In Denmark, Football Fitness is the new girl in the FA school of football – but who is she?

By Dr. Søren Bennike

The Danish Football Association (DFA) has launched a football-based activity for health called Football Fitness. It is targeting adults playing in voluntary organised, non-profit and municipally subsidised football clubs, and is hugely popular among women. But what is the concept? Dr. Søren Bennike from the University of Copenhagen explains, and also says that the concept is making a positive contribution to local clubs, but will take time to implement.

Football Fitness is a recent phenomenon which offers greater flexibility and scope for local adaptation to the particular group of players in a given FA associated voluntary organised club, whether they are men or women, young or old, skilled or unskilled.

Dr. Søren Bennike is a Post-Doctoral researcher in sports sociology at the University of Copenhagen, primarily working within the fields of sport policy, implementation and organisational research.

The number of physically active adults in Denmark has been rising steadily, and has quadrupled since 1964, although the latest study from 2016 shows a small decline. What is of particular interest for this post, however, is the fact that the number participating in voluntary organised non-profit sport club activity has stagnated since 2007 and actually fell in 2016. Club sports in Denmark remain strong, but the trend also indicates that they face certain challenges. They are losing ground to self-organised and often commercial sports, as in many other European countries. See the national survey dated 2011 (English) and 2016 (Danish). In relation to football the adult (16+) participation rate have decreased from 10% in 2007 to 7% in 2016.

What is Football Fitness?

The DFA describes Football Fitness, which was introduced in 2011, as a training for all adult men and women who are looking for a form of exercise that is both healthy and social. They also write that the concept aims to take the best from two worlds, combining Denmark’s most popular ball game with the flexibility of fitness training. It is played on small pitches, there may not always be a trainer, and the team is not part of any league. This makes the training more flexible, and allows you to train as often – or infrequently – as you want. It is important to add that Denmark does not have an established commercial 5-a-side culture, with an emphasis on casual recreational participation, that you might see elsewhere.


Football Fitness differs from ‘classical’ club-based football

In a research group from the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health and the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, we have taken a closer look at the concept of FF, which should be seen as a result of changes in Danish exercise habits. More people are engaged in flexible self-organised, commercial activities often with health outcomes as a decisive factor.

In many areas, FF is inspired by three striking differences between the expanding self-organised exercise and traditional club-based sport:

  1. a clear focus on health
  2. a flexible organisation of the activities on offer
  3. a modest subscription (not the case with commercially organised sport).

For example, a run round your local lake is basically free. You can run when you want, and many exercise runners are driven by the health benefits. The launch of FF emphasises the flexibility and the health gains and, compared to “normal” club-based football, the activity is available for a reduced subscription. The health benefits of the FF concept are supported by research and communicated in this video.

How is Football Fitness flexible?

The concept is not flexible in the sense that participants can train when it suits them. Almost 90 per cent of FF teams train at a fixed time once a week, Monday-Thursday between 6 and 9 p.m. This does not allow the flexibility that exists with self-organised exercise, where you can train at the time that suits you. Nevertheless, FF is significantly more flexible in its organisation than traditional amateur football.

An FF administrator puts it this way:

“It is football when people have time for it. … It is not obligatory in the same way as traditional football. It does not mean training twice a week with a match at the weekend. It is more flexible in that way.” 


Football Fitness is mostly played by women

The fact that FF has no league structure means that the concept can be adapted to local needs in terms of rules and the number of players, for example, and tactical and technical skills do not take priority since the aim of beating the neighbouring club has been removed, as a local FF organiser explains:

“The less you know about football, the better you match our target group. The worse you are at football, the better you match our target group.” 

FF is predominantly played by women aged between 25 and 59, which explains the title of this post – Football Fitness is the new girl in the FA school of football. A school traditionally dominated by men, with a fair degree of machismo. Removing the focus on competition, reducing the emphasis on football skills – both tactical and technical – and the fact that FF is mainly played by women, represents a distinct break with classical amateur football, a sport which has strong traditions in Denmark. The Football Fitness concept, which does not have a specific gender ideology or focus, has attracted quite a lot of middle-aged women with little or no football experience.

Football Fitness marks a change

This break has raised some challenges when it comes to implementation. That is acknowledged by those who have worked with FF. It is a concept that needs time and explanation to be understood and implemented. It is a concept that, at first sight, may not appeal to all club chairmen.

Whether FF turns out to be the right approach, only time will tell. But the phenomenon is tackling the challenges now facing club sports, and is trying to add something new to an otherwise hide-bound and conservative activity.

FF is something new, which provides more flexibility and scope for local adaptation to the particular group of players that exists or is to be attracted to a given club, whether they are men or women, young or old, skilled or unskilled.

Football Fitness enhances the club environment

In connection with a study of the implementation of FF, we have shown that the principal purpose of football clubs is “to create a social community for members” and “provide a healthy leisure activity for children and young people”.

FF is aimed at adults, and it is aimed at a group of users who are not already members of a club. So there is a clear discrepancy between the aims of the concept and the objectives of the clubs, which certainly complicates implementation.

In this regard, it is thus much more interesting that many of the clubs that offer FF find that it enhances club life, social activities and facilities for parents. Only a few clubs find that the workload on the volunteers has increased, while others find they are attracting new volunteer trainers.

The fact that FF enhances club life and benefits parents is in line with the clubs’ focus on children and young people and on providing a social community for members. What does not appeal to the amateur football clubs at first glance may produce the exact result that the clubs identify as their main purpose.

Read scientific publications mentioning the Football Fitness concept:

Bennike, S., Wikman, J.M. & Ottesen, L. (2014): Football Fitness – a new version of football? A concept for adult players in Danish football clubs. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2014: 24 (Suppl. 1. 138       -146

Bennike, S. & Ottesen, L. (2016): How does interorganisational implementation behaviour challenge the success of Football Fitness? European Journal for Sport and Society, Special Issue: Sport Organisations in Europe – changes and challenges.

Bennike, S., Thing, L. & Ottesen, L.: Health through state supported voluntary sport clubs. In: Parnel, D. & Krustrup, P. (red): Sport and Health – Exploring the Current State of Play. Chap. 5. S. 111-131.

Ottesen, L., Bennike, S. & Thing, L.F. 2017. The emergence of the Danish Football Fitness concept. Proceedings of the 8th World Congress on Science and Football.

 Thing, L.F., Hybholt, M.G., Jensen, A.L. & Ottesen, L.S. 2016. Constraining and enabling possibilities for the management of leisure time for women. Annals of Leisure Research.

 Krustrup, P., Helge, E.W., Hansen, P.R., Aagaard, P., Hagman, M., Randers, M., Sousa, M. & Mohr, M. Effects of recreational football on women’s fitness and health: adaptions and mechanism. European Journal of Applied Physiology (2018) 118:11-32.

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