When Should Kids Specialize in Sports?


Here’s an article I wrote several years ago about sports specialization. I still get asked at what age should kids do one sport exclusively. There’s no right or wrong answer, although research suggests that there’s no advantage to early sports specialization.

There’s been a few conversations on the pool deck about when and if kids should swim exclusively. It’s a fact that our country’s sports have changed dramatically since we were kids. Sports were mostly free and school-based. Plus, kids didn’t do just one sport, but many.

Today, there’s a trend around the world for kids to specialize at an early age in one sport. If you “google” sports specialization, you’ll find tons of articles with research telling you why this is such an awful thing.

The drawbacks, according to research, come down to several things:
social isolation, burn-out and repetitive use injuries. Also, the research cited states there’s no clear advantage to starting in a single sport, year-round at an early age.


As the parent of two swimmers, I’ve sat on the pool deck for close to 15 years. My son started swimming at age 7, my daughter at 5. They began with a number of other activities, but loved swimming more. Their specialization was self-directed, not parent-coerced. They soon grew weary of rushing from practice to practice, or as I remember it, “If this is Tuesday it must be Karate.”

I have an opinion on sports specialization that relies on mom-based research — observing, listening and talking to hundreds of kids, parents, and dozens of coaches for years — however, it’s limited to the sport of swimming.

First, I have to disagree with this statement: “Being on a select team often requires a year-round or near year-round commitment and extensive travel. If you allow your child to participate she can end up socially isolated from her family, peers, and the larger community.[3]” from momsteam.

Isolation? Not hardly.

The swim team for my kids was social. Friendships blossomed with kids they’d otherwise never meet. Vacations through the years meant jumping in as a visitor with local teams and meeting more kids. At first my children were wary and out of their comfort zone, but their self-confidence and world grew exponentially.

Swim meets meant playing cards, “Catchphrase” and charades for hours under the tent with teammates — and racing for a minute or two. My daughter didn’t have time to hang out at the mall, but she did travel to Puerto Vallarta with kids from throughout So Cal to meet up with kids from the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Mexico and Canada.

The coaches from the Puerto Vallarta trip witnessed an eye-opening swim meet for our swimmers. Our kids experienced another culture, interacted with local kids, and learned to appreciate small things they took for granted in Southern California.


I’d love to hear what you have to say about this topic, too! When did your kids begin organized sports? Did they participate in more than one? At what age did they specialize?


6 thoughts on “When Should Kids Specialize in Sports?

  1. My daughter started playing tennis at 4, but recreationally, meaning one lesson a week, a little playing. She played rec soccer and softball through elementary school. She’s now on her high school tennis team, and loves the sport, but in a more recreational way. Sports are never going to be a major focus in her life….she loves other things more….but when it’s season she devotes at least thirty hours a week from August to November. The rest of the year is a weekly lesson and a USta League

    • I think high school sports are so much fun for the kids. It’s less serious than club sports, but they’re able to compete and enjoy the team comaraderie. My kids started tennis at age four, also, but gravitated to the pool. My son liked music more than swimming and in high school formed a band and wrote music.

  2. My kids wanted to try it all then picked some stuff they enjoyed and developed in. For my son it’s two team sports (hockey and baseball) with tennis thrown in during the milder months (he plays clay courts). The daughter….if she could she’d play it all! She too has a winter sport (ringette), gymnastics and baseball, with tennis same time as her brother.

    I think the bulk of their memories about their childhood will be sports related. They have so much fun with such a varied group of people, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be front and centre in their minds!

    • That sounds like an interesting mix of sports and activities to play! My daughter who specialized in swimming from a young age, is finding it strange not to have practice anymore. Her senior season in college is over! She’s trying spin classes, running and other things to fill up her days. She’s been told by the doctor to not swim and give her shoulder a break. Thanks for commenting!

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