I Am Swim Mom, Hear Me Roar

I am a whole lot of things that I never thought I would be.
I am a stay-at-home-mom. After earning a Master’s Degree in teaching and spending nine years in a special education classroom, I gave it all up to stay home and raise the girls 24-7.
I am a twin mom. One is never quite prepared for that news. The twin bomb wasn’t exactly pretty…but three years later here I am.
I am a writer. I actually get paid to write about my crazy little life and I love it. I still cannot bring myself to call myself a writer, but I suppose I am one nonetheless.
I am middle-aged. It hurt to even type that.
I am also a swim-mom. Oh yeah, our oldest daughter is a competitive swimmer and we are swim parents, something I didn’t see coming. I can barely back float and I hate getting my hair and face wet in the pool, yet our daughter is a damn fish. These days we spend our lives hanging at the local Natatorium, (that’s a fancy word for pool) and I am learning quite quickly that swim parents are unique creatures. Here is how to spot a fellow Swim Parent:
Swim parents refer to their children as one of the four basic swim strokes. They no longer use their child’s actual name when speaking with other swim parents and coaches.
“My daughter is a flyer.”
“My son is a distance swimmer, and primarily a breast-stroker (insert immature chuckle.)”
I think all sports parents cheer and yell for their kid during sporting events, but the swim parent does this a bit differently. If your son plays soccer you yell “run” “shoot” and “pass” over and over again.  If your daughter plays softball then you are well versed in the terms “slide” “hold up” and “safe.” If you are a swim parent you scream GO a lot, other than that all other sounds that come from the peanut gallery are not in fact words, but more a string of strange guttural noises.
Swim parents are also the world’s loudest cheerers. We have to be extra loud because we are convinced that our children can hear us way down on the pool deck or while they are immersed under water. The rational me knows that my daughter can’t hear my howling, but I do it anyways.
“Did you hear me yelling for you honey?
“No mom.  I can’t hear you.”
Well then, I am just going to have to scream louder next time, aren’t I?
We swim moms spend a sick amount of time carting our kids to and from practices and swim meets each week. The two-hour practices every other day are full of kick sets and stroke refinement drills.
These practices are quite possibly the most boring thing to witness on God’s great Earth.  If you have had to endure sitting through your kid’s daily practice then you know what I am talking about here. As if practice wasn’t bad enough, the meets are downright torturous. We wake up at five am, drive an hour or two to the swim meet and slam back black coffee from little Styrofoam cups while waiting out warm-ups.  
Next comes the real fun: four or five straight hours of stretching our aching backs and squirming around in the bleachers waiting for our kid’s event. Most meets are four hours long and your child swims a total of two minutes. We spend ten hours a week bored out of our minds to witness a couple of thirty-second races.
Why in the hell are we doing this to ourselves?
Swim parents don’t celebrate victories as other sporty parents do. There is no winning or losing in swim.  We don’t give a rip about placement.  We celebrate progress in milli-seconds. If our kid shaves two-hundredths of a second off of their 100 freestyle, we know it and we go freaking nuts over it.  It is not uncommon to hear a parent say, “Oh, Kelly swims the 50 backstroke in 39.93 seconds.” Those fractions matter and we don’t mess around with them.
There are certain things that puts a swim parent into a Xanax-popping panic. Swim moms fret over missing their kid’s events like some people fret over missing the birth of their first born child. When you awake at the crack of dawn and drive across the state to watch your child swim for thirty seconds you better make damn sure they are on time.
Being late is not an option. We don’t even like to get up and go pee in fear of missing the 200 IM or the 100 Fly race. You can look around the stands at any given time and you will see at least five moms squirming and bouncing in their seats needing to pee so badly, but refusing to risk missing their kid’s next race.
A DQ is just about the most heart-wrenching thing a parent can witness at a swim meet.  Imagine: your child practices hours upon hours a week, you drive them, you sit, you watch, you encourage them day in and day out. Then comes race day they make one illegal kick or stroke that disqualifies them. One itty bitty flutter of the leg and it all goes to hell. They are upset, you are upset and now you have to hold yourself back from jumping over the rails and pushing the official into the pool. How dare you disqualify my child you blind bat!
I am working myself into a rage just writing about disqualifications.
I am swim mom: hear me roar!

Easy Ways to Build Water Confidence With Your Child

If your child is water-shy, try these tips for boosting their confidence and maximizing productive lesson time.

I’ve spent years working with kids who suffer from fear of water. This anxiety manifests in myriad ways: crying, screaming, refusal to try, clinging to Mom or Dad, or ignoring me entirely.

As a practiced swimming instructor, parents often ask me if they can work with their fearful child at home to avoid these issues during class time. Of course, the answer is “yes.” In fact, I recommend parents start working with their children as early as possible, even before taking lessons, to establish happy memories with the water.

If your child is water-shy, try these tips for boosting their confidence and maximizing productive lesson time.

Make it fun

In all my time teaching kids to swim, I’ve come to learn that the most difficult fear for children to overcome is putting their eyes in the water. Most kids have no problem blowing bubbles from their mouth and nose, but when it comes to immersing their eyes, nearly every child experiences some hesitation. Getting past this is essential for learning to swim because holding the head up makes swimming an immensely tiresome effort. Thankfully, working through this is simple with the help of toys.

Sinking toys provide the perfect solution for eyes-in practice. Start with easy-to-grab toys like dive sticks or rings. Not only do they have a large gripping surface, but they also stand up in the water so your child won’t have to reach down as far to snag them.

