Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1384, (8 - 14 March 2018)
Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Issue 1384, (8 - 14 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Don’t push

Winter Olympic champions Norway does not allow children less than 13 to play competitive sports. Overzealous parents should take note, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani


Norway delivers a stone against Russia during the Curling mixed doubles bronze medal match at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games
Norway delivers a stone against Russia during the Curling mixed doubles bronze medal match at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games

Since snow never comes Egypt’s way, the country is not into the Winter Olympics. That tournament is best left up to countries like Norway which came out on top of the medal standings in Pyeongchang, South Korea, with a staggering 39 medals — 14 of those being gold. That was eight clear of Germany which took second in the medal table. Team USA finished 16 medals behind Norway.

It was not surprising that Norway would do so well. It has won more medals than any other nation since the first Winter Olympics in 1924.

But what is striking about Norway’s dominance is how it does it. Thirty years ago, Norway did away with sport federation presidents who it felt were not professional enough and instead established a national elite sports centre — the Olympatoppen — to train and develop Norway’s best athletes. Funding for the Olympatoppen also increased exponentially. In 1990, it had a budget of $2.4 million — with 73 per cent of its expenditure going towards support for athletes and teams. By 2001, the budget had increased to $12.3 million and now it’s over $24.2 million. Norway’s high standard of living also plays a part in creating world-class athletes, notably in offering free healthcare and education.

However, what really seems to have set Norway apart from the rest is a hands-off approach when it comes to training children. In Norway, children are encouraged to join local sport clubs but there are strict rules which prevents anyone from keeping score. No one can be ranked first to last until they turn 13.

Think about that. In Norwegian sports, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the best or the worst. It has no effect, whether you’re No 1 or No 1,000. It means nothing whether you win or lose. Up until puberty, everybody is equal and everybody is treated the same way. No one is different, neither above the rest nor below the best.

That’s probably the way it should be in all countries. Just let children play sports for the fun of it, away from the pressures of demanding coaches, teammates and perhaps above all, parents.

Many parents would love to see their children morph into world class athletes. To want your offspring to be the next Messi, Williams or Phelps is a legitimate dream to be pursued. But exhorting the little ones beyond breaking point is a sure-fire way to fail. Mothers and fathers can really make life miserable for their kids who want to participate in sports just for the sake of having a good time.

It all starts in practice. Overall, about half of all parents in one study reported getting angry during football training, and nearly 40 per cent of the angry parents vent their anger in some form or other.

At times, sideline spats flare up and Mr and Mrs Hyde appear. Parents mutter comments, yell comments, look away from the field, stand up from their seats in response to an incident, walk towards or away from the field, and make gestures.

What stirs their ire most? Refereeing, their children, their children’s teammates, and parents of other children, followed by opponents, coaches and illegal play.

So what turns otherwise upstanding citizens into becoming intense, loud-mouthed and combative at youth sporting events? The parents feel intense, internal pressure to see their kids performing because the children are like extensions of themselves. Everyone knows the parent who is trying to live vicariously through their children and pushes them to be a professional athlete. They’re typically the ones screaming at refs, coaches, other players or even worse, their own child. These are parents who attempt to re-live their own past successes or avenge their past failures.

The biggest issue is whether this behaviour embarrasses the children. Does it make them want to play more or less? If it impacts their motivation to continue playing, that’s a wake-up call. When youth sports are clouded by intense pressure, kids stop wanting to participate all together.

For parents wondering how not to become werewolves at youth sports events, they could try to keep their anger in check by cheering from the sidelines, and speaking well of other players and the coach to encourage a sportsmanlike attitude.

Fat chance. In particular, those suburban mothers who became known as soccer moms are encouraging, yet somewhat overprotective, figures. They make their emotions known. In truth, moms should be awarded the gold medal for spending so much time transporting their children from one athletic event to another. They make personal sacrifices for their children’s benefit, over scheduling themselves to make sure everyone gets to their games and practices on time, then scoot back home for homework, dinner and bedtime stories.

The intensity with which they cheer their kids on is laudable but they are inclined to, putting it gently, fly off the handle. Partially as a result, USA Hockey spearheaded a “Relax, It’s Just a Game” campaign to try to get parents, especially mothers, to calm down. 

Getting back to Norway, a nation made up of only 5.2 million people and which 30 years ago, starting from the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, failed to win even one gold.

Norway wants children to be in sports because they want to be. The focus is on other aspects, not just the competitive side. The Nordic nation’s focus is to let children create and navigate their own path.

The point is to ask what is in a sport for kids. As such, Norway does something most countries don’t do. It offers children a sport they want to develop in. It doesn’t look for children to create a national team. In that respect, Norway is thinking the other way around.

To be fair, pressure on posterity does not emanate just from parents. Those who study the issue are more worried about a system that puts winning above all else. There are millions of kids who just want to play sports for fun but get the least attention because the system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids. The system no longer values participation. It values excellence.

There was a time when pickup games with friends focused mostly on fun. All of the kids in the neighbourhood played together: the stars, the lesser lights and the downright useless. Such camaraderie has declined precipitously as the drive to win has gone into overdrive.

Sports is not just about who finishes first, second and third. Playing just for the sake of it brings its own immense rewards. Which is why the ball goes back to the parents’ court. Parents play a pivotal role in determining whether sport is a fun learning experience or a nightmare.

Mom and dad should realise that there are things more important than being number one.  Even given that victory is a big part of sports and competing would be a pointless exercise otherwise, winning isn’t everything.

There is a fine line between supportiveness and pushiness. Even small doses of parental aggression could take a toll on tiny tikes.

If you push your children too far, you’re pushing your luck.

Overzealous parents are forewarned.

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