In his role as head of youth development with AIK Stockholm, Cork native, Mark O'Sullivan, is at the forefront of a new wave of thinking around the coaching of children.
It is an approach where “the structure now matches the needs of the kids, rather than the kids having to match the needs of the structure.”
And he believes it is a template that can be replicated with ease.
In his role as head of youth development with AIK Stockholm, Cork native Mark O’Sullivan is at the forefront of a new wave of thinking around the coaching of children.
It is an approach where “the structure now matches the needs of the kids, rather than the kids having to match the needs of the structure”. And he believes it is a template that can be replicated with ease
Ireland may have finished well ahead of Sweden at the end of last Tuesday’s U21 qualifier in Tallaght, but there’s one area where on something else the Swedes are way ahead of us, and the rest of the world, when it comes to football and sport.
On January 1, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will become law in Sweden and thus also in youth sport there. Even professional football clubs with all their academies, are, theoretically at least, meant to comply.
It will be a fundamental and radical shift, albeit one that Swedish sport has been contemplating and debating for some time. Ten years ago, the Swedish Sports Confederation, which represents 72 different sports, recommended that youth sports should primarily be child-centred.
In 2014, just a year before their U21s would win the European Football Championships, the Swedish FA also incorporated the UN convention into their coaching curriculum. “We have high goals,” their head of coach education, Urban Hammar, would declare.
Children and young people who devote themselves heart and soul to football deserve responsible and knowledgeable leaders.
Hammar knew the Swedish system had avoidable flaws. One study showed that only two of the 100 players selected for the Swedish national boys’ teams for players born in 1999, 2000, and 2001 had been born in the last three months of the year.
A “silent agenda” was at work, where less physically developed players were being needlessly overlooked, neglected, deselected, discarded. What way was that to bring through players? What way was that to treat children?
Now the law there says that children are individuals with their own rights. They’re not the property of parents or other adults or some sporting body. No child can be discriminated against.
The best interests of the child must be to the forefront of all measures concerning the child. The child has the right to form and express their own views and for that to be factored into any decision regarding them.
It could profoundly alter and challenge so many conventions of how youth sport operates. Take the practice of ‘topping’ or ‘streaming’, as commonplace here in Ireland as anywhere in the world, from not just your U14 Kennedy Cup or Féile, but even younger than that.
The best players are selected for matches and weaker players aren’t — or at least don’t get to play with the better players. And so playing time or developmental opportunity is unevenly distributed.
Experts at the Swedish Sports Confederation reckon ‘topping’ is in conflict with the new law and should not occur until the children themselves have a clearer opinion on whether they want to be exposed to it.
Whatever is best for the kid — not the coach or the club. Or, as a certain Corkman living in Stockholm observes, a situation whereby “the structure should match the needs of the kids, rather than the kids having to match the needs of the structure.”
Mark O’Sullivan has been following the debate with more than considerable interest.
Twenty-five years ago, he went to visit a few friends from UCC and never left. Sweden and its music scene just got a grip on him and, for the last decade, so has youth sport and coach education.
A UEFA A licence coach, he made a presentation only this past week at a football conference in Lithuania, attended by coaches from all the Baltic states and Russia.
While over there, he interviewed one of the greatest ice hockey players ever — four-time Stanley Cup champion Pavel ‘The Magic Man’ Datsyuk, as part of his PhD research.
He’s consulted or presented to everyone from the Canadian FA to world ice hockey and Swedish basketball. His day job is as head of youth development at AIK Stockholm, whose senior team play in the national stadium and in 2018 won their 12th Swedish premier division title.
Not that that’s the measure of success at AIK or for him. That’s why he favours this new legislation.
“I think it’s a very positive step. But there will need to be some test case, somebody will have to trial it in court first. They (the government) have it all on powerpoint and online and in a PDF document, telling you what to do, but will it be a living document, out there on the pitch and in our interactions? That’s what would concern me.”
