In 2009 The Swedish Sports Confederation (RF) recommended that youth sports must be based on a child’s rights perspective, that is, to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Idrotten Vill, 2009).On the 1stof January 2020 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will become law in Sweden and therefore law in youth sport. Here I examine how this has come to be, why it was deemed necessary, how it will possibly be implemented and the possible consequences for clubs and organisations that do not follow its basic principles. I will also include some thoughts on some inherent system issues that need to be addressed if the Convention is to be successfully implemented.
Sweden,with a population of just over 10 million (SCB; 2017),is one of the world’s leading sporting nations, relative to geography and population. More that 3 million inhabitants are members of a sports club and an estimated 2.4 million are actively involved in sports. There are about half a million coaches and sports leaders, the majority being volunteers. The Swedish Sports Confederation, known as Riksidrottsförbundet (RF), is an umbrella organisation for what is known as the ‘Swedish Sports Movement’. Within the sports movement are 72 special sports associations, 20,000 different clubs and organisations. RF only admits democratic and non-profit associations as members. The main task for RF is to work as effectively as possible for its members, so that they can devote maximum time to sport itself. RF represents the sports movement in contact with authorities, politicians and other decision makers dealing in grants, tax regulations, sports grounds and facilities, development of club democracy and leadership training.
Swedish sports clubs are publicly financed (Norberg, 2012), with roots in volunteerism and are characterised by a social value system linked to public health, democracy and education (Fahlén & Sjöblom, 2012). This model has in recent years been challenged by more commercially organised ventures (Center for Sports Research, 2015 p.7) and attempts to structure and professionalise talent development (Ronglan, 2015). Clubs that successfully develop elite players can enjoy both financial gain and recognition (Henriksen, 2011), increasing the pressure to identify and develop young players.
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement raising some significant concerns regarding practices in youth athlete development. The statement questioned the validity of early talent identification programmes, while also referring to the problematic nature of early specialisation, parental pressure, coaching styles, media sensationalism, and the view of youth athletes as commodities (Bergeron et al, 2015). It should therefore be understood, that player development is a complex process (Williams & Reilly, 2000). However, this complexity is often contradicted by the paradoxical nature of methods used to identify talent. Lund& Söderström (2017) argued that Swedish coaches’ talent identification is guided by what feels “right in the heart and stomach”; but what feels right is greatly influenced by their experience of previous identifications, interpretations of what elite football entails, and the coaching culture in which they find themselves. These subjective methods have been criticised due to selection on the grounds of physical development (Peterson, 2004) and a bias towards the selection of players born earlier in the age category year (Glamser & Vincent 2004; Helsen et al., 2005).Thomas Peterson’s critical report from 2004:Selektions- och rangordningslogiker inom svensk ungdomsfotbol(2004 ) referred to ‘a silent agenda’, indicating that selection on the grounds of physical development was already at work in groups of 5-12 year olds. An even more extensive study by Tomas Peterson examining the selection and ranking mechanisms in Swedish child-youth football was published in 2011.The study examined the Swedish Football Association’s (SvFF) education system. The system resembled “a pyramidal ladder, where each higher staircase is narrower than the previous one“. The results show that the likelihood of being selected for district and national team camps is greater the earlier in the year you are born. The young people who are selected early by their clubs are the ones being scouted by coaches and district and national representatives from the Swedish FA. A more recent example that echoes Peterson’s concerns is regarding national youth team selection carried out in 2018 under the guidance of SvFF. Radiosportens (Swedish Sports Radio) Richard Henriksson (2018) reported:
“- of the 100 players selected for the Swedish boy’s national youth teams for players born 1999, 2000, 2001, only two were born in the last monthly quarter”.
