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Supportive environments for young leaders

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Sport is a very popular recreational activity for young people in Sweden. To support children’s and young people’s sporting activities, the Swedish Parliament has invested EUR 200,000 over a four-year period. This initiative was given the name Idrottslyftet [Lift for Sport] and one of its goals was to recruit and retain young leaders.
Autor(es): Meckbach, Jane; Larsson, Lena
Entidades(es):The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, Linnaeus University
Congreso: congreso de la asociación internacional de escuelas superiores de educación física (AIESEP)
Úbeda A Coruña, 26-29 de Octubre de 2010
ISBN: 9788461499465
Palabras claves:supportive environment, young leaders, Bourdieu

Supportive environments for young leaders


Sport is a very popular recreational activity for young people in Sweden. To support children’s and young people’s sporting activities, the Swedish Parliament has invested EUR 200,000 over a four-year period. This initiative was given the name Idrottslyftet [Lift for Sport] and one of its goals was to recruit and retain young leaders.

The aim of the study is to examine the investment made in young leaders with the focus on supportive environments. Questions are asked: (i) How have the various projects been structured and what were the desired objectives? (ii) What is meant by the term ‘supportive environment’? iii) Which young leaders is the project aimed at and who is the ‘right’ kind of leader? The data consists of plans and project descriptions. Moreover, this study uses a qualitative text analysis and has a cultural-sociological perspective based on Bourdieu’s theories and concepts.

The analysis shows that investments have consisted mainly of training programmes to recruit new leaders. The supportive environments are a priority and master–pupil relationship is a given model. The findings indicate that there is a belief that a re-examination of the traditionally prominent values is required if young people are to be recruited as leaders.


Today, the sports movement is an organization that a great number of Sweden’s children and young people are involved in and, without all its committed leaders, it would be impossible to run an organization of this size. At present, the sports movement has just over 600,000 leaders, most of whom work on a voluntary basis (The Swedish Sports Confederation, 2008). Despite many people being involved in leadership roles, the sports movement in Sweden continually wrestles with the issues of a shortage of leaders and how to get more experienced leaders to become involved (Lindroth, 2002; Eriksson, 2006). It is not enough to get parents involved (read dads) who used to actively participate in sports themselves. It is necessary to approach groups that are usually not asked as often, such as young people, women, and people with an immigrant background. Over the last few years, a number of initiatives have been carried out within the sports movement, involving, first and foremost, young leaders, and many of these have produced good results (Redelius, 2007).

In 2007, the Swedish Government decided to invest EUR 200,000 for four years into children’s and young people’s sporting activities as part of the sporting initiative known as Idrottslyftet [Lift for Sport]. Part of this includes a special initiative to involve young leaders and the success factor for this is creating supportive environments. The target group for this particular initiative is both young leaders and club committees, but it is not defined what a supportive environment is.

Just over half of the young people who are still active when they are 19–20 years of age have held leadership positions and this proportion has increased over the last few years. There are considerably more young male leaders and there are also more young men than young women who have completed leadership training (The Swedish Sports Confederation 2005b). Many leaders are, therefore, recruited from their own ranks. At the same time, many studies show that the majority of young people who give up sport for various reasons do so ‘for good’. Several studies also show that many of them would like to become leaders if only they were asked and this is particularly the case for girls (The Swedish Sports Confederation, 2005b; Trondman, 2005; Redelius, 2007).

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What proved in earlier studies to be important when recruiting young leaders is the support of the club, the opportunity to undertake a training programme, and to feel involved and have an influence (The Swedish Sports Confederation, 2005a, 2008; Redelius et al., 2004). Supportive environments are also highlighted as a priority area in the Young Leaders initiative within Idrottslyftet. On the Swedish Sports Confederation’s website, we can read that
[t]he initiative also involves creating supportive environments that allow the young leaders to prosper and develop, which will, hopefully, help them decide to be leaders for a long time. The target group for this initiative is both young people and club committees (The Swedish Sports Confederation 2009).
Depending on the context, different explanations and meanings of the term supportive environments are given. In dictionaries, the word support is explained by synonyms, such as keep up, prop up, direct, promote, and help. If we support someone, we stand behind them and encourage them (Norstedts 2009; Nationalencyklopedin, 2010). The term supportive environments is often associated with health and is then used to describe how environments that promote health can be designed (Haglund, Finer, and Tillgren, 1996). When the term is used within the sports movement, it refers to environments that can promote participation and influence. The starting point is that it is not as easy to get young people involved in the sports movement today as it was with the young people of previous generations and, for this reason, supportive environments are needed.

