03/07/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated May 07, 2012

Youth Sports: Getting It Right For Kids

This year, my 11-year-old daughter decided she wanted to qualify for the New England YMCA Swimming Championships.

I was proud -- and worried.

This would change swimming for Natasha. Before, she had just been having fun and getting exercise. This would move her firmly into the competitive part of youth sports, and I felt decidedly mixed about that, having lived it with her older brother. Zack swam from when he was seven to when he definitively left the sport on graduating from high school. His life was organized around practices and meets; it revolved around cut times for different championships, some of which were barely and frustratingly out of reach. The stress of it took its toll on him -- and us.

It would change swimming for me, I'd be back into the role of swim parent. I was never one of those swim parents, the ones who berate not just their kids but the coaches and officials (the Hockey Dad phenomenon is hardly unique to hockey). But although theoretically we parents are supposed to leave everything to the coaches, that's a little like saying that we are supposed to leave it to the teachers to get our kids to school and make sure they do their homework. Parents do need to be involved; there is a certain amount of pushing (it's a rare kid who never gets comfy on the couch right as practice time rolls around) and motivating that comes with the parenthood territory. The challenge is in getting that push to feel like encouragement and not pressure, and I know from experience that it's not always easy to get it right. Over the years with Zack, there were times I got it wrong.

That's the thing: it's not easy to get youth sports right. Increasingly, they have become about achievement. As a result, we are seeing a lot of stressed-out kids. Not only that, we are seeing overuse injuries in younger kids, as they not only start sports earlier but specialize earlier, playing the same sport year-round. I let one of my kids do that, because swimming was what he loved and it was what the fastest swimmers were doing. But knowing what I know now, could I let another?

The season drew to a close and the qualifying times stayed barely and frustratingly out of reach for Natasha. As she got up on the blocks for one of her very last chances to make New Englands, my heart was pounding. She needed to swim the 50 yard butterfly in 37.50 seconds or faster to make it.

She was calm, with the poise and elegance of a ballerina, something new since she started swimming. As she reached forward to get into position, her arms and shoulders rippled with muscles from the hours in the pool. The buzzer sounded and she flew into the water, swimming with a grace and power I hadn't seen in her before. I held my breath as she pulled ahead; I couldn't bring myself to look at the clock until her hands hit the pad at the end.

37.25 seconds. She had done it.

And in that moment I remembered what Zack had tried to explain to me so many times about swimming: despite all that was hard and disappointing, he had loved it and would do it again. Yes, he left the sport behind. But the main reason he left was that he wanted to put the energy and effort into other things -- and he did. He took the determination and discipline that swimming taught him, and turned it into success in college.

Kids need chances to work hard. They need to set goals that might end up being barely and frustratingly out of reach, because if you always avoid disappointment you will never see how far you can go -- and both achievement and disappointment have powerful lessons to teach.

Youth sports can give kids those chances to work hard. The challenge for us as parents and coaches is to figure out how to take care of kids physically and emotionally as they strive -- which is going to take change, because I don't think we are taking care of them enough now. We need better education and guidelines; kids need to achieve, but they need to be kids, too. As with so much else in parenthood and life, it's a matter of balance.

Natasha has one more meet, but she doesn't care if she qualifies in any other events. She did what she set out to do, qualify, and that's enough. Sounds pretty balanced to me.