Youth Sports, What Can They Learn From Finnish schools?

Lahnee Pavlovich
Head of Research and Writing

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Sports in many ways is like education. Athletes need to be taught new skills, they need to be nurtured, especially in the conscious incompetence and unconscious competence stages of their learning where these new skills are still foreign to them, such as in youth sports, and athletes need to be given the best opportunities to grow and succeed by their Coaches and teammates. It is the overall environment, including a good Coach-athlete relationship, access to good equipment, training and competition environments, support mechanisms and athlete self-awareness that allows an athlete to be the best they can be. Similar to how a student given the best possible academic environment will thrive and grow into the best adult they can be.

After sharing this research, found in an interesting article by Fulbright scholar and Media and Education Lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland, William Doyle, let’s look at what we can take from it and how we can use it as Coaches to better our athletes, especially in youth sports.

Youth Sports

Harvard education professor Howard Gardner is quoted in the original article saying that Americans could “learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools and which does just about the opposite of what we are doing in the United States.” He was referring to the way children in Finland are schooled. More specifically, he was referring to the culture that their teachers created for them based on important values and behaviors.

For example, in Finland, children don’t receive formal academic training until the age of seven. Until then, many are in day care and learn through play, songs, games and conversation. Most children walk or bike to school, school hours are short and homework is generally light.

Finnish students learn through an unstructured environment where testing is done through careful teacher attention and learning is role-modeled by the experts – the teachers.

When we look at youth sports in particular, unstructured play develops decision making skills, resilience and promotes leadership. Sport, like school, is a vehicle to teach life skills, an opportunity to participate and to be your best at something. Winning is not the ultimate outcome, especially in youth sport. Even at an elite level, if you focus on the end result you lose sight of the enjoyment of participating and the wonderful experience of the sporting journey.

School children in Finland also have a mandatory 15-minute outdoor free-play break every hour of every day. Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity breaks are considered engines of learning.

Essentially, schools in Finland are creating an ideal culture for their students to be successful throughout not only their schooling years, but as adults in years to come by giving them what they need to succeed. Their cultural philosophy is to let children be children and let them learn through play.

In its simplest and most useful description, culture is the “way we behave” or the “way we do things”.

When we look at sporting teams, and youth sports, culture is now being recognized as a significant performance factor. If you have the “right” culture, your team is more likely to achieve sustainable success. If you have the “wrong” culture, your chances of any success, even fleeting success, are almost zero.

Youth Sports

Athlete Assessments’ Bo Hanson has worked with more than 700 different sporting teams over a 15 year period. In working with this many teams, Bo has seen a lot of different cultures – both successful and unsuccessful.

“The article by William Doyle, although it talks about education, highlights exactly the need for a successful culture and there are certainly patterns of behavior that have become clear to me that signal a successful culture,” Bo said.

“Things like being deliberate about the culture you want; having a process to develop the culture; defining and role-modeling the values and behaviors; keeping team members accountable, focused and rewarding effort not results; the Coach is the ultimate leader, leading by example; poor behavior is not tolerated and is dealt with appropriately; culture is reinforced through the teams symbols and symbolic acts. These are the things that create a successful culture.

“We look at Finland schools as a perfect example, because of the successful academic culture and the values and behaviors instilled in the students, the country has a history of producing the highest global test scores in the Western world, they are also ranked most literate nation.

“The children in Finland have great relationships with their teachers. The emotional environment is warm, safe, respectful and highly supportive. We can also look at examples of sporting teams where the athletes value the same things and where their behaviors benefit the team and we can see that they are the ones who are achieving higher levels of success. This is no different in elite, or youth sports.

When a Coach and athlete have a mutually respectful, strong relationship and when a Coach creates a productive environment for their athletes, they are more likely to be successful in their chosen sport.

“One of my own examples of team culture was during the selection process for the Rowing World Championships. You had to win every selection race you participated in to qualify. My crew trained with this purpose in mind, with new equipment, new boats and a professionally managed environment that my Coach formed several years earlier. Part of this culture was the expectation of success. When we won a race, there was no fanfare. My Coach would simply say, “Well done, now the next race is at 4pm today – this is what we are going to do to prepare.”

“To not celebrate seemed a bit foreign to me however, my Coach had a bigger vision than winning State Championship races. My Coach was accustomed to success. It was what he expected and what he taught us to expect. It was the culture he created and it did help us to be successful.”

Youth Sports
Bo Hanson and the Australian Men’s 4 rowing team, Sydney Olympics, 2000


Here are 5 things youth sport can learn from the Finland education system:

  1. Creating a successful team culture: When we create a successful team culture, we give our athletes the best possible chance at consistent success.
  2. Allowing youth sports to be about fun, learning and development: We want kids to want to play sports. We want them to fall in love with sport so by implementing a play/learn culture, and not taking youth sports too seriously, we will increase our youth sports and encourage our young athletes to continue playing sport throughout their lives.
  3. Allow kids to play a range of sports: By fixating on a sport that our child shows promise in when they are too young, we are robbing that child of the chance to explore sport. It is important to not specialize too early and allow kids to try a range of foundation sports as this will help build them up in all areas of growth and development.
  4. Creating an unstructured environment: By creating a play based environment where winning is not the “ultimate” outcome, we help our young athletes develop decision making skills, resilience and promote leadership through participating in youth sports.
  5. Fostering a great Coach-athlete relationship: Creating a warm, safe, respectful and highly supportive relationship between the Coach and young athlete helps build a successful culture, and this Coach-athlete relationship has been proven as a key indicator for success in athletes of all ages and levels.

High School Team Program

What do high school teams have in common with the world’s best teams? They both fall over or reach their best potential based on whether or not they get the people side right. Just because High School teams aren’t competing for Olympic medals doesn’t mean they should ignore the most important performance factors.

At Athlete Assessments, we’re experts in the people side of sport. We know sport and live high-performance every day. Our reputation and proven success at the elite level speaks for itself. The results that our National, Olympic, Professional and Collegiate team clients achieve directly reflects their focus on getting the people side right.

And we want to make sure our future sport stars benefit from our expertise too so we have created the Athlete Assessments’ High School Team Program.

At a High School level it is important that young teams have the opportunity to develop their people skills. Our aim is to make a significant contribution to your program’s development and success that will serve your students in so many ways both on and off the court or field… Find out more here!

At Athlete Assessments, we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can assist you with, please contact us.

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