Odes to Sweden, Part I: Youth Sports

In just a few weeks my family and I will be leaving Sweden and returning to the US. People here sometimes mock Americans for overusing the word ‘amazing’, so let me be clear that the experience of living here has been amazing. Really. Thank you all for sharing yourselves and your wonderful country with us for 18 months. 

1. A Necessary Introduction

When I tell people in the US that I’ve been living Sweden, the first sentence of the response often includes the words “welfare state”. It’s generally meant as a neutral, descriptive term, but, like so many seemingly innocuous descriptors, it frames the matters inside the a specific context and bias. Here it's a particularly individualist, darwinist, and economically libertarian US sensibility that views collective initiatives towards easing the burdens of life with great suspicion and expresses ideology almost entirely in terms of tax rates uber alles. (“How do you deal with the high taxes?” is another question I get a lot.)

Over my next few posts, I'm going to write about some bits of Swedish life that I've come to admire and respect in my time here. I’ve come to see Sweden as a country that works hard to build a very specific type of society -- one that wants to provide security, equality of opportunity, social mobility, and health to as many of its citizens as possible, one that believes that prosperity is a national resource, and that supporting families and children isn’t just right for ethical reasons, it’s also the best way to build a dynamic, expanding and productive economy that’s highly resilient to change. 

Living and working here with kids has given us the opportunity to see Sweden in a different way than we would have if we were visiting as tourists. Any insights I have to share were made available by a system that generally acts on the principle that common rights and benefits should be available and accessible to everyone who lives and works here, even if they just got here and probably aren't staying forever. Taxes and healthcare and child subsidies and most other things I can think of worked exactly the same for us from day 1 as they do for citizens. I'm grateful for this attitude and it propels much of what makes this country a great place to live, especially for families. 

Sweden and the US are very different in history, size, and context. Still, there is much that we Americans can learn from Sweden, especially in these times of economic disruption, where global trade and domestic policy are visibly eroding the wealth, prosperity, and even the life expectancy, of a vast proportion of the American population.

2. The Sporting Life

And, so I’ll finally get to the promised topic, something I never thought I’d write about: Kids team sports. I’m no jock (in case you were wondering) and I while I credit my yeshiva education with [perhaps inadvertently] developing my logical skills, I can’t say the same for team athletics.

My experience with kids teams sports in the US is mixed. I want my kids to be active and healthy, and to have the competence to entertain themselves with pick-up sports. The team experience seems to have value as well. But it's always been kind of painful. Most of the coaches have been wonderful, generous, and inspiring, but the overall vibe has nonetheless often been a downer for me and for my kids. Too competitive, too few spots, too much driving, too spectator-oriented. You felt that you always needed to be there watching either because it was the expectation or because you actually did need to be there as a driver. Honestly, I like watching my kids do sports sometimes, but, instead of teaching them to have fun on on their own, we end up teaching them that all sports are spectator sports and, in the long run, it’s totally self-defeating.  

So, yeah, I’m not that guy. But youth team sports in Sweden aren’t those team sports.

First and foremost, they are built upon the concept of universal access that is so prevalent and powerful in Sweden. The belief system is simple:  Everyone should be able to be on a team, and that there is a team for everyone. That's what the coaches talk about in the team meetings, with the kids and with the parents. They emphasize playing and participating over winning. Of course, this stance isn't binary, but the values needle is pointed more strongly towards participation here, and all of the parents seem to agree and support it. Maybe it happens, but I haven't seen anyone complain about playing time, or about the not-best-athlete kids getting a lot of playing time. No one yells at the kids. Everyone plays. Not everyone plays the same minutes, but there aren't any bench warmers either.

The idea of universal participation is backed up by direct and indirect institutional support, starting with the idrottsplats, or “sports place”. Every neighborhood or locality has at least one of these; sports are neighborhood-based, not school-based. The idrottsplats is the home to the sports clubs, which typically have teams running from age 4 or 5 to adult, and a pro team as well.

Our local idrottsplats is 2 blocks away from our house and features no less than 2 basketball gyms, 2 ice rinks, 4 soccer fields, a track, an utegym (outdoor fitness center) and a cafe.  It's massive, and well-used. During the winter, it's not uncommon to find people playing soccer on snow covered fields around midnight.

Stora Mossens IP is home to the Alvik basketball, Brommapojkarna football, and Göta Traneberg hockey clubs, which themselves contain teams at multiple levels from 4 or 5 years old up adults. We pay around $150 per year for team fees. The league supports the teams with supplies, and programs to train coaches, who are sometimes high school students, but more typically parents.

Parents coach kids sports everywhere. But when the coach of your son's basketball team is the CEO of an oil company and he's running practices a couple of times a week at 4:30 in the afternoon, and this does not appear to be atypical, it suggests that something a little bit different is happening under the hood.

The most obvious thing that's happening here is that the typical work day is shorter than it is in the US. There is a different underlying concept of work-life/family balance here, but I wouldn't attribute this to some vague European laziness, as I think many Americans reflexively [and lazily] do. Instead, I see a material emphasis on gender equality and high workforce participation, coupled with strong cultural values relating to children, physical activity and health, a greater sense that a society where everyone does well is better for everyone, and, yes, a social contract that expects a bit more everyday pleasure in return for everyday work. You can't balance all of those goals on top of a 10 or 12 hour work day.

