Norway’s Answer To Youth Sports

I recently watched a show on HBO that explored Norway’s approach to youth sports. It was eyeopening. Anyone who has participated or been associated with youth sports in this country during the past thirty or so years will tell you, if they’re being objective, that the model is out of control. We train, pressure and attempt to develop eight year olds as if they’re pro athletes, so it should surprise no one that a study performed by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70% of American children quit sports by the age of thirteen. One of the main reasons given for dropping out is that sports in no longer fun.

Enter Norway.

They basically take the approach that the United States is using, and do the opposite. Back in 1987, Norway adopted a statement called Children’s Rights In Sports. It governs how kids participate in athletics and all national sports federations are obligated to abide by the rules. The basic premise centers on making sports available for all kids with the goal of having fun. Instead of the pressure for kids to participate in one sport year round at an early age, like we do in the United States, Norway wants kids to play sports because its fun and they enjoy it.
By the way, 93 percent of children grow up playing organized sports in Norway, where there are no economic barriers, travel teams aren’t formed until teenage years and adults don’t begin separating weak from strong until children have grown into their bodies and interests. Leagues don’t keep scores until the age of 13, there are no national championships for teams younger than 13 and no regionals until 11. Once a child reaches thirteen, has begun to grow into their bodies and expressed specific interests, Norway’s sports federation make top coaches available to athletes skilled in those sports, but until then, it’s only about participation and letting kids be kids and have fun. Their belief is that it’s impossible to say at 8 or 10 who is going to be talented in school or sport. All children develop, physically and athletically, at very different ages.

What a concept!! Letting a child have fun, living their lives and playing sports for the pure enjoyment of it.

One would think that a system like this would come up short compared to our system of national championships for seven year olds, parents hiring coaches for nine year olds and families traveling across the country for tournaments. But Norwegian athletes get just as much physical exercise without having to play the same sports day after day, year after year, while they’re young. Their development is all encompassing and they are able to enjoy friendships and family without the stresses and commitments we see in this country.

Their goal is not to develop the best college or professional athlete, but the best well rounded person.

Oh, and if anyone thinks this approach doesn’t breed success, take a look at the last Winter Olympics in 2018. With a population of only 5.3 million people, Norway took home 39 medals, more than any country in the history of the Winter Games. And yes, they also have the best female soccer player in the world.

Is it any wonder that Norway always ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world?

Youth sports in this country is a 16 billion dollar industry bankrolled by parents who just don’t understand the long term impact on their children.

In a country where money speaks first, parents dictate direction and children have become a secondary priority, there is little chance that we will ever see the type of youth sports revolution Norway adopted.

And once again, children lose.

 

 

46 thoughts on “Norway’s Answer To Youth Sports

  1. LA

    Don’t get me started on parenting. The problem is, the imbalance. Sports culture is huge in America and there’s too many people who think the way to get rich is through sports. Just ask me how I feel about football and basketball scholarships to college, and the way college athletics is run. The problem with youth sports is a too much/too little scenario. I’ve seen some parents who want their kids to be “stars” not realizing* what that means. Then there are kids playing for the fun. The opposite ends of the spectrum are both not so great…the answer falls somewhere in the middle. I think kids need to know how to win and lose graciously. Sports teaches that. But there should also be time for playing sports for fun, the live of the game. Personally I think there are broader reasons for kids stopping sports at 13 or so. Most kids realize they’re just not that good, and does anyone want to spend time on things that they’re not good at? Schoolwork is harder. Some get jobs. Others find non athletic pursuits that they like. My daughter stopped playing organized softball and soccer at about 12 because it wasn’t fun….but that’s not a complete answer. She ran track in middle school, and played tennis in high school, amongst a whole bunch of other extracurriculars. In college she doesn’t plan on playing varsity tennis because time commitment is too large, but she does plan on club tennis. Also, many kids get into spirts for scholarships…the rub is, outside of big televised athletics, there just isn’t that much scholarship money. Good thought provoking post

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you and you’re right, there is more than one reason why kids quit sports. I think sports can be a great teacher if it’s done right but I’ve seen too many very good athletes, with chances at scholarships, quit in their early teens because they were unhappy and wanted to try something else. If there wasn’t that year round commitment at an early age maybe they could have pursued other avenues and come back to sports or just found something else that made them happy. But we do t give young kids a chance to do that in this country. It’s all or nothing and if you do t have the money to support the cross country trips and trainers, we’ll, you never even get a fair look. You may be very talented but you may never get a shot.
      We could go on for hours on this topic.

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    1. oldmainer

      I never played organized sports as a youth. All my baseball was pick up games where the worst thing that happened was I got picked last. Parents did not attend. Football resulted in cuts and bruises and getting the wind knocked out of you. Parents did not attend. Hockey was played on a frozen swamp with swamp grass poking through the ice with some of us wearing girls figure skates. Parents did not attend. Basketball was played only when the kid that owned the ball was available on a homemade hoop, net not included. Parents did not attend. None of us had professional asperations. We did it because it was fun.

