This weeks interview sees me chat with the project manager at the Swedish Postcode Foundation, David Given-Sjölander. The Swedish Postcode Foundation are responsible for demonstrating the impact that sports provide in local communities across the world, where David plays a decisive role towards. During my chat, David opens up about where his passion for sport began, the importance of volunteers in sport alongside how challenges can convert you and others into resilient assets.
Q1) David, it’s fantastic to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Let’s kick this off by understanding how your career in sport began.
Thanks for having me Ash, it’s great to be here. It started during my childhood, where I played multiple sports with my two brothers. I had a dream that I would be the next big player, but I soon realised that wasn’t going to happen. So instead it was off to University to study a sports degree and become a PE teacher. At the time, that was the path that was laid out before me.
When I turned 18, I moved to Liverpool and studied a sports development programme at Liverpool John Moores University. In my 2nd year, one of the professors presented a new partnership with UK Sport called the IDEALS programme, which offered students an opportunity to volunteer on multiple sport-based projects in Namibia. I remember the meeting as though it was yesterday and was instantly hooked on the idea of sport being a platform for something greater than itself. Thankfully, I was accepted and placed with SCORE, or Sport Coaches Outreach, an organisation that funnily enough Clare Barrell was also involved with which is one of your previous interviewees! The way the programme used sport to drive positive change in local communities was terrific, and it ignited a new part of me that changed the focus on my degree more towards sport as a tool or vehicle for development.
I continued my studies at University, and eventually, worked at SCORE Zambia full-time. This is where I learnt what is meant by ‘sport for development’. I built up multiple experiences which led me to UN Women, studying a Masters in the use of sport for international development, gender equality and health and now at the Swedish Postcode Foundation where we, among other things, use sport as a tool to tackle some of societies most pressing issues.
Q2) I’d love to touch on your voluntary position at UK Sport as a Community Sports Coach. I understand you were completing this throughout your masters in sport development management. How beneficial was this experience to guiding you towards your sports career purpose, and what can you share about values volunteering provides someone in sport?
Firstly, community sports is based on volunteer engagement. In Sweden, as is the case in many countries, there are entire networks that wouldn’t exist without volunteers with around 650 000 volunteers engaged in the sport movement. As challenging as volunteering can be, there is so much value from grassroots sports; you receive an authentic insight into the challenges and opportunities that exist and a deeper knowledge of how the sector works.
UK Sport was one of the big moments that taught me this. However, even before that, I was a voluntary coach at sports clubs in Liverpool while at the same time supporting a network of volunteers working on community programmes. Working alongside volunteers has allowed me to develop enormous respect for the work they do, and it’s incredible to see the passion and dedication of the volunteers who deliver countless hours of sporting activities to youth all around the world.
Essentially volunteering provides you with an invaluable experience for your sports career in the long-term, and the value that volunteers add to society, and in particular the sports movement, shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Q3) Many of your experiences have surrounded in management and leadership. From my understanding, there’s a fine line between the two, especially in the sports industry. Can you broadly share the similarities and contrasts between being an effective manager and leader in the sports industry?
There really is a fine line between the two, and it can be a tricky balance. There’s this idea that the manager ‘says’ and the leader ‘does’ and based purely on that one narrow definition I’m more drawn to the ‘leadership’ approach. If we look at it from a sporting perspective, we tend to aspire more to the leadership traits, and we speak of great leaders on the field. Great leaders inspire people both on and off the field of play, and It’s why so many of the top sport for good programs work with leadership skills because they are so essential and transferrable across various aspects on your life.
The first time I was a manager, I thought my role was to ‘manage’ everyone and to have all the answers myself. That’s the sort of management style I’d be exposed to in the workplace, and without reflecting on it all that much at the time, I did the same. We tend to imitate what we’ve witnessed and experienced ourselves despite whether we agree with the approach or not. It takes a lot of self-reflection to break the trend and in my case going back to what I learnt through sport – working as a team, leading by doing, effective communications, supporting the people around you to be the best they can be and trusting your fellow teammate to do their part – adapt this to the workplace and I think you start heading down the path of an exciting leadership style.
