We continue the FOOTBLOGBALL Essential interview series with a real tour de force in Swedish youth player and club development Fredrik Sundqvist. Fredrik is responsible for matters of development and education at Azalea BK a youth football club in the Majorna and Linnestaden district of Gothenborg.
His wonderful book “Så funkar ungdomsfotboll” ( How youth football works) published by the Swedish Football Association is the result of a 15 year long journey through the world of Swedish grassroots football.
The Footblogball way is all about learning and open discussion. This is why I never edit answers, (regardless of my opinion) as the people I interview project a special energy in their answers that deserves to remain sacred. I put a lot of work and research in to the questions and I would like to acknowledge the following people who have provided me with inspiration through their work to help me formulate the questions included in this interview.
FOOTBLOGBALL: The introductory paragraph of one of your recent blogs is quite powerful: “If Swedish grassroots football is to be financed by society then it has to has to live up to and be based on the child rights perspective: All children should be given the same value. It is a basic principle of democracy. It does not matter if you are good or bad, ambitious or messy, girl or boy – a football club must ensure every child is valuable regardless of ability or circumstances. Therefore, harder demands should be placed on public funding.”
Can you explain how funding for youth work in Sweden, so that we get a clear picture of your statement?
FREDRIK S: Swedish youth sport is largely funded by municipal and state support, both in terms of state and local government activity support and also in the form of facility support. Costs are more or less entirely borne by public funds provided that the coaches are volunteers. The exact size of this support is not easy to calculate, but is about 5-7 billion Swedish Kronor. Since 2008, the United Nations Children’s Rights Convention is a prerequisite for this financial assistance. Any activity that gets society’s financial backing is supposed to be characterized by a child rights perspective, where the child’s “best interests” is always put first. A Child rights perspective is obviously more of a compass rather than a finished formula that draws a clear framework. However from the perspective of the rights of the child, every child and youth must be important. From my point of view an activity that favours certain children through ranking and selection has severe problems to fit within the frames of the child rights perspective. One other essential aspect is that children and adolescents themselves should have autonomy and control over their participation in sports. The goal, from the perspective of the public, must be to attract as many children and young people as possible to want to play sports, nothing else. In other words the main aim is public health, to include as many people as possible and to help them have a more enjoyable, healthier, better and more fulfilling life.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Scientific evidence suggests delayed selection and specialization to encourage broad participation. The market (in my opinion created from an adult perspective) wants early specialization , focus on one sport and train hard. Do you think that in the future we will look back and think, what the hell did we do to our children?
FREDRIK S: Good question! I think that most adults who have put their children in to an early hard elite selection environment in retrospect need to consider if it was worth the great sacrifices the child had to make during childhood. It is in any case a question I have asked myself (even though I really tried hard not to push my kids in a harmful way). As a matter of facts, sport can in some ways be rewarding even if the sacrifices at the time were unreasonable. We learn from everything, also from bad experiences, but honestly, life is about finding a balance and it’s us adults who have to have the responsibility to guide our children. The price is, I would say, always unreasonably high with a hard sports driven childhood. Sport is supposed to be fun. But if repetitive injury problems and sacrificing school is the outcome of what turns out to be a short sporting career, the sacrifice is rather pointless. I think fewer and fewer will see the point with elite driven children’s sports in the future – for it is of course destructive and meaningless in many ways. Will the market-driven child elite programs disappear? I think not. However, the recruitment base will shrink.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Playing football is a human activity, with all its attendant problems. Our coaching and development programs should reflect this reality. Instead of just focusing on the analysis of the mechanistic body, we should also put great emphasis on social person.
FREDRIK S: This is all about a children’s rights perspective − to see the whole person. It is precisely this, I would say, that makes leadership fun. The very essence of leadership is capturing the individuals where they are, without locking them into preconceived expectations. Then help them develop to their full potential. It requires creativity, opened mindedness and enthusiasm when meeting each individual. To divide and categorize, for example, physical maturity, or any other fixed categorisation destroys individuals by freezing them into fixed roles, roles with expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies. On the whole, there is much to gain through group dynamics and creativity when we see diversity as something good. The slow full-back can be the great guitarist with the cheeky pals. A team can compensate for the slow defender with proper support, but a team with no rock & roll becomes a more boring team to play in and to grow up with.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Can you give advice on how you are working to achieve this in your club Azalea BK?
FREDERIK S: We are constantly trying to emphasize this social dimension and diversity. In the end, it is of course down to the leaders humanistic skills when out working with the players. With us as in all clubs we have both wonderfully creative and responsive leaders and those who might have a little more conservative approach. We just raise these questions and discuss them at our meetings. I think that our young coaches responsible for our summer football schools tend to be incredibly insightful when these issues are discussed.
