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Business, Culture Edition Coaching Beyond Language

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By: CONRAD SINGH •  4 years ago •  

As a South African-born, Australian-educated and raised young man, I have experienced a great deal of cultures in my time. Immediately after completing university, I packed my Pro Bag and left home to explore, play tennis and gain experiences in as many cultures as possible. Over the decades, I have learnt my share about cultures through experience and living – often through trial and error!

I have lived for extended periods of time in South Africa, Australia, Western Europe, Japan and China, and am now married to my beautiful Mexican wife, Paola. We are raising our two children in Shanghai, where they attend Chinese Schools and at home they speak Chinese, English and Spanish. I myself speak and coach in these three languages as well as Japanese, and I have had to develop these skills out of necessity to thrive in the environments I’ve lived and worked in.

One of the key aspects of success when you are in such diverse cultures is to be adaptable and flexible as well as sensitive to the differences each culture demands. For example, the approach both on the court and off for dealing with Chinese vs. Japanese players and parents is entirely different. Chinese players and parents call it as they see it, and, as a coach, you need to do the same whilst remembering not to personally offend the player’s ego or create a ‘loss of face’ situation. On the other hand, working with players and parents in Japan requires much more patience and time off-court – “sit down and discuss time” – as well as being able to find many different ways to get your message home.

Being approachable and open to long meetings is key to being successful in Japan. When I first arrived in Japan at the end of 2003, I was employed as the Head Professional and Pro-players Director at a leading club in Tokyo. I learnt many lessons very quickly!

I was astounded with the commitment of the coaches and with the amount of time they gave each and every player and parent. This was completely the opposite to what happens in Australia where coaches almost prevent parents from being an active part of the journey, even though they are essentially the key stakeholder and sponsor. In Japan, the players are just so easy to work with – they listen, push and do anything the coach says, as the coach has a position of seniority in society as an educator.

China is completely a different story, with the state-owned players and employed coaches a long way behind the Japanese philosophy. The players across the board currently don’t have the same drive for many reasons – which we can clearly see with the results of the Chinese males. In my experience, the Chinese athletes and parents are much less prepared to enter discussions, preferring to simply get out on court and ‘do’. The parents value the basics far more – for example, a common gauge in China of a player’;s performance can simply be how tired they are at the end of the day.

In Japan it is more about how much the players are learning and becoming academically smarter. Players in Japan are also more careful with all aspects of their training compared to the typical Chinese focus on intensity and maximum output. Of course, the technical focus in Japan is far greater but this can also be a key limiting factor as coaches, players and parents all blame technique ahead of other areas for a loss or lack of improvement.

Understanding various methods of communication is essential in coaching across cultures. Knowing what style each culture values most is key. The use of technology in coaching today really helps young coaches in foreign environments. There are plenty of excellent apps, software and video analysis technology that has proven to be essential when dealing with cultures in a language other than your native tongue. It is vital to develop systems and models that use basic things like numbers and colours to teach players. Asian athletes are extremely visual in their learning and executing demonstrations both live and in video provide the key for them to understand the reasons behind making changes to their play or style.

In Shanghai, there is a very large expat community and strangely, this too can be a challenge. In our part-time programs and after school programs, we can easily have 12 different nationalities within a group of 12-16 players. It is essential to understand the power of the ‘V.A.R.K’ communication method: Visual, Auditory, Reading and Kinaesthetic. This learning strategy should be a part of all coaching cultures, although it is easy for coaches teaching only in their native language – such as most Australians do – to forget that auditory is not the only useful method of communication.

You really do take communication for granted when coaching in English. It is a highly descriptive language, which, to its detriment, does not always allow adequate translation into other languages for sporting purposes.

As a professional coach, regardless of your form or type of coaching, my view is that it essentially comes down to being respectful of the cultures you are dealing with, considerate and educated enough to learn how best to be heard and understood. Asia can be a real challenge in this area. Some cultures demand children make eye contact at all times, conversely others don’t allow kids to make eye contact with a superior. Some encourage feedback and engagement of the athlete, whilst others do not permit this. In Australia, kids are mature and fairly independent at a very young age in comparison to Asians, who are protected by their families for much longer periods of time. In many cases, the grandparents have as much influence as the parents do in making decisions – which is important to know as a coach.

Of course the role of education and life balance is a complex cultural topic. In some cultures, education is the number one priority above all else, while in others it does not even rank in the top ten.

Another major difference is the topic of early specialisation in one sport as opposed to developing across the board with later specialisation. In Australia, we often don’t require sport-specific specialisation until up to 14-16 years old. In Japan however, children are often specialising at the very young age of 5 – which is also the reason why we often see Japan as the leading tennis nation at Junior level. Of course, this method also has its downside, with a high dropout rate by high school age.

In considering specific developmental theory, tennis Juniors in Australia will often develop their serve as a crucial shot with great success due to their broad sports upbringing playing cricket, softball and other throwing-based sports. In China, the influence of ping pong and badminton can be seen in the lack of overhead serve development – essentially it does not exist! – as it is not considered important at all at that stage. When you understand this, you can clearly see how the players are developed and influenced, and then understand the outcomes that are being experienced.

If we then look at the Latin cultures – which are often described as very warm and social types – they often don’t take sports (other than soccer) too seriously beyond the physical benefits. You can then understand why Latinos struggle to make professional careers from other sports. The only country in Latin America where tennis really features is Argentina, which is largely thanks to role models on the international stage from players such as Guillermo Vilas, Gabriela Sabatini and numerous others in recent times.

Other cultures simply want the safety of a career pathway through academics, education and into a corporate or ‘safe’ career. Compare that to Australia, where if an athlete shows even just a little potential, the fledgling competitor has widespread support and everyone begins to sow seeds with comments about the ‘next big thing’. This, again, is due to the culture and prevalence of sporting role models and icons in Australia. Simply, Aussie kids dream to be a sporting legend, whereas not many other cultures will have that same dream or are even open to it.

Spain is about the only other culture where I have seen parents really support the dreams of their young athletes who believe they can be the next Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer.

Cross-culture coaching really does require a lot of sensitivity, desire to understand that culture and time to observe, study and reflect on the outcomes. We know that a common character trait of a High Performance Coach, regardless of whether they are in the sporting or business arena, is that they are exceptional at self-reflection and appraisal. I suggest all coaches take some time to think about the differences and similarities between their clients and see what you observe – it could mean the difference between maintaining or losing clients!

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