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.
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.