What does an athlete need to succeed? (Illustrative photo: Chalermpon Poungpeth / Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)
What does an athlete need to succeed? (Illustrative photo: Chalermpon Poungpeth / Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)

Norway builds top athletes through not focusing on winning

Athletes and trainers who are most concerned with their overall development rather than results are the ones who often do the best, research suggests.

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Norway is a small country, with just 5 million inhabitants. At the same time, Norwegians have won worldwide recognition for athletic achievements over the years, particularly in cross-country and downhill skiing, golf and tennis.

Frank Eirik Abrahamsen, head of the Division for Coaching and Psychology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH), says despite the differences in the sports at which Norwegians have succeeded, there’s a common denominator to the success.

“It is said that all sports are unique, and I agree that all sports have unique elements,” he said. “But ultimately, it's about people performing.”

Norwegian peculiarities

Abrahamsen says that one thing Norway does well is children's sports.

Frank Eirik Abrahamsen has conducted a lot of research on athletes, coaches and organizations in Norwegian and international sports. (Photo: Norwegian School of Sport Sciences)
Frank Eirik Abrahamsen has conducted a lot of research on athletes, coaches and organizations in Norwegian and international sports. (Photo: Norwegian School of Sport Sciences)

The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF) has a provision that says that children should not be given prizes for their performance until they turn twelve, says Abrahamsen.

The consequence of this is less focus on results. It also makes the sport fun for young participants, and builds a sense of community, he says.

It also means that more children stay within sports for longer, he says. Additionally, the flat hierarchical structure that characterizes Norwegian society also applies to sports.

“We are a democratic nation where we have a flat hierarchical structure and coaches and athletes have equal value,” he said.

Coaches who come to Norway from other countries, who want to be "THE boss", often have a hard time adjusting to this Norwegian way of doing things, according to Abrahamsen.

Proper motivation

Abrahamsen says it’s not necessarily the coaches who are most focused on results who have the greatest success.

What’s important, he says, is what motivates the athlete. Athletes don't just work to be better than their competitors, they also try to be the best version of themselves. That means coaches should not only focus on results, but also on how the athlete should work to achieve results.

"It should be about allowing the athletes to develop", says Abrahamsen.

The bettter the athlete gets, the more access he or she gets to the rest of the team, the more control they get, and the closer the relationship to the coach becomes. All of this is what motivates the athlete. That they develope skills and get better, is what makes them stay in elite sports.

Previous studies have also shown that trainers who emphasize intrinsic motivation and who provide relevant feedback are important in preventing children from dropping out of sports.

Abrahamsen says that good coaches and athletes are focused on learning from their own successes and failures, but also from others, so that they avoid falling into the same traps as others. Sharing knowledge with others, even competing countries, is important to success, he believes.

“It is also about learning from success. Finding out what we did to succeed is equally important,” he said.

Important to support the coach

Those who succeed over time, are those who dare to ask questions and those who are humble. Abrahamsen encourages athletes to seek knowledge from experts in their own field, but also from other sports.

"If you want to become the quickest player in the football field, why not talk to the quickets sprinter?"

It is also of vital importance that there is a good environment around the coach, says Abrahamsen. Even when things are going really bad, the coach should be given time - even when the media are speculating about whether or not the coach should be sacked.

"Federations that back their coach during hard times are often the ones that succeed. It's about daring to stand by the coices you have made and not discard ideas just to get better headlines."

Willpower, good preparation and relationships

Øyvind B. Sandbakk agrees with Abrahamsen’s findings. Sandbakk is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and managing director of the university’s Centre for Elite Sports Research.

He believes success at elite-level sports comes down to three common characteristics:

1. Optimum training quality

Øyvind B. Sandbakk is professor and managing director at the Centre for Elite Sports Research. (Photo: NTNU)
Øyvind B. Sandbakk is professor and managing director at the Centre for Elite Sports Research. (Photo: NTNU)

“The quality of training must be specifically aimed at the skills the sport requires,” he said.

The athlete needs to maintain this high-quality training for an extended period of time and the training must be constantly fine-tuned and developed.

It takes a very special kind of willpower to continue this kind of focused training for so many years, he said. A passion for the training itself and perseverance are often the reasons why athletes who reach elite levels in their sports are able to do so, says Sandbakk.

2. Good relationships

Good relationships between the different individuals who are part of the athlete’s team are crucial to ensuring the training is the best it can possibly be, Sandbakk says.

“Here, the relationship between the trainer and the athlete is of particular importance so that the trainer can support and challenge the athlete in his or her daily efforts,” he said.

3. Good preparation and execution

Good preparation and execution during competitions are important, Sandbakk says.

“This is how an athlete reaches his or her top potential when it really matters,” he said.

Thus, the athlete’s physical, technical and mental properties must be fully sharpened, there needs to be a good dynamic between the athlete and the trainer and other athletes, and any equipment that is part of the competition, from shoes to skis, has to be exactly right, he said.

This is what characterizes those who fail

Just like there are things that characterize success, some things characterize those who fail. Being scared to fail for instance.

"Maybe you've dreamt of coaching the national team your whole life, and now you're afraid to loose the job. So you hide mistakes and you don't share your experiences", says Abrahamsen.

"There can be many reasons for not being open. Maybe the coach is afraid to fail or perhaps there is no system or structure to share experiences. And you shouldn't share everything, of course. I also would not share my tactics right before a football game. But at the same time - nothing comes in if your door is always closed, he says.

"The wish for success has to be bigger than the fear to fail."

Abrahamsen also warns against simple solutions and only thinking about results.

"Coaches that are willing to plan and develop, that see the whole picture and not just results, have better chances to succeed. Those who stand up straight even when things don't go according to plan, will probably also be better off when the storm is over."

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no