What Can Youth Programs Learn from This Year’s Winter Olympics
Of the many remarkable moments from this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, two triumphs point to a growing body of research and recommendations about youth sports:
Norway’s impressive medal count — which it credits to a key tenet of its youth sports programs that prohibits scoring in kids games — and a Czech athlete making history as the first woman to win gold medals for two different sports in a single Winter Games.
These victories hold valuable lessons for American youth sports, reinforcing recommendations to keep sports fun and accessible at early ages — and to resist the urge to go all in on a single sport.
“Again and again we see these lessons play out, at home and overseas. It points to a much-needed shift in our youth sports culture” says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program and the author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. These Olympic examples reinforce research by Project Play, the Aspen Institute’s initiative to help stakeholders build healthy communities through sports.
The Secret to Norway’s Medal Success — Let’s Kids Play:
The Norwegian team, led the medal count, at 39 medals (to the US’s 23 total), a remarkable feat considering the U.S. sent the most athletes in Winter Olympic history, 242 competitors — more than twice the 109 sent by Norway. Farrey wrote extensively about the Norway model on the Aspen Institute website.
While the country’s geography and climate is conducive to raising snow skiers and ice skaters, it credits its success to a lack of competition in its youth sports. In Norway, children’s sports are prohibited from keeping score, until age 13.
“We want to leave the kids alone,” Tore Ovrebo, the Norwegian Olympic Committee’s director of elite sports told Time Magazine. “We want [kids] 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.”
Tom agrees, “The work recognizes that coaches should encourage and facilitate loosely supervised play throughout the year, not just in school programs, but in little leagues, soccer clubs — in all kinds of organized sports.”
Tom agrees, “We tell coaches to encourage free, loosely supervised play throughout the year, not just in school programs, in little leagues, soccer clubs — in all kinds of organized sports.”
As club and league teams continue to grow, they can look to add additional sports or incorporate a multi-sports philosophy into their training.
Sampling All the Way to Gold:
Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic became the first woman to win a gold medal in two different sports in a single Winter Games, winning gold in the women’s snowboarding slalom and an Alpine skiing event, the women’s super-G. In this same Olympics, Jorien ter Mors of the Netherlands had just earned medals — gold and bronze — in the long-track speedskating and short-track respectively.
Ledecka, 22, began skiing at age 2 and tried snowboarding around age 5. She loves both sports and resisted calls, including from her snowboarding coach, to pick one sport. “I for sure want to win every race,” Ledecka told the New York Times. “But the first thing is to enjoy and have good fun with what I’m doing with my sports.”
“It’s heartening to see this example in this year’s Olympics,” says Tom from Project Play, “not just because of a Ledecka’s fluency in more than one sport, but because of her commitment to keep playing and competing in both. The Project Play framework encourages sport sampling for kids until at least the teenage years.”
In a survey conducted by the U.S. Olympic Committee at the request of Project Play, 7 out of 10 Olympians said they grew up as multisport athletes and nearly all called it “valuable.” Furthermore, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under 12 avoid sport specialization. The NBA and USA Basketball guidelines include no specialization in basketball until age 14.
While all of this seems logical, in America’s hyper-competitive sports landscape it can be difficult to buck the competitive pressure, from many sides.
Here are some ways youth programs can incorporate these Olympic lessons:
- Give the Scoreboard a Rest: Find ways to leave scoring out of games for children under age 13. Of course kids are going to compete and keep score in their heads, and that’s perfectly fine, but there’s no need to memorialize scores on websites, newspapers or in league standings when they are young. Encourage a focus on the personal development of every child, rather than winning and losing.
- Limit the length of sports seasons: Send a clear and consistent message to parents and kids that multi-sport play is valuable. But don’t stop there; carve out the time for them to play other sports. At a minimum, make sure they get two months off from the sport each year.
- Educate Parents: Communicate these recommendations to parents, share the Project Play Parent Checklists. Let parents know you’re committed to their child’s overall athletic development and their enjoyment of sports.
- Provide Options: Consider adding another sport to your offerings, or coordinate with a program that does and refer each other players during the off-season.
While it can be difficult to effect change in our win-at-all-costs sports landscape, youth programs are uniquely positioned to move us in a new direction. May these examples of Olympic excellence help inspire more programs to keep youth sports, fun, accessible and injury free.