What is Iceland Doing Right?
Whilst historically I have not taken a close interest in football, I still have the Scottish gene which relishes a guid old-fashioned English defeat. On the 27th of June 2016, Iceland beat England 2-1 in the European Championships, to make it to the quarter-finals.
Just before the Euro’s I had read an article in the Guardian which talked about the commitment the Icelandic FA gave to the development of coaches. So I fired off an email to Dagur to arrange a chat to learn about the special things the Icelanders were doing. The big question for me was “why has Iceland been so successful?”
Dagur revealed secrets that were relatively straightforward. Their system was a small one, unadulterated by money and grounded in a community spirit. They foster an environment which allows young people to succeed, not through compliance under threat of not making it up to the next age-group but through the government, FA, coaches, players all working together with a shared philosophy. Their system was built around the basic UEFA structure as is required by UEFA members, but coaches are given autonomy to coach in the way they think best. They are not dictated to by a rigid football association structures or dogmatic coach-educators telling them how to coach.
To give autonomy to and empower coaches requires a system which values coaches as professionals, in which education is central. Dagur told me that the Icelandic FA had been incredibly successful in getting more coaches qualified; however, quality was more important. What marked the Icelandic coaches out was their work ethic, them having the right mentality and a deep passion for the game. There was no anti-intellectual culture or a resistance to learning from outsiders.
Like Scotland, Iceland is a small country and that can make things far easier. The fact that there is no academy system or any professional clubs helps. Rather, football clubs are community ones. They foster inclusivity by allowing anyone to join, regardless of ability. Young players are encouraged to train and form tight bonds with their friends. This social aspect is incredibly important to the development of adolescents and teenagers. It helps them build confidence, social skills, relationships and trust, independent of their parents. Sitting in a car for 90-minutes to get to the training ground and only seeing team-mates in short episodic bouts does not.
Inclusivity does not come at the expense of player development and performance in Iceland. Firstly, coaches who work with children under the age of 10 years are given priority within the system. That is because they are responsible for developing foundational skills which support future performance. Secondly, differentiating between players based on ability rather than age is critical so that players face challenges appropriate for their level of development. This system also means that teams face others of similar ability and scores of 20-0 are not the norm.
Of course, NGB’s can’t take full responsibility for the development of young people and that’s where government policy comes into play. Whilst Iceland is starting to face some of the same challenges of child physical inactivity as the rest of the developed world, the kids still do 3 sports sessions at school per week, one of which is swimming. This is important because the evidence is clear that overt early specialisation in a sport is not a good thing.
Whilst there is not much money in Icelandic football, that does not mean to say it is unprofessional. All coaches are paid and many treat coaching as a 2nd job. I wish this was the case in the UK. In smaller clubs, many coaches are well meaning volunteers, often parents and armchair experts. Volunteer coaching typically leaves volunteers out of pocket and does not foster a culture of lifelong learning. Whilst coaching young people can be incredibly rewarding, it’s never nice to be abused by other parents. Such problems are way too prevalent in football but far easier to deal with and negate as a skilled professional.
Dagur was surprised to hear the attrition rate of newly qualified coaches in the UK. Whilst there are notable exceptions, most volunteer coaches give up after a few years. Of those who remain, few have the agency to continue to learn. Even in the professional game, treating coaches as professionals is an issue. Although not surprised, I was angered when I saw an advertisement for an Academy coach (albeit in England) that was advertising a coaching post for £20k a year. Professional playing experience was desirable and a UEFA A coaching badge was essential (cost circa £2500). The job involved weekend and unsocial working hours, driving the team mini-bus and liaising with senior staff and parents. As an indirect consequence of such insulting salaries, many of our best young coaches’ head off to North America where the financial rewards are consummate with the skill levels required. We should be doing everything we can to retain our best young coaches and when the average salary at Celtic is £717K a year and even a Hamilton player gets £42k...then maybe the clubs should consider their priorities.
