As I write this, Norway is tied for second in total medals and gold medals at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
Norwegians are projected to take home 45 medals by the end of these Games, surpassing the 39 they won at the 2018 Winter Olympics. That total was way above those for the United States, Russia, Canada and Germany.
Norway’s population is 5.4 million, which is about the size of metro Detroit.
So how do they do it? How does a country that small dominate the Winter Olympics? (Norway has also produced some excellent athletes in the Summer Olympics.)
They focus on making sports fun for their young people.
“It’s impossible to say at eight or 10 or 12 who is going to be talented in school or sport. That takes another 10 years. Our priority is the child becoming self-reflective about their bodies and minds,” said Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian confederation. “We’re a small country and can’t afford to lose them because sport is not fun.”
The philosophy of emphasizing fun in sports is supported by research. As sociologist Alfie Kohn notes, “Nothing, according to the research, predicts excellence like finding the task fun.”
But Norway’s athletic success comes from more than just focusing on fun. Norway has a national youth sports policy that’s the foundation of all such activities. Here are a few key pieces from that document:
- “Children have the right to participate in training and competitive activities which will facilitate development of friendship and solidarity.”
- “Children have the right to experience a sense of mastery and to learn many different skills. They must also be granted opportunities for variation, training and interaction with others.”
- “Children have the right to state their viewpoints and to be heard. They must be granted opportunities to participate in planning and execution of their own sports activities along with coaches and parents.”
- “Children have the right to choose which sport, or how many sports, they would like to participate in – and decide for themselves how much they would like to train.”
- “An example of a violation of these rights is if a child is pressured by the parents to participate in competitions against its will.”
Children in Norway are encouraged to play multiple sports. Too often, North American kids are pushed to specialize in a single sport when as young as nine years old by coaches, parents or both.
In Norway, the focus for kids 12 and under is whole child development. Game scores aren’t kept, and children aren’t ranked based on ability. High-priced elite travel teams for children simply don’t exist. After age 12, youngsters can choose to enter more competitive sports situations with higher-level coaching, but it’s their choice. Adults don’t force them to.
“Imagine a society in which 93 percent of children grow up playing organized sports,” wrote Tom Farrey in the New York Times. “Where costs are low, the economic barriers to entry few, travel teams aren’t formed until the teenage years – and where adults don’t start sorting the weak from the strong until children have grown into their bodies and interests.”
By contrast, the youth sports model in the United States is driven by the ego-based desires of adults (e.g., win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs). Coaches and parents focus on winning championships, all-star recognition, travel teams and college scholarships, even at the youngest ages. Meanwhile, surveys show that kids just want to learn new skills, hang out with friends and have fun.
Norway’s sports system emphasizes public health, whole child development, physical education, recreation, social relationships, and physical and mental health.
Lifelong participation in sports is common in Norway. On the other hand, by the time American children reach their teen years, approximately three-quarters of them have quit organized sports due to burnout, overuse injuries, or simply because the adults in their lives have taken the fun out of it.
As a society, it’s time we take a hard look at Norway’s approach to youth sports.
If not, our kids and Olympic medal counts will continue to suffer.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.
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