Once your child feels comfortable with these, move on to toys that sit lower to the bottom and items that are more difficult to pick up such as coins. These sinkers require your child to submerge farther and longer, allowing them to practice a steady, slow exhale.

Floating toys are equally as beneficial for building water confidence. Whether or not your child can swim on their own, reaching for toys that sit on top of the water provides essential arm extension practice. My floating toy of choice is a Ping-Pong ball because it has to be grabbed from overhead with arm out of the water. This is the exact movement kids will need to perform the front crawl when they’re ready. But don’t feel like you need to buy specialized toys for reaching/retrieval games. You can simply toss a couple pieces of fruit into the water.

If you have access to a local pool or water park, take your child there to check out their wave pools, slides, and wading areas. These non-threatening play-zones are the perfect introduction to water as a fun place, and there’s really no “swimming” required.

Make it theirs

Aside from purely recreational toys, I find that kids are inspired by having their own equipment. Giving your child their own swim gear allows them a sense of ownership over the water, making swimming easier to conquer. Luckily, kids swim gear is fairly cheap. Think about investing in a set of fins or a pair of goggles.

Fins are a wonderful confidence-building tool because they amp up propulsion and make kids feel more than human. Fins also correct poor habits like bicycle kicking and flailing the legs high out of the water. They work better when used in the right position and provide less propulsion when used in the wrong position. Your kids will figure this out fairly quickly.

Goggles allow kids to feel more comfortable putting their face in the water. A student of mine, Piper, had some intense anxiety about putting her eyes in the water, as many kids do. She spent two summers blowing bubbles from the mouth and nose, but refused to lower her eyes into the pool and often broke into tears when she was asked to. I suggested that her mom try goggles, so she let Piper pick out an inexpensive pair adorned with Finding Nemo characters. During her next lesson, Piper put her face right in the water without a second thought.

Involve family and friends

Pool time spent with family and friends is an excellent way to arouse your child’s swimming spirit. Even if they’re frightened, I’ve found that lessons which include a sibling, cousin, or other close friend or relative help spur new swimmers onward. Sibling rivalries can actually be beneficial in a learning environment, motivating kids to try harder, despite their anxieties.

While private lessons may be essential for children who have difficulty focusing, most kids are inspired by other students learning the same skills. Seeing another child perform these skills makes it easier for them to visualize themselves doing it.

Kids who suffer from fear of water need to have more positive experiences to motivate them to try new skills. A child who thinks of water as a scary place has no incentive to put their face in, push away from the side, or try to locomote on their own. A child who thinks of the pool as fun and exciting wants to try new things and explore the underwater environment, making learning to swim that much easier.

What Caddying For My Son Taught Me About Being a Mother

As parents, we offer our kids countless unsolicited opinions and advice. But when the parent is also the golf caddy, restraint is the key to success.

The sun beat down on us from above, softened only by a light breeze rustling the leaves on the trees. We smelled the faint odor of cut grass and felt the buzz of nervous energy as we approached the first tee of the golf tournament. It was our first as mother and son. Usually my husband is my son’s caddy, but not today. I prayed that I wouldn’t mess it up.

Golf is a tough game. There are not three strikes before you’re out as in baseball, and no second serves as in tennis. Every stroke counts. Every single tap of the ball. It’s hard enough for an adult to keep calm in this situation, let alone an 11-year-old boy. It was all on his shoulders with only a little bit of help from his caddy.

There are strict rules for being a caddy. You cannot touch the ball once it’s in play, you cannot direct the shots too closely, and you cannot disrupt the game. You can provide advice, a voice of reason, and a shoulder to cry on. A caddy is a partner for discussion and analysis, but the caddy does not make the decisions and she does not take the shots. It is his stroke, his game, and his life. It reminded me a lot of parenting, especially for teens and young adults.

Our day had ups and downs. We celebrated together when he sunk a birdie putt from the edge of the green and mourned together when he lost his ball in the woods and had to take a penalty shot. Sometimes, he stomped ahead to deal with his emotions alone – his caddy a distant memory. Always, I was his steadfast companion, carrying the clubs and ready to support him when he needed it. 

As a parent, I’m often in the foreground of my children’s lives, offering my unsolicited opinion or issuing directives. But as a caddy, I behaved differently. I stood back, waiting for my son to come to me. In a crisis, I stepped forward to present my view – which was sometimes well received, and other times ignored – but most of the time I was in the background, letting him decide what clubs to hit and what risks to take. It was an eye-opening experience.

There were moments when I watched proudly as he treated his fellow golfers with kindness, just like we’d taught him. I witnessed him struggle with the temptation to not count a penalty stroke, and breathed a sigh of relief when he came down on the side of honesty. There were times I bit my tongue as he voiced his frustration a little too loudly under his breath or slammed his club back into the bag a little too angrily. I held my words and my hugs at bay to let him work through the flood of emotions he was feeling.

It was hard — picking my spots to step forward but trying, more often than not, to hang back. I let my son make poor decisions and learn from those failures without judgment. I somehow knew when to step in to help him pick up the pieces for his next challenge.

Being my son’s caddy was like being the best version of myself as a mom. No helicoptering. No being overly involved. Providing space for taking risks and living with the consequences, but always maintaining a steady supportive presence. I was there when needed, but mostly on the sidelines, trusting him and waiting to catch him if he fell too hard.

On the course, caddying for my son, I was the mom I want to be.

What It’s Like to Be the New Kid on the Team

Growing up should be a time of trying new things, with room for everyone. How do we encourage bravery in trying and grace in supporting the triers?

