Sports associations in Sweden can be just the thing for a newcomer to make Sweden feel like home. Sport is a great way to meet people. And it is especially effective when you are new in a country. There are after all few activities where Swedish is less needed than when playing sports. A few words can get you far on a field, rink, lane or track. But is there any place for a newbie in Sweden to get involved in sport? Oh yes, there is. Let us tell you all about it:-)
But, first things first…
What is föreningsidrott?
As soon as you start looking into sports in Sweden you will probably hear the word “föreningsidrott”. But what is that? Föreningsidrott is simply put sports done within an association and Sweden has a huge national network of sports clubs headed by the Swedish sports confederation (Riksidrottsförbundet). These non for profit organisations are run by members and volunteers for everyone living in Sweden.
The Swedish sports movement is at the heart of this country’s national identity. Sweden is a country known for work-life balance and quality of life. What may be less known is that generally individualism and huge personal success is not always a very “Swedish” thing. There is after all a reason why the word “lagom” (just enough/just right) is such a strong part of Swedish culture. So, strong sport associations that are open and accessible for all goes hand in hand with the Swedish spirit and way of life.
Sport is generally recognised as a universal language and usually doesn’t require linguistic skills. It bonds both spectators and participants from all backgrounds and cultures across the world. It promotes a healthier way of living, teaches life skills and boosts confidence. Friendships and relationships flourish. It connects people and instils important values of self discipline, inclusion, resilience and respect. On the other hand there is also the darker side of sport such as nepotism, bribery and hooliganism – but we try to stay positive.
A little history about sport in Sweden
Sweden’s first recorded club is said to be the Uppsala Swimming association formed back in 1796. That was likely the beginning but it took about 100 more year before the Swedish sports confederation was set up as we know it today. And once formed, it grew massively and quickly. In big part due to the urbanization happening at the time, when thousands upon thousands would leave their country side homes and villages, move to the cities and find themselves without their usual social context. So what better place to find a new social context if not in the nearby sport club?
What do I need to know about Riksidrottsförbundet? (RF)
This organisation has promoted lifelong participation in sports clubs since it was formed in 1903 and it has a long history of collaboration with the Swedish government and local authorities. Riksidrottsförbundet do a pretty good job uniting a nation through sport and actively support the integration and inclusion of newbies to Sweden. And it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still be involved in a sport – actively or inactively. About every third person in Sweden is a member of a sports club as active competitors, trainers, referees, keep fitters or supporters. So, let’s take a look at what’s on offer…
Where are these clubs and how do they work?
They are everywhere! There are 70 specialist federations, around 19,000 unique clubs and 3.3 million members across the length and breadth of Sweden. The sports confederation receives about 2 billion sek each year although this was increased during the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 to about 4 billion sek!
Anyone can become a member, regardless of age, ability, disability, where you come from or what language you speak. You can get information on the clubs websites or social media and they are easy to get in touch with if you have questions.
When you search for information it can be useful to use the Swedish name for sports club which is idrottsförening (usually abbreviated to IF).
Once you have chosen your sport and made that initial contact, you can go along a few times for free before signing up to become a member.
What sports are on offer?
It would actually be easier to ask what’s not on offer. There are clubs for individual sports such as skiing, martial arts and gymnastics (which is growing at a phenomenal rate just now). And there are team sports like football, basketball and ice hockey. Once of the smallest sports in Sweden right now is boat racing with 1 300 members and the biggest is football with 1 200 000 members.
Can I get my children involved?
Absolutely! Today children tend to start sports at a younger age and sports associations aim to be welcoming and safe environments for children. Their focus in the early years is to encourage the children’s desire to learn and to show them different engaging activities. Our advice is to start introducing your child to local clubs and their activities. If there are a number of children who are interested in for example in karate, you can find a trainer to come to a location near you or set up your own förening (but more about that a little later).
What’s available for adults?
For a while now, the Swedish sports confederation has worked to attract new target groups. Getting adults and elderly people into sports is thought to have major social and health benefits. So, sports clubs are expanding the more traditional offers and introducing activities such as senior football, senior handball, senior hockey, senior table tennis etc.
