I still remember sitting in the dressing room after my first official game for FC Midtjylland and reflecting on what I’ve just experienced. It wasn’t so much the performance or the result that was on my mind, a 3-1 win against Brøndby, but more the other stuff that had happened in the dressing room before and after the game. Despite the positive result I was actually wondering if this was the right type of environment for a person like me.
I’d been surprised how carefree and relaxed the players seemed before kick-off. It didn’t feel like it was the first game of the season against one of our biggest rivals. It didn’t feel like they took it seriously. The players were singing and dancing to the loud music and joking around in a way I couldn’t grasp. The coaches in the corner were busy binge eating biscuits and salty crackers while criticising each other’s appearance. What the hell is going on? I thought to myself.
I had just arrived from Germany a few weeks earlier. Germany suited me perfectly. ”Ordnung muss sein” and all that. For a man that loves structure, discipline and hard work, it was like coming home. Clear instructions, no unnecessary consensus seeking in team meetings and a clear hierarchy. It could not have been better.
So when I was watching my new teammates dancing in their underwear about an hour before the season opener, I couldn’t help but to think that this place might not suit my personality. Where’s the intense pre-game focus that I was used to? Where’s the nerves? Why is nobody fired up right now? Little did I know that I was witnessing an important part of what makes the club such a great place to work at. Even for a guy like me.
I’ve always appreciated players, and people in general, who work hard. Players who don’t just turn up to training and do the bare minimum but actually push themselves and others to become better. I’m not sure if this is the Finn in me or what but I like it when people are serious and professional when they’re at work.
The atmosphere in the dressing room was not what I was used to in connection with games. Usually the dressing room is a sacred place, only for the closest members of the team, but here it seemed like everyone was welcome in. After the game it was like a party and everyone appeared to be invited. The security people, the mascot, the sponsors, the sponsors’ children, the mayor, the mayor’s children… I swear, it felt more like a lounge than a dressing room. People came in serving hot dogs and beer. The players were again busy singing like they were in a choir. It was hard to fathom what was going on.
It turned out that this was my first taste of HYGGE.
Hygge is, for those of you who might have missed it, a danish cultural phenomenom. The Cambridge Dictionary defines hygge as “a Danish word for quality of cosiness (=feeling warm, comfortable, and safe) that comes from doing simple things such as lightning candles, baking, or spending time at home with your family or friends.”
For example, the relaxed ambience I was witnessing before the game turned out to be the calm before the storm. Or the hygge before the storm if you want. Because later on, when the team went out onto the pitch, it was like a switch went off in the players’ heads. It meant that the time for joking around was over and now it was time to get serious. The players finally had their game faces on and the intense focus that I had missed earlier was now visible. The contrast was astonishing.
During my time at FC Midtjylland I’ve come to appreciate this contrast, this balance, between fun and work. When we train, when we cross that white line, we demand the very best from each other. The work ethic is incredible. But when we’re outside the pitch and just hanging out we make sure that we have fun and it’s this mix that makes it so motivating and satisfying to come in to work everyday.
Socialising and creating a stronger bond with your teammates is of course important in team sport. A dressing room where everyone feel respected, loved and appreciated makes a huge difference. A dressing room where everyone can be themselves and where we can enjoy each others company will improve our team spirit. When we make time for ‘hygge’ we bring people closer together which essentially increase the team’s chances of being successful on the pitch.
FC Midtjylland see themselves as a “family club”, a term that I sometimes feel is overused in the football world. But, and I’m trying to be as objective as I can, this club is definitely more welcoming and open than others. Just the fact that the dressing room is packed with people you’ve never seen before says something about the club’s values. They want everyone to feel like they’re a part of our success.
The club is also aware that their responsibility is not just the players in the squad but also the players’ families, relatives and friends. I’ve had both friends and family visiting me but also coaches and leaders who wanted to learn more about FC Midtjylland, and they’ve always been welcomed with open arms.
Every year Denmark is in the top-3 of the work-life balance rankings so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the culture is different. It’s been really healthy for me, mentally, to actually allow myself to relax a little bit more away from training and games. Finns are perhaps not the most laid-back people on earth so I still find it awkward to go from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes. But I’ve realised that I, and Germany as well for that matter, could do with a bit more hygge in our lives.
FC Midtjylland is for me a place where they’ve successfully combined elite sport, winning mentality, family club values and plenty of hygge. My initial reaction, in the summer of 2014, that this club might not suit me was certainly wrong. It turned out that it was a club and an environment that suited me perfectly.