Words Matter – Sources of mental strenght in Icelandic sports


When Icelandic parents spot their babies walking for the first time, they don´t say “good boy” or “good girl”. They say “duglegur” (male) or “dugleg” (female). This word is then repeated through life when they receive praise or need encouragement.

It is a word loaded with meaning and it impacts Icelandic culture probably more than we realise. When Siggi Eyjolfsson, the former technical director of the Icelandic FA and current assistant coach at Lilleström in Norway had his second child he noticed that this might probably be more than a simple encouragement.

He is right. Duglegur means that you are capable, hard working, brave. When you are constantly fed this message as encouragement and reward you are likely to make the connection that hard work and bravery leads to success. And this is how Icelandic footballers can punch above their weight, by being brave and working hard.

Hard work thus becomes a core value in Icelandic society. It is what people attain to, not to be seen as lazy or too relaxed. In its worst form it does not include efficiency. By assessing OECD data, Icelanders obtain living standards close to the Nordics by working far longer hours. Icelanders without a second job usually have a demanding hobby.

At its best, it does include efficiency. Icelandic national teams in football, basketball and handball have all reached European finals in the last year with far less resources than most European nations. By prioritising and playing simple, hard working style, the sum exceeds the value of the parts. When everyone is duglegur you give your team a chance to achieve big.

Þetta reddast (thetta reddast)

Another phrase loaded with meaning is “Þetta reddast”. It tranlates as “things will manage” or “things will work out”. It is usually associated with Icelanders perceived inability for planning and organisation. As a southern European visitor recently explained, “I was surprised that Icelanders don´t appear Northern, but rather southern in their relaxed approach to things.”

Even if Icelanders work hard and long hours, they usually score high in gross national happiness rankings. Not unexpected of a wealthy population in a country relatively high in social values. And the attitude of “þetta reddast” might play a part.

To face problems or challenges this way means that you proceed, even if everything is not planned or all risks are not obvious. It has a gritty element to it, that enables persons to move forward, realising that you can not control everything and therefore it is useless to worry about everything.

At its worst “þetta reddast” is dangerous, as should have been evident in Icelandic banking. A risk manager in a bank is best advised to adopt a different strategy. Health care workers can hardly afford this approach.

But in sport it is another matter. And for entrepreneurs it is an essential mindset. An athlete who faces a stronger opponent on paper has lost beforehand should he concede his mind to all the ways things could go wrong. Instead he advances in the knowledge that there is always a way to conquer. He does not dwell. Things tend to work out in some way or another. So why worry. Þetta reddast.

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