My kid is about to be the new kid on the team. This is just a super hard thing to watch. He’s bravely trying basketball in a town where sports are a pretty big deal. The kids he’ll be playing with have been at it since birth. My son ran out of the gym at the age of 6 – after one day – declaring the place too loud.

But now he wants to play. He’s older, he’s a risk taker, he’s made his peace with noise. “Mom, I want to play. I think I can do it.”

These words strike both awe and fear in my heart. He’s ready now. Am I?

Of course he should play, it’s just basketball after all. Kids have been playing forever and really the only option these days seems to be organized sports. Gone are the days when the neighborhood kids play ball in driveways everyday. The world has gone crazy about organization, so here we are: He’s excited and I’m full of fear for his tender, hopeful heart.

What do we do when our kids want try something new, knowing it will be (sometimes painfully) obvious that they lack the skill and strength of the kids who have been at it longer than they have?

And it’s not just sports, what about the kid who wants to try out for choir or band or the play for the first time?  Growing up should be a time of trying new things, there should be room for everyone. 

And the triers are so brave! It’s easy to join something you know you’re good at. It takes real guts to join something new, knowing you won’t be the best.

Life is competitive, and kids don’t always like to have the “new kid” on their team – the kid that’s having a hard time hitting the ball. Or making the basket. Or hitting the right notes. And that doesn’t always bring out the best in our kids who pride themselves on winning or sounding amazing.

Our kids can have high standards that get the better of them.

So, as a new year is upon us, full of new seasons of the things kids do, I humbly ask you to be your kids’ at-home coach. Talk to you Brave Triers and your Veteran Pros. We can help make this season a success for everyone, keeping in mind success has nothing to do with winning.

Here are some things you might say to your kids as they embark on their journey:

To the Triers:

Be brave and kind.

Brave people try things even when they’re scared or uncertain about how it will go. Not everyone understands what bravery looks like. Some people might think the mistakes you make mean you aren’t worthy of being there. They still have to learn about bravery – that’s their lesson, you don’t need to worry about it. 

Being brave is enough. You are enough.

Be kind to yourself even when things are hard. Be kind to that kid on the bench who’s talking about how you’re the worst one. You have a responsibility to be kind even when others aren’t. It won’t be easy. You need to keep trying, even if what others are saying gets you down. Never forget: What others think does not define you.

You’ll get out of this new experience exactly what you put into it. Ask for help, keep trying, do not take your frustrations out on others. You’re responsible for your own reactions, regardless of what’s thrown your way.

We’ve all seen person who gives up or throws a tantrum when things don’t go the way they hoped or planned. Don’t be that kid.

We’ve all seen the person who continues to get up and keep trying even when it is hard. Who pushes past their mistakes and setbacks to do great things. Be that kid.

To the Pros:

Be brave and kind.

If you’re brave, you can be a leader. And not just any leader, you can be the best kind – a humble leader. Humble leaders know that even if they’re the very best one, they’re not worth more than anyone else on the team.

They bravely encourage others and show that everyone has a place. They may be afraid, but they stand up for the underdog anyway, even when it’s not a popular thing to do.

It’s easy to be kind to kids that are doing amazing stuff. It’ll be harder to be kind to the kids who are struggling, because sometimes they’ll frustrate you. They’ll make mistakes.

The new kids will get better with support and friendship and practice. No one has ever improved at anything by being told that they were the worst. Lift them up with kind words.

You will not always be the star of the play. Or in the starting line up. At some point in life, you’ll just as easily find yourselves in the shoes of the new kid. I promise you: It will happen. You’ll look around and everyone else will seem to have it easy. Think of how you’d want to be treated in that moment. Know you’ll always remember the kid that helped to bring you up, was an encourager, who acted as a friend. Be that kid.

You’ll also always remember the kid who tried to tell you you that weren’t as valuable as everyone else, that you didn’t have much worth. How do you want to be remembered?

To the Parents:

This season let’s talk with our Triers and Pros. Let’s help them each see their value. Help them see the opportunities they have to grow and learn, help them be kind.

It’s heartbreaking to realize that your child is being picked on for not being as good at something. It should be equally heartbreaking to learn that your child feels like he’s a superior force in the world.

It’s fun to win games, but we need to teach our kids to win at life. And winning at life looks a lot like helping a buddy shoot hoops, encouraging a friend who’s trying to master that song everyone else already knows. It looks a lot like pulling people up, instead of putting them down. It looks like a child bravely facing possible failure and trying anyway.

For our kids, the real prizes are not the trophies they win, but rather the lessons they learn and the friendships they make. 

What Happens When Our Kids Turn Out Not to Be Star Athletes?

It’s important to remember the ultimate purpose of playing sports- the social and mental development.

Autumn is upon us and with it, the surge of fall youth league sports.

It took our peculiar American culture to transform the most basic of all youthful endeavors – play – into an almost corporate-style, life-encompassing endeavor. Generations ago, children would gather on playgrounds, vacant lots, pasture fields, or most any available level surface to form their own teams and compete for the pure fun of it.

Now we have leagues sponsored by the parks and recreation divisions of local governments. We also have countless associations that create and oversee ‘travel’ teams that ignore community boundaries and pull their players from different communities, counties, even from all across the country.

All in the name of giving our youth the best opportunities available to develop their athletic abilities.

Please understand. I have no axe to grind with well-organized, responsibly-coached youth teams. Our sons played multiple youth sports. Our youngest still plays on a travel team as well as the high school varsity team for his chosen sport.

I do, however, take issue with the parents, coaches, and other involved individuals who spend inordinate amounts of time, energy, and effort attempting to wring professional levels of performance from young children.