Several studies show that the need for support from the club is particularly important for young leaders (Redelius et al., 2004; Gerrevall et al., 2006). It is especially important to receive support during the initial period as a leader. Models that have proved to work well are regular meetings between newly recruited leaders and more experienced ones, starting as an assistant leader, working as part of a team, and having the opportunity to ask older leaders for advice. Something that has proved to be particularly successful is using mentoring as part of the training of young leaders. According to Rao and Mitchell (1998: 47), mentorship is ‘about teaching and teaching is the most essential element in leadership. Like all teaching, mentorship is the ability to transfer skills and knowledge’. Other important factors are support in the form of encouragement and being noticed (Hammond and Walsh, 2006; Redelius et al., 2004; Trondman, 2005). Leadership training is something that is often mentioned in conjunction with supportive environments.

Leadership training is emphasized as an important factor in getting young people to want to take up leadership positions (Westerdahl, 2007). Eley and Kirk (2010) point out that leadership training is important in order to be able to recruit young leaders, but leadership qualifications can also serve as an investment that will pay dividends in other social contexts. Rao and Mitchell (1998) point out that it is difficult to recruit new young leaders and believe that today’s leadership training programmes require a different content than before. However, not all content ? all knowledge ? is ascribed value. Dahlin (2004) believes that leadership training should primarily provide knowledge of psychology, pedagogy, and children’s development and learning. There is a lack of knowledge among leaders about the children and young people they are to be in charge of and how they should be treated and, in that case, knowledge of the sports activity in question is not enough in order to work as a leader.

The overall picture that the studies presented show is that it is difficult getting young people (particularly girls) interested in becoming leaders and that work on creating supportive environments is particularly important if this is to succeed. If leadership initiatives are also to result in more children and young people beginning to take part in sports, it appears that additional measures are necessary. Perhaps recruiting leaders from under-represented groups, along with additional training initiatives, could be an option, and, in light of this, we can understand why Idrottslyftet is focusing on young leaders.

The objective of this study is to examine Young Leader initiatives within the framework of Idrottslyftet, with particular focus on how supportive environments are depicted. Part of this objective involves identifying what are described as supportive environments in various documents (activity plans, course programmes, etc.) and, in this way, the study may contribute to the development of knowledge that could, in the longer term, make more young people want to become involved as leaders and to have the confidence to take on greater responsibility. The questions discussed in this study are as follows: (i) How have the various projects been structured and what were the desired objectives? (ii) What is meant by the term ‘supportive environment’? iii) Which young leaders is the project aimed at and who is the ‘right’ kind of leader?


The sports movement can be seen as a cultural and social practice where certain values, norms, and actions are more evident than others. In order to understand actions and strategies based on the individual–group relationship and the social context they find themselves in, we are supported by the theories and concepts of the French cultural-sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu (1990) describes how the social world consists, on the one hand, of objective structures that also exist outside symbolic systems, such as languages and myths, which depend on the agents’ consciousness and desires, and, on the other hand, symbolic structures, the origin of which form a function of perceptions, ideas, and actions that the individuals construct. The socially constructed symbol systems act as classification schemes for the social world, which means that the structures are perceived as natural. Using Bourdieu’s theories makes it possible to ‘get behind’ and illustrate the value structures and patterns of behaviour in a social practice that the agents are partly unaware of.

A person’s actions arise as a result of the experiences the individual has incorporated and the opportunities presented by the objective structures in the specific social context. Based on Bourdieu’s theories, certain social contexts can be regarded as social fields, among them sport (Bourdieu, 1988, 1997; Munk, 1999; Munk and Lind, 2004). A social field is characterized by, among other things, having its own logic and defining its own rules, rules that everyone within the field must abide by and that often are obvious and are taken for granted.

Based on Bourdieu’s theories, recruiting the right leader could be said to be finding the leader best suited to the rules. Among other things, Bourdieu (1990) uses the concepts habitus and capital to explain how certain actions appear more possible than others. Bourdieu explains that habitus is a system of embodied dispositions that arise in the interplay between the individual and the social context he or she finds him- or herself in. The individual experience in the form of experiences is inscribed in the body and makes it possible for the person to master different situations. The expression ‘inscribed in the body’, or ‘embodied’, can be understood based on the social reality existing both inside and outside the individual. The individual constructs his or her social world both individually and collectively; it is the context that is important.

