Do you see the cultural clash in sports? Or the unifying power of sport?

“Sport has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does”. Nelson Mandela’s inspirational words still hold true. The evolution sports has undertaken through the vaults of technological development has allowed it to bind with neighbouring cultural realms. Further, uniting people.

Culture is a buzz word in sport. Coaches often attribute their success or failure to this ambiguous word. But at the crux of it why should you care about your sports team’s culture?

The short answer is, while some sport team’s cultures can create sustained success, others will only deliver success in the short term, if at all.
Culture is a critical factor in the success of any organized group, whether that be a corporate organization or a sports team.

What is a Sports Team’s Culture?

Every team has a culture. Even if you do not know what yours is, one exists.

Culture is a measure of the observable behaviours your team and organization promotes and accepts. Ultimately, culture is best defined simply as ‘the way we do things around here’ or ‘the way we behave around here’. Culture is not what you think, or want to do, it is what you do. Some teams espouse a certain culture but actually behave in a very different way. That is, they do not ‘walk the talk’. Culture is the ‘talk you walk’. Your team’s culture results in either effective and productive outcomes or ineffective and unproductive outcomes.

Looking at sports teams, all coaches and athletes are confronted with team conflict at the same time.
Team conflict can affect both coaches and players and how they interact with each other. Coaches take on the burden of dealing with interpersonal members’ conflicts and the ethical challenges that those entail. If the coach is involved in the conflict another resulting problem may be the sense among the players that the coach is incompetent.

Different values generate different behaviours and cause different interpretations of others’ behaviour. Moreover, communication rules and conflict styles are reflected in cultural values. It is also likely that different value orientations initiate misunderstandings between individuals and set the stage for intergroup conflict.

Football and professional sports in general are one of the very few global enterprises in which players and coaches are brought from all over the world and put into a team which is then expected to communicate and achieve positive results immediately, regardless of cultural or linguistic differences. Yet, even though the topic of intercultural training has been more widely reported in the world of business than in sports, intercultural communication should be given attention whenever and wherever international success is expected.

An employee who is assigned to a foreign country without any sort of previous experience of the cultural customs, traditions or language can hardly be expected to thrive regardless of his subject expertise or football abilities.

  • A good example to illustrate this point is the one around a familiar face to England fans: Sven-Göran Eriksson.

How is it possible for such an experienced football manager to fail in the seemingly easier level of Central American Football, having previously succeeded in the highly competitive European leagues? There are surely several answers to that question but there is one that focuses on the fact that Sven’s success in Europe was just not transferrable to a different cultural setting like Central America.

Sven is Swedish and as a European football expert he kept up to date with the European leagues and worked for clubs in Italy, Sweden and Portugal. While these countries differ widely in terms of culture, Europeans are clearly more aware of each others’ football traditions thanks to the proximity of their countries and European tournaments such as the Champions League, Euro or the UEFA Europa League.

So Sven-Göran Eriksson’s failure can be seen as his lack of expertise in Mexican football, the wider culture and the football tradition. It is unlikely he had heard much about the Mexican league or the players before his assignment in Mexico. So Sven’s failure could be blamed on a lack of intercultural awareness and a lack of adaptation on his side. It could also be blamed on the assumption of the Mexican Federation that his expertise could be used in any context, despite the cultural differences.

This example shows the importance of intercultural training courses and cross-cultural awareness whenever different cultures meet. Whether it is a multinational company or a football coach, expertise and a previously outstanding record do not necessarily ensure a successful international assignment.

A takeaway message.

Cross-cultural awareness training courses will ensure international assignees are equipped with the practical tools and skills necessary to live and work in a multicultural environment, whether they are responsible for the roll-out of an international merge or the success of any club.

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