In Norway, the childhood sports experience is guided by a doctrine called Children’s Rights in Sport and Provisions on Children’s Sport. Think of it like the United States Constitution, but for youth sports. The Nordic country of 5.3 million takes the document quite seriously.
“The rights constitute a political policy instrument which expresses the values which we would like to be the foundation for children’s sport in Norway. The provisions are absolute rules which must be complied with, obeyed and enforced in sports,” the document states. “There shall be no exemptions from the provisions.”
Some of the key statements include:
- “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.”
It might all sound like common sense, but in the youth sports landscape of 2019, common sense is increasingly rare. Tom Farrey, Executive Director of the Sports & Society Program for the Aspen Institute, recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “Does Norway Have the Answer to Excess in Youth Sports?” The piece, which is well worth a read, examines Norway’s increasingly novel idea to put the child first in youth sports.
In Norway, no game scores, standings or player rankings are permitted to be published for children under 11, and no national championship events are permitted for children prior to age 13. Breaking the rules can result in penalties such as a loss of government funding. It’s a stark contrast from an American system where kids can compete in national championships at age 6 and where you can currently find basketball prospect rankings for third graders.
“It’s impossible to say at 8 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,” Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian confederation, told the New York Times. “We’re a small country and can’t afford to lose them because sport is not fun.”
The result is less pressure on young athletes to win games or rack up impressive statistics and a greater presence of elements of free play. At a time when 80 percent of American youth athletes quit organized sports by age 15, we should be searching for ways to decrease burnout. More fun is a great place to start.
Norway’s relatively small size makes it easier to implement nation-wide policies on things like youth sports, and since college is free, parents aren’t maniacal about their children earning scholarships. As children mature into their teenaged years and the kids with more athletic drive and skill emerge from the pack, they receive great coaching and start competing on larger stages.
Is it working? Well, Norway—which has a population comparable to that of Greater Boston—dominated the medal count at the 2018 Winter Olympics, easily surpassing the totals of countries like the United States, Canada and Germany. Norway also consistently ranks among the best in the world for Quality of Life and national happiness. There’s certainly more that goes into that then their approach to youth sports, but there’s little doubt the two are interconnected.
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