I just recently returned from a soccer immersion trip to Iceland. We spent a week there with our cup overflowing with everything soccer. We visited their FA (KSI) as well as 3 different clubs. The coaches were extraordinarily generous in their time as we discussed what they do, toured their facilities, watched training sessions and high-level professional games. If you visit Iceland, you will be blown away by the breathtaking landscape matched with the beautiful people of Iceland.
The idea of this trip started after attending a lecture at the United Soccer Coaches convention last January, where Vidar Halldorsson did a presentation based on his research and book Sport In Iceland. My immediate impression was how much Mount Washington Valley had in common with Iceland….really? We have long winters. We are somewhat isolated here in the North country. We have a small pool of players coming from a less dense population. Our community is very strong with people that care. If they can produce great soccer players there with a total country population of about 320,000 people in the middle of the North Atlantic, why can't we learn from them and maybe implement some ideas here. There has been much written about the football and why are they so successful, which I encourage you to read on your own.
The one impression that stands out is their strength through humbleness. They are a resilient group and understand the strength of the community or team. That translates directly to their coaching and players and playing style.
The coaches are all licensed (UEFA A or B levels) and teach the game the right way. They are playing for the right reasons - the love of the game, the fun that is had, being with your friends, and the joy of competition. That’s it. This goes from the highest level player at the international and national team level down to the U6. It is strikingly opposite of the USA mentality and hard to even describe, but rather it is easier to feel. Money, wins vs losses, win at all costs, ego driven careers and coaching stature, competing to diminish your opponent so you feel "greaterthan", a sports machine churning and burning billions of dollars, creating "idols" in sport vs mentors/teachers. Cut-throat business with Clubs with no sharing of ideas, but rather operating like gangs and staking out their “elite” territory. In my opinion, Iceland practices the purest approach to the beautiful game. I am sure the Netherlands and Spain may be similar in their culture, just based on my knowledge of those soccer nations.
Players are training at least 4 times a week in formal and balanced open play. The players learn to "see the game" much earlier than American players. The older players are connected with the younger players and often interact with them. Coaches are encouraged to work with an older team and also take on a younger team at the same time to gain continuity and connection. Free play (street soccer) is encouraged. The government built over 115 small-sided turf pitches near each school and town to give the kids a place to just kick it around. Their indoor facilities, because of the obvious environmental challenges have helped to contribute to more playing opportunities.
It is not a fairytale land where everything is candy canes and rainbows. Icelanders have a deep knowledge of the world game, understand what it takes to get their players to the professional level and continue to self-reflect and challenge themselves to stay current with the trends in football. They work very hard - they want to win - but character is the driving force behind this small country. They are people and FA that knows themselves pretty well. One coach said we do not have the best players, we are not always good on the ball, but each player can "run and fight" which translates into a team work-rate that is hard to match, that all players can do. The US player is often commended for our work-rate on the field as well....hmmmm?
One thing that struck me the most, was when we asked a young coach (Director of Youth) for a Club what his personal goals were. We wanted to know what he wants to achieve in his career as a coach. His answer was nothing about him. It was not about coaching at the higher level or more trophies or more pay. He paused and thoughtfully said, "I want to see how many of my U10 players I can help get to the first team". Absolutely player centered!
What is already being practiced here in our MWV soccer community? What can we consider implementing that was learned in Iceland? I think continuing to celebrate our sense of community so that all players and fans can "feel" it. Continuing to have older players work with younger players. Have upper level coaches work with younger teams too, while pursuing proper licensing. Maybe increase the number of training sessions to 3 times a week in a new indoor sports complex. Continue to be self-reflective and humble and appreciate what we have here. Lastly, coach and play for the right reason - for the fun, for the friends, and for the challenge.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207.462.0246.
Love the game! David Hart Director of Coaching MWVSC