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'In The Same (Long)Boat'- Some reflections of my experiences in Sweden

'In The Same (Long)Boat'- Some reflections of my experiences in Sweden

By Jack Walton, Regional Coach Development Manager – South West, The FA

As a virgin blogger I get the feeling I'm in a similar position to the grassroots coach who, when turning up to his first Saturday morning training session with his son's team, is unsure of what to expect or indeed what he's let himself in for by volunteering to take the role on in the first place!

I'm not Swedish.  And neither is the coach in the example above.  But if he had have been then I get the feeling he his uncertainties would soon be replaced with the knowledge that he had made a good decision to devote his evenings and weekends over several years into developing young people.

I use the term 'people' carefully as that is what the first step on the journey of coaching in Sweden teaches you - it's about people first.  And we'll come back to that.

You are the Swedish coach in question. You've taken your daughter to her first club camp in the summer and you've agreed to volunteer to take the new U7 team. You arrive in a welcoming club environment and are allocated an experienced mentor who has trodden similar paths to those you are about to take.  You also meet the 'Youth Development Lead', the focal contact for all teams within the club. Her job is to help your education both formally (by way of courses) and informally (in-house support with other coaches).  You know she's there because the club wouldn't be able to affiliate without her in place!

Before you even put your first cone on the training field you will already have been brought up to speed with the club's values and philosophy.  Another visible, living document that has to be firmly established in order for the club to exist.  These values and this philosophy may differ slightly from the club down the road but there will certainly be one constant; EVERY child has the equal right to play - regardless of ability. 

This is non-negotiable as it is driven by the government and the club receive funding for every child who attends your session. Normally only around 20p per child, per session - which doesn't sound like the amount that would leave you in a position to purchase Gareth Bale in the next transfer window but consider 20 players, twice a week, for 35 weeks and you've just raised around £300 for your club.  Now multiply this by the other 20 teams (the average club size) and you can now see why the club are adamant that no child is left behind in the shadow of a coach intent on winning with the wrong values. Children and youths will vote with their feet and given that there are another 22,000 sports clubs to chose from and the population of the country is just 9 million - that's a sports club for every 409 people! There's a lot of alternative choices if the experience isn't an enjoyable one. It's no wonder that the club are keen to support you to create the best possible environment to keep the young people active and involved.

Now back to the notion of people first. You approach your first formal coaching course.  It's not cheap but that's not a concern for you directly because the club have paid for your attendance through their government funding. Excited. Nervous. Wondering whether you have the technical ability to survive in this environment, you approach with caution as you haven't laced up your boots in 20 years! But the environment is a familiar one - it's your clubhouse. And you're at ease with your peers - they're your co-coaches from the club who are in the same boat as you! Any technical worries are soon alleviated as your course tutor explains that the content of the course is dominated by understanding children and youths as people. How they develop. What makes them behave the way they do. Why they play and what they want from you as a 'leader' (a term often used ahead of 'coach' in this country).  You come away with an arsenal of 'games' designed to support your leadership with your young people.

As your leadership improves over time you don't have to worry about any administration - this is all taken care of by your allocated parent contact.  You won't have the common fear among many volunteer coaches of 'what shall I do with them tonight?' as your season-long training plan has already been put in place by the Youth Development Lead.  Your role is clear - provide the best sporting opportunity for every one of the players in your care. Meet informally every month with your other coaches and club officials to discuss individuals and their development both within the club, at school and beyond to determine better ways of developing the young people in your care.

Before you know it you are now acting as the mentor for the next crop of budding parents who are taking their first steps on the volunteer ladder.

I'd like to summarise by highlighting some of the factors that I believe help retain so many coaches in Swedish grassroots sport.

1. The clubs' values and philosophy are clear and 'living'. Everywhere. This was often the first talking point with any volunteers/officials and they are proud of the way they do things. It was clearly a live document rather than a tick box exercise in order to affiliate. Regardless of sport.

2. The support structure available to coaches within clubs is huge. The clubs are a noticeable family collective who all understand the bigger picture rather than a pool of teams playing under the same affiliation banner who don't communicate with one another and just happen to wear the same kit.

3. The active role that SISU (Swedish Sports' Education Organisation) play in assisting clubs and volunteers is very visible.  Club funding is linked to participation numbers for players and 'leaders' so it literally pays the clubs to create the right environment to grow and help develop their volunteers from within. Clubs also receive funding for attendance at internal, informal meetings. I didn't get the impression that clubs did this purely for extrinsic reasons though. The funding received is redeemed not via direct cash but rather education 'vouchers'.  A complete circle.

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