By Ken Reed

I have long believed that in the United States there is too much adult in youth sports.

The youth sports model in the U.S. 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.

One country has turned that model on its head: Norway. In Norway, the youth sports model is driven by the needs and desires of kids, not adults.

In a recent piece in The New York Times, Tom Farrey, a journalist, author and expert on youth sports, wrote this about Norwegian youth sports:

Imagine a society in which 93 percent of children grow up playing organized sports. 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. Then, the most promising talents become
the most competitive athletes in the world, on a per-capita basis.

That, in a nutshell, is the sports environment in Norway.

Norway has an eight-page policy paper on youth sports entitled, “Children’s Rights in Sports.” It provides the foundation for the entire sports infrastructure in Norway. It outlines the type of sports experience that every child in the country should be provided, including coaching styles and techniques, safety measures and ways to encourage friendship-building. Most notably, the document stresses the importance of youth sports being youth-driven, not adult-driven.

“We believe the motivation of children in sport is much more important than that of the parent or coach,” says Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian sports confederation. “We’re a small country and can’t afford to lose them because sport is not fun.”

Youth sports in the U.S. are increasingly driven by the almighty dollar — e.g., AAU, club and travel teams, showcase tournaments, personal trainers, etc. Public health, whole child development, physical education, recreation, peer relationships and good old-fashioned fun are low priorities.

Given the high burn-out rate and increasing number of overuse injuries in youth sports in this country, it’s certainly past time that the United States develops its own Children’s Rights in Sports-type policy document. And that document should be the foundation underpinning decision-making by all youth and high school sports organizations across the country.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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