I’ve just recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Sweden. This came about after being approached to become a consultant for the National Youth Football Association (NYFA), a new platform to positively affect youth sport via coach and player education in Sweden and beyond…
I flew out from Edinburgh on Friday evening, arriving into Gothenburg around 9pm to be greeted at the airport by NYFA founder Owen Southgate. He and his wife Lucy were hosting me at their house in Ulricehamn. We had some brief conversations before getting an early night ahead of a long road trip to Ostersund in the morning.
After a 4.30am start, Owen and myself were joined by Daniel Masterson (PhD), Health Psychologist and researcher, formerly at Staffordshire University, now residing in Sweden. We began the 9 hour road trip north (I had no idea Sweden was so massive) to visit Ostersunds. Luckily the 9 hour road trip passed quickly filled with great discussions on coaching philosophy, psychology, research, youth sport, growth mindset and similar topics. It turns out a 9 hour road trip is a great way to get to know someone! After arriving in Ostersund, we found somewhere to eat before heading to bed to make up for the lost sleep!
Sunday morning we headed to Ostersunds Football club or “OFK” as they are known, currently coached by Englishman, Ian Birchall. We were very fortunate to meet with Ian ahead of his team’s fixture with Hammarby. It was a fantastic conversation with Ian, who discussed the atmosphere at the club. He reinforced that it was his desired to create an environment where players were allowed to make mistakes and learn, as well as the desire to have a “no blame” culture among staff and players. He also described the unique approach they have in engaging staff and players in cultural projects each season. For example, he mentioned the previous season the organisation had put on a performance of Swan Lake. He expressed how all the coaches were also involved, he himself due to sing onstage in front of 1000 people as part of the project.
Whilst this might simply sound like a bit of light fun and entertainment, Ian discussed how this was specifically designed to help challenge players outside of their comfort zones. Ian was very accommodating and it was refreshing to hear the inside workings of a club who are hugely ambitious, climbing from the 4th tier of Swedish football to beating Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the Europa League under Graham Potter!!
Not only are they ambitious in performance but they are also massively focussed on the community of Ostersunds. Another point of discussion was the previous visit of Darfur United, a refugee football team who competed in the 2014 CONIFA World Cup in Ostersunds. He explained how the club had actively supported the process of the refugees gaining immigration status in Sweden and how two of the Darfur team were now employees of the club (as well as many as matchday staff) and additionally, how the club was helping them visit home for the first time in 4 years. Ian was short on time, with it being a match day but had generously arranged tickets for us also.
On our way out of meeting Ian, we were fortunate to bump into Alan and June (An English couple now living in Ostersunds), the very people who were involved in the Darfur United team. It was fantastic to hear from them first hand about their experience helping the Darfur United team in their visit to Sweden and subsequent housing and immigration process. As we were speaking, many of the Darfur United team were coming up to greet them, prior to starting their work as matchday staff and volunteers. You can watch the video below for more detail on the Darfur United project.
Alan and June are also involved in the “Younglings” department, an initiative in getting local kids in Ostersunds involved in the matchday experience and being part of the club, rather than just a fan. They then invited us to join the volunteers and Younglings in the prematch parade of the OFK flag on the pitch!
OFK played Hammarby in a closely battled encounter. Hammarby need all 3 points to help with their ambitions of qualifying to play in the Europa Cup. OFK on the other hand needed the 3 points to reach a new all time points total. The match ended 3-3 with 3 great goals from OFK, but defensive mishaps costing them the match. Owen and Daniel took the opportunity post-match to interview Alan about his experiences with OFK and involvement in the community and socially focussed programs within the club. The following day we made the long return journey back to Ulricehamn.
Tuesday was my final day in Sweden and saw me meeting several other key members of NYFA including CEO Karl Lunden and audio/visual officer Gabreil Ekbeck, as well as Helder, another consultant. We took this opportunity to record a few podcast episodes, discussing the youth sport from a holistic perspective, as well as agreeing some potential dates for future visits to Sweden to run workshops for NYFA.
I had a fantastic time in Sweden, meeting some like minded individuals who all want to have a positive impact on the world of youth sports, not only in Sweden but beyond. I am excited at the prospect of moving forwards with NYFA in this mission!
To learn more about NYFA please visit their social media accounts:
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