True Grit and Early Sports Specialization: Are They Related?


It takes grit to become an elite-level athlete. Not every athlete has it. And it can’t be developed without internal motivation.

Both of my kids began swimming at a young age. My daughter began swimming with a year-round team at age five, while my son began swimming at age eight. (He’s three years older).

They did do other activities for a few years before they decided to specialize. And that is the key: they decided. My son was running between t-ball, tennis, karate and swimming and felt like he wasn’t making progress in any of them. He got the swimming bug and wanted to compete. So, we dropped the other sports.

My daughter was being shuttled between the ballet studio and the pool. She honestly thought that ballet was some weird form of punishment — especially putting on pink tights and a black leotard in the 110-degree heat — while her brother got to dive into the pool!



I listened to a podcast by Ritter Sports Performance on early sports specialization and the main thing I took away was that an athlete has to be internally motivated. They can’t be putting in the hours and training to please their parents or their coach.  If they have the passion and are hardwired to compete at their sport, then they will reach the elite level regardless when they start.

In swimming, two examples are Rowdy Gaines and Ed Moses, who both started late in high school. They did a lot of other sports before they found the pool. Once they started swimming they excelled and loved it.

So, why do we insist on sports specialization a young age? It’s because some sports like swimming take a lot of time to develop technique. Parents naturally want their kids to have a head start.

Then there’s the 10,000 rule from Outliers: The Story of Success that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be good at something.  But, an interesting theory is that it’s not the quantity, but the quality of practice. You can’t be looking at the clock waiting for practice to be over. You have to be in the moment giving it your all.

There are certain guidelines that kids should do a lot of different activities before they specialize, but that by the time they turn 12 or 13 years old they need to focus on one sport.

I say, follow your kids’ lead. They will know what sport ignites their passion. By allowing them to follow their passion, they can develop the grit it takes to be successful.

What sports are your children in and at what age did they specialize?


4 thoughts on “True Grit and Early Sports Specialization: Are They Related?

  1. My daughter has competed in soccer, softball, and basketball.
    She just didn’t like them like she did swimming.

    She does do dance once a week and piano. So, she has outside interests besides swimming at the moment.

    Her little swim group practices 5 days a week, but due to dance and swim, she only practices 4 days.

    We know of many other swimmers her age that are in the pool twice the amount of time she is, and it shows at the meets. They are having much faster times at the moment.
    I also trust her coach tho and so understand why she practices when she does. She sees they are 8. Practicing too much at this age will lead to burnout.
    I’d rather her have slower times now and stick with swim, rather than faster times/burnout in few years.
    It’s all part of the process.

    As a parent, swimming is my favorite activity she does. Ienjoy the parents and the kids. All the kids and parents on her team are great/fun people with very polite kids. Iam very thankful swimming brought these friends into our lives!

    • I agree with you completely! Four days a week is fine for age eight. I found everyone’s times were closer when they were older–at least for the dedicated swimmers. Have fun with her other activities too, although I also enjoyed swimming the most. It’s important to have confidence in your coaches, too!

  2. I used to be in the specialization camp. I saw many swimmers take a summer season off only to come back and fall behind the other kids. My daughter did only swimming from about age 7 or 8 on. I was the swim dad. I saw it all and was always there. She topped out at a whopping 5’3 so high school swim has been/was frustrating for her. She never got any PB in her main strokes while in HS. Her body went from a child to a woman.

    She swam on a serious club and have watched some great swimmers. We do see some burnout for sure. We are watching it unfold in front of us now with a great swimmer. The swimmer is getting a social life and not progressing. She has hit the wall. Many girls peak in 8th or 9th grade. It is hard to get over the hump especially when you have been good at an early age.

    Ironically we are also watching a boy swimmer that is getting more and more amazing as he ages. He is now 6’4 and totally looks the part of a swimmer. He started late at 10.

    I think the most important thing for young athletes 10 and under is to get their body to become athletic. Be strong and build some hand eye coordination(mostly for ball sports). Not many 10 & under superstar swimmers can keep it together for another 10 years. Heck I can barely do stuff for that period of time myself.

    • Thanks for commenting! I see some high school girls get frustrated because they aren’t getting best times and the boys on the team keep improving. It’s how it works sometimes!

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