At AIK, it is a living document. O’Sullivan and his colleagues live and breathe it. Their vision is to be the leading club in the Nordic region for the development and fostering of young players and leaders — no matter how you measure it.
And one measure of that is retention, participation. Over the previous decade, the average kid dropped out of football at 11, whereas a decade earlier it was 14.
At AIK, their numbers have grown by 10% over the last three years, meaning they have over 1,500 children from ages eight to 19 playing the sport.
Their motto is simple, if monumental — as many as possible for as long as possible to try to be as good as possible.
At a time where Irish clubs are having trials seeking out the most ‘talented’ six-year-olds, where kids at 12 on a ‘talent pathway’ are being told to quit other sports, and the FAI are running an U13 league where supposed team-mates vie with one another to be kept on for the U15s, AIK are doing the opposite.
The same month the club sold a 17-year-old to Dortmund for €10m, they took the decision to remove early selection and to instead put more investment into coaches working side-by-side with parents.
There is no streaming. Instead of having an U14 academy side, they have three teams catering for 60 kids. No one has to specialise early.
If they want to keep playing hockey or basketball, fine — they can train with AIK just twice a week and be exposed to the same level of coaching as the kids who want to specialise in training four times a week with AIK.
“The kids make the decision every year, not us, not the adults. [Early selection] isn’t foisted upon them. So it’s their decision, their motivation.
"We’re not taking away their autonomy. The idea that a young kid should have to quit other sports because otherwise they won’t be good at football is dinosaur-age thinking.
“As part of my PhD, I interviewed one of our players, Heinok Goitom, who has played in La Liga and Serie A.
"He spoke about how as a kid he played basketball and how it allowed him to move in other circles, meet different people — an experience that stood to him as a footballer, as a person.
"So telling a kid to give up other sports is highly irresponsible. It’s adult-centred, not child-centred.”
It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t like this when O’Sullivan himself was a kid. Football was his game and he was good enough at it to play a few League of Ireland games with UCD before opting to study and play at UCC — but like a lot of Cork kids of the 70s and 80s, he dabbled at everything.
When Dave Hannigan wrote the brilliant Boy Wonder, it read for O’Sullivan like his own childhood. Out on the estate green, putting a golf ball with a hurley the week of the Masters.
Playing Gaelic with St Michael’s in Blackrock. Piling into the back of Philly Burke’s van with his dad and seven other buddies, off to play some game with Tramore Athletic. Wonder Years, whatever about being any Boy Wonder.
“Looking back, I was relatively lucky with most of the coaches I had. You’d question alright whether some of the stuff they’d shout was child-centric or not, but all I remember is the sessions were very game-based.
"My dad Jerry would have been one of the coaches with Tramore and while at the time I never thought of him as a good or a bad coach, looking back he was (a good coach).
“Him and the other coaches. Because they always just wanted us to express ourselves, they were very supportive. They made us feel good about ourselves.”
Somewhere, sometime though, Irish football — like O’Sullivan himself — took a different course.
“Something I’ve often thought about is that Ireland had a good World Cup in 1990 and then Sweden had an even better one in 1994 — the year I came over here.
"And it seemed as if both decided after that: ‘Let’s organise all this perfectly and create a structure.’ And in some ways, we ended up creating an over-structured sport which treated kids like mini-adults.
“I started my presentation in Lithuania by asking: if we restarted youth sport from zero and rebuilt it based on children’s emotional and physical needs, would it look like it does today? I’d often ask it at any conference. And nobody has yet said yes. That says it all.
“If you look at the Swedish team of 1994, they all came from very different backgrounds. They weren’t academy players coming through a massively-structured environment.
There weren’t agents prowling the sidelines. Nobody knew Tomas Brolin existed until he was 17. He didn’t play with underage national teams. Henrik Larsson after him at 18 was studying to be a kindergarten teacher. The youth national teams didn’t see him either until he was U21.
“And don’t start me on Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] — he was sitting on the Malmo youth team bench at 17. Even today, Sweden’s best player, Emil Forsberg, was still playing floorball at 17. He wasn’t considered good enough to make his local district U16 team.
