One Tip for Swim Parents about Sports Specialization

Should your swimmer only swim, or participate in several sports? As a swim mom for almost 15 years, I’ve had this conversation on the pool deck over and over.

My oldest did swimming, tennis, karate and piano, all at once. It was crazy. He had all these interests and I willingly hauled him around town.

He’d swim in the summer and fall and come back to it in the late spring. By age 11 or 12, he figured out that he was falling behind the year-round swimmers. He couldn’t compete and he wanted to. It was his idea to play piano and swim, dropping the other sports.

I dragged my daughter to the ballet studio. I loved ballet and was still dancing. My daughter must love ballet, too. Right? Wrong. Tears ran down her cheeks as she pulled on tights and a leotard. Her brother got to splash and play in the pool. She thought ballet was some weird form of punishment.

In both cases their sports specialization was self-directed, not parent-coerced. My son grew weary of rushing from practice to practice, or as I remember it, “If this is Tuesday it must be Karate.” And my daughter, well, she was happy as pie to focus on swimming at age seven.

Here’s my tip:

Follow your swimmers’ lead and support them in their choices. They will know when and if they want to specialize. They can’t put in the hours and hard work swimming requires to please their parents or their coach. They have to love it!

Swim parents, what’s your opinion on sports specialization?

Elizabeth WickhamElizabeth Wickham volunteered for 14 years on her kids’ club team as board member, fundraiser, newsletter editor and “Mrs. meet manager.” She’s a writer with a bachelor of arts degree in editorial journalism from the University of Washington with a long career in public relations, marketing and advertising. Her stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Parenting and Ladybug. You can read more parenting tips on her blog:


  1. Kara Cassidy says:

    I agree that kids should be having fun in any activity they choose! Thanks for sharing and I will be posting this on our Facebook page.

  2. mcmflyguy says:

    I played so many sports until highschool. Before Jr. high I did, as we called it the revolving door of sports, basketball, baseball, soccer then swimming. then of course I hit Jr. high and did football, basketball, track and swimming. Now I was doing summer league, neighborhood swimteam, and i was still fast, wasn’t the fastest but would still win sometimes. My mom would always ask me if i wanted to take it more seriously but I liked every sport. and they never pushed me, my sister, or my brother into any sport we didn’t want too.

  3. Very true. Let the swimmer take the lead. Forcing specialization upon a child is the quickest way to burn out.

    The child will also feel pride in making his/her own choices. When something become mandatory it automatically becomes a little less appealing. Reality is, if they don’t want to swim they shouldn’t have to. Hopefully it’s the act and not the environment leading to their choice.

  4. cpswims says:

    I agree with the spirit of letting the athlete decide when to focus year-round. My wife and I are both swimmers, but encouraged our kids to try a variety of sports. The only rule we set down on day 1 was only one sport per season. Give 100% effort and then decide if was time to move on to another activity at the end of that season. Seeing kids jump out of the pool, run to the stands to change into a soccer uniform was quite sad in my opinion. Our kids tried basketball, football(son) and volleyball(daughter) and enjoyed each. They both eventually gravitated back to swimming and made full time comittments by age 13 or so. By the way – ballet IS a form of punishment!

    • sam says:

      “Seeing kids jump out of the pool, run to the stands to change into a soccer uniform was quite sad in my opinion”.

      Then there is the other opinion that it is “sad” that some parents limit the activities their kids would prefer to continue (seasonal basketball, soccer, baseball) while swimming year round. It’s a lot easier not having to juggle many sports, but many kids LOVE the different sports which is why the families make the sacrifices.

  5. swim parent says:

    I agree. But academics & school always comes first. If you don’t do well in school, no extracurriculars until your grades come up. Our 2 daughters tried dance for a couple of years, but decided that they love swimming more…plus, as it turned out, monthly swim fees are less than the dance lessons were and we couldn’t afford to do both. A few coaches here and there encourage kids to specialize in a sport from a very early age…a philosophy which we disagree with. It’s normal and OK to try different things. It makes you a well rounded person and sometimes you have to give it a go before you know for sure whether or not it’s something you really love.

    As for our kids, for now, swimming is THE #1 thing they want to do. It’s now too cold to use the pool in our backyard, but my younger daughter was begging all weekend to let her get in. No way, you’ll have to wait until swim practice, honey, in the nice heated pool instead. 🙂

  6. Kenton Shilka says:

    My daughter made the choice to drop her multi attitude lifestyle at age 11. I tried to change her mind, but her heart was set. I thought the multi sport children fared better later on. You’re right….Bottom line is she loves swimming to much to share is time with something else. Her choice is best for her.

  7. Drodman says:

    Performance wise having exposure to other sports when young really benefits a swimmer in the long run. As a high school coach I have found that teaching concepts like relay starts and good turns and starts comes more naturally to those that have been exposed to other sports compared to those who have only swam. Their spatial awareness and coordination are always naturally better. Reacting to an outside object like another player or another ball goes a long way to developing a complete athlete.

    • Blastman says:

      Doing multiple sports activities gives a child a variety of sport specific motor skills which help a young child become a better overall athlete. Even with a sport that a child may not like, they still learn some skills which my help in other sports. I coach age group and high school swimmers, but encourage the young ones to try all sports available to them. As they grow they develop the passion for the particular sport that they enjoy and excel at the most. Many of my best swimmers have also excelled at basketball, ballet, soccer, wrestling, cross country, track and field, volleyball, football and baseball. Sometimes they leave swimming to pursue one of the other sports, that’s fine. For age group coaches it’s about helping children discover their athletic passions and guiding them either deeper into the sport that we coach or see their talent in another sport and let them realize their potential in their chosen sport or activity.

  8. Barbi says:

    This article sums it up! Listen to your children! They will be more successful when doing what they love!

  9. Barbotus says:

    Yep. We tried all the ball-sports (baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse) in the various kiddie and rec league incarnations but by 7 my son knew he wanted to swim and stopped the other sports. Nothing to do with me, I had no swim background. But that’s where the passion was, so we let him go with it. At 16, it’s still there. Same with my daughter, who I think started doing what her brother did and fell in love with it too.

    Would I have preferred that they kept up some of the other sports a little longer? Probably yes. But they are doing what THEY love, which is what matters.

  10. swimfanhere says:

    Unfortunately some coaches force the specialization by their attendance policies and negative treatment of swimmers that do other sports. Then the kid quits swimming because he can’t commit to 50 wks a year of club swimming 4-6 days a week….and (some of) the early specialists are burning themselves out and peaking early.

  11. Blythe says:

    We’ve tried to get our 11 year old and 10 year old out of the pool. They are happy to swim every day if possible. We decided to get them out of the pool and onto a track and field team and they ended up loving it! I think the best thing is get kids moving to teach good habits. If it’s in the pool all the time, let them swim. But moving in other ways help out in the pool in the long run.

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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