Competitive Sports: When is it Too Young?

For all you Preschool parents out there, just wait till recreation or competitive sports comes into your lives. At a young age, my parents had my brother and me in several different sports. Soccer, baseball & swimming, you name it. Never football. My father played football in High School. One day when I was Jr. High, I asked him why he never allowed us to never play football like him and he said point blank “Football was never a love of mine because it was so violent, there are too many other sports that are less harmful, that’s why I loved swimming.” While my parents kept us in sports from the age of 5 or 6 until we were in high school, what I have learned from my life in swimming, from the age of 7 to 18, is one thing, there is such a thing as too early. 

As a parent, you're exposed to the pressures of other parents impose their children sports schedules onto you to become the best at something at an early age — music, sports, and school you name it. The reality is all parents have that one thing they push their children on, whether they want to admit it or not. Is this wrong? I am not one to judge, but when it comes to sports, my experience did open my eyes on the subject of when I became a parent. I cherish my years as a swimmer but swimming at a competitive level, at an early age does have its consequences. 

Around the age of 16, I started feeling a lot of pain in my shoulders after long practices. The pain would only manifest during school or at night in bed. By 17, the pain was so unbearable, I would scream out in pain inadvertently in the middle of class. In my junior year in high school I started to finally see a sports doctor who diagnosed me with tendonitis in both shoulders. After a year of therapy, in the middle of my senior year, my doctor finally gave me real news. If I continued to compete at the level of swimming I was at, in college. By the time my career was over in college, I would never be able to lift my arms above my shoulders. I made a choice the following 24 hours that it was time to be done with swimming. I quit my USS team and opted to only swim with my high school for one last season.

Making that decision was very hard but within a year my tendonitis symptoms were become less painful and reconnecting with several past swimmers, made me realize one thing. I started year-round swimming at the age of 7, and by the age of 18, less than a handful of swimming-mates were still swimming and all were younger than me. As the years progressed, the swimmers who made it the national or the Olympic level, were either exceptionally gifted or start swimming after the age of 10. When our eldest started elementary school, the wave of conversation with parents about sports began. 

Growing up, most kids age 6-9 played in recreation sports, while competitive level sports were for the more passionate or seasoned players after the age of 10. Swimming was one of those few exceptions. You could start swimming as early as six but never 4 or 5. Today it’s all changed. The lowest age group is still 8 & Under but the ages parents start their kids in year-round swimming has dropped tremendously. 30+ years ago, most parents put their kids on USS year-round swim teams between 7 to 10 years. Today that age has dropped as young as five years of age. 

Now I am not saying other experiences are exactly like mine, but I have to point out, the cold hard truth about all sports. Is the reality injury is a hard truth. All sports careers have a shelf life and to expect a child of 6 to last all the way till college (10-14 years) is just increasing the odds of substantial injury. I will continue to weather the storm of pressure to put my kids on competitive teams for a few more years. My kid's health is too important to us, and while talent is always an added pressure, talent never goes away.