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SPILLERUTVIKLING: Hvorfor tviler foreldre på den norske modellen for spillerutvikling? spør Bright Baffour Antwi og Kjell Marius Herskedal i denne artikkelen. Foto: Ivar Thoresen
Av Bright Baffour Antwi timelærer på Sports Management ved Høgskolen i Molde og Kjell Marius Herskedal førsteamanuensis ved Høgskolen i Molde, trener for Træff G14 og sportslig leder i SK Træff, «Associate fellow, The Football Exchange»

  • Artikkelen baserer seg på en masteroppgave av Bright Baffour Antwi og Lars Hauso som ble vinklet mot kommersielle aktører i fotballen etter innspill fra NFF.

HerskedalBrightBright Baffour Antwi Sport, and its actors, is constantly influenced by culture and trends. In football, new trends emerge in the wake of increased professionalization and commercialization. The money and fame following the professional game brings about new practices even at grassroots levels. In Norwegian terms, one “new player in town” is the emergence of commercial football academies, which relies on parents that are willing to spend considerable money on their kids’ participation. The submissions in this article is limited explicitly to the opinions of parents with children enrolled in commercial academies who were interviewed in April 2018 about their willingness to pay and why they choose to engage the services of such football academies.

Pay to play

HerskedalHerskedalKjell Marius HerskedalThe new trend, which is commonly referred to as ‘pay to play’, involves engaging the services of commercial football actors, predominantly academies run by private entities for children between age six to twelve to receive extra coaching drills and workouts beside their regular grassroots club trainings. The services offered by such commercial football academies aim typically higher than what most regular grassroots clubs find possible or fair to deliver, recognized by custom-made training with qualified coaches, smaller homogenous groups, facilities for training all year, and right of entry to international youth tournaments. Although, these services come at a higher cost, parents increasingly buy into the concept. Paying for the kids’ sports participation might be tempting depending on the size of the wallet. Yet, the recent call from the head of the Norwegian Football Coach Association, Teddy Moen, that it is time to “stop” and see what is actually going on with Norwegian player development before making further steps might be a wise one. How do we know that the ‘pay to play’ is not just a mayfly, or whether it is useful or useless? We know through media headlines that some academy participants have made their way to the professional scene. Yet, to gain a real understanding of these academies’ function and popularity, we need to dig deeper.

Why join and pay?

Talking about money, the services provided by the commercial football academies in the current study commands a basic cost of NOK 16,000 and could potentially rise to NOK 40,000 and to some extreme point, as much as NOK75,000 per year. Parents are thereby the single most important stakeholders involved in the emergence of such new actors in grassroots football. The following sections deal with three parental frustrations that seem to dominate what make them open their wallets. These are elaborated and discussed below related to 1) the Norwegian approach to player development, 2) the desire to succeed as a professional and 3) the quality of coaching.

Parental Frustration One: The Norwegian model as an obstruction to talent development

“I think the Norwegian developing model is just wrong. Of course, it seems positive that every child should be involved and play equally, but then, it comes at the expense of the development of talented young players.” – Anonymous parent

The first obvious pull-factor that emerged among  parents to enrol their children in commercial academies surrounded their frustrations regarding the Norwegian model, or how it is practiced. The values of equality and inclusion that are embedded in the Norwegian sports regulation, was seen as an obstacle to their sons’ (yes, and the participants were all fathers who had enrolled their sons) ability to improve and develop. The impatience partly stem from their kids’ desire to play and develop, as actualized in the following quote:

“He wanted to get more time for football… However, I should say that he is a special little boy because he gets up at 06.00 every day and exercises one hour on his own. He really loves football.” – Anonymous parent

To see your child display such immense desire for the game might make you seek out for the best possible development approach for him or her. However, children’s inherent motivation to train and play frequently is certainly not the only measure to understand the rationale behind parents’ decision. The decision to engage with commercial actors is a daunting task that requires both time and money. Such motivation could stem from the dream of a successful career in football – that one day the money and efforts could pay off by what comes with an evidently comfortable lifestyle, fame and all the spoils of being a professional player.

Parental Frustration Two: The Norwegian Model as an obstacle to a professional career

“I have some experiences in sports participation, and I know that 90% of people doing sports will drop out at some point and maybe continue with it just for fun. If he is one of the few who manages to get through and hold on for a little longer, then it's great. But it´s not expected.” – Anonymous parent

The parents held that the quest for their young and aspiring ones to become professional footballers did not influence their decision to use such services. Yet, the importance of getting good facilities and right training for their sons to reach far did still came through. Understandably, it is too early and far-fetched for parents to convince children to share the dream of playing professional or becoming a top player as their main motivational source for participation. To be eager to play is one thing, but to pay to increase the likeliness for your son to become a professional opens for some objections regarding the room for such dreams to exist. Although it appears more as an abstract, yet one cannot rule out ‘the dream’ to play professional level football. However, whose dream is it? Are parents hoping to live their dreams in the eyes of their children?

