schools to play basketball for a different coach who promised me a varsity starting position, Mom's rule prevented me from making an impulsive mistake. I rode out a difficult season, rededicated myself to training harder and not only earned a starting spot on my team, but was better prepared academically for college by sticking with a rigorous education. When I wanted to quit my first corporate job in publishing during a long transition period, I hung in, learned more about the industry and laid the foundation for the rest of my career.

I've passed my mother's rule on to my son. I want him to learn, like I did, how to ride out uncomfortable circumstances, evaluate his motivations for wanting to quit (which are often fleeting and ill-conceived) and ultimately push through and work harder. Too often we shelter our children from the difficult truths of the world, but athletics provides us with a landing pad for those lessons. Life can be unfair, but there are rewards far more important than trophies and accolades. My mother might not have been a star athlete, but she was a fantastic coach.