Through breakfast with a friend, where we are discussing the ins and outs of children’s and youth’s sports, I end up in very familiar territory. It is where most of us think that the way ”things” are done in the current ”system” of sports just ain’t right.
Most countries have ended up in a situation where we have physicians and medical doctors talking about how injuries that used to occur in the professional game, through years of overuse, are frequently seen among 15-year olds. We see numerous athletes fighting issues with mental health and, even more frightening, we have large groups within the population that either have not ever come in contact with sport, or have lost interest in it completely, somewhere along the road.
The question, how on earth did we get to this, might be simple but I have a feeling the answers are a bit more complicated. Unfortunately, I think high performance sport has a role in it. Or perhaps this should read: sport with incentives that relate to performance?
My head goes spinning as I come across an article in the magazine Times, about the Overtime Elite league. Here athletes are paid six figure (in USD) salaries to play basketball. Even I know that there are opportunities to play and earn money in sports. What I didn’t know is that you can do that, in basketball, instead of going to college, at the age of 16 to 19. The league suggests that this is an alternative route to get to the NBA and that the youngsters are also given support to study besides their basketball. Something in me starts to doubt that the latter will be particularly emphasised. The cynical in me instead sees similarities with how the young (boys), often with a deprived background, have been lured into various things before, and this is just yet another example.
However, the more I dig myself down in my own thoughts I realise that many of the young, and slightly older, athletes that are to compete in China in the Olympic and Paralympic games shortly have a very similar situation. Thanks to their excellence in sport they have been put on a scholarship, from an organisation that coordinates a national campaign for Olympic and Paralympic medals. Worst case they have been encouraged to scrap their education as that takes time away from training. And believe me, they have worked hard and focused on developing as an athlete. Some of them will come back with a medal, but very few will do so having secured a financially reasonable standard for themselves for the foreseeable future. Even less so have they earned themselves any points towards a healthy pension when, one day, it is time to retire. And, judging by what those physicians are saying, that day could come earlier than planned as by now, many of them will have been focused on one sport only for quite some time.
So, as a breath of fresh air comes this article about how Norway’s focus on participation, described as radically different, have helped lift the country to the top of the world in a number of sports. And these sports are not just winter sports with skiis closely tied to the feet. Interestingly, articles like this regularly come out ahead of, during or after the winter Olympics as Norway beats the rest of the world. Of course the sport for all philosophy is not the only explanation. Hard and focused work has a place in there to.
When I now consider how to put a new, fresh injection into Swedish international high performance sport I understand that it needs to be done in a way that is sustainable and long term viable – for the athletes. And I think that we can find some strong partners in this quest for excellence!