Lessons from Iceland

In the weeks before the World Cup, stories about Iceland’s men’s national soccer team have been hard to miss. The team has captured the imagination of people around the world. And honestly, who can blame them?

With a population of 334,252, Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup. During their 2016 Euro Cup run their fans gave the world one of the best fan celebrations in sports history, the viking clap. Their head coach is a former dentist who continues to see patients periodically because, when it comes to hobbies, he prefers dentistry to golf. And since 2010, Iceland has risen from the 112th-ranked team to number 22 on FIFA’s world ranking chart.

With such an endearing backstory, it’s no wonder countless writers have examined the who, what, how, and why of Iceland’s meteoric rise. Rather than add to this multitude of stories, we thought we would take a different approach and ask, why not us? Why can’t we make this kind of impact on our own community?

Iceland’s population is roughly that of Lane County, Oregon (369,519). If a country of that size could revolutionize their youth sports system, drastically decrease youth drug and alcohol use, and improve sports facility infrastructure, the question must be asked, could we translate Iceland’s success to Lane County?

In 1997, Iceland launched the Youth in Iceland initiative in partnership with Prof. Harvey Milkman, an American psychologist who teaches at Reykjavik University. The goal of the initiative was to reduce substance abuse among children and adolescents by offering quality after-school programs. According to Milkman, the programs provide positive alterations in kids’ brain chemistry that result in “a natural high.” Milkman and his team designed the programs to provide coping skills and healthy alternatives to drug use. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information.”

The Youth in Iceland initiative came in response to nationwide surveys taken in the 1990s that revealed alarming rates of risky behavior among 14-16 year-old Icelandic youth. Nearly 25 percent smoked daily and over 40 percent were drunk within the last month. The surveys also indicated that, participation in sports and organized activities and feeling that they were cared about in school and by parents could protect youth against risky behavior.

Iceland’s lawmakers supported the Youth in Iceland programs by constructing facilities to house after-school activities. They also encouraged parents to increase the time they spend with their children. Today, the percentage of 15-16 year-olds who report being drunk in the past month is just 5 percent. The use of cannabis and cigarettes are down to just 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Oregon conducts similar health behavior surveys. According to the 2016 survey, 10.1 percent of Lane County eleventh-graders have smoked cigarettes, 21.3 percent have used illicit drugs, and 31.8 percent had at least one drink of alcohol. Survey results are used to create Oregon’s Positive Youth Development measurement. The measurement encompasses emotional, mental, and physical health behaviors. In the latest measurement, Lane County ranked lower than the statewide average with 38 percent of sixth-graders, 48.8 recent of eight-graders, and 41.3 percent of eleventh-graders classified under the “weak positive youth development” category.

Lane County students could benefit from after-school programs like those offered in Iceland. Local schools and nonprofits currently offer some youth development programs but many children are unable to participate due to financial limitations and lack of transportation. Addressing these access issues would help more children gain the benefits of after-school activities.

As youth development programs expanded throughout Iceland, the Icelandic soccer association, KSÍ, began to increase the country’s sports facility infrastructure. Prior to 2000, playing soccer in Iceland was primarily a summer pursuit as indoor fields were in short supply and frigid winter weather made outdoor play impossible. Outdoor fields were far from ideal with many players practicing on gravel fields that made slide-tackling a feat for only the bravest of heart. Today, Iceland offers indoor soccer centers, outdoor turf mini-pitches, and full-size undersoil-heated turf fields throughout the country.

KSÍ also laid the foundation for improved coaching. In the 1990s, Icelandic youth soccer coaches were similar to many U.S. coaches. They were primarily parent volunteers, with little to no training in game tactics or coaching techniques.

Today, with over 770 coaches holding a UEFA A or B coaching license, Iceland boasts one UEFA-qualified coach for every 500 citizens. To compare, the United States has 70,000 registered coaches, many of whom have not received training on par with a UEFA A or B license. Even assuming all U.S. coaches had received high-level training, the U.S. still has just one coach for every 4,600 citizens. By lowering the costs to obtain a coaching license and increasing access to training opportunities, KSÍ saw a massive increase in the number of trained coaches at all levels of Icelandic soccer.

In the U.S., as in Iceland, sports are one of the most effective and popular after-school programming options. However, Lane County lacks adequate facilities to accommodate the current demand among youth and adult teams. Local youth sports coaches know that finding space for practices and games can be one of the most difficult tasks of the season.

The success of Iceland’s national soccer team is not solely the result of improvements to the nation’s youth resources and soccer infrastructure. But these developments will make the team’s success sustainable. With a system of qualified coaches, increased access to sports facilities, and policies in place to support positive youth development, Iceland has laid a foundation for continued progress on and off the soccer field.

While Lane County cannot feasibly implement all of the changes Iceland made to their youth development infrastructure, we can use their progress as inspiration to begin making incremental changes that address the greatest needs of local youth. By building facilities to house after-school programs, promoting youth sports and other recreational activities, and training youth sports coaches, we can help our children improve their physical, mental, and emotional health.

We believe Civic Park can play a key role in achieving these outcomes. Once built, the facility will host Kidsports after-school programs for children of all ages. Coaches and volunteers who are trained in the Positive Coaching Alliance method will oversee activities. The PCA method teaches coaches how to develop players’ social skills and self-confidence, in addition to athletic skills.

Civic Park can also host training sessions for youth sports coaches to learn sport-specific tactics and strategies. These sessions will allow coaches from Lane County and the surrounding area to learn tactics and techniques that maximize the impact of players’ training. With sport-specific and Positive Coaching Alliance training, coaches will be able to help their players succeed both on and off the field (or court).


We can’t address all of Lane County’s youth development needs through Civic Park alone. But we can work toward positive health outcomes for our community by addressing some of the County’s greatest needs. Now that’s something to (viking) clap about!


For Further Reading:

Iceland Youth Policies

Iceland Soccer

Youth Soccer in America