Another great sports club for adults is “Friskis & Svettis” (The healthy and the sweaty). It’s a national club, with local sub clubs present in most of Sweden’s municipalities. F&S os all about exercise – gym, dance classes, circuit training, spinning and so on. Between 500 000 and 600 000 adults are members in a F & S. And if you have never been involved in sports before, don’t worry. It is a welcoming and inclusive environment where you join at your particular level of fitness, go at your own pace and have fun.
Whatever your interest, there is likely to be a club nearby. If your chosen sport is not catered for locally, it’s even possible to start your own förening.
Are sports associations unique to Sweden?
The answer is NO! What is unique however is the attitude towards the role that sport plays. The core values of the Swedish sports movement is the actual involvement in the sport itself (whether a team or individual sport) rather than the results and to promote health, exercise, solidarity and team spirit.
You may have heard the quote by the founder of the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.” And that is the general belief in Sweden as well. Trying and failing is simply more admirable than not trying at all. This is especially true when introducing young children to sports.
Of course, talent is nurtured, but whatever your ability or aspirations, you get the same opportunities. The Swedish government, with its extremely generous public funding for these organisations, demands that these core values are instilled in all clubs at all times.
Are there any Swedish success stories?
There certainly is. Sweden is a very active sporting nation and even though the population is small, it has produced a good number or sport stars such as:
- Björn Borg (tennis)
- Ingemar Johansson (boxing)
- Gert Fredriksson (canoeist)
- Jan Ove Waldner (table tennis)
- Henrik Larsson (football)
- Annika Sörenstam (golf)
- Ingemar Stenmark (ski racer) and
- Carolina Kluft (track and field)
- Anja Pärson (alpine skiing) and
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (football) to name just a few that have had international careers and carved their names into the Swedish soul.
You can read more about Swedish sporting legends here.
How much does it cost?
Costs vary depending on the sport and where you live and more expensive sports such as tennis can charge between 5.000 and 20.000 sek per year whereas sports like football or wrestling cost between 500 – 1000 sek per year.
Although there is a membership cost, you get a lot in return such as coaching, travel to events, being part of a team and a community and making new friends.
The good news though is that clubs are financially supported by the government which generally keeps membership costs low. You will however have to supply your own sports equipment but you can sometimes borrow from the club. Don’t let the cost be a barrier though, as you can often source what you need in second hand shops irl or online.
There are also really cool organisations such as Fritidsbanken which is like a sports equipment library where you can borrow equipment for free for up to 14. This is a great thing if you want to try out a new sport and they are found in most municipalities (kommuner).
What are the benefits for me as a newcomer in Sweden?
Joining a sports club is generally believed to be a positive step for most newcomers. It’s a great way to meet like minded people and forge new connections. Of course, it’s also a fantastic opportunity to learn the language or improve your Swedish. Children introduced to sports at a young age are more likely to remain active into adulthood and these clubs provide a safe and stimulating environment in which to grow. Children learn leadership and organizational skills and communication. And then there is the small matter of the health aspects of course… 🙂
What does it mean to be a member?
Membership is open to everyone and gives you a vote in the organisation. These non for profit organisations are run by the members which is usually the participant themselves or guardians and volunteers. The club committee They form decide how the club is run and individuals take on various roles such as organizing matches and events, fundraising, refereeing or even selling refreshments. It is ed by the community for the community.
Is the sport movement in Sweden here to stay?
Riksidrottsförbundet maintain that sport makes Sweden stronger and at the Newbie Guide we tend to agree. Society is constantly changing and in order to stay relevant the sport movement has to adapt too. Encouraging people of all ages to get active, fighting sexism and rasism, creating a safe environment for children and encouraging public health are central points of any modern society and association.
So newbies, there is no time like the present to get active, create new friendships, learn some new skills and join an idrottsförening of your choice. After all it costs nothing to give it a try and you may really enjoy it. Good luck and maybe we will see you in the arena, the stands or selling refreshments:-).