Helping International Athletes Succeed
International Athlete Jose Goncalves for the New England Revolution
From the minute an international athlete steps off the plane, they are expected to perform at a top level in a new league, with a new team, in a new city, in a different language and with a new culture to learn. The adjustment to playing in the US can be challenging for athletes. For teams that are seeking to make the most of their investment into an international athlete, is it important to keep in mind how cultural adjustments will impact their international athletes. This is a series of blog posts on how to help international athletes succeed when playing on US teams. Check back for future blog post on this same topic.
Scouting international athletes in their home countries can lead to unrealistic expectations of what a player can do for a US team. A player in their own country is typically playing with a team they know, in their own country and culture, speaking their own language and with a support structure of friends and family around them which helps them to be happy off the field and thus able to perform at their best on the field. In essence, they are in the best possible conditions. All of that changes when they are uprooted and brought to their new US team where they are in a new culture, with a new team, often without a support structure as they are far from family and friends. Many are also struggling with a completely new language so their ability to communicate with their coaches and teammates is very limited and their ability to settle into a new community is challenged greatly by this inability to speak the language. If they have a family, a player is also struggling with either missing them as they are back home, or worried about their happiness and ability to settle into the new country where they are often isolated due to language issues. So how to improve the chances of an international athlete succeeding?
Before offering an international athlete a contract take into account the following:
• Have they lived and played abroad before? If so, were they successful?
• Do they have any English language skills? If not, are they willing to learn? Are you willing to provide the type of support needed to help them learn the language?
• Have they lived away from friends and family before?
• Do they have a spouse and children? If so, will they relocate with the player or will they
remain at home? Are you willing to provide the support the family will need to settle?
in if they come with the player?
• Does the athlete have an outgoing, problem solving personality that will make it easier for them to make friends and to adjust to the challenges they will encounter?
• Is there a local community from the athlete’s home country near your team that can help the athlete to adjust culturally?
• Why does the athlete want to compete in the US? Is it because they think it is good for their career or because they really want to play in the US? A strong desire to play in the US will help them to be more successful.
Before Their Arrival
An athlete will be anxious about the move to a US team. Providing information ahead of time that helps to allay their concerns and apprehension will assist greatly in helping them to make an easier transition. Give them information not only about the team and the other athletes they will be working with but also about the city and the local region.
Once an international athlete arrives, their first few weeks with the team is a critical time as they settle into daily life. While it may seem like enough for the club to provide the basics like helping the person get a work permit, driver’s license and a place to live, this level is not sufficient if they want to player to really be successful. Once an athlete has a place to sleep and transportation to get back and forth to practice, the next level of support is helping them to understand the basics of daily life.
This is the largest barrier to a athlete’s ability to adjust well. The ability to communicate with team members and coaches is absolutely critical. While watching what is going on will lead to some comprehension, verbal communication is essential to a deeper understanding of the team, the style of play and the coach’s desires for the athlete. It is important that a team use a professional translator as much as possible instead of fellow team members who may speak the language. A teammate may not know the vocabulary or may feel awkward giving feedback to a colleague. It limits the international athlete’s independence and his ability to seek and receive feedback from the coach directly.
Addressing the language barriers is the first step; the next step is helping the athlete to adjust to the new culture. Culture is at its essence, the values and norms of a group of people. As such, each team will have its own culture and the athlete is adjusting to this culture at the same time they are also adjusting to the national culture of the country. People living in a culture rarely stop to think about their own culture. How things get done is just “the way things happen.” But, to an outsider, this may or may not be the way things have been done in their home culture. In the US for example, there is a very direct communication style as Americans “tell it like it is.” Many cultures around the world have a communication style that is much more indirect and thus, international players have to adjust to this new style of communicating. This is just one small example of the myriad of ways that culture impacts virtually every facet of our lives.
Many of these steps are not that time consuming nor expensive to implement. With the investment of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars that a team is already making in bringing in an international athlete, making a small additional investment in these extra steps can help the player to adjust better and in turn give his best on the field. This in turn this will result in higher player success, team success and league success.