Parents sometimes unwittingly fall in love with their children’s abilities, and human beings naturally demonstrate their physical skills much more rapidly than their mental skills. After all, we’re up walking around and displaying all kinds of physical dexterity long before we can typically communicate with little more than grins, grunts, and growls.

I clearly remember the tremendous joy I felt when our youngest was easily swatting a plastic baseball with a wiffle bat well before he was putting sentences together. “Just one signing bonus. That’s all I ask,” I said to myself, dreaming of his future as a professional baseball player.

But as children make their way through year after year of youth league and travel sports, a pair of strange transformations often takes place. Parental expectations go up as the child’s skills level off, or even decline. Tragedy ensues when the parents can no longer realistically view their own children’s abilities. Some parents see their children as eventual professional athletes merely waiting for an agent or scout to drop by. Some see their children as the perfect means to regain their own glory days, or perhaps have glory days they never experienced on their own.

Having helped coach a few teams and served on a governing board in my time, I’ve often heard parents and coaches say of a player, “That kid’s big. He/She’s going to be good.” Very often, the kid turns out to only be big. An athlete’s physical size does not always directly correlate with their ability level.

I remember one particularly painful example during a Little League baseball game. A new pitcher took the mound, made a few warmup throws, then faced his first batter. A rather large boy for his age, this young player was carefully trying to throw strikes. The ball wasn’t traveling very fast, but it was near the plate, which is all any Little League coach ever hopes for. Unfortunately, the player’s father began to coach from the stands.

“You can throw harder than that! Throw harder!”

So, the young pitcher began to throw harder. Proper technique was quickly overwhelmed by a display of raw power. As he threw harder, the ball sailed farther and farther from the plate. Before long, the young pitcher was heaving the ball nearly halfway up the backstop all the while his father continued to demand that the boy throw harder.

Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds of pee-wee or sandlot football games. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of these games I have repeatedly witnessed has been what I call the “wonder kid” offense. I’m sure you’ve seen it as well. One kid – who’s likely one of the best athletes on the team – carries the ball every play, all game long. After no more than a handful of plays, the opposing team completely forgets any defensive strategy they may have practiced all week, and simply focuses all their efforts on tackling this one kid.

At the end of these games, whether the team wins or loses, the wonder kid is usually exhausted, and far more likely to have bumps, bruises, and other injuries than anyone else on the team. Some teammates may look upon this player with admiration for his obviously superior skill. Others will look upon him with little more than jealousy or disdain.

The lesson most players take away from such an experience is not one of teamwork, cooperation, or good sportsmanship. They learn that some people are simply more deserving of opportunity than they are, and no great amount of effort on their part will change that.

The example holds true across all sports. Some baseball teams have the one kid who always gets to pitch, play shortstop, and bat cleanup. The coach’s favored future star always takes the most shots on the basketball court. Guess who the main striker is for the soccer team, or skating wing for the hockey team?

As the youth league years give way to the varsity years and then college rolls around, the athletes parents thought they were raising fade into the mists of yesterday. Time and maturity can be merciless in the changes they impose on our minds and bodies. Those fleet-footed, uncatchable running backs from the sandlot days somehow transform into heavy-footed linemen who no longer really care for football. The amazing sprinters we rapturously watched from the sidelines now stand alongside us cheering for their friends.

And what are we parents to do with these former future stars? What are we to do with these never-weres? We’re to love them and cherish them for being human beings. For being our sons and daughters who have so much more to contribute to life than swatting a ball with a stick or barreling over children not so large or strong as they are.

It’s been estimated that somewhere around one high school football player in 65 will go on to play college football on scholarship. Beyond that, roughly one out of 100 college players will have a chance to play professionally. A player’s odds of actually having a three year career in professional football is somewhere around one in 50,000.

The chances of our young stars winning gold of any kind are exceedingly slim. However, with dedicated support from parents who place at least as much emphasis on academics as they do sports, and help their kids explore career options related to their passions and interests, the chances of earning gold – developing a successful career and life – are all in their favor.

Encourage your children to play sports. They can establish great friendships through competition. They can experience the awesome power of knowing what teamwork can truly accomplish. They can have fun. But don’t allow the momentary glory of a child’s skill level to blind you to what is truly most important: the social and mental development that comes from healthy sports.

Play should remain play.

If You Want Your Kids to Be Successful in Sports, Get Out of Their Way

We’ve all been to those youth sporting events; the ones where parents are living out their own dreams, regardless of what their kids want.

We’ve all been to those youth sporting events; you know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where parents are living out their own dreams, regardless of what their kids want.

I’ve found on many occasions that the adults think they want success for their kids but in many ways they want it for themselves. Just like many other parents, I have fallen victim to this trap one too many times. It wasn’t until a certain eight-year-old taught me a very important lesson that I began to change my ways.

A few years ago, I was standing at the starting line, or what we in the BMX world like to call “the starting gate.” The night seemed to start off just like any other; after all, this had been what our family did every weekend for the last six months, yet on this particular night, something didn’t seem right.

My daughter had been on that gate many times, but this night was different. For a split second, I think I actually saw the panic and worry in her eyes. The green color to her skin, because she was ready to throw-up. The focus on her face to do the best she can, so that she wouldn’t disappoint us. She didn’t want to race, but she did it anyway. She did it because we told her to; because she thought it was what we wanted. My daughter was living out our requests and dreams, not her own.

That was the night we decided that our kids will be the ones who choose which activities and sports they want to be involved in. My daughter decided for herself that BMX racing was not for her. She finished the season, her commitment, and then found her joy in dancing.

