Växjö (from our correspondent) – Meet Robert Lis, the fitness coach of Växjö’s juniors and seniors.
How did you end up in Växjö?
At the age of thirteen, I went here for a training camp during the summer and subsequently received an invitation to the U16 and fought for one of the eleven places to get to the hockey gym. It worked out and I signed a contract for three years with an option for the last fourth. On it, you already fall into the junior category. The only condition was that I would learn Swedish in a year and go to school like a normal Swede.
Did you really manage to learn Swedish in 12 months?
Yes, I don’t even know how (laughs). I studied to be a nurse at school, but mainly because of that I got into the Växjö hockey program.
Were your parents here with you?
From the beginning, when I was thirteen, I was here with my dad, who then returned to the Czech Republic and came to see me once a month. As time went by even less, and when I was eighteen I broke away from my parents completely.
What happened after you successfully completed a four-year high school?
When I finished junior school after four years, I went to Sparta, where I grew up, for a test. I got an offer to play in the first league for Litoměřice, but life in Sweden appealed to me more. So I decided to go back. I played Division 2 (the fourth highest competition), but I more or less stopped enjoying playing, as I was given the opportunity to be self-sufficient here from the age of 18. It simply grew on my heart to go my own way, so after three years I started training.
In the Czech Republic, Swedish work with youth is held up as a model. Rightfully so?
I think yes. Mainly because of the professionalism in which the young guys have been growing up here since they were young. It follows that you will raise more quality products, not just a few individuals.
So you don’t have a single slacker under you in juniors or youths?
I do not have. I have one Czech here, but striker Jakub Štancl is definitely no slouch.
How is it possible that in such a big club, as Växjö undoubtedly is, having won the Swedish league five times in the last nine years, the Czech gets the job of conditioning?
I think that Växjö, as a young club, wants to look for new ways and is not afraid to give a chance to guys who are ready to do the work that the club expects. I first got a chance as an assistant coach with our youth team, but I was always more interested in the fitness aspect.
Our philosophy is that if you feel good here, you feel good as a hockey player. This mental health is very important to us. When guys are positive and happy, results go up.
Already as a player?
I was overtrained from the Czech Republic. I mainly heard from my dad: Train, train, train. But I found out in Växjö that it’s not about how much you train, but how smart you train. To optimize your body for hockey, not to be a bodybuilder. In dry training, we are supposed to create hockey players, not strong and tough guys.
So you don’t have the feeling that you train in Sweden for iks hours more than in the Czech Republic?
That’s not what it’s about. You have to be efficient and think ahead to help the players perform well on the ice. Our guys who go to (youth) nationals have a completely different training schedule than those who stay at the club. In order to prepare them well for the matches and not completely eliminate them.
Wouldn’t you come across your methods in the Czech Republic if you wanted to work there in hockey?
At the moment, I have no information that in the Czech Republic (training) is set at such a level as here. But my dream for the future is to learn the local system so well that it would be possible to transfer it to the Czech Republic. To some club that would be interested. To work in the Czech Republic like in Sweden.
What is most needed for this?
The most important thing is the mental attitude. For the club’s management to believe in the system. The Swedes produce a lot of talent year after year, so they must be doing something right. I used to hear that Swedes went to study in the Czech Republic, now I think it should be the other way around. Czechs should go to study here and to Finland, where they keep moving forward with their mental process, because they want to be better and better.
I’m not sure if you’d be able to push everything through with us. Just connecting sports with school in a number of clubs is seriously faltering…
When the school and the club are ready in terms of the sports area… It can be combined with one school like here in Växjö, where we have floorball, soccer, hockey, dancing, cycling and dancing. The school adjusts two hours in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in order to implement sports more. If it could also be done in the Czech Republic, I don’t see a problem.
But in the Czech Republic, you would only have twenty athletes spread over three years in one school…
Even so, it could be done. You just have to find someone who believes in it and has a long-term set up; five or ten years old; plan. I am convinced that after a few years the interest in such a project would increase. Especially if you ask those who would successfully go through such a program.
How does he explain that the Swedes don’t even think of cheating or taking it easy in training?
Those guys play hockey for themselves. Not for someone else. Their parents raise them in the spirit that if they want to play hockey, let them play it. And if you don’t, you don’t have to. The system in Sweden is set up so that no one has to worry about being out of work and out of money. So the children play sports in complete peace. They start with soccer, hockey, floorball, and once they’re between ninth grade and high school, they choose the sport they’re best at. The advantage of local grammar schools is that they are connected to elite football and hockey clubs.
Please describe what youth work looks like in Sweden?
By the end of elementary school, hockey is a game. It’s supposed to be fun, the boys must enjoy going to the hall every day. From the age of sixteen, elite training begins. This means that the player must be ready to do it himself. You just chose it, so it’s up to you, not your parents or coach. You have three or four years to do it, and we coaches are here for you as information and technical assistance. After junior, you have a chance at Division 1 (third league), Allsvenskan (2nd) or SHL (highest competition). As soon as the boys get to our hockey gym, they are already professionals in the eyes of our coaches. We treat them exactly like players we would pay a hundred thousand a month. We don’t chase them from the age of twelve to be the best. We only treat them as the best between the ages of 17 and 19, when they should already be excellent.
Even in Sweden, however, not everyone reaches such a level. When does the most critical drop in players occur?
The fallout is not as high as in the Czech Republic, but we also have it. I mainly want to say that it is smaller than in the Czech Republic, because here we have many alternatives. Hockey gymnasiums are adapted not only to the highest league, but also to those below it. There is always a chance and there are a few exceptions who have made it from the lower leagues to the top.
Finally, if we look away from hockey, how is your life in Sweden during those twelve years?
When I moved here it was great. It’s gotten worse in the last few years, but otherwise I have nothing to complain about. I will probably never return to the Czech Republic, only because of work, as I already mentioned.
In Sweden, the terrorist threat level was raised to level four out of five in the summer; so high risk. How does it look in practice?
There was burning of the Koran and it escalated after the October incident in Brussels, when two Swedish fans wearing jerseys were shot in the city before the football match between Belgium and Sweden. For safety reasons, you may not see a bus carrying hockey players with Tre Kronor stickers driving down the streets. The bus must drive without signs for the safety of the players. And maybe even the fans can’t walk the streets in their jerseys.