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?



What are we “accidentally” teaching our kids?



10 and unders Junior Olympic relay medalists.

The “good enough” parent is a philosophy I read about today in a CNN article called “Screw up (in small ways) at parenting. It’s good for your kids” by David G. Allan. Here’s an excerpt:


“This is the theory psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott’s called the “good enough” parent. Beyond meeting their basic needs, your children’s emotional growth and ability to cope with life’s frustrations is improved by small failures and them knowing you make mistakes. It’s useful for them to realize that life can be hard sometimes and nothing is really perfect. In other words, your shortcomings will help them emotionally thrive, and even develop into interesting people.”

I really agree with this philosophy, because nobody is perfect and we teach our children so much more by our actions than our words. It’s the concept of “do what I say, not what I do” that is messed up. For example, if we constantly tell our kids to be forgiving and welcoming to all their friends and then we talk behind people’s backs and are judgmental and unforgiving about the smallest slight, what are our children going to learn?

My kids really excelled at what they did whether it was sports, academics, leadership, etc. I’m a perfectionist and believe in putting forth your best effort, which they did. However, I don’t think my perfectionist traits helped them out so much now that they’re older. Do they really need to be the best at what they do? Or, like the article says, is it okay to be “good enough?” Maybe someone who believes they are “good enough” is well-rounded and happy? If I had a do-over as a parent, I think I’d take back my emphasis on performance and results. Not that being the best is a bad thing, but it’s okay to not be best swimmer on the team, or valedictorian or the one who brings home a wheelbarrow full of academic awards. It’s okay to learn from mistakes, not feel pressure and still be passionate about what you do.

Here’s another excerpt about the lessons learned from the CNN article:

“Are you accidentally teaching impatience? Or intolerance of people different than yourself? Are you teaching that it’s OK to yell or hit (read: spanking) when angry? Are you implicitly letting them know work is more important than family (read: checking your phone in the middle of a conversation)? Or that the world is a scary place? Or that life is inherently unfair? Or that appearance matters more than feelings?

“I unintentionally learned a lesson in selfishness growing up. My childhood was a bit unmoored and financially insecure and I got skilled at taking matters into my own hands. Being self-sufficient is positive (thanks, “good enough” Mom and Dad), but always meeting my needs before others is self-centered. But I’m aware that I could be modeling selfishness to my kids if I don’t strike the right balance between self-care and selfish.”


My son and friend at high school graduation.

What’s your opinion about being “good enough” as a parent or a person?



Not a helicopter, but a “bunny mom”

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My cutie pies.

A unique viewpoint in parenting was written by Dr. Danielle Teller, mother of four teens and published on NBC News. “In the age of the helicopter parent, why I gave my teens almost total control,” Teller describes how she and her husband decided to step back and let their kids find autonomy during the high school years, so they’d be independent by age 18.

This reminds me of my parents, who said their definition of parenting success was to let us fly from the nest. I recall them doing lots of activities together and my brother and I having an enormous amount of freedom. Most weekends my parents were fishing on our boat, visiting our cabin on the Stillaguamish River or exploring some other areas from Carmel, CA to Eastern Washington. My brother and I survived. We didn’t have parents telling us to fill out college applications or worrying about our homework. We both ended up in the top 10 of our classes and were accepted and graduated from the one college we applied to–the University of Washington.

By contrast, I hovered and cajoled my son and daughter over their busy, crammed packed schedules. My husband and I were fixtures around the pool watching them practice and compete. College applications I oversaw and made sure dates weren’t missed. The end result was—I believe—more anxiety and tougher times for my kids in college than what I experienced. Of course, it’s a different time and things are, well different!

Here are some excerpts from the article by Danielle Teller:

“It’s appropriate to nurture and protect teens from physical and psychological harm, but it’s not helpful to decide for them the course of their future.”

“My teenagers call me a bunny mom. Let me explain. We live in an affluent suburb with high-performing public schools, and many of our kids’ friends have tiger moms and helicopter dads who heavily police their children’s schoolwork, music practice, and extracurriculars in the hope that their offspring will go on to elite universities and professional success. My family, however, has adopted a different strategy.

“Several years ago, my husband and I sat our four kids down and explained that we weren’t going to parent them that way. We hoped that the rules we had enforced when they were preteens had instilled good habits, but once they got to high school, we were going to start to back off. We would no longer insist that they join a sports team, eat broccoli or play piano. We weren’t going to make their decisions for them or push them to succeed. We would provide guidance and support, and we would expect them to be good citizens at home and at school, but our goal was to gradually hand over the reins, so that by age 18, they would have complete control over their own lives.

“It wasn’t easy to hand over control. We could envision the mistakes and poor choices our children might make, and we had met the talented and ferociously hard-working peers they would eventually compete with for college admission and employment. But though we were nervous, we decided to take a light-touch approach for two reasons. First, it seemed most likely to produce happiness, and second, we weren’t convinced that intense parental involvement is key to long-term success. (Notice, too, that we are not conflating happiness with success.)

