Kategori: In English

How open is the Open?

The Open, by many regarded as the most prestigious tournament in golf, this year has returned to Royal Portrush, a true gem of a golf course in Northern Ireland. As to outline a well thought out succession plan, the Open this year follows the week of the Men’s European Amateur Team Championships in which Sweden successfully defeated England to take home the trophy. That is no doubt a big win for the Swedish team and for the first time since 1961 Sweden are the reigning European Champions. But when the Open is now contested over the links of Royal Portrush the players from the winning team, or at least some of them, instead has travelled to Barseback to compete for the Swedish Team Championships. Securing a spot in the Open Championship is a tough job and between becoming a European champion and teeing it up on the links set up by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club lots of hurdles await the players.

In 2010 the roles were the reverse in the final of the European Championships. At Österåker Golf Club, England beat Sweden and got to travel in the pink winners’ limousine into the city. From that winning team three players are playing the weekend rounds at Royal Portrush. Tommy Fleetwood, Eddie Pepperel and Tom Lewis. They are all successful winners on the European Tour. Two of them are in the world’s top 50 (Fleetwood and Pepperel) and the third is in the top 80. And this is before they have reached thirty (all three are born 1991 and hence were 18 or 19 when winning the European).

Amateur golf is a bit like under 21’s in a different sport, even though it is open to players of any age that are selected by their country. It is very difficult to predict who will go from there to become a world class player. The best looking prospect may some months or years later have gone completely by the wayside. And in all honesty, there are multiple players, Europeans, in the Open field that have never won a European Amateur Team Championship.

When reflecting over all of this I look through an old presentation that I gave at the European Golf Teaching and Coaching Conference in 2014. I had a quote in there saying:

”Most of those that become GREAT players will have been good players at an ”early” age.

However – all players that are good at an early age will not become GREAT players. In fact – most will not…

Some players that were not particularly good at an early age will still become… but we’ll get to that!”

I think this was pretty well put and a win in an under 21 championship can certainly put an athlete in the first paragraph. That should provide every chance for a slightly less bumpy ride than that of an athlete in the third paragraph. So in other words, a group of Swedish male (and female as Sweden brought home also the women’s trophy of the Europeans) golfers have this summer put themselves in a good position. Whether we will see any of them in the Open Championship in 2028 is a completely different question!

Borrowing a podcast with Graham Henry

A great book that I am in the middle of reading is ”Legacy” by James Kerr. It is a book about leadership and business but the beauty of the book is that it finds its inspiration in sports. Every example that is explained by leadership theory comes from the business of the All Blacks, the New Zealand National men’s rugby team. The leader of this team at the time was Graham Henry. Sir Graham Henry that is. During Coach Henry’s time at the helm the All Blacks continuously punched above their weight. That is not unusual when it comes to the All Blacks but Henry came in at a difficult time and turned the team into what it could be. The best advice today will be to read the book. The second best is to listen to the podcast that I am borrowing from the NZBusinesspodcast. Enjoy!

A brief reminder of the meaning of ethics

To say that the world of sporting athletes (clean ones that is) and the world of antidoping (as in the World Anti Doping Agency) has had a bit of a clash is perhaps the greatest understatement in sport currently. In fact WADA seems to have crashed and burned with most of the World’s national antidoping agencies since its decision to again allow Russia to carry out doping tests on its athletes and also to, again, be able to host international events. The bulk of the criticism comes from the fact that this decision was taken despite the fact that Russia had not yet taken the measures set out by WADA following the so called McLaren report. Not many days go by without athletes (for example Sweden’s Sebastian Samuelsson, National Antidoping Agencies or even an ex WADA lead investigator criticising the global watchdog. Much of the criticism is around WADA’s decision on Russia but also on how athletes feel they have not been listened to and how there is a perceived conflict of interest as the president of WADA is also an executive member of the International Olympic committee.

Ever since the 2015 World Anti Doping Code was published, and possibly even before that, there has been a movement wanting to separate the antidoping process from sport’s governing organisations and from the government. The reason being that sport, at least by some, is not trusted to control itself. This of course is a logical step. Having said this, I always remember the words of RF’s General Counsel, Christer Pallin, saying ”if ethics applied, lawyers would not be needed”. So the question then becomes, if wanting to change the current situation, is it best to work on the ethics or to employ more lawyers (or apply more control mechanisms)?

Of course it will never be one or the other but unless sport itself and the athletes competing in sports realise that the way (some) sports are headed leads to self destruction, there will never be enough control to apply to do away with the problem. Pia Nilsson, once the Head Coach of the Swedish National Golf Teams, and in those days my boss, always said:

”We (as in athletes and coaches) can never take sport for granted”.

This has simply never been more true.

