How do you field the youngest squad in professional European football, having 80% of the players come through your own academies, and have ‘purpose’ as the key word in everything you do at the club? We asked FC Nordsjælland in Denmark to share the ideas behind their model on and off the pitch.
BY Flemming Pedersen (FC Nordsjælland Head Coach) AND Will Orben (FC Nordsjælland Head of Education)
“Don’t expect to achieve your dream if you’re not willing to help others achieve theirs.”
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“Everyone has the right to dream.”
These are three of the mottos written on the walls of our academies. The first two come from former graduates and players of ours. The last is the mission of our organisation, which includes the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana and FC Nordsjælland (FCN) in Denmark.
We look at these every day, when we come in. Players as well as coaching staff and other employees. For us, these are normal aspects of what we strive for football to become. But we do understand that it might not be the same for many others. So, we would like to share with you what we are about at FC Nordsjælland and what having a purpose means in the everyday life of a professional football club.
On the FCN model and player development
We operate the club as a not-for-profit organisation. We work to create and run a sustainable business, but the profit is not for stockholder dividends. With all of our decisions, we invest in our mission, which is to give opportunities to talented children through football. When we invest in travelling to tournaments with our players, we prioritise cultural experiences and giving back work, and have chosen to send them out to play in different environments such as Japan, Brazil or Ghana rather than the more traditional in central Europe. This is, of course, more expensive, but we can see that the return on investment is massive when you experience the mental, emotional and cultural growth of the boys and girls. We invest in having a higher amount of coaches per player to deliver as much support and feedback as possible. We invest heavily in scouting with the intention of working with the players for as long as possible which is how you can make the biggest possible impact on their development. We invest in having, developing and teaching a highly detailed and integrated playing style from U-10s to our professional team. We invest in creating a balance between football and education for all our academy players. And we invest in having a 1st team in the Danish Premier League that is completely integrated with our academy and includes many academy graduates (currently around 80%).
While we have the youngest squad in European football, we strive to compete and perform with the best in Denmark and qualify for European football. We consider this the final return on our above-mentioned commitments. We are teaching our kids to play football and to be coaches themselves. Teaching about the game rather than simply how to play the game. Thinking the game. We believe anyone who can teach the game will have the best chance of becoming the best possible player themselves. We also educate the players about their responsibilities. Not just to play the game, but to use the game as a platform for positive change. To find their purpose. Taking on a mentorship role for people younger than themselves. We try to create a deep integration of character development, education and training. Both for selfish and unselfish reasons, since we work to make positive change and to make better footballers at the same time. We win in both cases.
On instilling values in players
Our values are based on our character traits and principles:
Character traits: Passion, initiative, self-discipline, social intelligence, integrity.
Principles: giving back, teamwork, family, character development, gender equality and world-class opportunities.
Developing character takes time and patience is necessary, but we believe in it. We are trying to make the values come alive in the players training every day. Helping each other on the pitch during training or matches is important. We learn to always care for each other and take action when needed. Coaches in the club must lead by example, and everyone at FCN needs to take time to discuss our values and understand them and what they mean. This goes for everyone here. During our character sessions - which we have from the U-10 team to the Superliga, boys and girls, and all the way up to senior management - we discuss the character traits, we teach them, and we apply them to the football experience that is all around the players. We are all involved. When we as a club campaign for International Women’s Day or Black History Month it involves the entire club and we educate ourselves before we encourage the same in those around us. For the players, their development is shaped by the people around them every single day. We aim to strengthen their executive functions, their ability to make the most of their cognitive skillset. Roughly speaking: the things you need to be a good problem solver. We believe people, who are better teammates, better leaders, better role models, who have a clear purpose with their sport and life, will also become better football players and better people. Again, for selfish and unselfish reasons.
On having a unique training model
Most clubs build their training model around training exercises. Our model and the training environment are built around our style of play. We develop our players individually within our context and our style of play is built around the game itself. We, as a club, have analysed the game of football and built our model around the conclusions we found. To give an example, we can see that 85% of goals are scored in the so-called “danger zone”, so we know we have to get there to score goals. We ask ourselves, “What is the best way to get there?” We look at passing patterns, positions etc. We then analyse how to set up the situations, which will create the opportunities to get to the right pass and position. And so on. We work to find our way from the objective at the centre of the maze instead of starting on the outside and wandering inside.
We often have visitors from foreign clubs, and we have no secrets. Some of our guests laugh when they hear how we do things. Others respond with, “How can you be so structured?” For us it is simple: we try to make our players better decision-makers on the pitch in the most complex game in the world. We maintain a clear purpose with this as we have with everything else in our club and organisation. Every pass and every move in a training must have a clear purpose. And every action off the pitch must have a purpose. Easy to say, but it took us 15 years to get here, and we still feel we can get better and do more.
On the meaning of success
Success for us is winning. Winning a football match. Giving young talented people opportunities in life. Opportunities in football, education, social intelligence, leadership, responsibility to take care of yourself and others. When we see those things happening to and with our academy players, we are winning. We are successful. When young players are developing their own critical thinking skills and see what they have to work extra hard on, we are winning, because they are becoming better players and better leaders. That’s success to us.
On creating the next generation of players to change the game itself
To change the mindset of the game, we seek to inspire our graduates to take our mindset and values with them wherever they end up in the sport. We try to empower our players to find and develop their purpose and what they stand for. We work so that a player from FCN, boy or girl, will bring the values with them and not be afraid to speak their mind anywhere, no matter which club, country or position they’re in. We could use our membership of Common Goal as an example. Since FCN joined, more than half of the people in the club joined as individual members. Some of them are players that have now moved on to other clubs in other countries. Which means these clubs, which might have never heard of Common Goal or the importance of players having a purpose off the pitch, now have leaders of the next generation within the squad and club. We are investing in people and working hard on their development, and this is how we can change football by empowering players and people in the game to make a difference one person, game, leader, club and league at a time.