When should kids specialize in sports?

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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 when they were young. My daughter began swimming with a year-round team at 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 and have fun!

Eventually, the ballet teacher pulled me aside and said, “I know she can do this. But she chooses not to. She stands and does nothing at the barres.” As much as I wanted my daughter to love ballet as much as I do, I realized we’d both be better off letting her pursue what she had a passion for — namely swimming.

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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.

(photo: my kids on the swim team many years ago)

So, why do we insist on sports specialization a young age? It’s because some sports like swimming or gymnastics 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. Our kids can’t be looking at the clock waiting for practice to be over. They have to be in the moment giving it their 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 in a single sport?

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When Should Kids Specialize in Sports?

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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.

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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.”
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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.

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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?