This is also of utmost importance to senior football. The local senior football club needs to find ways to keep young adults in the sport and to also remain on as volunteers. Therefore we have to see the whole person and not just short-term results. Otherwise, all those square, conservative old men in charge of the local senior football team will soon have no teams to decide over.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Playing with a football team is a bio-psycho-social development within a sporting context and it’s not linear. Life is not linear, so we should not assume that talent is linear.
Performance at the highest level of football is affected by physical characteristics that generally only appear late in adolescence. Properties such as strength, muscle mass and speed are very important, but cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy. But we still use redundant talent identification program that has a “one size fits all” attitude, treating children as mini-adults.
Who in Sweden gains (who benefits?) with these traditional elite talent programs?
FREDRIK S: The short answer is that no one benefits from elite programs, because the sport is forced into a dreary form steeped template. Child elite programs create bad will in football and are not conducted through a child rights perspective therefore they should not get public funding.
However, there are winners, at least if the perspective is short. The big winners are the elite clubs who gain control over the player pool and therefore can use player development as a way of developing a source of income.
Then we must not forget that a large proportion of those who can support themselves as football coaches in Sweden make it through the elite programs. There are those who see a livelihood in elite programs. SEF’s (Association for Swedish Elite Football) Stefan Lundin is a good example. He was very sceptical of the academies before he got a job at SEF. He wrote letters and worked actively against academies. Now he is the great proponent of Swedish football “Tipselit Project “and Children’s elite programs
Of course there are individuals who some way benefit from being in the elite clubs and matched against other elite players. The club develops players according to a formula that fits only a low fraction of all the players (and these are players who would become good anyway). The requirement profile is strict: Developed early, be a post pubertal super talent and be ready for senior elite in the mid-teens. The major drawback is that this way of working is characterised by selection and weeding. Moreover, the process of selecting young talent happens so fast that the young players rarely get the time they need. Just take in to consideration all of these knee injuries. Young players are thrown into the senior elite football, incur serious injuries and lose years of development. My suggestions is a more playful and socially oriented children’s sport and then a more professional, and more long-term talent development, elite preparatory activities between the ages of 18-22.
FOOTBLOGBALL: Referring to the bio-psycho-social. I think it is a mistake to focus too much on one of these three in youth football. It can be a temporary advantage that can give a misunderstood result on the pitch
FREDRIK S: Absolutely! Early easy victories become expensive mistakes in the long run
FOOTBLOGBALL: Here is a quote from the Talent identification and development conference in South Africa Maj2014.
Youth coaches should be trained to become better people, rather than better coach. “Deliberate play” is very important in developing children 12 and younger -. Creating an environment where children can express themselves. In a fun and focused way with minimal adult involvement and participation -. Gertin Thomas, Jean Cote.
I would summarize it this way: At one time, street football and free play was the norm. When we become adults wanted to control it, make it organized and forgot the child in all of us.
What do you think?
FREDRIK S: I like the term “deliberate play”. It shows play as an internal motivation force. Football universe is best explored through the experimental discovery of play. “Deliberate play” also points to the importance of good, creative and inclusive leadership. All development comes from creativity and joy. If the football is not fun, it simply becomes too boring to discover − the kids stop playing and stop exploring. We leaders have the power to make football fun and enticing, but also a heavy serious duty. Many have a completely ridiculous over belief in discipline and structure. Football is a universe of possibilities not a mechanical rote learning process.
FOOTBLOGBALL: “There is no medal that is worth more than a lost childhood.” – Lena Adelsohn Liljeoth, Sports / Culture. What does this mean for you?
FREDRIK S: Unless the sport is worth its price (in terms of sacrifice and health), it becomes literally useless. Sport logic is a bubble in many ways disconnected from the rest of life. Why is a football game “really” important? For example, a girls or boys teams match autumn 2004 for 12 year olds? It was so damn important, then, what does it really matter now, ten years later? It is in any case hardly the outcome that makes the game meaningful in retrospect. What is important in retrospect is the memories of joy and camaraderie, the team spirit, the feeling of being in a meaningful context with others. Maybe all those years playing football developed good habits and a continued physically active life. Perhaps an inspired coach during those important years helped develop empathy and a more worldly view of fellow human beings. It is these existentially important side effects of football that makes it worth its price. That’s the whole point of sport. A leader simply must have these existential values in their focus. It is precisely the essence of the childs rights perspective