Transformational coaching – for the fun of it

”You can reach world class through early specialisation, intense training and competition from an early age. But it comes at a cost.” Something along those lines was one of the take home messages delivered by Jean Côté from Queens University in Canada, when the Swedish council for sports research (CIF) turned 30 years old this week. CIF celebrated by sharing some of the knowledge that has emerged thanks to the funds that CIF has distributed over the years, and combined this with a couple of invited internationally recognised researchers in a fully booked conference where 200 people from sport federations, clubs, universities and communities came together to gain new insights.

Professor Côté’s work on development models in children’s and youth sport is highly regarded and used by organisations from the FA to the Swedish ice-hockey federation. All those who wants to avoid the negative effects of early specialisation, for example reduced enjoyment, increased stress and anxiety, dropout, increased numbers of injuries, not to mention the lack of diverse experiences, better listen very carefully when Jean speaks about sampling, deliberate play and perhaps most of all, transformational coaching.

The transformational coach continuously discusses, and models, values and behaviours. At the same time he or she shows vulnerability and humility while expressing confidence in athletes capabilities. The coach discusses goals and expectations while providing meaningful and challenging tasks, many times based on the athletes’ input. The transformational coach shares leadership responsibilities, emphasises learning, recognises accomplishments and contributions. At the same time the coach is interested in feelings and perspectives.

To me, this sounds like a coach or a leader most of us would want to be around. Both in sport and at work. And to very little surprise it is a leadership that I would guess can prove a useful component in what Amanda Visek explains as the ”positive coaching” that children rate pretty high up the list of the 81 determinants that make sport fun. Having fun is the number one reason children participate in sport. Not having fun is the reason the same children leave. Visek’s research shows that the most common determinants of fun are no different between girls and boys nor between younger and older children (all the way up to age 19 in fact). However, there is a difference between what children say and what coaches say they think children say is fun.

So to quote my good friend Stuart Armstrong – ”change the coach(-ing) or change the coach”. Children deserve this. Adults can do it.

To trickle down or trickle away

For many golfers this is the week of all weeks. The Ryder Cup takes place at ”Le Golf National”, just outside Paris. It has been a while since I was at my last Ryder Cup and I do have very fond memories. A team event such as the Ryder Cup in an individual sport like golf is a very special thing.

The bidding process for a Ryder Cup in many ways resembles other global sporting events. When the 2018 host was decided I was a lot closer to golf than I am today. I remember that France had an amazing campaign. Raising the sport’s profile and participation levels in France were the primary goals for pursuing the Ryder Cup. The event was put right at the heart of the French Golf Federation’s ambitions and it had all the necessary backing both from the city and the government.

Now, seven years later the week has come and for the first time ever the Ryder Cup is played without a representative from the host country on any of the teams. Clearly, that is a miscalculation for the French. Having said that, they may have done even better with Tiger Woods as a bit of a surprise on the American side. Things certainly weren’t looking that way only a while ago. And when asked, the Secretary General of the French Golf Federation says that if he had been given the choice between a French golfer and Tiger Woods for this Ryder Cup, he would have chosen Tiger Woods. The reason being that ”he can transform nongolfers into golfers.”

Ironically, on this Friday morning I had a very similar conversation with a number of Secretary Generals from Swedish Sport Federations. The difference being that we spoke about a possible Stockholm 2026, i.e Olympic and Paralympic Games , rather than the effects of a Ryder Cup. And based on the research in the area of the so called trickle down effect it is very likely that the main objective behind France’s Ryder Cup pursuit will fail. The effect of a major event on sport participation is very limited. Unless the event is coupled with some major other initiatives that can boost participation.

In golf in particular it seems like it is actually the other way around. From the figures collected by the Swedish Golf Federation it is evident that the final day of the men’s Olympic golf tournament in Rio was a really bad golf day. Rounds played dropped dramatically as golfers apparently preferred to watch tv instead of playing golf. However, it is also clear from the same figures that the years that Henrik Stenson is high up the rankings correlates with the years with the highest number of rounds played.

So in essence: No major event alone will save the participation rates for any sport. But if the sport has neither the event nor the superstars – it is likely to fade into the complete darkness of sports that were once talked about and once cared for, by more than the closest allies. And this, this may just be reason enough even for Stockholm 2026.

The good, better and how of rural life

Over the summer holidays it is common among many Swedes to take a trip down memory lane. I am no different and this summer I returned to familiar hoods for almost a week of lazy life by the lake, at my mother’s summer cottage. As every year this journey brings a mix of reliving fond memories and sadness when facing houses, factories and sports facilities in a rural part of the country that has clearly seen better days. Sweden has one of the highest urbanisation rates in Europe and it is evident how this affects life both where I grew up, further north where I also spend part of my summer and in rural areas also in the south where we took a quick family tour. Sports is in a difficult place when facilities in many parts of the country deteriorate due to lack of available funds for maintenance and there is nowhere near enough people to fill the facilities. In the bigger cities there are more people than available facilities and public funding comes nowhere near what is required to cater for the number of sports facilities that are needed to keep people active. A quick look at the map as it will look when taking into account the density of the population in Sweden 2025 makes it easy to understand that we are only now seeing the beginning of the problems that are waiting.