“It’s hard for parents to let go. Just as we protected our babies from sharp objects, we want to protect our teens from what we perceive as failure. Yet while it is appropriate to nurture and protect teens from physical and psychological harm as we did when they were younger, it is not helpful to decide for them the course of their future lives. As a so-called bunny mom, I have to bite my tongue when one of my children decides to stop taking math classes or quit the swim team. “You won’t achieve your full potential,” I want to say. But that shouldn’t be their goal in life any more than it is my main goal in life. Their goal should be to follow their own ambitions, wherever those may take them.”

I am impressed that these parents were able to let go during the high school years. It would take a lot of strength and conviction to not get caught up in what all the other parents were doing. They are successful professionals in their own right, and definitely not living vicariously through their kids.


My daughter receiving ribbons from her first coach. I don’t think we ever missed our kids getting awards. 

What is your opinion of hovering over kids, versus a laissez-faire attitude?


Why is My Daughter So Annoyed With Me All the Time?

My daughter came home for Christmas break an hour ago and I’m so excited to spend time with her. Here’s a story I wrote two-and-a-half years ago about our relationship. I’m optimistic that I won’t annoy her so much during this time together.

My kids not wanting me to take their pic.

I understand how she feels. After all, I was once 19 years old. I remember it very clearly.

Everything my mom did, I found unbelievably annoying.

I’ll never forget sitting with her in the car, getting ready to shop at Bellevue Square. She had parked the car. She was fumbling through her purse, making sure she had what she needed. She reapplied her lipstick. Dug through her purse for her wallet to look through credit cards. Searched several times to check where she placed the keys.

Mom and me in the early 90s.

Would we never leave the car? Would I be stuck all day? I must have said something to her quite snippy, or flat out mean. A few tears rolled down her cheeks. Which made me more upset with her.

Isn’t it a sad feeling, transitioning from a mom who could do no wrong—from changing diapers, to cooking their favorite spaghetti, to taping treasured colorings on the fridge that were made just for you—to being the person of their abject disdain?

It’s a tough new role. Let me tell you.

But, having gone through these feelings myself, I understand. I’m visiting my mom this week in her assisted living center. I talked about it with her, what I’m going through now, and what I felt like when I was 19. Fortunately, she doesn’t remember me ever being a snarky 19-year-old.

For some reason, I’ve gained more patience throughout my life and that has been a blessing. I’ve also learned forgiveness.

19 years ago.

Something else, I’ve learned through the years of parenting: this too shall pass.

It’s called independence and freedom. We want our children to grow and become separate human beings that can stand on their own. Sometimes they need to separate from us. A good time to do that is during their senior year of high school, or their freshman year of college. It’s a good thing. I keep telling myself that.

However, we also want to be treated with respect, and once again—someday—to be cherished.

A beach day with my daughter.

I wrote more about separating from our kids and the experiences we go through when they leave for college here.


Do you remember being annoyed with your mother when you were young? What did she do that you found so annoying?



Are your kids ready for #adulting?



Where we went with our kids for summer vacations.

One of the side effects of doing everything for our kids is they won’t know how to do anything on their own. We’re setting them up for a big fail if we send them to college without basic life skills. In addition to the amazing grades, high SATs and sports achievements, they need to learn how to take care of their health, money, car and clothes.

I remember when I was 16, I took one of my best friends on a family vacation on our boat in British Columbia. One day we docked in Campbell River B.C. and my mom and dad divided up the chores we needed to get done while we were ashore. My dad went to the Marine supply store, mom to groceries, I went for bait and fishing gear. My friend was sent to the laundromat. A little while later, my parents met up at the laundromat and were shocked my friend had no idea how to do laundry!

I had done laundry since I was a little kid. My mom went back to college while I was in first and second grades. My brother and I were latchkey kids and we walked home from school to a daily list of chores. How we hated mom’s slanted handwriting that filled an entire sheet of yellow legal-sized paper. I understand now that she was keeping us busy and out of trouble by giving us a list of chores that we would never ever be able to finish. Either that or she was a slave driver. I prefer to think it was the former.

In any case at the age of seven, I could bake cakes, vacuum the house, sort laundry, weed the garden, mow the lawn, make my own lunch and do the dishes. I wonder how many high school seniors today do those chores? I know my kids could—but not often. I didn’t make them. It was easier for me to do it myself. My daughter came up with the best excuse ever–a unique mystery illness. While we were on summer vacations at the beach, we’d rent a cottage that didn’t have a dishwasher. She literally would break out in a rash on her legs and arms when it was her turn to do the dishes! Maybe it was an allergy to the latex gloves, but it looked awful enough for her to get out of washing dishes. Then, how could I make my son do them if she didn’t?




Angus wasn’t allowed inside the beach cottage, but he sure wanted to be.


In the Montgomery Advertiser, Jenni Stahlmann and Jody Hagaman wrote “Parenting: Adulting goals for teens.” They have a one-hour syndicated talk radio show and give parenting advice. In their article, they list a bunch of things that our kids need to learn—before they leave for high school. I’ve also written about what our kids need to learn before they leave home for SwimSwam and here.