One of the most important things we can do for our kids is to focus on their interests and try not to impose our own. At the same time, kids do need some gentle encouragement, because very rarely do they naturally decide to get involved in a sport or activity without some parental guidance.

The most difficult part of this delicate balance is determining how we push and encourage without imposing.

I think John O’Sullivan of Changing The Game Project said it best: “We all love our kids, and we want the best for them, but in this oftentimes race to nowhere we call youth sports, our words and actions are not helpful to our kids despite our best intentions. They hurt performance instead of helping, and that make sports a place of disappointment instead of enjoyment.”

What I’ve realized over the years is that my kids are not simply an extension of me. It’s important to pay attention to where I end and they begin.

The three key common components to long-term participation in sports and other activities are:

  • enjoyment
  • autonomy
  • intrinsic motivation

When faced with the decision to abandon our own dreams and instead focus on our kids dreams, there is one simple way to know which direction to go; look at their face, are they happy? When the going gets tough, do they still want to continue and push through the hard times? No matter how many hours my daughter spends at the dance studio, she still wants more. And my son, well, his bike is pretty much an extension of his body.

So often, parents forget to give their kids the one thing they did have: a childhood. They forget to give them the ability to find things they love, instead of choosing for them. It is not our job to discover what they are passionate about, that job belongs to them. The best gift we can give our children is to allow them to find what makes them smile.

Ultimately, it’s my job to support and stand by my children as they navigate their world. No matter what sport or activity they choose, I will always stick by the three things I tell them before any competition or performance: “I love you, I’m proud of you, and have fun.” After all, they only get one childhood, and we only get one time to be a part of it; we must choose wisely.

I have received my fair share of questioning and criticism regarding what some people have called a too soft/hands-off approach. Frequently, I hear statements like, “How can you expect to raise a champion with that attitude?”

Here’s the thing; I’m not raising a champion, I’m raising a child.

Recently, my six-year-old son accomplished a goal of turning expert in his age group for BMX; a goal he set for himself. While snuggling him on the night of his big win, I was reminded of the very simple reason that I choose to parent this way. As he was drifting off to sleep, I whispered in his ear that the success he experienced was because of him; no one else. He did the hard work, showed up, believed in himself, and had fun.

The words that came next are the ones we all hope to hear from our children:

Thanks mom, it feels pretty awesome that I did this!”

Hey, Kids – Sometimes It’s Okay to Quit

There’s a time and circumstance for everything. Including giving your kid permission to quit something that isn’t working.

I hate quitters. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And I teach my kids to be the same way.

As a parent, I did something I never thought I’d do, I encouraged my son to be a quitter. He’s an athletic kid who plays football and basketball. He has played soccer and baseball, too. Team sports have been his love.

This year as a middle school student, track was an option and, as a fast runner, he thought he’d try it. He made it halfway through the season and started to talk about quitting. He hated it because it wasn’t fun.

I teach my kids to finish what they start. I don’t allow them to abandon a team mid-season. If they don’t like it, then we don’t sign up next year. That’s been the rule and I don’t waiver.

But I realized, given how unhappy he was, that I needed to bend my own rule. So, when he wanted to quit because he hated track, I encouraged him. At first I was reluctant, I liked seeing him run, and I worried what will people think.

But my son is no quitter. He has a good reputation being a dedicated team player, so quitting one sport didn’t matter. Track is an individual sport with no set number of players needed, so his absence wouldn’t be missed. Instead of teaching him never to quit anything, I needed to teach him when it’s okay to walk away.

At age 10, he wanted to quit a sport he loved because he thought he wouldn’t make the cut for a traveling team. He figured it was better to never even try, than it was to be cut. I pushed hard, encouraging him not to quit. He tried out, and made it on a team. This case wasn’t a matter of walking away, it was a matter of not assuming failure before ever even trying. 

The youth sports environment for kids today is headed in the wrong direction. I attended a sports parents conference and was shocked hearing the speaker’s comments on the current trend in youth sports. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports 70% of kids quit sports by age 13 because they don’t think they are good enough, or it’s no longer fun. This is an unfortunate statistic because middle school is exactly when kids begin to discover their natural skills.

Sport associations with tryout procedures that result in cutting players from an elementary or middle school age traveling team is both unforgiving and excluding. Cuts are made to build more competitive teams before most kids have even discovered their physical abilities. And once they’re cut, they’re reluctant to try out again. Cutting kids from teams leaves the majority kids out, sidelining them at at time when childhood should be about trying different sports. We’ve created an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for experimenting.

Sometimes, it’s okay for kids to quit. But making the decision to quit shouldn’t be because kids are afraid to try, or because the pressure to be excellent is too intense. Quitting, if and when it’s necessary, should be the result of fully understanding the impact of your actions, and knowing when it’s time to walk away. Not the result of low self-esteem and fear that you’ll never be good enough. 

An Honest Look at the Huge Commitment of Youth Sports

Youth sports can be a huge commitment of time, energy, and finances. While there are many benefits, participation may not be for every kid or family.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with my friend Audra when our conversation turned to talk of summer. “Soooo, we were going to sign Timothy up for baseball this summer, but I don’t know. We like having our weekends free. And he’s just eight. It can wait a couple of years. Right?” she asked causally. 

I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I don’t think Audra had any idea how complicated that question is. 

Maybe there was an era when Little League Baseball or Mighty Mite football or Pee Wee basketball were just simple childhood pastimes – games that children played in the summer or on weekends. But now kids’ sports are a much, much bigger deal. And the implications of signing your child up for a sport (or not) can be massive. 