Q4) Your work at The Swedish Postcode Foundation looks brilliant. Could you share more about what the organisation represents, what your role consists of and how do you contribute to the bigger picture for using sport to drive societal change?
I joined the Foundation as a Project Manager around five years ago just as the Foundation was starting to build a portfolio of organisations working within sport for good and we quickly expanded the portfolio to over 30 projects inside the first 12 months. From the offset we were clear on what our vision for sport was and during the past five years I’ve had the privilege of supporting projects with leading organisations like the Swedish Basketball Federation, Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, Goodsport Foundation, Grassroot Soccer, Futebol da forca, Fight for Peace, Sport without Borders and so so many others. Our aim has always been to support the sport for good movement, both in Sweden and internationally, in creating lasting and meaningful social change.
Building on this experience, we’re now looking to the future! We’re currently writing a new strategy that will lay out our vision for how the Foundation will support the continued growth of the sport for good movement and how the sector can be equipped to work on topics around climate change, democracy, equal and inclusive societies, education and employability. 2020 has been a tough year for sporting organisations all around the world, but it has also shown the importance of sport and the vital role that so many sports organisations play in communities. As we start to rebuild societies, we need to position sport as one of the central means by which we rebuild more robust, safer, more inclusive communities.
Q5) From your wide array of experience around sporting impact in the community, what further support do you feel the sport for development sector could benefit from to strive for additional impact to more underrepresented individuals in deprived communities?
Not to take away from the challenges the sport movement still faces in terms of reaching everyone but I think we should recognise that we are doing a lot to ensure we are a movement for all – especially at the grassroots level. There are some incredible organisations out there which focus solely on engaging and impacting underrepresented individuals in deprived communities, but progress at the grassroots level now needs to be mirrored throughout all levels of sport. We need greater diversity in the opinions that are shaping policies, agendas and decisions. We need more diversity in our boardrooms and any place where decisions are being made. And we need to ensure that funding is distributed in an equal and equitable manner, so it reaches the communities that need it the most. This is going to be crucial both during and after the COVID pandemic as we start to rebuild.
The good news is that the sport for development sector is continually challenging itself to do more and to do better, seeking out new information and means of reaching and impacting the most vulnerable in our societies. It’s what the movement was built on – using sport to help and support those who need it most.
Q6) Within in your current role and previous experiences, would you mind sharing some of your most substantial challenges and how these have shaped you into a more resilient individual?
This is a bit of a difficult one to talk about but an important one nonetheless. About four years ago, I burnt out and was put on sick leave. It was a real challenge at the time – not just dealing with the health implications of having burnt out but also the stigma and shame I felt about having burnt out. It took me a long time to accept it had even happened and even longer to talk openly about it with friends and family. The experience taught me a lot though, and in some ways, I’ve done my best to turn it into something positive – not that I would ever want anyone to go through the same – but it forced me to make changes for the better. It’s one of the reasons that mental wellbeing is a bit of a passion topic for me and something I’m so happy to see a more open conversation about in today’s society. For too long it’s been one of those taboo topics we don’t talk about, especially perhaps among young men, so we need to change this, and thankfully we are moving in the right direction.
Q7) David, reflecting on this discussion and your sports career, what is your killer piece of advice for someone wanting to pursue a career in sport?
Gain experience, build a network, seek out new challenges and engage with communities. There’s always something you can do, so find out what it is and do it. The sports sector can be complicated, and you have to live it to understand it; despite being a big advocate of education, you won’t learn about the inner workings of sport purely by reading a textbook – you have to go out and do. There are so many different areas to sport, once you get experience in one area, you’ve opened an opportunity in another. And don’t underestimate volunteering, the rewards far outweigh the challenges; I can’t think of any previous volunteers who have regretted the experience, so what’s holding you back?
That’s what I call a sports career insight! This chat with David has genuinely opened my eyes to understanding that the sky is the limit with your sports career ambition. Seeing the humble words he had to share about volunteering was fantastic, and if you’re volunteering in sport right now, you’re doing an excellent job and keep going at it!