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“How do you get the guys to dance Swan Lake?”

By Karin Wahlén

Portrait by Tobias Regell

I have been the cultural coach for Östersunds Fotbollsklubb — a small regional football team in Sweden — for seven years now. Many people have asked me why I’ve forced football players to put on plays and learn ballet.

The answer is easy.

We work with culture as a means to win more matches. The idea is simply that if the players are braver off the pitch, they will become braver on the pitch. And it seems to work.

When the cultural work started, the Östersund team was firmly entrenched in Swedish Division 2 football. We have advanced three divisions in five seasons and in 2017 we became the second Swedish team in history to reach the Europa League finals. We recently welcomed one of the worlds biggest football clubs, Arsenal, to our home pitch at Jämtkraft Arena in Östersund.

Naturally, one can’t credit the team’s success solely due to our work with culture, but at least it hasn’t hindered the team’s performance.

Culture in all its forms, is a good tool for bending boundaries.

I initiate and carry out our cultural projects. During the past seven years we have done a modern interpretation of the ballet Swan Lake, put on different plays, studied art, written a book, learnt about Sami culture and performed our own rap texts. We’ve organised a musical demonstration to show our support for the millions of people in flight that are presently crossing the Mediterranean Sea and coming to Europe. This autumn we will put on a musical with Glada Hudikteatern, a theatre company where many of the actors have functional disabilities.

In tandem with our ascent in the football league, there has been an increased interest in our small football club from the north of Sweden. The question I get asked most often is ’How do you get the guys to go along with your ideas?’

It is controversial that a football club in the Swedish premier league works with culture. I doubt that we would have gotten the same question if it had been about a women’s football club. I don’t think we would have been asked any questions at all, since women who play football rarely get any. But it wouldn’t have seemed as odd practicing ballet or for that matter, working with LTBQ questions as a woman.

I don’t think that there would be any large difference however, at least not in the group. I think trying new things is important and develops individuals regardless of their gender.

The difference is how society looks at men and women.

People assume that male football players can’t (or won’t) or don’t have the possibility to think about anything besides football, and perhaps a little FIFA on PlayStation. Therefore there is something exciting about a group of men that are doing ballet. The risk is that if we assume that men don’t have the capacity to do anything besides play football or video games then it can becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted a series of famous experiments that showed how we are affected by our expectations. He gave a group of students a number of rats to be used in intelligence testing. The rats had been categorised as ’maze bright’ (intelligent) or ’maze dull’ (less intelligent). However, it wasn’t true.

The rats were actually all normal rats that had been divided into groups randomly.

Rosenthal wanted to see if the students’ expectations would affect the rats’ performance. Would the ’maze bright’ rats perform better because the students thought they were smarter and therefore put higher demands on them?

When the study was finished the answer was clear.

The ’maze bright’ rats had performed almost twice as well as the ’maze dull’ rats, although the rats all had the same intelligence level.

This test is known as the Rosenthal effect.

I think that one of the strengths of the Östersunds Fotbollsklubb is that our expectations of our players are sky high. On and off the pitch.
We expect that our players can perform Swan Lake, and that they have the ability to make wise and brave decisions. That they will grow and develop as football players, and as people.

Because their ability lies in their minds and not in their genders.

If we want our children to grow up in a society of gender equality, then we have to raise our expectations of men. We need to give men other ideals to live up to. We have to give men the tools to take responsibility for themselves and their surroundings. We also have to give women the same opportunities, and have the same expectations.

Östersunds Fotbollsklubb recently became Sweden’s first LGBTQ certified elite sports club. There are around 400 men playing in the Swedish premiership league.

All of them are heterosexual.

This can only mean two things: either we have created an atmosphere where you don’t feel welcome unless you are a heterosexual, or we have players that can’t be open about who they are in front of their colleagues and their closest friends. Regardless of what the reasons are, we lose talent and we can’t afford to.

To win the next match, and to be the best we have to widen the idea of who a football player can be.

This year we are going to learn more about masculinity norms with the criminologists Nina Rung and Peter Svensson. We have to work at it, and frankly, we have so much damn fun working at it. Because its fun to develop. It’s fun (and sometimes really uncomfortable) learning new perspectives.

We believe that we can win more matches by taking responsibility for our players. On and off the pitch. Developing socially and culturally, through sports. I think that everybody would feel better doing so, regardless of one’s gender.

We get the players to go along with this idea, because we expect this of them. Because we know that they can do it. Because we know that they can do it, and they have done it. Östersund recently defeated Arsenal at a sold-out Emirates Stadium in London.

July 26, 2018

Karin Wahlén is a cultural coach, and the Founder of Kult PR.