How To Raise Champion Athletes
(BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR KAREN CROUSE)
In 2014, I traveled to a tiny town in Vermont to find out how it had become the unlikeliest of Olympic pipelines. What I discovered was a method to stop the madness in youth sports, a proven prescription for developing champion athletes without sacrificing their childhoods or their parents’ sanity.
Norwich, which has 3,000 residents, has put 11 of its own on U.S. Olympic teams, including two on Summer Olympic squads. Since 1984, the town has placed at least one Olympian on every U.S. Winter Olympic team but two. Breaking it down, roughly one out of every 322 residents is an Olympian, which led Hannah Kearney, a two-time Olympic medalist who grew up there, to tell me, “I don’t know if it’s the well water or what.”
The well water in Norwich is perfectly delicious, but the town’s outsize success in Olympic sports has more to do with the way it collectively rears its children, helping them succeed without causing burnout or compromising their future happiness. It’s how harried parents across America would like to bring up their children if not for the tiger moms and lawnmower dads in their midst.
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The Norwich themes resonated deeply with me. I’ve covered sports for more than 30 years – the last 13 for the New York Times. I was a competitive swimmer who walked on at the University of Southern California. I never made a national team, I didn’t compete in an Olympics, turn pro or earn a college scholarship. And in my professional interactions with parents whose eyes are firmly on such prizes, I’ve increasingly had cause to wonder that if their kids grow up today with an experience like mine, will they somehow be made to feel as if their childhoods were wasted or that their sports experiences were failures because the extrinsic rewards eluded them? That would be deeply disheartening to me because I am eternally grateful for all the intrinsic benefits I gained from sports – the lifelong friendships and the life lessons like discipline, resilience, goal-setting, delayed gratification, and teamwork that have served me so well in her post-sports life.
The Norwich parents have succeeded wildly almost by accident. They aren’t hypnotists dangling college scholarships, Olympic medals or pro contracts in front of their young children, hoping to induce championship behavior. Ten of the 11 Norwich Olympians played multiple sports through high school. Only the first, the alpine skier Betsy Snite in the 1950s, specialized at a young age. The benefits of changing sports with the seasons were charmingly evident in the story of Andrew Wheating, who began running track as a senior in high school and graced his first U.S. Olympic team less than three years later, in 2008.
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The Norwich parents treat sports as a family bonding exercise. They attend their children’s activities but they are easy to overlook because they remain in the background. They praise effort, not results, and send a loud and clear message that community trumps competition by embracing the success of neighbor children rather than just their own.
In 2010, Kearney won the gold medal in the women’s moguls, prompting the excited owner of the local general store – whose motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” – to produce bumper stickers that he sold to the proud townspeople. When Kearney returned home, the store owner presented her with a check for the proceeds of the bumper sticker sales. Kearney took the money, which amounted to a couple of hundred dollars, and on her own decision to give it to the children’s librarian at the Norwich branch to invest in sportsbooks for pre-teen girls. Kearney’s mother told me that when she found out much about her daughter’s donation to the library, she was more proud of her than when she won the gold medal.
The culture created almost by accident in Norwich can be replicated elsewhere, but it requires parents to refrain from micromanaging their children’s lives and instead act as their guides to charity, mindfulness, curiosity, perspective, and a healthy life anchored by physical activity. Their mantra is not “Do as I say, not as I do.” The adults in Norwich make a conscious effort to be the people they want their children to become. They see themselves as educators, not emissaries assigned to deliver their children to the ranks of professional sports. That some of these children have become professional athletes and Olympic and world champions are celebrated as a really cool side benefit of a happy, healthy and meaningful life. (Read more about this story)
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Karen Crouse is an award-winning sportswriter who has been on the staff of The New York Times since 2005. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she was also a swimmer. Her book Norwich, One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence was published in 2018.
(Click HERE or on the image above to buy Karen’s book on Amazon. )