What difference does it make?

When Audra causally tossed out the idea of waiting a couple of years, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it might already be too late for their son to play baseball – at least on a serious level. Our youngest son began T-ball at four (a year later than many of his peers), and by seven he was on an all-star team that traveled to compete with other seven-year-olds around the state.

We live in a small town where the talent pool is small, and competition for a position on an all- star team is minimal. But in larger cities, like the one Audra lives in, it can be very difficult for kids to jump in and be competitive when they are already two years behind their peers. 

I’ve seen kids playing T-ball in pull-ups and a young soccer player racing down the field with a binky in his mouth. It was cute. Parents and spectators were delighted, and the kids in each of these scenarios seemed to be having a great time. There was no pressure on these little ones to win or even to understand the game.

But this doesn’t change the fact that an early start is often considered an important factor for a kid’s future in the game. According to Brian Watson of the Finneytown Athletic Association, the earlier kids start playing a sport the better. 

Still, isn’t starting baseball later an option for kids who aren’t interested in highly competitive travel teams?

Maybe. But with more players specializing – starting younger with intense leagues and in many cases private coaching, the structure of kids’ baseball (as well as other sports) has changed dramatically. Often city league baseball just isn’t what it used to be. University of Nebraska researcher David Ogden has said that the high level of play leaves more broad-based organizations, such as Little League and YMCA teams, with “a lot of kids who can’t get the ball over the plate, so the game is less fun and kids drop out.”

So, yes. Children can start playing baseball when they’re older, but they might find themselves playing a watered down version of the game because so many other players have moved on to competitive club teams. As a result, some families find themselves having to choose between highly competitive travel teams and low skill-level city league teams. Unfortunately, the game seems to be missing a happy medium.

Baseball isn’t the only sport or activity that has intensified in this way. A child who begins dance lessons at four is more likely to be selected for a competitive dance troupe than one who starts at 10. A gymnast who begins as a toddler is more likely to progress in the sport than one who begins as a pre-teen. This is simply the reality of youth sports today. Stiffer competition means that parents are looking to give their children every edge – and that edge begins early.

Of course, it isn’t just that kids who start younger are better. It isn’t even necessarily that they have more skill. But the younger a child starts in a sport or activity, the more likely he or she is to gain the attention and admiration of coaches. Coaches look for skill, but many of them also like to work with the same kids year after year and “coach them up” to create their own close-knit, well-oiled winning machine. Sometimes long-term commitment and familiarity trump talent. 

Playing any sport is hard and it’s a huge commitment. The seriousness of youth sports at least partially explains why 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by age 13. They start too young, play too hard, and in many cases burn out too soon. 

Of course for kids and families who are interested in competitive sports, starting early isn’t the only consideration. Usually being on a high level sports team involves considerable financial cost, as well. Often high level youth players receive private coaching with fees the can be nearly a hundred dollars an hour or more. Then there’s the cost of equipment, club and park fees, and of course, travel. This can add up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars per year. The cost of highly competitive sports becomes even more staggering for families with more than one child. 

Naturally, the high price tag of competitive sports contributes to the high pressure. Even the most laid back parents start to feel the need to win when they’ve spent a small fortune for their child to play. The loss is tougher when a family has driven (or flown) several hours, forked over money for a hotel room and meals, and taken time off work in order to compete. 

Yet, while the intensity of youth sports can be overwhelming, not placing your child in a sport could mean missing out on some significant advantages. According to truesport.org, there is a great deal of research to back this up. But really it’s common sense. Sports require discipline, commitment, team work, and the ability to accept victory and defeat gracefully. These are all important life skills that will serve a child well long after he has pitched his last inning or she has lobbed her last volleyball. 

Sports also provide a forum in which kids can naturally exercise, make friends, and what’s most important (or should be), they have a lot of fun. 

It’s hard to overestimate how valuable sports can be in the life of a child. According to the University of Missouri Women’s and Children’s Hospital, the benefits of sports also include higher self-esteem, better grades and lower stress.  

So, youth sports are a must. Right?

Given such strong endorsements, it might seem like involving your child in sports at an early age is a no-brainer. But, as with most parenting decisions, there are several factors to consider – especially now that sports have become highly competitive and are a much bigger time and financial commitment than they were a generation ago. 

When it comes to kids and sports, the above benefits make perfect sense – until they don’t. As every parent knows, each child is different. And while the benefits of sports might be numerous they do not necessarily apply to all children. 

For example, sports can be a great way to build self-esteem. A child who is the star pitcher for his baseball team or who wins medal after medal at her swim meets is likely to get a great confidence boost from being in a sport. But the same cannot be said for the child who struggles or who can’t keep up with his or her teammates.

The days of “The Sandlot” are long gone. Remember that movie? When Scottie Smalls moves to a new town he doesn’t know a soul. But he makes friends by playing baseball with a group of neighborhood boys at the nearby sandlot. Scottie is terrible, but the other boys don’t care. They are playing in an abandoned lot, wearing tattered sneakers and using baseballs they’ve scrapped their spare nickels and dimes together to purchase. When Smalls shows up, they are just happy to have another player. 

But kids playing today are wearing expensive cleats and playing at multi-million dollar facilities. They aren’t just looking for somebody else to play. They’re looking to win. Sports are a great self-esteem builder but probably only for kids who consistently contribute to a win. For the Scottie Smalls of the world, team sports can serve as an exercise in frustration and humiliation. 

