Why culture is key for Graham Potter and Östersunds
Written by Ben Lyttleton — November 27, 2017
ON a freezing night outside the Jamtli museum, the players and staff of Swedish football club Östersunds FK put on a concert dedicated to the indigenous Sapmi tribe, also known as Laplanders.
The memorable occasion was the latest in their series of cultural projects, designed to broaden the players’ horizons and take them out of their comfort zones.
“We wanted our players to learn about the status, history and culture of minorities,” explained ÖFK chairman Daniel Kindberg, before one of the team’s scouts, Kyle Macauley, took to the stage with a microphone and delivered this rap:
Scottish born in 1986,
Not from the streets but the Highland sticks,
That’s all I can say to the audience, hey,
Over and out from Kyle Macauley!
His performance was not Sapmi-centric but over 1,600 fans cheered gleefully. Every member of staff contributed to the feel-good event. Also on stage was Sapmi hip-hop artist Maxida Märak, who has been educating the players throughout the year on the Sapmi culture.
The events, which earlier in the season included a lesson in reindeer husbandry in which coach Graham Potter wore fake antlers and was lassoed by one of his players, have brought the players closer together and given them an appreciation of a world they knew little about.
This was the latest cultural project masterminded by Karin Wahlen, the only ‘cultural coach’ employed by a football club. In 2013, ÖFK put on an art exhibition.
In 2014, they published a book, ‘My Journey’, featuring every club employee’s story. In 2015, there was an art/dance piece, called ‘Strength through Diversity’. One year later, the club performed a modern dance interpretation of Swan Lake at the city’s local theatre on the main square.
I spent time with Potter, Kindberg and Wahlen as research for my book, ‘Edge: What Business can Learn from Football’. Wahlen convinced Kindberg to hire her with a simple pitch: “Getting the players into culture will improve their performances.”
She added: “It will take them out of their comfort zone and make them braver on and off the pitch. When we are brave we can explore our creativity without being afraid of the unknown.”
Kindberg recognized the benefits, telling me: “Everything we do is geared towards improving our performances on the pitch.
“The environment we have established means everyone is prepared to trust the process but it’s definitely a challenge and by no means comfortable for any of us out there,” added Potter. “You have to overcome some inner demons and insecurities to get out there and do it.”
It seems to be working. A few days after the Sapmi concert, ÖFK beat Ukrainian side Zorya 2-0 to remain top of Europa League Group J and secure a place in the knock-out round.
When Potter joined the club six years ago, ÖFK were in the fourth division. Now they are in the Swedish top-flight, are ahead of Hertha Berlin and Athletic Club de Bilbao in their Europa League group, and have reached in the last 32 of a European competition with a game to spare.
The Sapmi concert entertained the audience but it also educated them. The players rapped, danced, laughed and raised money for charity.
ÖFK remains conscious of its role in the community. Their players are finding new ways to gain an edge. And they know how to lasso a reindeer.
You can read more from behind the scenes about the success of ÖFK, and further leadership secrets from football’s top thinkers, in ‘Edge: What Business can Learn from Football’ by Ben Lyttleton which is out now