I've seen this myself every day at work -- it's accepted and expected to excuse yourself when you have a kid-related thing to do, and you just don't get any guilt or snark or sideways stares because of it. I've probably held myself back here due to my own cultural training, but writ large it helps make sure that there can be lots of teams, that parents can be a little saner than they are in the US, that women can participate in the workforce more, and that distribution of household labor across gender is a little bit fairer. Sweden isn't perfect, but it's really impressive in these regards, and I'll return to this theme again and again as I write about my experiences here.

I like being able to go to Jonny's games (at least some of them), and I enjoy helping out when I can, but I also enjoy not having to go, and the experience here is really different for Jonny because the sports teams are really his thing. He keeps his schedule, gets himself where he needs to go, and he's really proud of that. Sometimes I want to go and he doesn't want me to, and that always stings a little bit, but it's really right. It's growing him up, and his independence journey is enabled by the safety of Stockholm and it's great public transit, bikeability, and walkability.

I'm not fluent in crime statistics here, and crime stats aren't always portable across countries anyway. I do know that kids in Sweden are very free range, and that we've always felt safe here letting our kids get around on their own.  Public transportation is ubiquitous, as are sidewalks and walking paths, and strongly respected bike lanes. Sweden invests heavily in non-automobile transportation infrastructure so kids (and everyone else) can get around easily without a car. With an relatively flat wage scale, free university and training programs, and easy access to healthcare Sweden seems to have mitigated the dire poverty, stark inequality and untreated mental illness that drive crime. In a safe environment, with local facilities and easy and safe transportation, kids (but maybe not the youngest ones) can get to practices and games on their own. Parents can go sometimes, and we do, but you don’t have to, and the kids are free to enjoy their play for the play’s sake and not think about the spectators.

3. Arvika

Last weekend, I was in a small Swedish town called Arvika, not far from the Norwegian border, where my son was in the Arvika Cup tournament with his football club. This was a Thursday-Sunday affair, and was his 3rd tournament in Sweden.

I originally set out to start this post here and just sports tournaments, but once I got to writing I found it impossible to explain anything without providing some context, and so many things that work well here work because they're part of a larger structure and support system. In the end, I only have a couple of things to say that are specifically tournament-related.

 If you’re from the US and and you’re imagining a kid’s sports tournament right now, you probably have a handful of assumptions framing your mental image. You might assume, for example, that only the best teams and players are in the tournament, that it’s 2/3 or more boys’ teams, and that the players are all staying in hotels, and that every player is with their parent or caregiver who is feeding and shuttling them around (and perhaps buzz-killing their kid, their kid’s team, their opponents, or all three). You may be imagining a god-awful hotel overlooking an interstate (overpriced at any price) and lots of fast food.

 Your image would be wrong on most counts. There's a club team for every kid, and there's a tournament slot for every team that wants to play.  It’s common for clubs to send multiple teams in their age groups, some of whom play at a really high level, some of whom, quite frankly, don’t. The sheer number of participants in the tournaments is massive.

At the Arvika Cup, and in his prior tournaments in Gothenburg, a much larger city, the entire infrastructure of the town seemed to be mobilized in support of the tournament. Schools become temporary dormitories, and each team gets a classroom that they set up, sleep in, and clean up at the end. Three meals a day are served in the cafeteria. There were 215 teams playing in Arvika, so by rule of thumb, there were around 3000 players, coaches, and chaperones bunking up in the schools of this town of 15,000.  

To get the kids between the school and the idrottsplats Arvika provided a shuttle bus. In the Gothenburg tournaments I attended (which had probably 3-5x as many players, multiple sports facilities, and more schools), the kids just rode public transit.

The pair of parents who were chaperoning and staying with the kids, along with a couple of other parents (including me), made sure that kids got where they needed to go and we didn’t lose anyone. In my view, it’s really nice for the kids that there’s only a few parents -- it makes it less hover-ey and more fun -- but it’s also really nice for the parents, who get to know the kids better, can also take their own leisure time, and enjoy the whole thing more as a result. My pattern for the last couple of tournaments was to attend about half of the tournament, which was about the right amount of time for me, and definitely fine for Jonny, who had taken to asking me to *not* be around so much. I like that.

In terms of the tournament itself, there a couple of parts that stand out. Firstly, it’s really fun. There’s a positive energy in the air and with around 15 matches happening simultaneously at any given time, it really feels like a festival. Even the Saturday night disco for the kids was kind of fun, or at least not completely insufferably awkward.

4. Play Like A Girl

My strongest impression from the tournaments, and from youth sports in general, might be the girls teams. The girl-boy team ratio isn't quite 50-50, but it's close, and it's really powerful to see and experience the confidence and competence of the girls so broadly in this setting. I've seen this a bit in competitive swimming in the US, but not so much in other sports. Here the participation rates in sports like basketball and soccer are really high among girls, and they start at the same age and with similar participation expectations as the boys, and it just doesn't seen that sport is connected to gender that much.

I think the reader will grasp that the title of this section is ironic, because you just wouldn't hear that sort of expression here, and it wouldn't make sense if you did.

5. Till Next time

In the next few weeks, I’ll write some more about living in Sweden and how it works, including more on work, family policy, banking, and so forth. I’m hoping I can make those more concise than this one. It's a little tough because so many bits are connected to other bits, and explaining them in isolation is nearly impossible. We'll see. If you're reading this, I'd love to hear about what you'd like to hear about.