Despite the low predictive value of future performance in football (Williams & Reilly, 2000; Meylan et al., 2010) the identification and selection of the most promising young players to facilitate long-term development is a central tenet of talent development programs around the world (Güllich, 2013). So, despite lacking a scientific foundation, many sports organisations continue to invest time, effort and resources into early talent identification initiatives (Collins & MacNamara, 2018). P.G. Fahlström in 2011, brilliantly summed up this paradox when he questioned the use of these systems in youth sport in Sweden:
“-why are you trying to create generic models to find unique people?” (2011, p. 7)
Figure 1: Child and youth sports in relation to ideals, governing documents, actors,adult sports, change processes (adapted from: https://centrumforidrottsforskning.se/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Barn-idrott-FNs-barnkonvention.pdf
Implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Swedish Sport
On the 1stof January 2020 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will become law in Sweden and therefore law in sport. This international agreement contains 54 articles and states that children are individuals with their own rights, not the property of parents or other adults. In accordance with guidelines set by RF, all sports for children must be based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as stated in the confederation’s statutes. All member clubs and associations of RF are obliged to follow these guidelines and it is a prerequisite for being a member.How this new law will be applied is still unclear and will depend on how it is interpreted in the court of law. However, through its incorporation the Convention receives the status of Swedish law and must be taken in to account by courts and other authorities in their decision processes and cases concerning children (Schiratzki, p. 30). There is an abundance of material available on the Convention provided by The Swedish Sports Confederation-RF (see here) and UNICEF (see here). Local district associations in various sports, have since early 2019 offered and provided education to clubs, board members, coaches and parents on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in sport. During these education evenings, four main principles are highlighted indicative of how the whole is to be interpreted. Articles 2, 3, 6 and 12 are called the four main principles.
Article 2 deals with the equal value and rights of all children. No one is allowed to be discriminated against. The Children’s Convention applies to all children who are in a country that has ratified it.
Article 3 states that it is the best interests of the child to come to the forefront in all measures concerning the child. What is best for the child must be decided in each case and the child’s own opinion and experience must be taken in to account.
Article 6 underlines each child’s right to life, survival and development. The article is about the child’s physical health, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development.
Article 12 highlights the child’s right to form and express their views and to have them taken in to account in all matters that concern him or her. When their opinions are taken in to account, the child’s age and maturity must be taken in to account.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Swedish Football
In 2014 the Swedish Football Association (SvFF) introduced the C Diplomaas the new first step for coaches beginning their education pathway. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is introduced at the beginning of the course book. The four main principles are interpreted from a football perspective.
Football should be as open and accessible to all, regardless of sex, colour, language, sexual orientation or disability. This is a principle of non-discrimination.
“Childs best” means adults and children together create an environment where children have fun, concentrate and do their best, but not pressed too hard by coaches and parents. It can also involve varied training where learning is central.
All children have the right to develop physically, mentally, socially and athletically.
All children have the right to participation, to influence training, to be heard and to make their own decisions
Selection, “Topping” and the UN Convention on the rights of the Child
RF’s (2005) definition of “topping” reads: “the best players are selected for matches while the less good players are not selected. It may also be that playing time in a match is unevenly distributed as the best players are allowed to play more than other teammates”. Selection means that the team is shaped on the basis that some children and young people are considered better than others and thus receive benefits during a match or tournament. These benefits can be, for example, a given place in the team, more playing time or a position on the field that is considered attractive (Redelius, 2002).
Henrik Persson (2019), an expert on children and youth sports at RF,believes that the way selection and “topping” is practiced in many youth sport clubs today is in conflict with the convention and does not believe that it will survive this change in the law. Children’s rights expert Kirsten Sandberg, who has been a member of the UN Children’s Rights Committee has suggested, that not complying with Article 12 can have tangible consequences for the clubs and associations that today “top” and select within their teams. She has also suggested that this type of selection should not happen until the children themselves can have a clearer opinion about whether they want to be exposed to it. Selection should be made on the basis that it is for the child’s and not the club’s best interests. Should the Swedish courts interpret the Children’s Convention in this way, Kirsten Sandberg claims that it would be illegal for associations not to offer the same training opportunities to girls as boys.
Lawyer Louise Hammarbäck runs the organisation Pacs (Protection and Action for Children’s rights in Sports), which works on strengthening children’s rights in sports. She told Sportbladet (2019) that no one today knows how the Swedish judicial system will interpret the new laws as they have never been tried in court, but it will definitely make a difference.
“It will make a difference because with national legislation there will also be criminal liability. This means that the Children’s Convention alone can form the basis of a judgment and I believe that many associations that have children and youth activities will be more cautious”.
Sports Minister Amanda Lind when asked in Sportbladet (2019) if the law will provide more concrete tools to deal with the key issues in child-youth sport answered:
“When the Children’s Convention becomes law, these issues will be high on the agenda.”