The MU Health webpage also touts academic benefits as one of the upsides of enrolling kids in sports, reporting that “sports require memorization, repetition and learning — skill sets that are directly relevant to classwork. Also, the determination and goal-setting skills sports require can be transferred to the classrooms.”  

This makes sense. And yet, the article fails to mention that when long weekend tournaments and late night games and practices rob children of precious sleep, the impact on their grades, as well as their mental and social well-being, can be significant.

It isn’t uncommon for 4th and 5th graders to have ballgames on school nights that keep the players out late and deprive them of the recommended amount of sleep for children their age. It can’t be argued that the benefits of sports outweigh the benefits of a good night’s rest, yet families all over the country sacrifice their kids’ sleep for the game on a regular basis. 

As far as sports being a stress reliever, again, that depends. Exercise is an excellent way to burn off energy and relieve tension. But the high stakes nature of many kids’ sports today can add an unhealthy stress component to childhood. Not only do some children feel intense pressure to win and to excel, but the amount of time required to be on a highly competitive team can prevent kids from getting much needed downtime – a crucial factor when it comes to stress relief. 

It’s this downtime that my friend, Audra, is so wisely trying to protect for her family. How do families juggle sports with the need and the desire for a freer schedule and plenty of time to just hang out and be together? How do we encourage our kids to plays sports without ruining childhood?

Balance is key.

It isn’t easy. While my husband and I don’t advocate specialization in just one sport (a practice that is increasingly coming under fire, in part because of the increased chance of injury), we do enforce an off season. Mercifully, off season for all of our children coincided this year. The entire family took the winter off. 

It was glorious. 

We ate dinner together as a family night after night. We were in our pajamas most nights by 7:00. We read books and binged watched entire seasons of “Lost” on Netflix. Most nights the kids were in bed at a reasonable hour — even our two high school daughters who both carried heavy course loads. In short, our winter was relaxing, happy, and sane. Sports are great, but it’s also hard to overestimate the value of quiet evenings at home as a family.

This isn’t to say that an off season is the answer for every family. For some families the balance might lie elsewhere; they might decide against team sports all together. The important thing is realizing that this isn’t 1955 or even 1985. Any decisions parents make about sports will likely have specific and possibly significant consequences for the entire family.

There’s no question that there are very real benefits for children who play sports. There are also very real dangers if sports are taken too seriously. So, what do I tell Audra? 

When (and if) your family is ready, sports are awesome. You will enjoy many hours at the ball field or on the road together. Sports can be a great way to bond as a family and for your child to gain new skills – both on and off the field. So sign him up! Encourage him! Cheer for him!

But whether he plays on a high stakes, competitive team, or he warms the bench for the worst team in the league, don’t forget to have fun!

When a Game of Catch Becomes a Conversation Between Mother and Son

Sussing out the needs of your introverted kid sometimes means quietly letting them take the lead.

Amid the chaos of sorting through a family of needs, I’ve been freshly stumped by how to reach my middle son. At eight years old, he is my introvert who rarely tells me what he needs by using actual words.

Instead, he pads into the kitchen where I’ve come to get my morning coffee, early, before the other two children are awake. He tucks into the couch cushions next to me and says nothing, but I know he has come seeking something. I’ll put my arms around him, scratch his back, and send him off to the pantry to fetch his breakfast.

My other two children are more similar to me, or annoying distant relatives: they announce, audibly, what they need, want, and feel. In contrast, nurturing my middle son takes finesse – he is a puzzle, a particular treasure.

It turns out that he is also the one who orchestrates most of the outdoor pick-up games my children play together. When he’s setting up for his latest baseball-themed game, he nestles into his best self. He’ll call to me, beckoning me outside, where he’ll proudly list all the rules everyone else has agreed to.

“Here, look what I can do,” he says.

Once, at 6:30 in the morning, he asked me to come outside with him and play catch. I had just poured my first cup of coffee and had yet to wake my other two children. My aging, accident-prone dog had poop-stamped the entire first floor of my house (if this gift of morning is unknown to you, you have all my envy). The dishwasher was full. There were lunches to be made. Also, I’m not sporty, at least not early in the morning. Still, my son wanted to play catch – with me.

He suggested we pass a Frisbee, a soccer ball, a baseball – he didn’t care what. I shrugged, sliding my flip-flops onto my feet, and carried my coffee mug out to the yard.

“Mom, you need to put that down if you’re going to catch this,” he said smiling, his tone just a little fresh. He chopped the air with the Frisbee in hand, waiting patiently. I obeyed him then, setting my cup down on the stone wall.

We slung the Frisbee back and forth to one another, leaping through the grass and yelping with each catch or missed pass. We grinned, the fog of our morning routine slowly lifting. Perhaps, I thought, there was something to this sports thing after all. We focused on him, on me, and back again. We laughed, first when I made a catch and ad-libbed an end-zone dance, and second, when he dove for the Frisbee and landed face-first in the pachysandra.

Next, the dog walked beside us and vomited into the grass. When he began to eat it again, my son howled, delightfully sickened. He mocked the dog, retching with his face hovering over the lawn.

Then, he leaped into the air to catch a pass before falling down.

“I almost made an Odell!” he shouted, excited.

“A what?” I asked.

“Mom, you seriously don’t know what an Odell is?”

I held my hands out in the air, showing him I had nothing.

That’s when he schooled me, and now I can report back with nerd-like pride: it’s a type of catch, named for one typically made by a football player named Odell, in which a person leaps backwards into the air and catches the ball with one hand.

