Can Orienteering Teach Lessons To Other Sports?

Does the sport of orienteering have lessons for other sports?

Can orienteering teach the big sports like football, basketball, etc., a thing or two?

Well, according to some researchers in Sweden, where orienteering is a big deal, we can. How can sports keep their participants involved and playing as they age in life? 

Most of the research report was published in Swedish, and I have used Google Translate to produce an English version.

The report, entitled “Jakten pa kontroller – en livslang idrottspassion”, dated September 27, 2021, authored by Idrott Hela Livet (Idrott & Samhalle), with text by Max Bergstrom Och Mats Jong, Mittuniversitetet; Stig Arve Saether, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, starts here:

“Orienteering succeeds in what many other sports have difficulty with, getting athletes to continue after their teens and into old age. What is the secret? A new study has found the answer.

“Extensive changes are underway in the sports movement, as described in Strategy 2025, which is one of the most important goals to create lifelong sportsmanship in an association. Above all, the change process will lead to more people wanting and being able to play sports in a club – throughout their lives, but how do you achieve this in practice? Here, orienteering is an interesting and successful example.

“Orienteering belongs to the sports in Sweden with the highest average age among the practitioners (average age of 36 years). The same pattern can also be seen in, for example, Norway, where 55 percent of the orienteers are over 26 years old.  Unlike many other sports, in both countries, they have retained many of their former elite runners decades after ” giving up” their (elite) efforts.

“How is it that orienteering manages to retain its members longer than many other sports?

Interviews With Orienteers

“This question has been studied in a research project at Mittuniversitetet  (Middle Sweden University in Sundsvall), where the results were published in the spring in the scientific article “Orienteering from Cradle to Grave – How a Sport Could Offer Lifelong Participation.”

“The study investigated more specifically what makes orienteering meaningful for former national team orienteers who choose to continue training and competing decades after the elite effort has ended and when the goal is no longer to be the best in the world.

“Eleven former national team orienteers from Sweden and Norway (five men and six women), were interviewed to answer the question. The average age among the participants was 48 years, and the average age among orienteering attendance was 39 years. The participants had finished their national team careers 10 to 20 years before the study was conducted but were still active in the sport of orienteering.

“Although the study examined the elite within one sport, the results can be applied to a large extent to non-sports. Through the analysis of the in-depth interviews, two main themes emerged that could answer what orienteering had that made practitioners continue with the sport into old age. These were 1) individually matched challenges and 2) the social arena.

1. Individually matched challenges

“Orienteering is a relatively cheap sport with competition classes for the very young up to 95-year-olds (and older). The sport involves both the body and the mind, where a wide variety of course lengths and difficulty levels make it possible for many to find their specific level.

“Although the participants experienced a declining physique, at the same time, the “treasure hunt” of controls was highlighted as stimulating. For example, the feeling of finding a difficult control point in the forest was still strongly associated with joy and mastery. Some emphasized the competitive moment and pushing oneself as motivating factors for the continued exercise, while others emphasized orienteering itself and the optimization of path selection. For example, one participant expressed that:

“The result is not that important, but when I stand on the starting line, it’s fun to compete. Then, I always try to push myself. It’s like a challenge. Orienteering is like a puzzle that you have to solve with both the body and mind.”

“The system of age classes enabled continued competition regardless of age and ambition. Previous research on motivation has shown that precisely individually matched challenges, i.e., when neither easy nor difficult, create good conditions for experiencing joy, excitement, and well-being. 

From childhood, the participants had developed a close relationship with being in nature. Exercising regularly has always been a natural part of life, sometimes also in the form of other sports. The participants also shared the, perhaps considered by the large crowd, slightly peculiar interest in reading maps and exploring unknown terrain.

“The nature of orienteering meant that they never had to run the same course several times, which can be compared to, for example, track running in athletics or the tiles in a swimming pool. Instead, the sport of orienteering offers an endless variety of places, maps, and terrain, which also motivates the participants. The structure and nature of orienteering meant that they could basically continue with their great passion indefinitely. The forest was also described as a place of recovery from everyday stress and as a promoter of mental health. Similar findings have been made in several other studies on the health effects of nature.

2. The social arena

“Although orienteering is an individual sport, the environment is described as very social. Family and friends play a central role in the continued practice. All the participants, for example, had partners, parents, and children who were also involved in orienteering to varying degrees. Family holidays were often spent at orienteering competitions in Sweden and abroad, making orienteering a lifestyle. The participants also had most of their social network within the orienteering environment. Family and friends also played an important role in the socialization into sports.

The sport has succeeded in creating an encouraging culture and structure that brings together a wide range of ages, levels, and ambitions in the same arena, where the social aspects are as important as the sport.

“Interestingly, it was not always the case that the participants had started orienteering because the parents were doing it, but there were also several cases where the parents and siblings started after the participant. The structure of the sport thus invited even adult beginners to hang on.

“My father is still very active, and he is 77 years old, and he enjoys it, and I think it is nice to go to training and see him. At the same time, my children can meet their grandfather, and I can meet my friends, so it is a very social and fun arena. The 77-year-old can help the younger kids, and he can help the adults, so there is a lot of exchange of experience across the generations,” one study participant was quoted as saying.

“Unlike other sports, where gender and age are usually kept separate, the orienteering environment meant a meeting between generations. Family logistics can be challenging in many other sports, with parents often sitting and waiting in the stands until training is finished. Orienteering makes it possible to go to the same training and competitions as the rest of the family, where childcare is even arranged for the very smallest while the parents are out in the forest.

“My youngest daughter takes the beginner course, which is very easy. My son, a teenager, takes a more difficult course, and my partner, a former elite orienteer, takes the hardest course. I usually run with my daughter and follow her. Sometimes we run separately, and sometimes we run together in the forest.”

“Even if the participants were no longer national team runners, they could take part in the same club training and competitions as before. Therefore, the transition from being an active elite athlete to an exerciser did not mean any dramatic life change other than slightly lowered sporting ambitions. In addition to the sporting aspects, the orienteering environment provided a sense of belonging, identity, and context.

“Overall, orienteering has succeeded in creating an encouraging culture and structure that brings together a wide range of ages, levels, and ambitions in the same arena, where the social aspects are as important as the sport itself. This generates a smooth transition from elite sports to exercise sports but also creates good conditions for lifelong sportsmanship.”

Gord Hunter, Suncoast Orienteering

Published by Suncoast Orienteering

Suncoast Orienteering, Inc. (SOAR) is incorporated in Florida as an active Domestic Non-Profit organization. SOAR provides orienteering events in state and county parks in Sarasota & Manatee counties, and other locations in Florida.

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