If we picture an Olympic athlete as a child, some of us might imagine a kid who trains 10 hours a day from age five onwards in one sport with a screaming coach whose face is twisted in a permanent scowl. Kind of like the movie Rocky, except the protagonist is an elementary school kid.
But it turns out Olympic hopefuls don’t appear to grow up that way.
The U.S. Olympic Committee, for instance, has found that most of their athletes have actually played multiple sports during childhood, and most of their coaching has been positive, supportive, and constructive. You can read the details of the USOC research in their excellent report, The Path to Excellence 2000-2012.
One American town seems to perfectly exemplify this approach to youth sports, and remarkably enough, it produces a disproportionate number of U.S. Olympic athletes. The town is Norwich, Vermont.
This excellent article by New York Times sports reporter Karen Crouse describes how Norwich only has about 3,000 citizens, yet it has put an athlete on all but one Winter Olympics team since 1984. It has even sent two competitors to the Summer Olympics.
What’s the secret? Crouse went to Norwich and conducted her own research to find out. She discovered that children in Norwich aren’t constricted by complicated edicts from competitive coaches and sport associations that obligate them to specialize early or focus on trophies. Kids aren’t cut from teams, they are encouraged to root for their rivals, and the parenting culture is “supportive but not suffocating.”
At a time when too many kids are being pressed to commit early to one sport and focus solely on competition instead of fun, the Norwich story is a breath of fresh air. You can read all about it in Crouse’s new book, Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence (Simon & Schuster, January 2018).