Norway Benefits From Empiricism In Youth Sports


On the May 21st episode of Real Sports, correspondent John Frankel explores “The Norwegian Way”. Frankel’s focus is to explore the question of how a country of 5.3 million people is becoming a global sports powerhouse. This includes everything from winning the most medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics to having  top-ranked beach volleyball teams.

The answer from the segment is based on Norway’s empirical approach to youth sports. More specifically, Norway has changed or eliminated many of the standard practices used to develop top athletes in many other countries by looking at actual performance. The most stunning finding appears to be that the approach used by these other countries is fundamentally the wrong strategy to take with youth sports.

Central to Norway’s approach is essentially that children younger than the age of 12 should have as much fun playing as many sports as possible. There is frequently no score kept during games and every child has to participate. Norway also does not allow for rankings to be kept with athletes under the age of 12.  Only after the age of 12 does Norway allow for athletes to “specialize” in a sport. The country provides the coaching, training, and equipment resources comparable to top sports programs in other countries.

“The Norwegian Way” defies the conventional wisdom on specialization in youth sports. Throughout the world, children are increasingly encouraged to focus on one sport, often chosen by their parents. The archetype for this approach is Tiger and Eldrick Woods where Tiger started playing golf as a toddler and focused solely on the sport to become the most dominant player in the world.

This is also at the heart of the 10,000-Hour Rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. The rule’s underpinning comes from a study that purportedly showed that the most successful violinists were the ones that practiced for the most time. The takeaway was that it essentially would take 10,000 hours to become an expert in something with the best performers practicing even more than that length of time.

The only problem with the 10,000-Hour Rule is that the exact opposite appears to be true. In the book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, author David Epstein shows that the actual finding of the violinist study is that people that are better at something practice more often because they receive positive feedback. In a sports context, Epstein shows that there are athletes that are naturally better than other people. These athletes will become better at their sport at a faster pace with practice. This positive feedback makes them want to practice more so they can keep getting better.

Norway found that using this approach was the most successful way to create world-class athletes particularly in a country with a small population. Parents and / or the state should not make children practice as much as possible on one sport as early as possible. The best thing the state can do is let children figure out what sports they are good at by experimenting with as many sports as possible. Then athletes are more likely to participate in more rigorous training sessions in their teenage / early adult years which leads to the development of world-class athletes.

Challenging conventional wisdom is not an easy thing to do. As the Real Sports piece demonstrates, Norway has taken a significant amount of criticism for employing this new approach. It is also early in the process where the outsized rewards like winning the most Olympic medals or having one of the best beach volleyball teams has come to fruition.

However, Norway also shows the importance of leveraging data and empiricism when operating in an environment with competitors who have structural advantages. More specifically, Norway does not have the population size or the resources that the larger countries it competes against have on a global scale. The country needed to find ways where it could create a competitive advantage and experiment with new approaches to see if they could work.

The same type of logic can be applied to other parts of the sports industry, particularly when it comes to sponsorship valuation. In particular, conventional wisdom is that sponsorship assets are valuable because of their ability to generate the highest number of impressions. This is comparable to the conventional wisdom that population size is the best way to determine if a country will be successful in sports.

B6A’s Corporate Asset Valuation Model (CAV) helps to show why size should not be the only thing that matters. In particular, corporate partners are looking for the assets that can help them reach the right people with the right message in the right channels. The right people are typically the ones that can help drive revenue growth based on a company’s specific products or services. The right message is the one that can create authentic engagement with these customers. It is not the size of the asset that should solely drive value but the fit of the asset to the company.

This is the approach that enables the “Norways” of the sports industry to compete with larger teams, leagues, athletes or events. It also shows that larger organizations should not rely on the “10,000-Hour” rule approach when valuing sponsorships by focusing solely on quantity metrics. All sports organizations can benefit from an approach that understands the drivers of sponsorship ROI just like all countries can benefit from the “The Norwegian Way.”