“If you look at them all, none of them are the same. They don’t have the same characteristics. They don’t run or play the same way. Yet we have this big monoculture of youth sport — ‘This is the way you must do it’, ‘This is the correct way to pass’. There is no one-size-fits-all. So why are we using generic, linear models to try to find unique people?”
O’Sullivan is something of a unique person himself, or at least he’s interacted closely with some. When he first came to Sweden, he DJed a good bit, just as he had in Cork. He mixed a track for Leftfield, ‘Chant of A Poor Man’.
Then he wrote songs for and with a relatively rich man — a certain Morten Harket. They even played live together to 10,000 people at a festival.
Terry Slater — he who signed Blondie and the Sex Pistols and managed Brian May — met up with them, excited about the collaboration. But it turns out others, including Morten, then became more interested in a collaboration and a reunion with A-ha.
“That’s the way life goes,” muses O’Sullivan, with a good-humoured smile. “If we’d actually released the songs back when people bought records and I could be my own publisher, I’d have a very much different life, and wouldn’t be wasting my time with fellas like you!
“But no, no hard feelings. Great experience and nice fella. We met up again over the summer. He was bringing out his book and wanted just to give me the heads-up as I featured in it.
"So we recollected some of what we did in the old days, but then we mostly talked about our kids.”
Inevitably, he talked about other kids too. Those he was now coaching in AIK and those he coached before that, too. The coaching bug began as a youth club officer, providing various activities for kids from different backgrounds.
Refugees from Afghanistan mixing with locally-born kids with various conditions.
“It was a greater learning experience than any coaching course I ever did. I met some amazing kids in how they empathised with the refugees. We’d cook their native food. And of course they played sport together.
“That’s sport’s greatest power. It brings people together. And in the world we live in now, that’s more important than ever.”
And so at AIK they teach and practice respect. They even have a full-time values officer, Max, who meets each team and their parents and they establish what respect is in action.
For instance, you pass with respect. O’Sullivan has seen in other environments kids give bad passes to a ‘colleague’ because they want that kid to look bad, because they’re in competition with one another to make next year’s cut. That’s not the kid’s fault, of course.
That’s on the adults. It concerns him that the new U13 National League back home is unwittingly cultivating such a climate, with parents tweeting about how the devastation of their promising 12-year-old being let go.
Who is looking at, and after, the dead bodies?
“Ruud Dokter made a statement that ‘this pathway’ with the ‘best’ 12-year-olds playing with and against the ‘best’ across the country ‘guarantees the correct learning and development’.
"That is a very irresponsible statement. We don’t know if these generic linear models are the correct way to learn. We know learning is non-linear. We must have more adaptive structures.
“I’m only looking on from the outside, but it is concerning that early selection is happening and being promoted. And the use of the word ‘elite’ so liberally being used with regard to children.
There is no such thing as an elite child. And this language is adding to the anxiety. Of the kids and the parents. This idea of being a ‘product’.
"There are great coaches in Ireland, but we need to be careful, because Ireland could be going down a route that I’ve seen in other countries.”
Yet certain things encourage him. He’s watched Stephen Kenny from afar and like how he speaks and coaches.
There’s a huge gulf between U21s and senior — just look at the contrasting fortunes of the Irish and Swedish squads, the Swedish senior side again qualifying automatically to a major tournament — but he likes how Kenny likes to empower his players.
“Ireland is so unique, because of how it offers the opportunity for kids to have a great multi-sport childhood. I was at a coaching course a few years ago and I was asked to stand in goal.
"And he (the coach) asked me to kick the ball out. After a while he said: ‘Have you played in goal before?’ And I said: ‘No’. Later again he said: ‘Are you sure?’
"And I said: ‘Yeah, but I played Gaelic football as a kid. And at home we have thousands of kids who could do this better than me!’ And it was then I realised the richness that we have.”
Still a boy wonder, hoping and working that kids get to experience the wonder of it all as well.