Habitus determines how people act, think, perceive, and evaluate in different social contexts (Bourdieu, 1977). It can be compared to an internal compass that guides our actions based on the opportunities available. Bourdieu also uses the term symbolic capital to explain how something can serve as an asset if it is ‘recognized as valuable by social groups and is assigned a value’ (Broady, 1991:169). Symbolic capital is a relational concept—something that is recognized as valuable and assigned a value within a specific context and it is only in the eye of the beholder that it becomes an asset. It is the context that determines what can be understood and serve as symbolic capital. There has to be a market where this capital is in demand and what is deemed an asset within one context may be totally ineffective in another (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992).

The starting point is, therefore, that Idrottslyftet and the specific initiative for young leaders can be understood based on the sports movement being a social arena in which the experiences the agents have incorporated, together with the objective structures, determine the resulting initiatives, and in which some initiatives appear to be more obvious than others. The measure of value may be the people selected for leadership training programmes and the sports leader initiatives that are launched. If we take the sports leader, it is reasonable to assume that he or she possesses a habitus that contains an insight into and recognition of the rules and initiatives. Investigating which sports leaders are in demand could contribute to an understanding of which patterns of behaviour, practices, and values it is believed could open the door for more sports leaders.

The data in this study consists of different types of written material about the Young Leaders initiative. The material consists of the Swedish Sports Confederation’s and Swedish Sports Education’s annual reports from the first two years of Idrottslyftet of which the Young Leaders initiative is a part. Furthermore, the empirical data comprises twenty-one development plans for projects planned for 2010 and project descriptions with particular focus on supportive environments from eleven districts. We have read the annual reports through once, focusing on the Young Leaders initiative.

Then all twenty-one development plans for 2010 and evaluations and applications were read in detail so as to ultimately select the eleven districts that have described supportive environments in their project descriptions. By means of qualitative text analysis, we have asked various questions of the texts with the intention of contextualizing the actual descriptions based on the following areas: the design and objectives of the project, supportive environments, and the chosen leader. Then these were interpreted based on the theoretical frame of reference.


The aim of the majority of projects is to recruit new leaders and/or mentors and what is offered are different types of training programme. The initiatives that appear more obvious than others are training programmes where young leaders from various sports and clubs undertake the same training. The format and content of the training programmes show that it is, first and foremost, pedagogical leadership, and not sports leadership, that is seen as important and that they believe in mutual teaching and learning.

The most common arrangement is three or four actual meetings with a mixture of lectures, discussions, and exercises. Between the actual meetings, there has been communication with the participants via the Internet, such as different forums, websites, by e-mail, etc. The content of the dominant types of training material is that the future leaders are to gain knowledge of the children and young people they will encounter. The analysis shows that particularly suitable arenas for recruiting young leaders are the various summer schools and camps organized all over the country.

Summer schools appear to be a productive alliance for the clubs. This is a means of both recruiting more members and recruiting and introducing new leaders, particularly young leaders. In the training programmes targeted more at specific groups or aims, such as girls, elite leaders within a specific sport, committee members, and mentoring, other content appears more legitimate.

The content of the training programmes is more directly linked to the specific group or sport. It is evident from individual clubs’ applications that the aim is both to recruit and retain leaders and, in order to succeed, it appears that attracting young people with the message that this is an investment that could pay dividends in the future is a successful strategy.

A qualitative programme for serious young leaders is offered. The programme will provide a good foundation for the participants to progress in the future towards a leadership career among the elite (Färjestad Floorball Club).

Something that is believed to be important for attracting young people is opportunities for making social contacts and new friends by, for example, organizing team-building activities, film evenings, performances, and camp weeks. The clubs want to create meeting places, supportive environments, consultative groups of young people, to provide stimulation and adapt working methods, but also to train leaders in their specific sport.

In many of the texts, the notion that young people find it difficult to identify with adults is expressed and mixed-age training programmes are not an option when recruiting them. Young people need ‘incentives’ and this can be anything from being given sweaters and taking part in reunions to being given tickets to different exhibitions, etc. Many districts use contact channels that are often associated with young people, such as online social networking sites, websites, Facebook groups, downloadable material, and webcast lectures.

