When we arrived at the swim meet, my boys immediately jumped in the water to warm up while I scanned the roster of the day’s events. Medley relay, butterfly, backstroke—check. Then I stopped. Not only were my fraternal twins both swimming in the 50 meter freestyle—we were used to that—but their seed times were so close that the league put them in the same heat, and in lanes right next to each other. Talk about head-to-head competition. What were we gearing up for?
When you mix school-age twins and sports, sometimes you create moments worthy of a tearful Hallmark card as each child cheers the other on. Unfortunately, other times their interaction in the sports arena resembles a wresting match as each tries to dominate his co-twin. It’s just the nature of the beast when you have two kids who are the same age with similar interests and abilities.
Kathy Hird of Fort Collins, Colo. can relate. Her ten-year-old identical twin boys have been playing on the same soccer team for several years. Although her sons often encourage each other, it’s not always the case. “When one twin performs better than the other, we encourage good sportsmanship and ask that he not gloat,” she says. “But typically the winner gloats a little while pretending to support his brother. Deep down they both want the other to do well but also want him to come in second!”
So should parents steer their twins in opposite directions when it comes to playing sports? Will it be better for their individual growth and relationship if they compete in different athletics? Maybe, maybe not, according to sports psychologist and licensed therapist Joel Fish. “The relationship and the personalities of the twins are key factors,” he says. The father of boy-girl twins as well as a singleton and the author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent : Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child, Fish believes parents need to look not only at the twin bond and how competitive they are but also at their emotional maturity and skill levels.
“In my clinical experience, the identical twin relationship is more intense and it can come out either in them wanting to do the same sports even in high school to having more difficulty being on the same team with one having more recognition than the other,” he explains.
According to Fish, it can be a bit easier for boy-girl twins to compete on the same team. “Identity formation is a key challenge for young twins. Children want to answer, ‘Who am I? How adequate am I?’ And I think that when they are a different sex, they have a different starting point to answer those questions,” he says. For boy-girl twins, those questions are easier to answer since they aren’t constantly asked in relation to each other. And it’s that difference in identity formation that translates to better cooperation on the same field.
Michelle Dowell of Fargo, North Dakota says her six-year-old boy-girl twins are awesome T-ball teammates. “They encourage each other all the time,” she says. “I never deal with them being jealous of each other.”
What About Twin Rivalry?
Letizia Ripandelli of Ontario, Canada says she let the soccer coach decide to place her six-year-old identical twin boys on the same soccer team. Like many monozygotic twins, Luigi and Umberto are well matched in ability as well as in size and weight. “It’s difficult to tell them apart on the field from the way they play,” she says. From her point of view, playing on the same team has kept her sons’ rivalry to a minimum. “They’re competitive boys and if they were on opposite teams they would not rejoice quite so much if their brother were doing better.”
Yet according to Fish, when it comes to twins, parents don’t always need to equal the playing field. “Parents are quick to squash that sibling rivalry especially around sports because it’s so uncomfortable and there are so many fears of how it’s going to play out,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a natural sibling rivalry that can’t really be squashed and instead goes underground.” Fish advises parents to instead set some boundaries of the right and wrong ways to handle these feelings of jealousy. “You have to acknowledge it and normalize the sibling rivalry,” he says.
If your twins are having difficulty competing together in sports, try to say something like, “I understand that you’re upset that Johnny made the team but you didn’t. But it’s not OK for you to hit him or hide his glove. What you need to do is to talk to Mom or Dad about it and we’ll decide the best way to handle that feeling.”
Learning to Be a Good Sport
Yet it’s a two-way street, according to Fish. “Parents have to look at both sides. The achiever needs to show it in a gracious way as opposed to a put-down,” he says. “For the child who didn’t achieve, parents need to give that child permission to feel upset, angry, and jealous but learn how to express it.” Win or lose, there’s always an opportunity for parents to help their twins mature emotionally.
Brenda Grinnell’s ten-year-old fraternal twin boys have long recognized their differing abilities. Both her boys played on the same basketball team this past season but one was more able in the sport than his co-twin. “They did support each other, sometimes better than other times,” explains the La Crescenta, Calif. mom. “We do emphasize good sportsmanship over victory without lessening the competitive edge. It’s not easy and does create a lot of tears but that’s what we’re working towards,” she adds. “Growth—both physical and mental—is never easy but it’s an exciting process.”
Logistics Has Its Place
For many families with twins, having their children play on the same team just makes more sense. Jan Bentley of Buckeye, Ariz., says having her seven-year-old fraternal twin girls play on the same soccer team was a no-brainer. “If they had been on different teams, they would have had different practice days and different games times,” she explains. “I wanted to be able to watch them equally and not have to been in two places at the same time.”
Other parents agree. With family time so precious, no one wants to be the afternoon taxi driver. “It’s easier to manage for me especially being a single mom working full time,” adds Jyll Petro of Waterbury, Conn., whose five-year-old identical twin boys play soccer together, too.
Although logistics and cost should be part of the decision-making process when it comes to picking sports for your twins, it shouldn’t be the only factors. “Parents should look at what makes the most sense this year for their children and then re-visit that decision again the next sports season,” Fish cautions. “I encourage parents to be honest with all the factors and figure out what’s in the best interest of the children.”
That’s the conclusion that the Brady family of Fort Collins, Colo. came to. For years, ten-year-old fraternal twins Tucker and Keegan played on the same soccer team because it was easier. But once Tucker was diagnosed with Cold Induced Asthma, the family decided to switch him to an indoor sport that dealt more with upper-body strength. “Gymnastics seemed like the logical choice. He’s thrived in this environment and has had many accomplishments and made many new friends,” says mom Robyn.
As an added bonus, both boys have had a chance to tap into their own identities, free of comparisons from outsiders. “Many of their teammates didn’t even know they were twins until one twin showed up at a game,” Brady adds. “The boys are proud to be in different activities and tell everyone about it.”
Take Your Cues from Your Kids
So what happened at my sons’ swim meet? Neither boy seemed to notice going head-to-head and I didn’t bother to call their attention to it either. I think I was more concerned with the issue than they were. Yet to my surprise, I found it easy to cheer for both boys at the same time. I didn’t care who won or lost, I just wanted to see a great race.
And I did.