Some final thoughts
The debate on youth sport in Sweden is out in the open, often polarised and contradictory. In recent years discussions on youth sport have featured regularly on prime-time TV, radio and in national and local newspapers. One can hope that the current discussions, concerns and available evidence, as presented here, can help clubs, coaches, stakeholders, sports organisations at all levels, to move beyond the current stalemate. However, it is hard to imagine any changes taking place as long as structural conditions remain unaltered and unchallenged. For example, many clubs, associations and federations are still anchored to a traditional view of sport and competition, limiting their ability to think critically and differently, break routines and try new ways (Håkan Larsson, 2013).
Long-term athlete development involves highly complex processes in which there are an almost incalculable number of interactions that can influence the rate and magnitude of development of young athletes (Kirkland, O ‘Sullivan, 2018). Whilst there are anecdotal examples of great athletes being ‘talent spotted’ early in their development, we know that systems used to predict the future athletic success of pre-pubescent children are of questionable validity (Ford et al., 2011).
The International Olympic Committee (Bergeron et al., 2015) has recognised that the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centered.There are many social norms and organisational pressures present within the facets of professional sport that are being perpetuated in youth sport. For example, the use of words such as ‘elite’ has added to the development of an artificial mythology in and around the culture of child youth sports programs (see here).Early talent ID programs, so called elite grassroots coach education programs and private commercial ventures, regularly been marketed using sensationalistic language, could well be aiding the preservation of these embedded habits and beliefs.
It can be argued, that the introduction of the UN Convention on the rights of the Child into law in Swedish sport, emerged as a response to some of the concerns highlighted here. Despite good intentions and strategical procedures displayed at operational system level through documents and guidelines, there seems to be a limited understanding of how to ensure that research and federal sports policies are implemented and used in practice. This knowledge gap remains problematic (Ross. et al, 2018; Fahlström, 2011).We simply cannot just make the Convention law and ‘will’ it into existence in practice and hope that the courts will take care of it. RF’s ambition that youth sports must comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child raises the bar. It sets new levels of expectations on coaches, many whom are volunteers, board members, clubs, coach educators and federations. Key to its success does not lay within the courts, but in each federations ability to enable knowledge mobilisation – the act of moving the research and federal sports policies into the hands of research users to effect change (Gainforth et al., 2014). Knowledge after all cannot be treated as an organisational asset without the active and voluntary participation of the communities that are its true owners.
Social systems like youth sports clubs are open systems, so a change in one area is likely to create changes elsewhere in the system. As with all social phenomena, sports coaching and the development of young people are influenced by broad political, social and cultural contexts, where abilities are acquired thanks to a history of interactions (Rietveld 2008a). For good or for bad, local interactions,if allowed to occur on a regular basis through proximal processes and their interactions,affect neighbouring agents and can eventually influence other systems and distal processes (Heylighen, 2009), making learning in the system inheritably social. Swedish researcher Karin Redelius (2013) captured this when she suggested that culture in a particular club or sports organisation is partly a result of a historical process influenced by the development of society and the views of individual leaders and how this affects the design of practice, who is considered talented, what distinguishes a good leader and what is considered success.
As already highlighted, there is a constraining dominance still at play that we need to overcome if the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is to help guide the future of Swedish sport. The grip of convention, as highlighted by Håkan Larsson (2013),on player development, pedagogical approaches, coach behaviours and coach education may well be fuelling a cultural inertia, making it easier to persevere with and fall back on embedded habits and beliefs. This could prove problematic when you consider the ambiguity of Article 3. The risk is that it will be an adult making the decision for the child based on their own personal beliefs and biases. It can therefore be argued that our current and future opportunities to develop youth sports are influenced by philosophical assumptions and culturally resilient beliefs that have been developed through the integration of various influences that remain uncontested and unchanged. These clearly need to be excavated and investigated. I believe that this is what P.G. Fahlström is calling for when he asked “why are you trying to create generic models to find unique people?” (2011, p. 7).
The aim of this piece is to stimulate a broad and informed debate within child-youth sport in general, by emphasising the need to investigate and understand the dynamic interrelations between various components from micro (pedagogy, practice task design, selection policies) to macro (cultural patterns), if we are to truly live up to the idea of ‘as many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible’. This slogan is very much central to the future development of Swedish sport and its long-term vision. The introduction of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in to law on January 1st2020 may yet prove to be a key factor in supporting this noble endeavour.
The Mighty Quark – Fade out for the Medaza Boys
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