Having said this, most of the great athletes of Swedish sporting history have come from the tiny towns and simple facilities. In fact, this is likely to be a pattern in many countries. As I travel through Sweden I can see why. In the facilities that actually are looked after I see great possibilities. There is a paddock full of horses just outside the door, a plastic ice to practice slap shots on, an empty golf course within walking distance and many, many more examples of accessible sports that children in the city can only dream of. These facilities of course do not look after themselves. Each one will take a superintendent with knowledge of the three magical questions:

  • What is good (now)?
  • What can be better?
  • How can we fix this?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a job worthy any father or mother of a future world class athlete!

As simple and as difficult as it may seem

Alright. Here it goes. The question of HOW. The system is broken, needs fixing – how can sport meet the needs of children AND provide opportunities for some to reach fantastic heights in terms of performance? There is so much work carried out in this area at the moment, around the world, that you might think the problem will be sorted soon. And let’s hope so. My worry though is that it is not. Simply because I am afraid the solution is so much more difficult than most of us would ever dare to admit. Sometimes when I present on the topic I use a book, in Swedish, and read about ”the Sport of the future”, 25 years away. The book is thin but holds some really eye opening truths and easily recognisable facts. The future that is painted in the book is truly a great future. One of the versions of the future that is. The alternative is not so bright. In fact, it is quite horrible. And as I read through that section most people in the audience start to recognise that it sounds very much like what we have today. Actually, it is what we have today. The book was written in 1989 which means that 25 years into the future occurred already in 2014. This of course means that the very attractive future that was described in 1989, as a possibility, did not happen. Not because the analysis was not there or the plans were missing. The laid out pathway was just way too difficult to get on so the journey probably never ever started in the first place. The issue of plans and systems have been well described (thanks guys!) by Andy Kirkland and Mark Upton following the great Twitter conversation that has been going this week.

So where does this leave us? I am going to offer, at least an effort of, a different approach. Having said that, this probably needs a disclaimer start:

Disclaimer

Not every sport is the same (there is real wisdom for you right there…). A legitimate reason for having to do things in a certain way is for example safety. If safety prohibits some of the thoughts I am presenting below there is no question what comes first. However, safety is also affected by the setup of coaching, by facilities and probably about a million other factors so just make sure safety is not used as a bad excuse.

Second disclaimer is that not all sport is football (more wisdom). Team sports, and football in particular, very often is the norm when discussing things like coaching content, early selection and retention, with the assumption being that some of these factors are what leads to early drop out. Apart from a few sports though, with very different demographics, most sports show similar patterns. Children drop out not because they’re not selected or not wanted. They drop out because the sport is just not an attractive (enough) place to be.

There is something about play

Fred Donaldson, a world known specialist of play, once said that ”people think that the opposite of play is work. It’s not. It’s depression.” Wow. True or not, that is a pretty powerful statement. So what is play really? This is where it starts to get interesting. Play translated into Swedish is children’s activity – ”leka”. Most adults playing with children would need to get on the floor and do things they would not regularly do. Some characteristics often used to describe play are that play is self chosen and self-directed, voluntary, meaningful (to the participants) and fun as well as spontaneous, flexible and creative. Anyone who has seen a child involved in this type of activity, or remembers what it was like, will know how absorbing play can be.

The other version of play, more common when it comes to sport, is to play something, i.e the piano, games or sport. More rarely does this require adults on the floor (more than occasionally) and it will unlikely score anywhere near the on the floor activity when it comes to characteristics as self chosen, self directed, spontaneous, flexible, creative and fun. In Swedish playing sport therefore uses a different word – ”spela”.

So, when Rolf Carlson (previous blog post) described the Swedish tennis players ”playful” tennis up to the age of 14 he was not talking about the second use of the word play (”spela”). He was talking about the first (”leka”). They were simply absorbed by playing tennis.

So, how do we get kids absorbed by playing sport today? Of course this is where it gets really difficult. Every child is different and what checks those boxes of characteristics of each child is bound to be different for each and every one of those that a volunteer coach has in a group. It has to be done though and a good start is probably to start asking the children about how they feel a bit more often.

