Hakon Grøttland is the Head of Player Development for the Norwegian FA. The Player Development Project were lucky enough to have an inside look at how Norway develops young players and how this is influenced by the nation’s culture.
Hakon Grøttland never played football at an elite level due to injury. However, he counts himself lucky in that the series of events which led to the end of his playing days meant he could start his coaching career early. It is clear from talking to him that he is passionate about player development and has dedicated his working life to coaching. He started with a Master’s degree in football from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, before becoming head coach at level three in Norwegian football when he was 25. A period of time working in the women’s game followed, and then four years working in the Norges Fotballforbund (NFF) before taking the reigns as Head of Player Development. It was while he was working at NFF that he was lucky enough to have had the “pleasure of discovering” Norwegian football’s young star Martin Ødegaard.
The NFF has a new player development model for the 12 to 16 age group called the National Team School. It is an innovative model which Hakon is “very proud of”. He explains: “Through this we will ensure that we identify the right players, that they get a common football education towards youth teams, and ensure that everyday life for the player is as optimal as possible.”
There are a total of 20 full-time employees and 700 part-time staff trainers who work in this model. The aims of the “Landslagsskolens” are to identify and further develop players with ownership of their own development and to identify and prepare the right players for the youth national teams.
Despite the ‘Nation Team School’ name, the influence of Norway’s culture on the country’s player development is “a complex issue”, according to Hakon. “We are a small nation with a harsh climate and historically we had few resources,” he explains. “But over the last thirty years we have become one of the richest countries in the world as a result of oil income.”
The rapid change in Norway’s economy can be mapped against their standing as a footballing nation. The greatest successes came in the 1990s, at a time when “we played a type of football that took into account that we were the underdog.” Their style at the time consisted of low pressure, counterattacking football which relied on set pieces – inspired, according to Hakon, by the English game. In the past 10-15 years, however, Norway has shifted to looking more towards the Spanish style, although Hakon believes the nation are “a bit tentative” in terms of how they wish to appear. “There is not necessarily any advantage to being a rich country with good welfare schemes,” he says.
However, investment has been placed into mini-pitches to encourage “street football”, which is seen as hugely beneficial for developing players. Players are also encouraged to practice a lot on their own during school hours and after school, which has a hugely positive impact according to Hakon. “Without exception,” he says, “the players who are the best have played a lot of street football.”
One of the best players Hakon has encountered in his career is Martin Ødegaard – whom he described as “the most creative player I have worked with. He found unthinkable spaces even as an eleven-year-old kid.” Ødegaard’s rise was phenomenal. He went from regular 15-year-old schoolboy to 16-year-old Real Madrid starlet and broke numerous records on the way, including becoming youngest player to play for Norway, the youngest player to feature in the Norwegian league, and the youngest goal-scorer.
Hakon first encountered Ødegaard during his four years as a talent developer in one of the NFF districts, where his job was to scout and follow up the “greatest talents” in the district. Martin played his first district match aged 11 years, 3 weeks old for the U14 team. His development plan featured the most involvement in NFF initiatives by any player during the period 2010–14 and included district/regional trainings and matches, games vs older players, regional talent camps, and weekly meetings between Stromsgodset (his club) and NFF “for quality assurance and to discuss the player’s development”.
While Ødegaard’s rise may have been swift, it seems that life at the Bernabeu may not be quite fulfilling his potential if reports in the press are to be believed. Hakon believes that it is more beneficial for players to maximise their potential by playing domestically for longer, explaining: “most players who go out early return home after a couple of years. Many players are not mentally prepared to travel abroad in their teens. We believe that the vast majority should remain at home until they eventually dominate the Norwegian Premier League.”
Another challenging influence of Norway’s culture on player development is the continued importance of individual winter sports such as skiing. “Too much of our training theory is extracted from these sports,” explains Hakon, “and there is little transfer value from these sports to soccer. We see that we are struggling to develop explosive players. One explanation may be that the individual aerobic sports are standing strong.”
