The purpose of this article is to discuss and contrast the authors experiences coaching in the Kingdom of Denmark and the Arab Republic of Egypt. The qualitative observations are my own and obviously from the perspective of my own country. Expatriates working in the sport environment must understand the values of the people with whom they are working or training as well as the values of their colleagues and of the society in general. In addition, an expatriate must understand how their athletes and their colleagues are educated and socialized to live and conduct themselves in society. Finally they must understand the social and economic systems of the nation. A highly developed understanding of the society early in the expatriates stay will make their job much easier and lead to a greater success in each of their endeavors. Denmark is one of the poorest countries on earth but has the highest standard of living and the most educated population as well. It is the oldest kingdom in Europe and possess an interesting history. The Scandinavian countries have a state supported church but most people are not involved in religious faith. Egypt has one of the most rapidly developing middle classes in the world. Egypt has a strong upwardly mobile, economy. Egypt has a rich history an tradition of its own. Ninety-seven percent of Egypt’s population follow Islam and I characterize it as a deeply religious society while Danes do not generally have a religious faith. These experiences have been among the most rewarding in my coaching career.
Recently, much has been written about the high standard of education in Europe and in the Far East. I do not think that Americans can compare themselves to people from another country in very many aspects of their existence. Not only is it necessary for an expatriate to understand his or her host nation in order to succeed but that they be able look at the strong points of their hosts and see if it is possible make applications for our own educational and sports systems and improve the lives of our students and athletes. The author lived and worked in Aalborg, Denmark for three years following the conferral of the doctorate in Physical Education. The position involved manager and head trainer of the swimming division of AAlborg Swimming Club, which had over 2,500 participants in various aspects of aquatics sports. The sports included Monofin Swimming, Swimming, Water Polo, Diving, Lifesaving, and a lesson program with 1800 participants. The author was also an adjunct instructor in English Language at Sofiendal Lower School as well as Noresundby and Hasseris Gymnasiums.
The Danish Experience
As most people are well aware, the social democracies of Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and their protectorate territories have social systems that take care of their citizens from cradle to grave (1). Anyone born in these countries is literally guaranteed a very reasonable life including all aspects of medical care, child care, housing, as well as enough money to live conformably whether they choose to work or choose to remain unemployed nine months and perform community service for three months. The language is very similar to Swedish and Norwegian. There is about a 60% overlap in word usage. However, Danish is not phonetic and impossible to pronounce by looking at the spelling of the words. There are a lot of jokes about Danish language and it was a challenge to learn as well as understand. It was however a necessity and if I had it to do over again I would spend more time in language school.
While these social democracies are not supposed to have competitive values Denmark produced 7 Olympic Medals in 1996 of which 5 were gold. The key behind their success is not the idea that they “defeat” their opponent but that they do their very best. You will not see a Danish athlete doing little victory dances or strutting around after they have beaten someone in a competition. They accept their success graciously and with a humble demeanor.
The first major difference I noticed about Denmark compared to America was that was essentially an atheist nation. There was a state supported Lutheran church but if you ask most Danes will tell they do not believe in God. Most students are exposed to religions during their education and the typical assignment for a student is to compare the values of the world religions. The students studied the common elements of the great religions of the world. When I asked them about religion they responded that their logic told them that if the religions all had common elements there must not be a God. Consequently accountability to a higher power does not exist. The highest power they observed was their government. The other big difference was that there were a lot of unwritten rules. When someone worked in a collaborative society the entire group shared equal amounts of that work. If one person took on more work it was interpreted that the hard worker thought they were better. This and many other unwritten rules were the major challenge of this society.
