From 2009 through 2013, more than 6,700 U.S. American basketball players had a professional contract abroad. This staggering number shows a trend of an increased mobility for players trying to make a living playing ball- wherever that may be. According to a study recently conducted by Fit Across Cultures, a training and consulting company that helps people thrive abroad, 100% of interviewed basketball players recommend other players should to go abroad to continue their careers. “Playing professionally abroad is a great privilege and I followed my dream of playing the sport I love” says a player with professional experience in the UK, Spain, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Another athlete expat who has lived in Finland, Oman, and Australia even goes so far as to say that “living abroad is the best experience of my life!”
Even though more and more foreign clubs show their interest in global talent, the majority of the sports industry still undermines the challenges of living and playing in a different country with a diverse team roster. Players are imported for their key skills, physical abilities, and statistics, but generally not their personality and communication skills. But how does that translate into the dream experience players are hoping for when embarking on their journey? Realistically speaking, 91 % of all surveyed participants noted that they needed help along the way. The survey revealed a main set of challenges for professional athletes abroad, both on the personal as well as the professional side. Half of all surveyed players viewed communication outside the team and club environment as the number one personal challenge, closely followed by staying in touch, social isolation and adapting to the local culture.
Leadership and coaching style was ranked as the number one issue (45 %) to deal with when playing abroad. One player that has played as far away as Japan, Uruguay, Thailand, Italy, and Argentina shares his advice: “Be prepared to be uncomfortable for the first weeks. It’s hard to adapt to new surroundings when you can’t find the grocery store or other basic needs. If you can go with the flow for a few weeks, then things will start to become more familiar.”
The lack of time and understanding for the need to adapt to a foreign environment can take its toll on an athlete’s body, with physical symptoms like increased fatigue, lack of energy or decreased sleep quality. Interestingly, men complained more about the foreign food than women, while women were having a harder time warming up to their new coaches. Overall, the players agreed that it is easier to fit into the new team than it is to integrate in the local environment. This may have something to do with the amount of help they receive during the transition. Although 80% of players said that they had received some form of help in the relocation process, most of this help was given informally, from team mates, coaches or fans.
There is a lot of work to be done in helping athletes transition more smoothly into their new roles and environments. But the way a player is welcomed by a club and its team is only one side of the medal. The other half is having the right attitude from the moment you disembark the airplane. “Have an open mind to new experiences and immerse yourself into the culture. How you feel off the court and how comfortable you are affects your performance as an athlete…”
Susan Salzbrenner has experienced first hand what it means to establish yourself in a new culture (Germany, USA, Australia, Denmark, China and France). She owns Fit Across Cultures, where she trains, writes, and researches about intercultural communication, and how culture and diversity affects performance. Follow her @fitaxcultures