Henok Goitom – Portrait of a Professional Footballer as a Child

Footblogball returns to its essential interview series with a childhood portrait of professional soccer player Henok Goitom. Henok has played in Spain (La Liga) in Italy (Seria A) and in The Swedish Premier League (Allsvenskan).

Enrique Henok

Henok (far right) with Costa Rican international Celso Borges on the left and RCD Espanyol coach Enrique Mattheo in the middle

“How can a child know what is good or what they are good at if the world is not presented to them?”

“While sports science and research tends to focus upon the biological and psychological training necessary to become an elite performer, success in sport is much more complex than this. Underpinning any athlete’s “bio-psycho” make-up is the socio-cultural environment in which they are brought up” (Dr Martin Toms)

One thing that always struck me when watching Henok Goitom play soccer is his understanding of space. Through the local club he helped to start, his beloved Kista Galaxy he is creating a community development space between the pitch and society. Even when in conversation he is the master of the use of space between words and sentences.

In that space between dreams and reality Henok Goitom developed to become a professional footballer.

Fun and more fun – that was what was important to us

Henok Goitom had already been playing street football for four years before he began with any form of organised football.  In the Stockholm suburb of Tensta, it was on the streets that legends were made and identities carved out on the asphalt playgrounds or the gravel pitches of his childhood. Heroic deeds were relived, exaggerated and re-told long into the endless Swedish summer evenings and the dark long winter nights.  Friendships were formed, bragging rights were won and the game was learned.

When he turned 9 he joined a local team coached by his Father, Goitom. The young Henok was still drawn back to the streets. Almost directly after training, an impromptu game of soccer would break out somewhere in the neighbourhood. In 1993 if you were a boy in Tensta there were slim opportunities to play other sports apart from soccer.

Shortly after his 10th birthday the family moved temporarily to the nearby suburb of Hässelby. Henok continued to play football but soon other worlds opened up for him. This new environment offered him the possibility to sample three other sports, basketball, handball and floorball (indoor hockey). In school, Henok was lucky enough to have a creative P.E. teacher. Each week a new sport was tested or a new game devised. Henok’s father, a firm believer in a more versatile, all-round comprehensive training, introduced the football team to skipping ropes and gymnastics.

Within two years the family returned to Tensta. During one winter the football team doubled as a basketball team. This all got very complicated when they reached the basketball league final. Their opponents were Henok’s real basketball team. “We were just playing. Nobody thought that we were cheating until we met in the final!”

The authorities were not happy and the final was never played. They didn’t mind, it was just a fun activity to keep the soccer team together during the cold winter months. So while other soccer clubs were training with an almost sole focus on football for nearly 11 months of the year, Henok and his friends were testing other sports, keeping up their street soccer and generally having as much fun as possible. “Fun and more fun-that was what was important to us”.

Looking back Henok firmly believes that he benefited from the skill transfer between the different sports he played. He feels that it gave him a versatility of movement and an increased tactical awareness.

“In basketball I felt very confident with the ball in my hands. I looked up more”. He learned to constantly scan the court as things could change in an instant. It was a fast paced game in a small space. “You blink! – You lose the ball and the opponent scores “.

“Handball taught me how to defend”. Closing off and killing space. With floorball I had to learn how to change direction with explosive movements. Again if you were not aware of what was happening around you the punishment was swift. You were still in no-man’s land while your opponents were celebrating a goal.

“Playing other sports gave me a broad experience of society”.

It was in the wealthier areas of Stockholm that the best indoor basketball courts could be found. My team would regularly play in these areas. On the court I knew we were all equal.” It didn’t matter how rich you were because all that mattered is what happens on the court now”.

“Where I come from you needed to develop mental strength. Nobody outside your immediate family and closest friends believed in you. So you must develop a belief in yourself. You must solve the details yourself. Your football boots were falling apart? Fix them with tape”. Asking your parents for money for a new pair was a last resort.

“We had simple family rules and it kept me grounded. I was taught to be humble and always give something back”.

During meal times for example the family always ate together. Nobody dared sit and eat in front of the TV. If a telephone bill arrived that was higher than it should have been, a family meeting would be called and everyone would have to somehow contribute, either financially or by simply been economical with the use of the phone.

An environment where soccer was inevitable

 “We had a street attitude and we searched out fun and mainly found it on the streets in the form of soccer. As kids in Tensta we were very conscious of our image. We liked to give the impression that we were not very serious but that we could still win. It had to be fun. This was very important to us”.

The street provided an environment where your failures and successes were greeted with the same applause and humour. This is how Henok learned much of what he took with him in to his professional career. The street games were open to all ages. You had to be creative and find your own solutions especially when playing against older guys. Street ranking was important. Nobody cared if you made a mistake but if you didn’t play well, then next time you could be picked last. This meant that you were the goalkeeper. Of course one way of always avoiding this was to actually own the ball.

Set up, monitored and designed by children to maximise enjoyment the environment encouraged Henok and his friends to be creative. There was no coaching. They invented games.” Goal to goal with two touches was our way of practicing shooting”. If only 3 players turned up, we played “tunnel”. A point was awarded when you played the ball between your opponent legs. The constant evolving game situations encouraged more decisions, more failures and more successes. When Henok describes these daily rituals that were the street games of his childhood his eyes light up and his voice changes character. He is there. He hears the voices in that cage with the small sand pitch. He is there come rain, snow or sunshine taking on all-comers, trying to beat the elements and forgetting time. Child initiated play tends to have its own sense of time.

