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Rasmus Haagensen graduated in social science and sports science while he was a professional handball player in Denmark. In 2007, he set up the player development unit of the Danish football player union Spillerforeningen.

He and his union colleagues have helped hundreds of players to prepare for life after football.  Rasmus spoke to ‘Mind the Gap’ about his work.

At what age do you approach players?
We first approach players in the Under-19 age group. Usually they have just finished high school – which is quite a struggle in itself – and they want to take a few years to get established in football. That’s understandable but at the same time the longer you wait the more difficult it will be. When players get older it’s easier to convince them they should take up some courses. It’s about building trust so that they can open up and take up the support we offer. We try to get them to find out about themselves, what they want to do after football and what their skills are to enable them to find a suitable path. It is a process that can take months and even years.

Is it difficult to convince footballers to study?
We need to be a bit pushy. It’s easy for players to postpone things. We need to find that motivation in them to do something. If we find that motivation, then we will 'hold their hand' to get them moving in the right direction. Then we slowly start to let go off their hands. Very often it takes us one or two years of coaching before players come to a conclusion as to what they want to do after football. The first times we speak with them they often find it quite difficult to identify areas of interest besides football.

Can footballers fit studying into their schedule?
When we started out in 2007 we began by speaking to all the universities in Denmark. Back then some universities had courses designed for athletes but now there are more and more. These courses allow athletes to do courses online, postpone exams and prolong courses; for example, we have advised a young player at Aalborg University doing a 5-year engineering program over 10 years. These courses also have a contact person for athletes whose job is to help them with their schedule. It is fine for players to study with regular students – they will discover the world outside football which is meaningful for them – but it’s not always possible because of their training and match schedules.

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Andreas Bjelland (left) playing for Brentford in April. He continued his management course, sitting an exam by Skype while in England. Credit: VI Images.

What happens if a player transfers to a club abroad?
It’s possible to carry on for some online courses. For example, Andreas Bjelland (a national-team player with FC Copenhagen) is studying a management course online and was able to continue with the course while playing in London for Brentford FC. He was even able to sit an exam using Skype. It’s not possible for the most technical course like engineering and physiotherapy for which internships and practical classes are necessary.

Do clubs mind players studying?
We signed an agreement with the Danish league and clubs four years ago that we will visit clubs regularly and speak to players. This is a great starting point. The clubs together help fund our work with 1.8 million Danish kroner per year (about $280,000). There will always be an issue if coaches are against players studying but gradually the culture is changing: there are role models and a realization that studying doesn’t have to interfere with football. It is very important that the club leaves the impression on players that it is ok to study. The more they encourage the players, the better. We estimate that about 25% of players in Denmark today do some kind of further education.

What kind of courses are footballers interested in?
Everything from sales courses to sports management, teaching and personal coaching. We encourage them to look further than football but of course some want to stay in football. Finding the right education course is just one pillar of what we do. We also have a CV database that matches players with employers and a ‘transition program’ that helps players who are in the last year or two of their career prepare for life after football. Players are invited to a yearly seminar where they get individual help to prepare for transition and get the chance to speak with a psychologist and former players who have left football. It helps them understand the emotions they will go through, and prepare their next steps.