In Iceland, all clubs have a close relationship with and are funded by the FA. They generate further income from annual joining fees and this is money is used to educate coaches. They need a full skill-set to train all players as they don’t have individual specialists such as goal-keeping coaches. This is viewed as a good thing. Further, playing philosophies do not come from head coaches or managers working at senior level. I believe this is very important because senior football is not about player development, it is about winning. I also believe that the role of youth coaches is far more challenging in on-field coaching terms because they are responsible for:
• Developing foundational skills which support players for the rest of their footballing careers
• Differentiating between children at different stages of physical and mental development
• Understanding and dealing with factors such as growth-spurts and rapid hormonal change with result in unpredictable changes in player performance and behaviour
• Develop player decision-making skills
• Delivering appropriately challenging and engaging activities which develop work-ethic and resilience.
Developing a youth development strategy takes very specific expertise and knowledge. It also requires recognition that children are not small adults. Senior playing or management experience does not provide the skills or expertise to provide strategic lead in a youth environment. It does, however, help in gaining credibility with the clubs that need to be influenced. This aspect of the role should not be undervalued.
The Icelandic FA has successfully implemented a coherent and joined-up sports policy which is outputting quality footballers. My guess is that they used a very similar model as the SPLISS 9-pillar model (Figure 1) to do so. Although I’m fiercely critical of many of the details that underpin this model, the pillars highlight the areas of expertise required to successfully implement a successful performance development pathway. Implementation of such a model requires appreciation of the complex interaction between each pillar, and expertise in the mechanisms and mediating factors that explain what is optimal in each.
Figure 1 The SPLISS 9 Pillars Model (De Bosscher et al. 2015)
To Be a Nation Again?
When Chris at the BBC asked what I would do to solve the problems of Scottish Football, I’ll be honest and say I thought it was an impossible task. However, I failed to recognise how many committed, inspirational and intelligent people work in football. I had lost sight of how important the game is in Scottish society, particularly in the type of community I was brought up in.
The question remains, can Scottish Football change and start punching above our weight again? We can’t compete in financial terms and have too small a population to play the shit, stick and wall game. We must stop trying to compete with The Auld Enemy and look to small countries like Iceland to learn. Not as a downtrodden nation with a sense of entitlement, but as a nation of communities, in which, if we can learn to pull together again, we can show the Auld Enemy how to produce world-class footballers like Dalglish and Law.
To do so requires a strategy in which the Scottish Government, the SFA and clubs at all levels pull together for the ‘Common Weel’. The SFA board must be forced to reform its governance and take responsibility for its poor leadership. It must then develop a transparent vision and philosophy in which young people, communities, coaching and coach education are central. It cannot be empty rhetoric. Clubs must also recognise that business models which focus on short-term gain are not transferable to the long-term development of young people.
Programmes for young people must help them build confidence, social skills, relationship and trust. They must also be able to overcome adversity. Watching Sportscene at the weekend, these attributes seemed sadly lacking in many of the players. It wasn’t that they were lacking fitness or skill. There just seemed to be a je ne sais quoi of lethargy, in which players were just to be doing a normal day job, rather than doing something they love. Ok, Fir Park on a Saturday may not seem glamorous, but playing sport and getting paid for it and being central to the lives of many fans is a privilege which should be treated as such.
To an extent, wider society is failing young people and football can have a wider role in society to help them, without compromising on the performance front. The new Performance Director and Head of Coaching must be allowed to do more than tinker around the edges of a flawed academy system, otherwise they are unlikely to make much of a difference. Whilst reducing the number of academies and introducing bio-banding categories may help, such interventions do not alleviate the need for car travel to get to training. Clubs must also recognise that metrics used in big business fail to account for the non-linearity of athletic progression in young people. Intra-seasonal variations in performance are such that it is difficult to find valid measures of progress in any period less than 2 years. Rather, young players should experience the joys of fulfilment of progressing over many years, with opportunity to play both community and top level football. This isn’t much to ask for and it may even be cheaper to deliver.
Iceland have managed to develop a system which works in their environment. Is doing the same beyond a country like Scotland?
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