Before long, my other two children wandered out back in their pajamas and asked if they could play, too. I smiled and shrugged – of course everyone could play, that’s our family rule. So began a morning baseball game using a skateboard, a Razor stick, and a Frisbee to mark first, second, and third bases. My children hashed out and agreed upon the rules (these flex from day to day) and my four-year-old promptly broke them by urinating on home plate – a boogie board – because he was too engrossed in the game to stop and use a toilet.

By that time, I was back on the wall, finally sitting and drinking my coffee. My middle son and I looked at each other and smiled. We’d had our time, however brief, and it was sweet. 

In the absence of any clear and open signs from my son, I could have worried incessantly about what he needed. Sometimes, the nagging sense that something is up with your child actually gets in the way. Had one of us inadvertently said something hurtful to him? How could I help him? Was I doing something to make him feel more lost, less included in the family?

In the end, what he needed was for me to let him take the lead and show me how I could care for him – I just had to quiet down enough to be able to listen.

6 Things to do When Your Kids’ Sport Season is Over

Coach Justin’s list of how to decompress when the sport season ends.

We’re a hockey family: I play, and my two boys play. Mom does not play yet, but her skating has come a long way on the backyard rink. I get asked all the time what my boys are going to do in the off-season.

It’s a question for the ages. Just to begin, there is no perfect answer. Every kid and athlete are different – some can’t get enough of a particular sport, some just want to be done, and this can change year to year.

An athlete may not want to hang up their skates for the spring when the season is going well. But if the season has been a long one, they may be counting down the minutes until the gear can go back in its bag for the summer. Either way, younger kids (especially ages five to 15) need a break. If they don’t want a break, too bad. Time for some tough love. They will thank you for it.

Either way, younger kids (especially ages five to 15) need a break. If they don’t want a break, too bad. Time for some tough love. They will thank you for it.

This leads me to my list of how we decompress when the season ends and how we start to plan for next year now.

1 | Communicate.

Ask your athlete how they felt about their season. Maybe start a journal with your younger athletes. If your kid is older and heading into high school, they should be tracking their performances anyway. Now would be a good time to start. Here are some sample questions I like to ask:

  • What aspect of your season did you like best?
  • What skill did you improve upon the most?
  • What do you wish you could do over?
  • What are two things you want to improve upon before the next season begins?
  • Now that the season is over, is this a sport you would like to continue?

2 | Plan the gear for next year.

Quickly go through your kids’ gear and see what will fit them for another season and what they’ll need new for next year.

Consider your kid’s skill level when assessing his or her equipment needs. Are they getting good at a particular sport? If so, will they need better than average – or even custom – gear? This type of gear typically takes longer for fitting and ordering purposes so plan ahead.

I order my kids’ gear about four months before the start of the season. This allows enough time for fitting, any possibly delays in delivery, and a couple of months for them to break in the new stuff.

The downside to planning ahead is the risk of buying a bunch of gear that your kid outgrows before the season starts. My kids are growing a ton right now and they can outgrow equipment over just a summer. If any of you have suggestions about handling this kind of snafu, I am all ears!

3 | Play a different sport. Or lots of them.

Again, my boys play hockey, and a lot of it. They start in October and finish in May. Now that our last spring tournament is complete I’ve switched my boys’ hockey gear out for a baseball glove and bat.

In Vermont, our baseball season is only five weeks long, maybe six. So once the flash of the baseball season has passed, what do we do? Well, we do everything. Fishing, golf, play lacrosse in the backyard, driveway basketball games, hiking, wiffle ball is a big hit,We also encourage our kids to get in plenty of swimming at the pool, lake, or ocean during the summer – whatever we can do together as a family to stay active and continue to build and learn about our athletic abilities.

I hear coaches talk all the time about the importance of playing multiple sports and building athleticism – I couldn’t agree more.

5 | Try a new sports camp.

We are a household where both parents work. We have a great family support network during the summer, but we also rely on sports camps to expose our boys to new types of activities that they might not discover on their own.

My youngest goes to a skateboarding camp, and my oldest wants to try a survival camp. Our goal as parents is to make sure they’re learning new things and experiencing new adventures each and every day of summer if possible.

6 | Work on skills for next season.

First, don’t specialize you child until at least high school – maybe even after their sophomore year, depending on your child’s development. They may think they want to be in the NBA at age nine, but other factors will eventually decide their favorite sport. Let them figure that out.

One way to help them along that path is to use just a little bit of off-season time for skill development. My boys typically do one week of power skating in the summer.

My older boy, who is eight, is going to learn about athletic training at a twice weekly training program for younger athletes. Each summer this program will progressively get more and more intense.

At the end of the day, sports are about the experience.

Our sons also attend one week of hockey camp in the off-season. Some of my best memories as a hockey player growing up are from sleepaway hockey camp. Even with the non-air-conditioned dorms and bad food, camp was always where I grew the most as a player. It also gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I got to try different camps and go to different places, which helped me as a kid to get out of my comfort zone and find new ways to engage with sports.

At the end of the day, sports are about the experience. Just look at baseball: only 1 in 1,000 kids that play in high school even get a shot at the big leagues. The odds of your kid becoming a professional athlete in any sport are incredibly small, so try not to make that the focus – for them or you.

Give your kids the chance at a young age to grow and learn to love athletics for what they do to enhance our lives. Maybe that’s working toward a career as a pro athlete, but maybe it’s just learning how to be the best you can at a particular task, and then repeat. Kind of like what the real world asks of us every day.

As a parent of two very athletic boys all I can say is I want them to work hard and have fun when they are doing it. Sometimes working hard and having fun is just taking a step away to reset their athletic clocks for the next long (or short) season.