The NFF therefore require some innovative thinking around their approach to player development. Their approach to teaching technique and skill acquisition is focused on game-based learning. “Our methodology is based on the understanding that football is an intelligence sport, where a team’s success depends on the ability to overcome your opponent in different game situations,” Hakon explains.
“Game situations in football are complex and we want to practice in a context that contains football’s main ingredients. We want to ensure that the brain and nervous system gets a stimulus that develops the players’ ability to solve game situations; through a constant fine-tuning and the influence of mental, physical, technical and tactical aspects. All exercises in our player development model contain opponents, teammates and ball.”
This method is leading a shift in coach development courses in the country. Supervisors must now visit and monitor coaches out at their club, rather than have the courses in one central location. The NFF are working hard to make sure all grassroots clubs have an educated coach supervisor to help develop grassroots coaches, who are often parents with limited experience.
“Our new player development model is also an important coach development arena,” says Hakon. “There are over 700 coaches who work part-time for the NFF. These coaches also work in clubs. So by working in our model they are schooled up in our way of thinking.” The use of role models for coach development is mirrored by those used for players, with Hakon believing it is personality, rather than skill, which is most beneficial: “Confidence is crucial for development, so the human characteristics are here more important than football professional knowledge,” he says.
Norway does have a history of being fast to introduce new schemes for the better of the sport – one only has to look at their record in the women’s game, with the first national team cap being won in 1978. This is also an area in which Hakon is experienced, following his several years as Head Coach for the women’s national team. “In Norway, we started early,” he says. “Both with equality between the sexes and with women’s football. We were probably one of the countries who first got a female prime minister and one of the first to have a government comprising nearly half women. It is also customary in Norway that the best girls play with boys.”
Hakon faces a big responsibility in his role to help overcome the challenges Norway may face in player development. He has identified two things which the country should increase their focus on in the coming years:
Firstly, more role-training. “Currently, it is a problem that every player practices as if they were central midfielders – possession exercises, ball exercises, etc. There is too little focus and knowledge to facilitate game-like scenarios for different roles. This is especially the case for strikers and centre backs who need to get more exercise in their key situations.”
The second challenge is that, according to Hakon, “We train too much for the age group 15–18. It is not unusual to have two football training sessions per day, five days a week. This is unfortunate considering that you’re in puberty. We need more knowledge and more focus on individual training for players in growth.”
Game-based learning is very much on the agenda for Hakon and his vision for the NFF. He offers this advice to any coaches who wish to develop:
“The coach’s main job is to facilitate learning through game-like situations; exercises with time and space. This is the main point for developing creative players. Secondly, there must be a learning environment where players are encouraged to test their limits – this means that you must accept errors.”
Hakon wants the Norwegian system to develop players who understand the game and take an active ownership of their own development. He believes players should ask specific questions, and should be given “the basis of a theme rather than the instructional method,” as he puts it. “We believe in the why instead of the how.”
“We believe that potential equals ability to learn. We are therefore very clear about what kind of qualities we look for and reward with our young players. We want them to practice a lot, be present and engaged at each session, challenge their own limits and be inquisitive and reflective.”
Ultimately, the goal is to develop creative players. One of our favourite questions to ask at the Player Development Project is “What does creativity mean to you?” Hakon answered: “Creativity in football is the ability to predict things that not many others are predicting, based on what you’ve seen. Furthermore, you need the ability to put it into action.”
Hakon cites Norway’s coach during the 1990s, Egil Olsen as the most creative coach he’s ever seen. “Through research and study, he defined a type of football that differed markedly from other nations. He found a way to beat supposedly better teams, through thinking differently. He cultivated zone defense. A forward thinking and low risk attacking play. He moved up a lot of people in the last third and focussed on winning the negative transitions.”
Some words immediately jump out from his last answer. Research. Study. Thinking differently. Forward thinking. All are terms which could be associated with Hakon Grøttland himself. His passion for the sport and the logical way he approaches the discipline of coaching is clear to see. It will be fascinating to see what progress he can make for player development in Norway as head of the programme.
Cover Image: Martin Ødegaard for Norway. Photo: Kristoffer N. Havn