The evaluations made by participants in the various initiatives show that they are generally very satisfied. The new leaders feel that they have learned a lot and that their training has been important for their personal development. They also believe that contact with others and getting on well together have been important and are something they would like to continue to develop.

It has made me feel more adult and responsible. We have got on well together. It has made me be a little more daring, good discussions; a greater exchange of ideas would have been good (the Östergötland Sports Federation).
The new leaders would like regular meetings with the same group to be arranged. In addition to meetings, they would like the information provided to their ‘own’ club to be better. They felt that it seemed like hardly anyone knew they existed. What was good was ‘learning games and exercises’, the many tips, exchanging ideas with each other, and getting to hear interesting speakers.

Supportive environments

The analysis shows that the creation of supportive environments has been a priority area. In other words, there are both experiences and good examples of how supportive environments can be created. However, it has also been expressed that there is a lack of overall knowledge of what a supportive environment is and how it can be created. It is most common for the new leader to be assigned a mentor: an adult person with experience of the club who he or she can turn to and receive help from. The mentor will be a person from one’s own club, but there are also examples of this being a business person. In several districts, specific mentor programmes are also organized and these involve coaching conversations and drawing up action plans for how the club can introduce and support the new leader in different ways. The basis of many training programmes is that several people from the individual club will take part together in the training programme, and this group may, for example, consist of new leaders, committee representatives, and mentors.
An example from one club is that of a few mentors, together with young leaders, going, on a number of occasions, on a training course held at the club. After this, the young people have been introduced more and more as leaders and were allowed to gradually take more responsibility (the Västergötland Sports Federation).
The analysis shows that projects with the objective of creating supportive environments require a great deal from the individual club, which is, perhaps, the reason why it has been more difficult to get clubs involved in this work than in the recruitment initiative.
In many clubs, there is some form of sponsor system. The clubs that have taken part in the initiative have been very satisfied with the discussion evening and the financial support they have received for training their young leaders. On the other hand, the clubs do not, in many cases, appear to devote enough time or demonstrate sufficient commitment to creating long-term strategies to ensure a supply of leaders (the Västernorrland Sports Federation).
What appears most difficult is maintaining a supportive environment for a long period of time. To make the work easier and for the club to be able to retain its young leaders, some districts offer regular meetings for both exchanging experiences and providing support in different ways. Skåneidrotten offers:1 “All youth leaders taking part can get help from our ‘Youth Leader Support’ by phone or e-mail. They can contact this if there are problems, or whenever they would like guidance”. (Skåneidrotten)

According to the young leaders’ statements in the various evaluations, it is clear that mentorship is part of the support that they value. However, not just anyone is suitable to be a mentor. Certain qualities and knowledge appear more desirable than others. The young people want mentors who are committed, easy to get hold of, who know what young people want, and who do not have a superior attitude. The young people express the feeling that it can sometimes be difficult to assert themselves. This is also reflected in the format of some of the courses, where the objective is to increase young people’s opportunities to participate and have an influence. Then it is important that only young people meet without other people interfering and taking over.

A weekend when only young people are allowed to participate and have an influence. The meeting is for leaders who want to be involved in affecting the influence of young people within the Västergötland Sports Federation. The meeting is an excellent opportunity for networking and exchanging experiences with other young people in similar situations to yourself. During the meeting, a strategy will be discussed for how we in Västergötland can increase young people’s influence and we will decide on a joint objective to strive for (the Västergötland Sports Federation).

The young people themselves suggest a shared leadership as a way of supporting and introducing new leaders. The mentor must be able to act as a ‘sounding board’, assist in setting sufficiently challenging targets, introduce the new leader to the committee, explain how decisions are made, take part in training, provide constructive feedback, and act as a support if problems arise, for example by taking part in meetings with parents. Something that is highlighted as particularly important is encouragement. New leaders feel insecure and need affirmation from and to be noticed by not only more experienced leaders, but also the participants and their parents.

The young leaders want to feel an affiliation with the club and this could be anything from club clothing to being allowed to go to events and club meetings or being invited. The fact that an environment is supportive and attracts young leaders also means the young leader receives some form of ‘reward’, such as being allowed to go on an extra training programme or taking part in extra training sessions. It is also important that the club understands that schoolwork could mean that he or she is unable to attend or initially wants to try things out for a short period.