Here’s an excerpt from the “Adulting goals for teens article:”

Do our kids understand the basic principles of healthy eating? Do they know the difference between fats, carbohydrates and proteins, and do they know which foods are the best sources for each? Do they know that they need omega 3 fatty acids but should avoid trans fats? Are they familiar with which foods contain each?

Can they cook? Do they know the difference between a paring knife and a chef’s knife and why they would need to use one or the other? Do they know how to carve a bird or thicken a sauce or caramelize onions?

Can our teens self diagnose common illnesses? Do they know the difference between flu symptoms and the common cold, and can they treat either one with over the counter medicines or natural remedies? Do they know basic first aid and have they taken a CPR class?

Do our high schoolers know the difference between municipal, state and federal agencies? Do they know who to call if a stop sign is knocked down or what steps to take if they have a fender bender?

Can they change a tire, replace their windshield wipers and check their oil? Do they understand the difference between liability insurance and collision coverage?

The questions could go on and on, and of course, there’s no way to prepare our kids for every situation they could possibly encounter, but if we set a goal to help our teens learn the basics of adulting, we can be pretty confident that by the time they venture out on their own, they will know enough to do well and be able to find the answers when they are unsure.



The cottage we rented every summer for years.

How prepared are your kids for living away from home? Did you have more life skills then your children at the same age?



How not to raise quitters


Piano duet at a yearly recital.

In an article called “My mom’s one sports rule? No quitting,” by Samantha K. Smith on espnW.com, I remembered the t-shirts one of my all-time favorite swim dads came up with for the Piranha Swim Team, “Winners never quit, Quitters never win.” We wore those shirts with pride for years.

From the article:


“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.”

I did let my son quit a few sports, but only because we had him overbooked with “if this is Tuesday it must be tennis” running from one end of the valley and back to get from piano lessons to the court. During a stressful rushing afternoon, I hit a curb, got a flat tire and realized that enough was enough. Eventually, we settled on a single sport and music. Our routine and life went swimmingly well from then on.

I interviewed the Anderson family for an article in SwimSwam magazine. The Andersons have three daughters, two are Olympic medalists and the youngest currently swims for a D1 university. The mom also had the same rule as the writer above. She said that each year she’d sign the girls up for swimming with the understanding that they were committing for the year. When the weather was no longer perfect sunny and warm and one of them asked to quit, she’d remind them that they had agreed for the year. When the new season started, it was once again warm and beautiful outside and her daughters would commit again.

There’s something to be said for sticking through it all—so long as the situation isn’t abusive or dangerous. A lot of life lessons can be learned when things aren’t perfect.


Once we settled on one sport, things began to go swimmingly.

What is your rule for your kids and activities? Do you make them stick with it through the season? Did your parents have a “never quit” rule?


Parenting when they’re all grown up

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My boy with the big heart and eyes.

There once was a young boy with the biggest eyes and heart. He was all hugs, kisses, and could make me feel better by holding my hand. He called me “Sweetheart” because he thought that was my name. He was proud of his little sister and often made friends with this opening line: “Do you want to meet my little sister?”


My kids with Natasha our Rottie.

We went to visit this boy, who is now a grown man in San Francisco this past weekend. We were taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) for the first time by ourselves from SFO to Berkeley to see him on Friday night. A nice surprise was seeing our son waiting in the terminal to ride the train with us and to show us the ropes. That’s the kind of person he is—he thinks about others.

I know I did plenty wrong raising him and maybe helicoptered a bit too much. I argued with teachers about his grades. I protected him from failing by driving forgotten homework to school. I had no issue talking to a swim coach or principal if I thought he was being mistreated. In fact, he didn’t fail enough early on when the stakes weren’t so high. But he made up for it when it was costly and he was attending a UC. We must have done something right because he’s kind, considerate and stands on his own as an independent adult. He looks happy, healthy and he there’s no mistaking that big heart and his big blue eyes.


Three months old.

He carved out a chunk of time for us and spent the weekend showing us Golden Gate Park, walking for miles and miles, which is our favorite thing to do. He took us to the deYoung Museum where we discovered Oceanic Art, Art of the Early Americas and the Hamon Observation Tower with break taking 360’ views of San Francisco. 23131707_10215170302154705_934280434165568437_n 

He shared his favorite restaurants and we dined in the Gourmet Ghetto at Lo Coco’s Restaurant for delicious Sicilian linguine with clams, LaNote, for a French bouillabaisse, and brunch at Venus. All amazing.

What’s even more amazing is that he rode back with us on BART to make sure we got on the right trains and could make the transfer. Then, he gave us a hug and returned to his life. He texted me later that day to say he loved seeing us and missed us so much!

I’m enjoying watching the adult person my son is becoming. I realize I may not have been a perfect parent, but I must have done plenty right. Plus, each of us is an individual in our own right, and no lack of parenting — or too much helicoptering — can change who we are.23167969_10215170302114704_2557230305408935752_n


How much impact do you think parenting has on our children and the adults they become?