The global media attention and success stories including the tales of Martin Ødegaard are likely to work as catalysts for such ideas. The dream have been made more visible and apparently reachable, although the parents seemed to be aware of the pitfalls that comes with such an ambition. Given the microscopic possibility of becoming a professional footballer, commercial football academies do well to lower parents’ expectations, but at least their training modules and academy philosophies seem to prepare the path for a professional career. One can argue that although the Norwegian model is equipped with most of the fundamentals a young player will need to sustain a professional career, it lacks the same level of bait that makes a dream to play professional visible in any sense. Does this mean that the salesmen of the Norwegian model lack the ability to sell their idea in to all?

Parental Frustration Three: The Quality of Coaching

“I feel this is the best option we have in Norway. They [academies] have very good coaches; they are foreign and very qualified. In fact, it was my son, who told me that the trainings in his grassroots club were poor and not stimulating enough. When you have 7-year-old saying something like that, you as a parent have to do something!” – Anonymous parent

One element that appears to bait parents to engage commercial actors is their ability to employ qualified coaches with the right certification to train children. To such parents, finding qualified trainers is the most important reason for choosing the services of commercial actors. Commercial academies have well-structured and a more direct football programme they pursue in a calendar year, which is very similar to training modules used by the top elite European academies. One of the key factors, if not the most important on parental frustrations lie within the quality of grassroots coaching. In the current study, the widespread consensus was that, it is comparatively poor and inconveniently based on volunteerism. Truly, a very large aspect of the Norwegian model is deeply rooted in egalitarianism and children’s safety, which should obviously be judged as an important element in developing the child into a ‘person’ and not just their talent. However, a lack of emphasis on talent development, limited training facilities and the inability of the Norwegian model to apply some level of differentiation procedures and exert the discipline needed have all been a concern, particularly for parents with children who have demonstrated an immense desire for the sport.

“Sports for all” or “Pay to play”?

 “Basically, you just see boys who are really interested in playing football. You do not have to be a babysitter for that age. You do not have to pick up children at the shop during training because they decided to go there. The focus is completely different, the discipline cannot be compared.” – Anonymous parent

Understandably, volunteering in Norwegian grassroots football is a significant aspect of social and sporting life. However, training and workout sessions without direction and focus will not appear as convincing. The coaches at the pitch for our youngest players is arguably the main storefront of the NFF-concept, which makes the coach the salesman. In that sense, educating coaches and parents to understand the overall concept of the Norwegian model might be a fair start for everyone. The opinions of the parents who participated in the study seem to suggest that they demonstrated a considerable level of trust to such qualified coaches who trains their children at the academies. These parents easily accept the role of the coaches and the behaviours they display. The question is: would similar trust be able to develop in the Norwegian “sports for all” concept?

“Sports for all”, or “sports for the few”: Conceptual differences

The DNA of Norwegian sports builds upon the possibility for everyone to participate at their individual levels of aim and need. Additionally, sport is seen as a “movement in society” that pass over positive values and adds social benefit. Ringside, the academies challenge these working principles and sports regulations. They contradicts with the Norwegian sports culture in the deeper sense, by building practices upon authoritarian principles and early selection rather than involvement and egalitarianism. When reading the below quote, one might question whether it is about poor coaching skills only, or parents’ attitudes sometimes get too narrow?

“Very often, the outcome is that, the best and most eager children will experience bad training sessions. There is too much consideration for the others. It is good that everyone should be in favour of the Norwegian model, but for example, if my boys begun playing handball, I would have no problem telling them, sorry, the others train much more than you do. They are more eager than you are. That is life, and that is how it is going to be."  - Anonymous parent

The parents applauded the authoritarian coaching style and discipline that took place in the academies. Given that the concept stems from top European football academies, the argument for this practice is already assured – or is it? From a learning perspective, two contradictions are tempting to bring forward in this respect. 1) The commercial academies seem to rely on old-school learning principles that stems from a football culture that has been accused for downgrading academia. This involves coaching that centred on authoritarianism that focus on the player/talent rather than the person/character, although an up-front “academia” should do the opposite. 2) The idea behind the Norwegian model fits well with modern and holistic learning principles and has recently shown to work well for example to prepare Norwegian athletes for the Olympics. Still it seems hard to convince parents in football that it works.

Understandably, any new elements that will be added to the Norwegian model cannot satisfy every parent’s demand and sweep away their frustrations. However, it is perfectly possible to make parents convinced about the Norwegian model works with the understanding and abilities needed in place. The challenge is therefore to equip the association, clubs and ultimately the coaches with up-dated competence in how to treat people and organize trainings. This matter should be of significant interest for the football associations as well as for clubs and their coaches: How to align practice and make the concept clear and visible. Until then, one might expect commercial actors to exist and evolve as an alternative or supplement for some parents.

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