The ‘right’ leaders

In the different texts, notions are expressed regarding which young leaders are approached and how young leaders are expected to be. Not just anyone is considered. It is necessary to satisfy certain conditions, such as being a sportsperson and/or already being or wanting to become a leader. Most training programmes involve having to read some literature, attending lectures, and having the ability to discuss and reflect.

In addition, the young leaders are to ‘meet’ on various Internet forums in between meetings. This arrangement is very similar to school and presupposes an interest in studying, computer skills, and the ability to express oneself both verbally and in writing. Both programme organizers and young people attest to the fact that if you either have or are expected to develop great self-confidence, then you will be able to act as an ‘ambassador’ and role model for other young people.

The analysis shows that there are various expectations for the young people taking part in the initiative. One expectation is that it will be young people who are willing to take on leadership positions that may otherwise be difficult to carry out, such as at summer schools. Another is that the leaders who will participate will be the sports leaders of the future and that they will be able to change and challenge the leadership view of the older members. In the course invitations, both a gender coding of activities and how young people within a certain sport or of a certain gender are expected to be are expressed.

In courses aimed at both young women and men, the focus is on knowledge of children and young people, while the courses for young women focus on the individual. Young women who go on leadership training programmes need to boost their self-confidence; are nervous about speaking in front of a group; and are interested in diet, health, and equality.

A basic sports leader course for girls aged between fourteen and sixteen who already are or who want to become leaders/trainers/elected representatives. Content: girls, boys and sport, leadership, self-confidence, speaking in front of a group, my club, a positive self-image, diet and health, equality in sport (the Västergötland Sports Federation).


The sports movement is often described as a good educational environment and valuable in order to be successful in life. The belief in the sports movement’s ability to transfer common values, norms, and ways of thinking also acts as an underlying value structure for the format of the training programmes in our material. As previous studies have shown (Redelius 2004, 2007; The Swedish Sports Confederation 2005b), sportspeople who really know their sport, i.e. young people who are into sport, are being approached. Looking at the findings, the young people participating have been matched with the training programmes offered. They have a habitus, which means that they have incorporated the values and norms of the sport, are familiar with the sports movement’s ‘rules’, and have sufficient sporting competence.

The fact that young people are satisfied with the knowledge they have acquired and that they have made new friends indicates that the training has paid dividends, both in the form of social capital and symbolic capital that could be of benefit in their role as a leader. It is clear from the findings that there is an assumption regarding what supportive environments are or could be conceived to be. It should be an environment in which an understanding of ‘club spirit’ can be created and where the master–pupil relationship is a model that could be expected to succeed in this. In such a system, older mentors with experience of the club can introduce the young leader to the club’s values and norms.

In this case, it is important that this is a mentor with a great deal of symbolic capital in the form of club experience. This could be interpreted as a strategy for forming a common habitus and a way of increasing young people’s participation and influence. However, the question is whether it is not, instead, a way of maintaining the club’s prevailing power structure. At the same time, the findings of this study indicate that, within the Swedish sports movement, there is a belief that a re-examination of the traditionally prominent values and symbolic capital is required if young people are to be recruited as leaders.

Things that were previously useful and valued when recruiting leaders to the sports movement, such as voluntary work, traditional forms of meeting, and the club spirit, are not thought to attract young people; instead, it is film and entertainment evenings, financial remuneration, and online social networking sites, such as Facebook. The question is whether the young leaders can, together with, for instance, their ‘computer skills’, challenge the traditions or whether other abilities and assets are required to enter the field in accordance with what Redelius (2005) demonstrates. In this study, development plans, course descriptions, and project applications show that the constituent principles that previous research has highlighted prove to be important as regards which young leaders are asked and that this also applies to this initiative.

It is young people with a specific habitus and the ‘right’ symbolic capital who are approached. Apart from being into sport, important qualities of young people are the ability to study, to conduct themselves properly in different situations, to have the confidence to speak in front of groups, and to see leadership training as a valuable investment for their future working life. The results indicate that the male norm and the division into masculine- or feminine-coded sports activities that have characterized/are characterizing the sports movement still exist and serve as an underlying classification principle for how leadership training programmes are designed.


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