Henok and his friends actively sought out other sports. “There was always a classmate heading to play basketball or handball at some local club”. You just followed and joined in. It was very social. This way of just turning up and joining in was the social norm at the time. Your friends played so you played. Most of all it was fun. By testing other sports I realized that football was my thing”.

Frequently in this interview Henok refers to how absorbed he was in playing the game. He was absorbed in the process. This probably explains why still today he has a very strong growth mind-set. “If you asked me what I wanted to be I would say a professional soccer player. But when I was playing football I was just focused on enjoying it. If I was playing badly, I never thought to myself- you will never become a pro. Instead I thought, I didn’t play well today, how can I play better the next time?”

When Henok was 13 his team trained three times a week with at least one game at the weekend. His focus was more on football but he still took part in other sports, especially basketball.

“My father was my coach and this meant I got feedback”. Henok wanted feedback. Not necessarily as confirmation of his abilities but to be used as a tool to enhance his development. With his father’s support Henok developed a focus, “My father assured me that I did not need to go to the top clubs in Stockholm to develop. The most important thing was that I got to play and improve. I didn’t think about winning games, just playing good football”.

Henoks father is an ex basketball pro from Eritrea. He represented his country on numerous occasions. He knew what hard training was and was aware of the hard training that would be awaiting Henok later in his teenage years. He kept Henok focused on the process. Learn to play the game. “Our culture was more honest with regard to criticism. That is why I was open to it. The Swedish culture was more -well done for taking part”.

Henok took the discipline that family life gave him in to soccer. He was never late for training or games. Soccer was always the most fun. Nearly all my friends played in my team and the same friends played on the street.  “The focus was not to be professional footballer but to have fun”. The simple joy of playing on the streets is about the process not the outcome. “I carried this philosophy with me in to the competitive games I played with my team”.

It was when he was 16 that Henok decided to focus solely on football. He joined Stockholm Division 1 club Essinge. Encouraged by the support of his father and the coaches at his youth football club Henok made the move to senior football. He needed a new and bigger challenge. Youth football was not giving him what he wanted anymore. “They thought I was good they believed in me. Someone believing in you at what can prove to be a vulnerable age is a big thing”.

He was now training and playing organised football 6 times a week. The first year with his new club was very hard. He was only selected to play in two games. Henok missed playing with his friends but he was determined. Sacrifices were made. The temptations and distractions of teenage life were kept to a minimum. The social bonds he formed through football with his childhood friends remained intact despite the fact that he operated on a different schedule to them. As the training volumes increased Henok’s spare time was taken up with schoolwork, resting and preparing for the next game or training session. It is quite clear from speaking with Henok that the foundation for this ownership of his development was discovered during childhood where he fell in love with the game through play. Here he developed the intrinsic motivation required to take the whole process to its potential.

 “I had an inner drive, the result of everything that had gone before.” 

Henok feels that if he was a 10 year old in 2014 he would have found it harder to develop as a footballer. “Other things may have taken up our attention”. The use of “our” here is very interesting. It is very “street”. He is acknowledging the importance and influence of social factors, his peers, friends who he spent nearly every single day with. Talent does not develop in a social vacuum. Today maybe the obvious distractions could have divided the opinion as to what Henok and his friends would like to do with their spare time. X box or the local cage for a game of street football?

“We didn’t have mobile phones or computers. We went down to the local pitch and hoped that someone was there. It wasn’t important who. If the local pitch was being used, we would find a solution. We played on every surface, asphalt, sand. It wasn’t even important where we played just once we played”. The football of Henok’s youth was for those who can and those who want to. It was less adult-centric. Today, various socio-economic factors, pressure to focus on one sport and a counter-productive culture that drives the specialisation age down is narrowing opportunities for those who want to. Those who can perform early in development get to play the organised game.

“If I had a youth football club, I would actively seek out other sports in the area. I would visit those clubs with a view to starting a co-operation. Today you must nearly force children to try another sport. Maybe they will love it. How can they know what is good or what they are good at if the world is not presented to them?”

So what was the glue that stuck the young Henok to his personal development process?

Luck, coincidence, opportunity you can call it what you want but no two elite player development paths are the same. There is no magic talent model or formula. It is nature and nurture in an unpredictable, extremely complex and sensitive process. The early narrative demonstrates a world revealed to us through the single aperture of play- “to experiment with different movements and tactics and the opportunity to learn to innovate, improvise and respond strategically”. (Côté, Baker & Abernethy, 2007)

Henok and his friends sought out fun in the street games they played. From a young age he got to play and experience many different sports. The development of movement, tactical, technical and cognitive skills was all about opportunity. Perhaps it could be argued that it was also about the opportunities that Tensta didn’t offer. There was less distractions and to prevent boredom from setting in you had to be creative. Henok’s expectations were intrinsically motivated enabling the smooth transition from the playful environment of the streets to a more organised coach led environment.

He had a strict and supportive father who always tried to appeal to his son’s intelligence. He was a man with a good understanding in how to deliver analysis, criticism and praise while instilling a belief that the focus should be on the process.

“This worked because my father was always with me”.

Henok always believed in the process. That process was development and learning, a synchronisation of biological, psychological and social factors in the context of sport. It needed time, it needed encouragement, it needed respect, it needed support and it needed space.

In that space between dreams and reality Henok Goitom developed to become a professional footballer.

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