Why is Norway, a country with a population of only 5.3 million, better at Winter Olympic sports than the United States?
While it would be easy to claim that Norway’s snowy climate offers a huge advantage, the U.S. has plenty of top ski resorts for its athletes. Plus, this country has state-of-the-art training facilities, a huge pool of potential athletes, and the enormous resources of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The difference might lie in our youth sports system – and theirs.
Many journalists and sports experts have been looking into Norway’s performance in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to figure out how the Norwegian competitors performed so well. Its athletes won 39 medals, the most of any country in the history of the Winter Games.
The secret doesn’t seem to be the methods Norway uses to train its top athletes in the years before they compete on the world stage, but the ways they encourage sports participation for all young children.
Norway’s youth sports system is almost a polar opposite to what we do with our kids here, as Tom Farrey points out in an article in this week’s New York Times.
In 1987, the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports created a statement called the Children’s Rights in Sports that governs how kids participate in athletics. All 54 national sport federations agree to abide by the rules or risk losing government funding.
The basic premise of the Children’s Rights in Sports is to make sports available for all kids. The goal of sports is to have fun. Instead of the pressure for kids to specialize in one sport and play it year-round right away, as is common in the U.S., Norway wants kids to play sports because they enjoy it.
Their leagues don’t keep score before age 13. There are no national championships held for teams younger than 13 and no regional championships before age 11. In an effort to avoid eating disorders or other body-related issues, they don’t even weigh young athletes.
Once kids reach age 13, Norway’s sports federations make top coaches available to athletes skilled in those sports. But until age 13, it’s all about participation.
A study performed by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70 percent of American children quit sports by age 13. One of the main reasons kids give for dropping out is that sports are no longer fun.
With such a small pool of kids compared to countries like the U.S., Norway can’t afford to have its kids dropping out of sports.
By not keeping score in games, and by not ranking young athletes and teams, kids can play sports to have fun, spend time with their friends, and grow to love sports so that they stay active for life. And because there is little pressure to compete with each other, the young athletes can share tips on how to improve.
It might seem like a system based on fun and encouraging kids to stick with sports would come up short compared to our system of national championships for 7-year-olds, parents hiring private coaches for 9-year-olds, and families traveling across the country every weekend for tournaments. But the Norwegian athletes get just as much physical activity as the Americans.
Instead of playing the same sport day after day, month after month, and year after year, Norwegian children learn and develop a broader range of skills and physical abilities, potentially making them better, more well-rounded athletes as they get older.
It’s true that, unlike the U.S., college is free in Norway. Parents in the Scandinavian country don’t feel the pressure to pull their children out of one team and move them to a more successful team or hire expensive private coaches in hopes of a college scholarship.
Whether the United States ever adopts a program like Norway’s, parents can use these principles on their own. Let kids pick which sports they want to play. Encourage them to try a variety of sports and switch when they want to. Take pressure off the kids by focusing on developing skills and getting better instead of scores and ranks. Make sports fun again.
After all, the goal should be to develop the best college and professional athletes, not the best 10-year-old athletes.
Editor’s note: Dr. David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”