The Egyptian Experience
My experience in Egypt was also very satisfying and rewarding. They have a great sense of humor which is reflected in their saying that Egypt is run by IBM. This means that they will do something if it is Incha Allah (if God wills it) or they will do it Bokra (tomorrow) or they will say Millesh which means forget it they will not do it at all. I was selected as National Swimming Team coach and during 1992 had the privilege of preparing swimmers for the Darmstadt International, the Olympic Games, the African Junior Championships in Morocco and the Men’s Arab Championships in Syria. The swimmers trained diligently and as a group were dedicated as anyone I have every coached. A major contrast between Denmark and Egypt was what I call “the rules”. The rules in Egypt were either obvious or they were explained. When I first arrived in Egypt the time for prayers at sun down was about 1700. There were no exceptions, and we started workout after prayers. This was how the society operated. Europeans tend to have more unwritten rules and an expatriate might do something unknowingly and someone may never speak to you for the rest of your life. This would never happen in Egypt. They explain their customs, the rules and expectations and one would never fall into the aforementioned situation. For instance, when I was coaching girls I never talked with them at the pool side while they stood in their wet suits. I waited until they were covered with a bath robe. It was greatly appreciated by everyone concerned. In America and in Denmark we are more casual about things like modesty and appropriate behavior around the opposite gender. In Denmark the young women would swim in men’s suits when we were at training camps.
Another contrast is the religious faith of the Egyptians. Ninety-seven percent of all Egyptians follow Islam and the rest are generally Christian. If you were to present them with the concept that all the great religions have many common values they would respond with ” that shows there is a God.” Islam is the fiber of their community and gives them structure by which to live. Its values provide an excellent background for competitive swimmers to develop. There is no alcohol use and no adolescent sub-culture. Consequently there are no competing forces to distract them from training. If the swimmers are given a good environment for training, incentives that are consistent and rewards they will train as hard an anyone in the world. Americans also have a strong religious tradition, however it does not permeate their daily lives as much it does the Egyptians. Americans have religious and secular values that govern their daily lives, where as the Danes values are entirely secular. A serious effort to understand the value systems or systems of belief are essential for success when working in a foreign land.
Structure and Ideals of the Educational System in Denmark
It is important to understand the educational system of any host country. If you are coaching young people they will be in the process of being educated and have a variety of stresses that are different from your own country. Following 1-2 years of kindergarten each student starts first grade with a class of twenty students which will stay together as a group until they finish 9th or 10th grade. The class will have projects together and each week they will be in some classes together. They grow up knowing one another, participating in social activities while taking on many values common to that group of students. The class is led by the same teacher beginning in first grade. This teacher will obviously have a significant influence on these students after having them in class for ten years. This is the first formal step by which young people are socialized by their peers and by a social institution. The students begin to live by the values of their peers rather than the values that may be unique to their family. It is a very important convention and is used for maintaining a homogeneous society (2).
The Teacher in Denmark
As an expatriate coach your closest colleagues may often be school teachers. Most of your peers will be part time coaches and in that respect may have different values. If your colleagues are teachers and you interact with them you should have some basic understanding of the educational system. The teacher in the lower school is educated at a Seminarium which is a four- year University education especially for Lower School teacher preparation. They study two academic specialties and spend four years learning these specialties as well as acquiring the ability to teach through practical experience with their peers. There are no formal education type courses in this curriculum. After graduation from Seminarium the teacher will apprentice for up to three years at full salary.
To teach in Gymnasium, the college preparatory high school, the teacher must have a master’s degree in his or her specialty and usually will only teach that specialty. In order to teach a second subject the teacher must have spent an extra year in that curriculum at the Master’s degree level. They have no education courses in their preparation and do not spend time during their university education learning to teach. However, everyone spends the first 3 years under the supervision of other faculty.
The working conditions of the teachers are outstanding. There are no more than twenty students in any class. Each class lasts 40 minutes, leaving a twenty minute break between classes. They have a maximum of fifteen student contact hours per week with the rest of the time used to grade assignments and preparation. Salary is increased every year and at the end of forty years a teacher’s the salary will be similar to that of a physician in general practice
The Educational System in Denmark.