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      1. George Post author

        Couldn’t have said it better. I think I played organized CYO basketball when I was a kid but except for that we went to parks, playgrounds, even on the street and played with other kids for fun. And yes, never a parent around. And I had the best time.

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  2. Book Club Mom

    I could also leave a long rant here because we have been through this system and stepped out of it. Remember when you could try a sport at the high school level and actually be on a team? Or even play 2 or 3 high school sports and not have the seasons run into each other? And all this starts when the kids are 5 and 6 years old. Great post, George.

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    1. George Post author

      It’s really difficult to watch. And yes, I remember when you could play different sports and not have to commit to one and feel guilty if you don’t. Very sad.

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  3. Anne Mehrling

    We’ve known a couple of Norwegian men, now in their 40’s, who must have participated in sports when they were children,. They are still enjoying sports! I don’t know all that they do, but they ski regularly. I’m guessing the average Norwegian is much more likely to be playing sports in middle age than an average American. That would be another plus for taking the pressure out of children’s sports.

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  4. Dale

    Excellent essay, George.
    Attitudes are so very different in Norway (and other Scandinavian countries, I bet). Everything is so push, push, push and they forget to let the kids enjoy themselves.

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    1. George Post author

      Adults have a tendency to do that. I do t ever remember that being an issue when I was younger, mainly because most of what I played didn’t involve organized sports.

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  5. Ann Coleman

    You nailed this! I had no idea Norway was doing it right, but I do know that the US is doing it wrong. Here, kids are starting organized sports at age three…some still in diapers! I couldn’t believe it when I heard that, until I saw the Facebook posts (because you know, every parent has to brag about their kid’s sports accomplishments on Facebook) with little toddlers on teams. And it just gets worse from there.
    It was bad enough when my kids were young, and they didn’t even play on travel teams, just local community and CYC teams. But the coaches and parents put the pressure on at a very early age to separate the “good players” from the “bad players” so that they could win. So some kids decided they weren’t very good before they even had a chance to develop their skills, and other kids never learned how to be a team player because they had been taught their role was only to be the star of the team.
    I do worry about my grandson…I hate the thought of him having to play sports under so much pressure, and hope that his parents hold out against the craziness of travel teams, where the entire family’s schedule (and a huge chunk of cash) revolves around a child’s sports experience. So sad! We should learn from Norway, but we won’t, I fear.

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    1. George Post author

      I worry about the grandchildren because I can see what’s happening with my own. It’s just crazy and it’s sucks them in.
      You’re right, some kids never get the chance they deserve because they never have the chance to develop. Just let the kids play and be kids.
      Thanks, Ann.

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  6. aFrankAngle

    I had no clue about this. Thank you. Kids don’t have time to be kids because parents are pressuring them at sports, academics, and whatever else. No wonder we seldom see kids playing outside anymore.

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    1. George Post author

      Right? I go past ball fields and basketball courts and they’re empty unless they’re an organized game going on. I loved playing when I was younger with just my friends. No parents, no officials.

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  7. thechickengrandma

    Amen George!!! You said this so well. My husband never cared for team sports so our sons were not forced to participate either…..we also lived 10 miles out of town and did not have the financial resources to haul our boys to town every day in the summer so they could participate. I think that might have been a blessing.
    I really think young kids should spend some of their time being kids….climbing trees, kicking rocks around and catching fireflies at night…..but then…maybe I am old and just love the thought of kids being kids and not mini adults.

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    1. George Post author

      No, you’re not old, you just understand what’s most important. I think sports, if done right, is a great learning tool. But all too often kids get the short end of the stick.

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  8. murisopsis

    My sons are 6′ but as elementary students were on the short side. My older son loved basketball but was not selected for the team because he was too small. His best friend was chosen (5’10” in 5th grade) but couldn’t handle the ball. As a result, my sons became disillusioned with organized sports and never played except pick-up games. Everyone kept asking him why he wasn’t on the HS team. In a way I’m glad he was shut out – he put his energy into academics…

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    1. George Post author

      I think that’s the point Norway is making. Let kids play and develop naturally and everything will weed itself out. Develop well rounded children.

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  9. The Coastal Crone

    I knew that Norway was one of the happiest countries but their children are very fortunate indeed! Sports for children in the USA has gotten worse and worse. They are pushed from an early age to win at all costs. Yes, they learn from teamwork and dedication, but let them have fun while they are small and give them time to develop physically and given then a chance to choose. Kudos for Norway – and they still produce top athletes.

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  10. Ellis Kelsey

    You really nailed it. The psychotic need for getting ahead is a truly american obsession and a byproduct of capital forces. It’s really important that you included the success of Norwegian sports; it’s direct testament that the greater athletic whole of a society has more to do with lifestyle than premature competition. Well done

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  11. runjumpskip

    I, Maria, love this whole concept. We began a program here in Ireland which seemed fun but then the competitive side of us adults took over and we literally kicked the fun out of the sport. Now all sport is so competitive many children are turning their backs on it.

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  12. Jason Cory

    Wow, this was an interesting read! Thank you. I agree that children need to be allowed to be children and we should prioritize their enjoyment of the sport; children shouldn’t be forced to participate.

    Liked by 1 person

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