Respecting and exercising the power of culture

Culture. Everyone is talking about it these days. When most people think of culture perhaps it conjures up images of highly charged coaches and athletes producing lots of energy in a motivating environment. Is this the ultimate demonstration of positive culture to be aspired?

Culture is hard to define as it encompasses so many things, but key components readily jump out at you: standards of behavior, dedication, work ethic, enthusiasm, a collective goal, and overcoming setbacks. It reflects the values, morals and ethics that are expected and demanded within that environment. We most often think of positive examples, but it can just as easily be a negative culture. Either way, the common element is that the culture is shaped by the strongest personalities in the environment – be they coaches, players or other individuals.

Three layers of culture

This is one example of culture, but culture can be considered or demonstrated in different ways. While the culture we first think about is encapsulated by the above example, there are many other ways culture impacts sport. Culture can be considered from a few different layers:

  • The culture of the team, club or environment as described above;
  • The culture of the larger sport or discipline, influenced by the challenges it imposes, its history, and the types of individuals it attracts; and
  • The culture of the community at large, influenced by geography, religion, history, and other influences.

Coaches often merely think of the first layer when discussing culture, overlooking the additional layers that can be just as or more important. But having grown up in the UK before moving to Hong Kong to work in a new country with new sports, I have seen first-hand how these additional layers can impact performance.

In this article I hope to share some of my thoughts and experiences on the topic, jumping from thread to thread to explore varied examples of how other aspects of culture influences sport.

Stop and listen

Recently I came across a video where coach Rett Larson discussed his experiences of coaching the highly successful women’s volleyball team in China, culminating in a gold medal performance at the Rio Olympics:

During this short Q&A with the Athletic Lab’s Mike Young, Rett discusses the diplomatic process of developing buy-in with the Chinese women. Rett’s experience or feeling was that they are immediately sceptical of any western coach and their ideas because they have already achieved “a modicum of success” doing things their own way (I phrase it this way because my experiences in Asia sometimes align with this and sometimes do not).

Rett’s major concerns were with the enormous, excessive?, volumes in Chinese programmes and the need to strip out the unnecessary, time wasting and potentially detrimental exercises and training habits. Rett succinctly provides a blueprint for any coach venturing into a new team, environment or culture. Take your time. Observe first and assess the lay of the land. Slowly and carefully make small changes, achieve small wins. As you gain “street cred” as Rett puts in, we may call this buy-in or trust, you can then earn the right to make bigger changes. “Slowly, slowly catchy monkey”. Do this right and you can gain the freedom to make the bigger changes. In Rett’s situation this big win was the addition of velocity-based training.

The reason for highlighting this short video and Rett’s experience is that it neatly mirrors the experience of myself and many expatriate colleagues working in Asia. Volume is king. If 10 of something is good, then how good must 20 be? 100 must be awesome! The concept of dose-response is alien. Many colleagues and members of my network have experienced and despaired at this love affair with volume. This attachment to “this is how we’ve always done it” is not specific to Asia. Every culture, every location, every environment has these foibles, these fundamental characteristics, that identify and distinguish their culture from others.

I reiterate, this process is not unique to an American or Westerner working in Asia. It is the smart approach for any coach or practitioner starting out in a new environment.

Culture is not fixed

Culture is not some concrete structure that is created and set in stone. Culture is transient, a malleable and organic construct. You can influence it for good or bad, every session, week and season. Nudging it one way or another. Of course, a culture that is longer established and ingrained, as with a habit, is more solid, harder to bend or break. But it is pliable all the same!

In this regard, something else Rett mentioned really resonated with me and my situation; “bullshit exercises that they love”. This exercise video went viral a few years ago with most of the world bewildered by what was going on:

I do not highlight the video to mock the no doubt earnest but misguided trainee. I share it because it perfectly ties in Rett’s video and his experiences with that of my own time in Hong Kong. Unfortunately it is not an isolated incident – I have seen this exercise and several variations numerous times whilst coaching in Asia. I believe it emerges from a fundamental misunderstanding of power, speed, force development and what can and cannot be achieved in the weight room. In observing and experiencing some questionable training practices we have worked to slowly change the culture and habitual training habits.