When I first arrived in Denmark I realized the swimmers I would be coaching for the next 3 years would be involved in education. Thererfore, I needed to spend a lot of time understanding the challenges they faced. Once I mastered this I was able to maintain a good training environment while understanding what they had to do to succeed in their economic system. The school systems and curriculum are run by the Ministry of Education. Each Kommune (County) has local control over its schools. Each school is identical in curriculum, financing, facilities and teachers’ salary. No school is better or worse than another school. Since housing is not segregated by income, the schools contain the identical makeup of students from families of different occupations and or professions. The whole system is extremely egalitarian.
Primary Education or Lower School
The first nine years of education are nearly identical for everyone. The classes are completely integrated until the students begin to show certain aptitudes in 5th grade and are moved into advanced classes. In addition, 5th graders begin to study English and German in addition to their native language. In southern Jyland (Jutland Peninsula), near the border with Germany, the German language has top priority, while in the rest of Denmark, English has top priority. Students are not given grades in Lower School. They have a rating in each class but the only thing that counts are the exams at the end of the year which are given by their teacher and a teacher from another school. Evaluation is extremely discreet. The basics of mathematics, natural and social sciences, languages, arts and humanities are taught each year through either 9th or 10th grade depending on the cases explained below.
After 9th grade the top forty percent of the students from lower school are able to enter Gymnasium. Some students may take 10th grade and than enter Gymnasium, however, they are in the minority and only comprise another 5% of the students in a given school. All students must be recommended for Gymnasium by their class teacher and this recommendation depends heavily on their final examinations. Gymnasium lasts three years and is a college level institution. The curriculum is demanding and requires a large degree of self-discipline because of the independent projects. The academic tracks are liberal arts, languages, mathematics, science or mathematics and science. Each student completes a core curriculum comprised of courses from each of the tracks that give them a liberal arts education in addition to their specialty. In Gymnasium, there are many cooperative projects, lectures, laboratories and individual research projects. There are opportunities for practical work in a business or government for short periods of time.
Post Secondary or University Education
Everyone accepted to a University is accepted for a five year program which includes a bachelor’s degree, awarded after three years, and a master’s degree, which is awarded after five years. Everyone studying in Universities is given a stipend of 5000 Danish Kroners or 800 US dollars per month, exactly the same as the students in vocational education. This can be extended up to two extra years if a student has changed programs. These students have a very high success rate because they have taken their time and decided what they really want to do. There is no tuition for the University or Seminarium. The students can major in almost all of the same subjects as Americans. Examples are medicine, law, business, natural and social science. The equivalent of the American liberal arts degree requires proficiency in two foreign languages as well as science and mathematics and is for students wishing to become a diplomat. Generally, after the first year of University education the students work in self-directed groups (2) working on projects with the advice and guidance of a professor. There are very few formal lectures in the last two years of the bachelor’s degree and none during the master’s degree. There are usually only 2 or 3 grades given after the bachelor’s degree and only 1 or 2 at the end of the master’s degree. Like the Gymnasium, the grading is from 0 to 13 with the same constraints on the higher and lower grades.
Structure and Ideals of the Educational System in Egypt
I have less understanding of the system in Egypt because I was there just under a year. The young people attended regular school but there was a very flexible schedule. Students in the social stratum of the swimmers have tutors and special study groups. Many attend private schools and receive an International Baccalaureate from Cambridge University. The educated people in my environment were multilingual. Most were fluent in English, French or German and their own language. I encountered many young people who spoke more 3 languages fluently by the time they were 17 years old. One of the interesting things they get to do is read books from their Nobel Prize winner Nagib Mahfouz. They will read the book in their native language and than in French and English or in German and English etc. The student then learns to see how perspectives can be changed by language. I considered the Egyptian young people the best educated relative to America and Europe.