Being absorbed leading to being obsessed

Now there is a difficult and rather spooky phrase. Being obsessed. I have heard Sir Clive Woodward use this often, claiming he really likes the meaning. Stephen Gerrard the other day described how obsessed he was to be the best. There is no doubt in my mind that the Swedish Tennis players in the 1980’s, somewhere after the age of 14, became just as obsessed. They would not have reached where they got to had they not been. And in fact, they might have been just as obsessed before the age of 14. The problem is that also Martin Bengtsson described himself as obsessed. Martin left Sweden for San Siro as a 17-year-old and tried to end his life at 19 when things had not turned out the way he had planned. There could be a thin line between being obsessed and having a compulsory behaviour.

Does being obsessed lead to elite performance? Of course not. Is it a prerequisite? Quite possibly. Will play lead to obsession? It can. For elite performance to occur it probably has to, at least to some extent. Does coaching play a role? Huge! Coaching is brokering all these feelings and mood states – for each individual. Is this difficult? Virtually impossible! Especially if you are coaching a group of 15 kids. When in doubt though, always focus on play. Children of the play-revolution (remember the opposite is depression) will have every chance to build a great world for themselves.

And what about age?

Lastly, is there an age limit for play? The sport psychologist Bob Rotella once said, when consulting with the legendary Severiano Ballesteros, that Seve had told him about how he (Seve) used to cry on the 18th green at night because it was dark and there were no more holes to play. Not until tomorrow. Now (late in his career), Bob said, he cries on the 9th green knowing there are nine more holes before he can get off the course. The game was still the same, but Seve had gone from ticking all the boxes that characterise play to a state that for him was bordering on depression.

In conclusion, meeting the need of the child starts, and ends, with meeting the needs of the child. Needs that can be very different and needs that are guaranteed to change over time. Fred Donaldson has been around the world the play with everything from grizzly bears to wolves to moose to criminal gang leaders. And he has survived. How? He has managed to meet the need of the other player. That is where sports need to be!

Yes, @marksthlm, the answer is YES!

I am on the receiving end of another great blog post by the brilliant Mark O’Sullivan (who authors his own footblogball with lots of insight). Having read this I feel a need to revert momentarily to English blogging. Mark’s post (which can be found here) is about how adult created norms are contributing to the design of a system (of children’s sports) that no longer meets the needs of the child in sport. Yes, Mark’s post starts with a question, and it is from 2015 which believe me does not make it less relevant today, but anyone who has read it would probably quite soon exchange that first line question mark for an exclamation mark.

Reading through Mark’s post takes me back a number years. Or actually, preparing for a presentation that I gave two weeks ago did to begin with. I was asked to speak at the general assembly of the Blekinge District Sports Federation and the equivalent of the SISU district. The topic was the strategy of Swedish Sport 2025. This strategy is all about the triangle of Sport becoming a rectangle. I.e more people in sports, staying longer, playing more. An interesting interpretation of this strategy across the country though has been that this is all about participation (and not elite performance). Mark’s post proves how wrong this interpretation is. There will simply be nobody left who can elite perform with the way things are currently going.

In my presentation in Blekinge I had dug up some old stuff that I came across when taking my first steps and early classes at GIH in Stockholm. Fresh from the press at that time came Rolf Carlson’s ”The way to the National Team” where Rolf, in his dissertation, had retrospectively studied seven sports and their athletes. He had been inspired to further his studies after the Swedish Tennis Federation had asked him to do the same study in tennis some years before. I had a slide in my Blekinge presentation where Rolf in a debate article in the biggest Swedish daily in 1986 had put:

”There is no early and hard elite performance effort behind the (so called) Swedish Tennis wonder. There is no early specialisation entirely on tennis and there are no demon coaches. Instead we find talented kids who by the age of seven playfully starts to practice tennis, who at the same time do other sports up to the age of 14 and are not pressurised for success/results. Instead they are allowed to develop at their own pace.”
In the 1980’s Sweden at one time had five players in the top ten of the male TAP rankings. By the close of 1986 it was only five in the top 13. Clearly, something was going right also when it came to elite performance based on this recipe. And surprising of not, Rolf found very similar patterns in the other sports that he looked at.

In my second quote from Rolf that I used that night in Blekinge time had gone all the way to 2007. Weird sports like snowboarding and other life style activities had started to challenge more traditional sports. Rolf saw this as nothing strange at all, instead when sport does not meet the needs of children and young people, they will – vote with their feet. Rolf said in the Swedish Sport Research magasine:

”A new way of thinking that is about so much more than the actual competition must come in. Traditional competition tends to become increasingly watered down and less attractive.”
So, saying that Mark is right and Rolf is (and was) right could be the understatement of the year. Things need changing. And they have needed changing at least since 2007, probably since 1986. Question is though, is the insight there on HOW things should be done instead (among decision makers, coaches, parents)? But that, that is for another blog post.