Initially my involvement began with a solitary long jumper who was identified as having great potential. Steadily this athlete achieved success locally, in Asia, before progressing to international competitions; in 2016 becoming the first individual male athlete from Hong Kong to qualify by right (not through a wild card) for the Olympics. As he progressed, more and more athletes have come across to the “new” head coach’s modern, high-performance approach to training. There are now several horizontal jumpers, a high jumper, sprinters, hurdlers, marathoners and race walkers who have moved away from the culturally engrained programs and exercises to a more high performance method of doing things.

Culturally perhaps, there can be a bit of an inferiority complex about certain sports, disciplines and the belief of Asian athletes that they can compete. Athletes seeing the girls and guys they train with, people just like them, pushing and exceeding perceived boundaries can only help to breakdown and create anew the beliefs, the aspirations and the culture here. New Horizons are being discovered. The enormous success of their mainland cousins especially in the form of Randy Huntington’s highly successful jumps groups and the new ground Su Bingtian is breaking can only accelerate and heighten this process.

As Rett described, this has been a slow and methodical approach; we did not radically change things overnight. Change has been delivered over several seasons of persistent work and education; gone is the slavish devotion to the god of volume. There is no volume for volume’s sake, or “toughness” work outs. It is quality and not quantity that rules the roost for these athletes and this is reflected in their results and development.

Superficial culture

We should not presume that because we are aware of the cultural stereotypes that we have a paint by numbers, etched in tablet, approach to handling all the athletes and situations in that new culture. Just as within your home culture there is a broad range of people, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes, this same variation exists in any environment the world over.

We must remain mindful that culture merely describes averages in behaviors, attitudes, thoughts and beliefs of the collective. The coach needs to have some bandwidth in how they handle each individual or situation. To take this point a step further consider the example Sir Alex Ferguson described in his book “Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United” on handling and managing the mercurial talent of Eric Cantona. In this case it was not how the coach handled a foreign culture, instead describing how a local handles a foreigner who is working in, adapting to (or not bothering to adapt to in Eric’s case) the new alien culture.

A further example of not judging culture and people on stereotypes comes from my work with elite squash players. The SquashTV commentators often discuss a perceived lack of emotion or attitude from some of the Hong Kong players because they don’t wear their hearts and their emotions on their sleeve. However, these commentators don’t see the fire that burns brightly inside. Do their comments represent an actual truth or just a presumed stereotype of Asians by these commentators?

Summing up: make culture work for you

There are advantages and disadvantages to relocating to a new environment, a new continent, a new culture. Particularly moving to a locale where there is not a rich sporting heritage or ingrained culture. You can be an agent for change or you can imprint and lead the culture. I heard a fantastic phrase at the Australian Strength and Conditioning annual conference in November; “The wizard isn’t in your own postcode”. Take advantage of this. People are often wowed by something or someone “new”. The same message delivered by someone from their home environment doesn’t carry as much weight as when it comes from an exotic foreigner. Use this advantage to establish new ideas or enhance what it is already there.

Whilst there is enormous variety among people from different countries, different sports and backgrounds there are commonalities that translate across cultures and the language barrier.

If you can earn the athlete’s trust, if they believe you care, and if you have their best interests at heart, you are more than half way there. Integrity is a vital quality in leaders. People will follow you if you are genuine, if you are true to yourself, your beliefs and code of behaviour. Be authentic, be yourself!

Combining these last two points, the same virtues hold tremendous value in any setting: hard work, integrity, honesty, commitment etc. Whilst some argue you need to mould yourself to the new environment, the local culture – and of course you would be a fool not to do this to some extent – also remain mindful of the fact that they brought you in for a reason. You have something that they couldn’t find at home. As much as the local culture may have an impact on shaping your practice and coaching, you can have an impact on shaping the beliefs, behavior and culture of the environment.

As Dan Pfaff says, as a coach we have to reprove ourselves every day. If that’s true for a legendary and successful coach like Dan, then it’s more than true for the rest of us. And perhaps that is even more important when you are plying your trade away from home and perhaps no one knows who you are, where you are coming from or what you have already achieved.