In Cairo there are many international schools which have a very reasonable tuition or can often be free to qualified student. There are several American schools, a British school, a French school, a German school that many young Egyptians attend. With the exception of the American schools they are subsidized by the governments of these countries as a method of spreading the language and culture of the given country. There are many Catholic schools in Egypt and the middle east. I asked many Muslims why they send their children to Catholic school. They told me that the Catholic educational system helped create an empathy for poor people and people who were disadvantaged. The Catholic schools prepare people for success at the university level and give the young Egyptian a broader view of the world. When students finish high school they have one month of examinations to determine if they are eligible to attend University and which University they will attend.
The Teacher in Egypt
In this case my colleagues were not teachers but primarily other coaches. Most of them were former swimmers who came from every walk of life. Teachers are well educated and prepared but they were not working in my environment. The teachers are well educated, multilingual and many have had overseas experience. The best teachers make good money tutoring students in the evenings. The tutors work with groups of students and they do not do homework assignments for the students, they only teach. Often times private school teachers were educated in another country.
Post Secondary or University Education
The University education is also very rigorous in Egypt compared to America. Only the very best students go to the University. There are many examinations at the end of each term. The examinations last for as long as one month. Athletes attending universities in most countries including Egypt have a much more rigorous curriculum than the typical university in America. It is important to understand this and work with the athletes so they can accomplish their goals. You can bet that in Egypt if university athletes are competing in sports they are dedicated and will devote as much time as their studies will allow.
Observed Values in Egypt in Contrast to Denmark and America
Value 1. Faith and religious belief.
The Danes will tell you they are atheists and do not have a faith or religious belief. As previously stated their educational system teaches them religion and shows the common values of the great religions. Their conclusion is dramatically different from the Egyptians. The faith of the Danes however is rooted in their social system which provides for and sustains their life if they are unable to sustain themselves. Trying to use concepts like having faith that their training will lead to success is a somewhat foreign concept to the Danes. The Egyptians follow Islam, which sustains their entire life. Their faith is that anything can happen as long as it is God’s will or “Incha Allah”. The Egyptians who have trained for many months and are preparing for their big competition will acknowledge they are well prepared and can succeed only if it is “Incha Allah”. They have faith because they have faith in God.
Value 2. The family and society:
In Egypt, like America, the family is the most important influence in socializing the children. If you are going to have support as a coach you will have to have the support of the family. The mother is in charge of the house and the education of the children. However, one would usually discuss training with both parents. This is quite similar to America where the family is also the primary socializing agent. In Denmark, young people are socialized by their peers and the social institutions. The students class (previously described) has a strong effect on the student/athletes and their training. If they happen to have a majority of low achievers their is potential for them to pull the athlete from the training program into the “alcohol program”. There is a lot of pressure to conform and if the athletic team is not strong enough the student/athlete will easily be dominated by the cultural norm known as “Jentelavn,” which excludes ambition and hard work. Jentolovn principles reduce the self esteem of the young child and discourage individual initiative and enforce conformity (2).
Value 3. Color Blind Society – Children of God:
Both Egypt and Denmark are free from racial prejudice. It was really great to spent so much time in these environments. The Danes certainly recognize differences in skin tone and other ethnic characteristics. Their lack of prejudice is rooted in their egalitarian culture which considers everyone equals. It would be illogical for them to think otherwise. Recently, there have been problems with first generation refugees not integrating into the Danish culture. But the Danes are persistent with forcing immigrants to learn the language and accept Danish customs and values if they are going to stay. The Egyptians are the same but for different reasons. First there is hardly any recognition of differences of skin color or other anthropological variation. Egyptians have large variations in skin color and people really do not evaluate what skin tone people have. The reason is that everyone is created by God and they were made that way. To say that one of God’s creations was inferior or even different because of skin color would be very wrong in the eyes of a follower of Islam.
