Children’s sports: What’s the score?

Growing up active and healthy in Norway

children sport

Photo: Colourbox
Norwegian children are encouraged to participate in sports in a positive environment where the emphasis is on physical fitness rather than competition. Norway still produces world-class athletes, but there there are also youth who drop out of sports altogether.

Michael Kleiner
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

“Without good children’s sports—no top sports” is a big headline on the Norwegian Sports Federation (NIF) website over information from a webinar in May 2021 about the status of children’s sports in Norway at the “grassroots level.”

In social democratic, egalitarian, and fair-minded thinking Norway, it would seem to follow that they would try to de-emphasize the competitiveness and emphasize joy in sports at a young age. America, too, debates the pressure children are put under to succeed in sports from the time they start. Much of the pressure can come from the parents, which isn’t different from Norway.

The United States doesn’t have a minister of culture, sports, and equality in the government’s cabinet, a president of sports and a national sports federation overseeing all levels of sport and the allocation of funds. Much of the funds come from Norwegian gambling (tipping or betting).

Norway is the all-time leader in most Winter Olympics and medals won, took 2018 with a record medal count, and in 2022, a record number of gold medals.  Are these “top sports” elite athletes coming through the grassroots pipeline? What’s the attrition rate among the grassroots? Or do the elite athletes come mostly from the junior high and high school sports academies that combine rigorous education and plenty of time to practice a student’s preferred sport and don’t shy away from (perhaps dangerously) promoting that they’re creating world champions?

The NIF document is like a constitution, with each article emphasizing “children’s rights,” but a main emphasis is children having a say in what sports they want to pursue—which makes Norway unique—and exposing them to multiple sports in the early years.

“Sports’ children’s rights and provisions in practice mean that we must always put the best interests of the children at the center—and listen to what they themselves want,” said Mads Andreassen in his part of the webinar.

Added Espen Tønnessen of Kristiania University College: “Furthermore, we must challenge sports teams and clubs to put children’s sports on the agenda, discuss this and have a conscious attitude to how we best facilitate children’s sports in our own sports teams and clubs. This is how we contribute to developing a lifelong love of sport.”

An important tenet is sports must be non-discriminatory, “open to all regardless of the race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, outlook on life, weight, physical development, and disability of the child and parents, or a family’s economic situation.”

In this sphere, Norway sees sport as a public health and social benefit.

Norway’s decision to develop children’s rights in sports came out of a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Norwegian Sports Council approved them in 2007, revising them in 2019.

The Children’s Rights has eight articles: (1) safety, (2) friendship, (3) coping, (4) children’s influence and opinion, (5) freedom to choose a sport, (6) competition for everyone, (7) on the children’s terms, and (8) everyone must be allowed to join in the game.

Safety refers not only to the physical practice environment but protection from “pressure and exploitation.” Adults or parents must join children 6 years and younger. The second and third items, friendship, and coping, are interconnected. Creation of friendships and unity are encouraged through everyone playing in practices and games. Coping is just one skill children should learn, but they must be exposed to chances at variety, training, and connecting with others.

Four, five, six and seven are the most “radical” rights, but essential at keeping the child at the center of decision making. Influence (4) entails a collaborative effort with parents and coaches on creating, deciding, and executing activities, where the child’s voice has equal or more weight. With (5), a sport or sports should not be forced upon children. They should be the ultimate decision maker on which sport(s) they want to pursue. In addition, they get to determine how much practice time they want to devote to the particular sport(s). (6) Children can decide whether they want to take part in competitions or not, (7) but these must be age, physical development, and maturity appropriate. To avoid the time pressures of travel, these variety of activities should be held locally. Finally, (8) economic constraints cannot prevent someone from participating.

For children up to 6 years old: “play and varied activities… stimulating development and strengthening basic movements,” ages 7 to 9: “explore and practice different physical activities or exercises with different movement patterns,… conducted within one or more sports, but each sport is responsible for making the offer varied and adapted to the children’s level of development,” ages 10 to 12: “sport… characterized by varied and a high level of activity that ensures good basic skills. Immersion in one or a few sports can ensure a good technical basis for later development within the sports branch.”

While competition at this level is de-emphasized, it is not discouraged.

“A common misconception is that the children’s sports regulations prevent children from competing,” it says on the NIF website. “Competitions are a natural part of sports training and therefore have a natural progression. Competitions are not the main goal in children’s sports. Competing motivates and stimulates many children… but the competitions can quickly have a negative effect on children creating more fear of failure than increased activity and motivation. In addition, many children spend too much time traveling to competitions and sitting around waiting for their turn, rather than being active. Therefore, the regulations specify when one is allowed to compete according to age.”

Before age 11, the operative word is “proficiency,” learning and putting skills into practice to the best of the individual child’s ability. “This is to encourage children to learn new skills instead of valuing who won.”

An expectation for coaches at this level is ability to interact with and train children rather than expertise in a specific sport.

Parents also receive a handbook for being good sports parents, which encourages reinforcing the rights but also offer the advice: “Be a supportive spectator and show good sportsmanship; support the coach; be a good role model; support the sport team’s work.”

Yet the headline of a June 8, 2022, opinion article in Aftenposten by Thomas Haugan, Sigmund B. Apold-Aasenn, John Magne Kalhovde and Espen Tønessen of the Health Sciences department at Kristiania University College reads: Norway is among the world’s worst countries for dropping out of sports.

The authors note that nine in 10 children participate in sports, but only one in three 18-year-olds and fewer than one in 10 adults. Pressure, lack of mastery, quality facilities and coaching are cited in surveys.

The authors write that almost an equal number of people had negative memories about youth sports as had positive effects. They make four recommendations: clubs give more priority to young people who are participating for fun with practice times and coaching; multi-purpose facilities and fitness centers built through funding from grants; education for prospective coaches; more money from the state for grassroots sports for young people, adults, and the elderly.

NIF wrote in February 2022: “Lack of facilities is perhaps the biggest challenge in children’s and youth sports. Even with a significant drop-out during the pandemic, sports teams operate with waiting lists and have to turn away children and young people due to a lack of facilities.”

Historically, clubs applied for more funds than were available through the state gambling proceeds, causing a wait for facilities to be built or refurbished. In the May 4, 2022, issue of Aftenposten, former Minister of Culture, Sport and Equality Annette Trettebergstuen (Labor Party) announced a record NOK 1.7 billion (nearly $165 million) from 2022 gambling funds will be allocated to sports facilities in the municipalities, 13 times more than the previous record of NOK 137 million ($13.2 million) in 2021.

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.