More Bridge Building. This time to Norway.

By John Hierlihy

As I mentioned in my previous article, athletes need bridges outside the game to drive performance.  In this article, I want to discuss another ‘bridge building’ concept, specifically, building an education bridge between professional sports and youth sports.  That bridge starts in Norway, where elite athletic performance springs from a unique approach at the youth levels.

Game Change is at the forefront of alternative ways to improve performance at the Elite levels- Professional, Collegiate, etc.  Performance at these levels is trending towards holistic, balance (mind/body), values and integrity. The concept is simple, better people, make better athletes.  It is what they call ‘Human Development’ in Norway.  That country has nailed it.

At the Youth levels, a holistic and balanced approach should unequivocally be the focus.  The overwhelmingly vast majority of athletes will not become pros, and the real purpose of youth sports is teaching life lessons for kids to apply to all aspects of their lives.  Teaching values, character and integrity through their passions is by far, the sole purpose.  However, from my observation and experience, it is sadly the opposite.  

Adults- parents and coaches- who are influencers in youth sports, are unaware, or in some cases, ignoring, the very same messages that are gaining so much traction with elite and professional athletes.  Why?  They are merely misinformed and uneducated.  Most of them are reinventing their experiences growing up or making it up as they go.  The result of this ignorance, is in some cases, ugly.

Let me explain through a couple of personal anecdotes.  

A few short months ago an eight-year-old girl was initiated into the world of competitive sports.  She was so proud of herself for being selected for a local Rep soccer team.  She was enjoying the experience - loving practice and being part of a team.  In preparation for the summer season, the team entered an indoor, winter league.  Her first game was a cold November day at 7 am.  She and her parents arrived at the required time- 6:30 am to allow for a proper warm up.  The game commenced on time.  50 minutes later, the game ended and this little girl played a total of 6 minutes.  A couple of the girls who played the entire game.   

The next week, mostly was just a repeat of the previous week.  The results on the scoreboard were irrelevant compared to the off-field consequences.  Two nights later, crying in bed, the player told her parents that she wanted to quit playing soccer.  It just wasn’t fun for her.  Her parents said that they fully supported her and that they as well, were not having any fun.  They asked her to take a few days to think about this.  After a few days, she confirmed she didn’t want to play.  She wanted to focus on her other activities that, in her own words, ‘were fun and made her feel good about herself’.

All because a drastically misinformed coach thought it was critical to in the grand scheme of things to win an eight-year-old indoor soccer game at 7 am one morning in November.  

Let me continue.  Just two nights ago was just another example of the years and years of stories I have observed from being a youth sports parent and coach.  I happened to be at a 12-year-old hockey game, the 1st game of a playoff series, and the underdog team was up 5-0 early in the second period.   There was panic and open frustration on the favored team’s bench.  The coaching strategy selected by the head coach?

“Wake the fuck up,” he screamed.

“You better get fucking going” added another.  The coach was pacing up and down the bench like an ill-tempered bobcat stuck in a cage.

Not surprisingly their players, young and impressionable, trying to model the behavior of their coaches, were also dropping ‘F’ bombs on the ice in hopes of intimidating the underdog team.  To change the momentum of the game, the coaches of the losing team put out their top line and proceeded to keep them on for almost 4 minutes in a row - an eternity for hockey.  Meanwhile, a couple of their kids sat in the middle of the bench, feet getting cold and likely feeling humiliated.  The line managed to score three goals during that 4-minute stretch.  The game was changing.  And in an attempt to be more positive on the bench, the coach of the favored team yelled to his players, “their goalie is shitting his pants.”  Loud enough so kids on the ice could hear, along with most of us in the arena.   

Is this fun?  Is this representative of what we want our kids to take away from their youth sports experience and apply in other aspects of their lives?  This kind of conduct is beyond ridiculous.

As an Athlete Development professional, who works with colleagues who have experienced sports at Elite levels, both Professional and Collegiate, this is hugely frustrating.  Especially knowing that this approach doesn’t work.  A misinformed and ignorant approach pushes kids out of sports.  Many of those kids that could have grown up to be elite athletes. But like the 8-year-old girl, kids have better things to do with their time than being sworn at, humiliated or subjected to embarrassing adult behavior.

Ironically, the very next day an article appeared USA Today and circulated through various media channels.  The article - - is exactly what we should all be promoting and applying at the Youth levels.  Norway, with a tiny population compared to its rivals, was the star of the 2018 Olympics.  Moreover, they are looking at sports in a much more significant context.  Namely, the role sports has in its society, having as many kids participate as possible and sustaining that into adulthood to promote a healthy and productive lifestyle. They don’t call it Athlete Development; their approach is Human Development.  And a by-product is an inordinate amount of champion athletes produced relative to their rivals.  

I watched quite a bit of the Olympics.  And I didn’t see a lot of coaches swearing at their athletes.  I didn’t observe ‘f-bombs’ directed at crying athletes who fell after a Triple Lutz, crashing while trying to land an aerial 360 on the ski slopes, or when a speed skater slipped making a turn.  My best guess is that if I had sent that article to those coaches mentioned above, the reaction would have likely been, ‘Norway is f**ing soft.’  

That is indicative of the mindset of some adults on this side of the pond- Youth Sports and Pro Sports are one in the same.  You need to be hard-nosed, committed, serious, tough and no-nonsense.

Two of my colleagues aren’t soft’.  If you ‘Google’ Jay (Harrison) and Dan (Jackson) and not the ‘Jay and Dan’ you Canadians may be thinking of.  You quickly realize those two were as tough as they come.  Game Changes’ Jay and Dan, played the ‘tough guy’ role in their respective sports and their relentless pursuit of elite performance opened their eyes to gratitude, awareness, and resilience during their professional careers.  Enjoying the process and having fun with it.  It enhanced their performance.  They still played tough, but they did it with respect and integrity and not to the detriment of their coaches, teammates, and competitors.  True teammates and overall, great human beings.  Who are now, not by accident, very productive members of society.

We have a serious education gap.  In professional sports people’s livelihoods are on the line, incredible amounts of money and stress are involved.  In this world, it is all about results, yet, we have pro athletes looking at gratitude and mindfulness, being balanced, and having fun. Specifically, with the purpose of helping them gain a competitive edge.  Don’t the Golden State Warriors look like they are having fun?

This is the opportunity in Youth sports. A chance to lay down a foundation that can then be customized and leveraged by athletes to achieve long-lasting success.   The current trajectory needs to stop and stop now.  

The overwhelming majority of young athletes will soon be crossing that bridge into other life pursuits.  We need to make sure they are ready and bring with them integrity, values, and the attributes that will allow them to be successful in anything and everything they do.  Bridging the gap starts at the youth levels and flows to the very top. 

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.
John Hierlihy