Value 4. Foreigners remain in Egypt but they leave Denmark
If you read the history of Egypt you will see that the title of this section is true. The most famous person to become an Egyptian was Mohammed Ali (we are not talking about the former Cassias Clay here). Mohammed Ali was a Turkish Sultan who ruled Egypt during the time of the Ottoman Empire. He eventually fought and liberated Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. The pace of life and the customs are relaxed and easy to accommodate into the life of an expatriate. It is an accepting society and you only need to follow the easy to understand customs. You are never in fear of breaking an unknown rule. In contrast, Denmark was not as easy. As previously discussed, there are many unwritten rules and customs. Danes are extremely attentive to the tone of voice used and often receive comments as insults based on their interpretation of tone. This problem is difficult to overcome particularly because the interpretation of tone in the English language comes from the meaning of tone in the context of Danish language. From the American point of view Denmark is a conformist society. On one trip to the U.S., Danish swimmers they would not purchase American Levi pants for $22.00 because the dye was slightly different than the levis which were imported from England and sold for $100. They were afraid to be different. (2) You must conform or be uncomfortable
Value 5. Trust:
Trust is something the expatriate must gain while residing and working in a foreign land. The expatriate must gain the trust of all individuals who can influence the outcome of the athletes being coached. In Denmark many of the sport governing bodies have been strongly influenced by the former East German training system which has now been completely discredited because it the results were dependent on steroid use by female athletes. However, the idea of these systems of training still exist today and the trust is based on a proper system. Because Denmark is a collective society, the faith and recognition often go to a “staff” of people rather than one responsible person. Consequently the trust must always be with the staff, not because it is a functional concept but because it is the nature of the society. In the case of trust there are similar ideas in Egypt probably because of the former Soviet influence. However, the trust must also come from the family of the athlete as well as from the athletes themselves. This trust can be built without the idea that the coach has a “system” of training. In this case Egypt was again more similar to America than to Denmark.
Value 6. Respect:
Most coaches in American gain respect from hard work and results. There are the only requirements and we as Americans tolerate a wide range of behaviors from a coach if they work hard and win. In Denmark people respect one another and verbalize this regardless of the work they are willing to put in on a coaching job. The respect comes from being a person and one cannot achieve a higher degree of respect for any amount of success. This comes from the “Jentelavn” which is translated as the Law of Jente. It is a series of sayings that sets down the rules for conformity in the society and sets up the idea in the child’s mind that everyone is equal in every way. This is a very strong opinion but my opinion is that Jentelove has a negative effect on the child’s self esteem and makes them completely dependent on the group for survival, robs them of their willingness to excel individually. Jentolovn creates many failures in the sporting arena. The Egyptians have the mentality that God’s creations deserve respect. They do not teach their children to respect each other by reducing their self esteem. They do through their religious faith and the rules by which they live. A person who works hard, sticks with the values in which they believe (Christians also) and shows respect and consideration to other people will receive respect. In either case the mutual respect is important. In Egypt you respect their way of life and faith. In Denmark the same rule applies. You cannot openly oppose institutions like Jentelove or you will fail because too many people will be against your endeavors. You have to do the best you can under the circumstances and try to restore the swimmers self-esteem as best you can.
Conclusion and Discussion
I have tried to explore some of the aspects of this society that allows young people to become extremely well educated in their area. It is truly amazing to hear a fourteen year old speak 3 languages. The education of Americans is often compared to Europeans and people living in the far east. The fact is that all Americans in high school are compared to only the most outstanding or elite students who enter Gymnasium in other countries. If vocational students were included in these studies you would see many similarities except for the outstanding language proficiency and the ability to function in the society. Comprehending the values of the society early on made it easy to develop a swim club that had declined to 30 swimmers over a 4 year period to a robust participation of 170 competitors A clear understanding of the society and of the segments with which I was involved helped me significantly. I recommend all expatriates develop an intellectual and scholarly attitude and become a student of their host nation. First and foremost to this is acquiring the language and being able to understand what people around you are saying. The rest will fall into place if you are interested in making it happen.
Allardt, Erik: Nordic Democracy. Det Danske Selskab, Copenhagen, Denmark 1981.
Dyrbye, H., Harris, S., Golzen, T. Xenophobes Guide to the Danes. Ravette Publishing Co. Horsham, West Sussex, United Kingdom.