How to Train the Next Generation of Olympians
It's not about training regimens or dietary dogma—it's about community
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It’s tricky trying to raise well-rounded young athletes in the age of hypermonetized competitive youth sports, year-round traveling teams, and overzealous parents screaming on the sidelines. But Norwich, Vermont, a rural town of 3,000, seems to have it figured out. In her new book, Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence, Karen Crouse explores how this tight-knit community has “opted out of the academic and athletic arms race” with a balanced, collaborative approach to sports—and produced 11 Olympic athletes and three Olympic medals.
What’s their secret?
“The Norwich way is about pursuing sports as a means of developing life skills and building lasting relationships, and not just creating champions,” explains Crouse, a sportswriter for the New York Times who spent months in Norwich trying to understand what makes this town tick. “A lot of these Norwichians didn’t set out to become Olympians. The lesson is that you don’t have to choose either-or. It’s a way of teaching discipline, delayed gratification, perseverance, and risk-taking. Excellence can be a great byproduct, but it’s not the sole purpose. It should be about the journey.”
I called Crouse, who was just back from Pyeongchang, to find out how to bring a little bit of Norwich to your hometown.
It Starts with the Adults
“It’s up to parents to give kids the opportunity to experience as much as possible,” Crouse says. “In some areas, this is more difficult, but then it’s incumbent on the people in the community who have more resources—time, money, expertise—to help budding athletes grow as people, not just athletes.” Volunteerism is huge in Norwich. Mike Holland, the most successful ski jumper in U.S. history, donates his time to teach Norwich fifth-graders the basics of ski jumping.
That’s how Holland got his start—when an older friend gave him his used gear and took him up on the hill. Ditto with gold medalist mogul skier Hannah Kearney. An anonymous Norwich benefactor agreed to fund her skiing, with one stipulation: that she send him her report cards every term and a detailed budget of how she spent her money. Says Crouse, “He wanted to instill in her life lessons that transcend sport.” Everyone has something to give in Norwich: volunteer to coach a youth team, donate money, chip in with expertise, organize a free gear swap. “Their attitude is that we’re all in this together and are going to help each other because it’s the right thing to do,” Crouse says. “It’s part of their DNA. I don’t see why we can’t all adopt that.”
Change Sports with the Season
Norwich has a long history of raising multisport athletes. “There were a lot of sports they couldn’t do year-round because of the weather,” Crouse says. But now, even though it’s possible to chase winter all year long, the community still encourages versatility. Switching sports with the weather keeps kids from burning out and getting injured. Olympic runner Andrew Wheating started out playing soccer and basketball and didn’t take up running until high school. Hannah Kearney played all-state soccer, ran track, rode horses for fun, and did cross-training in her off-season. “There’s a carryover in skills. You’re working different muscles and improving spatial awareness. Having a broader-based athletic experience is always helpful.”
Norway led the medal count in Pyeongchang with an usual approach that has been much talked about, because their athletes train together, eat together, even sleep in the same beds together. “Norway is the Norwich of countries,” Crouse says. How does such a small country—and a small town—dominate the world stage? “They realize they don’t have to be so ultracompetitive with their own teammates,” Crouse explains. “They understand that by helping one person, they are helping everyone. They can be competitive and still support one another.”
Choose Your Coach and Program Wisely
“Parents have to redefine how they think of success,” Crouse says. “It has to be more intangible things rather than Olympic medals and college scholarships. Anytime a coach tells you your child can get to the Olympics, that’s a sign you should find a new coach. It’s like saying, ‘If you go to this 7-11, you can win the lottery.’’ There’s no magic pill or path to athletic greatness. Athletes can work hard, but there’s so much out of their control. Your child can be the national champion but show up at the Olympic trials and get sick and not perform their best. If the whole purpose is to achieve one big goal—a college scholarship or the state championships—you’re setting them up for failure and yourself for frustration.” Instead, encourage your child find their intrinsic love for a sport, and find a coach that supports these values.
Be Wary of the Wrong Motives
“Youth sports professionalization has become a cottage industry,” Crouse says. “You have private coaches and traveling teams to monetize year-round sports and towns creating facilities to bring sports tourism for youth events. They have agendas that are not the same agendas that you should have for child’s development. They’re looking at the bottom line.” Take your time to find the right coaches and teams that aren’t in it simply to cash out, but to invest in your child’s future. “Hopefully every athlete will have another 50 years after they stop competing in their sport. It’s what you become after your sport that defines you. I would hate to think that the Olympics will be apex of life. I hope it’s just one rung in a long ladder upward.”
Let Kids Be Kids
Once you find the right program, adopt the Norwich parents’ mantra: “Keep out of the way.” Local snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his brothers had the run of their parents’ barn, where they set up a skateboard ramp and goofed off unsupervised with their tribe of self-driven friends. Hannah Kearney’s mom encouraged her to find her own sponsors when she needed to fund travel to national competitions; a local car dealership and another local came on board shortly after. In Norway, says Crouse, sports leagues don’t keep score or crown age group champions. Unlike here in the United States, where Crouse has encountered legions of parents who obsessively track the age group times for their ten-year-olds, Norway’s philosophy is for kids to be passionate about sports in their twenties and thirties. “Maybe parents feel more investment in children’s outcomes,” Crouse says. “If they can start separating their own egos from their kids’ activities, it would be easier to take all these steps. Sometimes doing less is more.”