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Published: 25 Oct, 2021

How sport is organised affects society

PROFILE How do sport organisations distribute power, work tasks and resources? That is something Josef Fahlén, professor of sports pedagogy, is investigating.

Text: Elin Andersson

In membership-based organisations built upon volunteerism and democracy, which Swedish sports associations are, these issues in the end become questions of how power and influence is distributed in our society.

Already during his undergraduate studies, Josef Fahlén took an interest in how sport associations are run and organised. How are work tasks, power and resources distributed within and between various sport organisations?

“My interest started with how elite coaches work, what they do and primarily why. But soon, these questions led me to look higher up in the organisational ladder, so to speak, since I could see how terms and conditions of work controlled so much of the coaches’ day to day work. That’s when I started realising that the ways that organisations construct and distribute work tasks are also linked to how resources are distributed, and hence how an entire organisation’s focus is directed towards certain things and away from others. By gaining a better understanding of how organisations work, we can also propose improvements in a next step.”

Studying how clubs and associations are organised and governed also highlights how power and influence is distributed in society at large.

“In membership-based organisations built upon volunteerism and democracy, which Swedish sports associations are, these issues in the end become questions of how power and influence is distributed in our society. By studying such issues in sports organisations, one can see how decisions on an international, national and regional level result in both desired consequences and undesired side-effects in terms of a distorted resource allocation, inefficient organisation and, in the long run, unequal terms and conditions for the individual athlete.”

By recording, we want to see how sport associations boards navigate between satisfying members’ desires on one hand, and funding bodies’, sponsors’ and other external stakeholders’ demands on the other hand.

Fly on the wall recording

To be able to study decision-making in sport associations without disturbing the process, Josef Fahlén has been allowed to video record sport clubs’ board meetings in one of his research projects.

“By recording, we want to see how boards navigate between satisfying members’ desires and ambitions on one hand, and funding bodies’, sponsors’ and other external stakeholders’ expectations and demands on the other hand. In another project, we have interviewed sport associations’ election committees and posed questions on how members are best represented, how the most efficient board would be set up and how they look at gender quota, for instance. In recent years, I have also had administrative assignments at the university myself, for instance as deputy head of my department. Those assignments have given me a better understanding that is useful in my role as a researcher: how difficult it is to run and organise; that all decisions come at a cost; and that with every good intention come unforeseen side-effects.” 

Before Josef Fahlén was admitted as a doctoral student at Umeå University, he worked as an education coordinator for the project ‘Ishockeyhögskolan’ at Mid Sweden University.

 “The project ran a professional development programme for sport managers, club managers and coaches commissioned by the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. The association also wanted us to study the organisation of ice hockey, and together we applied for funding from the Kempe Foundations for what was to become my doctoral student project. After completing my doctoral studies, I have primarily been active at Umeå University. I started off by working a few years at the Umeå Centre for Evaluation Research before I got a lectureship at the Department of Education. Since then, I have tried my wings for short periods as visiting associate professor at the Linnaeus University and as visiting professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, and on 21 April 2021, I became professor of education specialising in sports pedagogy.” 

Herding cats and being curious

As a professor, Josef Fahlén will be able to spend more of his time on research, both his own and on being head of research in the research group of sports pedagogy at the Department of Education.

I’ve come to the simple realisation that work tasks are more pleasurable and better executed if the topic is something you are competent in.

“Academic leadership is often described as the task of herding cats. This means to try to organise a group of individuals who each have their own strong ambitions, motivating forces and ideas. I don’t think I have quite figured out how a proficient head of research should be yet. So I’m trying to be one of those with the door always open, who listens, supports and encourages as best as I can. I also try to follow my own ambition, which is to refine my research agenda to cover things I’m curious of and less about accepting requests of collaboration that do not coincide with my research knowledge. I’ve come to the simple realisation that work tasks are more pleasurable and better executed if the topic is something you are competent in. Beside that, I have also become increasingly convinced that my own curiosity works well as a compass to identify questions that are relevant and interesting also to my research colleagues and the society we are here to serve.”

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