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Norway Leads The Medal Tally With Low-Stress Junior Sport Approach

Photo: Ola Matsson. Small children skiing in the famous Tyrisil ski resort of Norway

It was fascinating to watch the sporting community’s response to Norway finishing on top of the Winter Olympics medal tally. For a country of only 5.2 million, they finished with an incredible 39 medals from the 102 events at the games.

Journalists went looking for a secret of success. They found one part of it in the Norwegian approach to children’s sport, which values participation above glory. For example, scores are not kept in games involving children under 13. The Guardian interviewed Norway’s Olympic Committee president, Tom Tvedt, who said: ‘Our vision is sport for all.

‘Before you are 12 you should have fun with sport. So we don’t focus on who the winner is before then. Instead we are very focused on getting children into our 11,000 local sports clubs.’

Mr Tvedt said 93 per cent of children and young people participated in sport. Another Norwegian sporting boss, Tore Ovrebo, told Time, ‘We do it this way, others do it another way.

‘We want to leave the kids alone. We want them to play. We want them to develop, and be focused on social skills. They learn a lot from sports. They learn a lot from playing. They learn a lot from not being anxious. They learn a lot from not being counted. They learn a lot from not being judged. And they feel better. And they tend to stay on for longer.’

I was not surprised Norway enjoyed success both in participation and medals with this approach. Time and time again on resources such as Play by the Rules we’re reminded that a focus on fun and friendship compels children to keep playing season after season. Happy athletes are more likely to reach their potential.

I talked about this admirable approach on the ABC’s News Breakfast program and for a brief segment on ABC News online. As usual, comments from viewers and online readers varied. Many were impressed by the ‘let them play’ approach.

A few missed the point and drew attention to other obvious factors — more snow! A minority of viewers and readers were angered by the Norwegian method.

These men and women claimed children still needed to be taught ‘life lessons’ as early as possible through winning and losing.

The silliest criticism of the Norway approach (similar to the rules employed by many sports in this country, albeit not up to age of 13) is that children know the score. Of course they do, so why do we need to record it?

The mixed reaction only reinforces the work required by sporting leaders in this country to educate the community about the need for enjoyment in junior sport.

Parents who volunteer as coaches should understand the best measurement of success is not a premiership or producing the league’s best player, but the number of children who come back next year.

Surprisingly, after all we have learnt since the inception of professional sport, sporting CEOs still need to be reminded of the benefits of fun coaching. Participation data is a worry for major sporting bodies.

Yet these are the same institutions placing ever-increasing emphasis on pathway programs aimed at very young children. Such programs often require of families more time, money and stress.

Children who are not picked in these ‘elite’ training teams are sometimes made to feel inadequate, or hopeless. (In reality, some of these children might be the late bloomers who could go on to become world champions.) How can you tell if an 11-year old boy or girl is going to ‘make it’? Norway doesn’t bother trying to foresee greatness, nor should we.

Gold standard is keeping sport fun, challenging and educational.

Article by Paul Kennedy - ABC News Breakfast Play By The Rules Newsletter Issue 24: March 2018

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