October 8, 2017

7 Ways to Navigate Sports Abroad

For many college athletes in the USA, taking our talents abroad can be quite contrary to our expectations. Most of us have just completed four years of what was probably an epoch of teamwork, commitment, and family (depending on how demanding and inspiring our coaches were) that coalesced into everything we had ever hoped college sports would be. Now, it's time to get on a plane and go make the same kind of magic happen with the best players in the world!!!

STOP.
Professional sports - and even more so, semi-professional sports - are NOT American college sports.

Some basic differences: player age range (from 13 to 45), team gear (anything from just a uniform to everything), players and coaches with priorities other than sports (school, jobs, families, etc.), time management (structure depends entirely on coaches and gyms, not always on what is best for our bodies or the team), and compensation (formerly understood as scholarships, now it's real money, and it's not always a full-ride). Another huge difference is that instead of maybe just being suspended or cut from a college team, a club team abroad will literally send us back home if we're not up to the challenge.

A fabulous resource for understanding the ins-and-outs of volleyball (and most sports) overseas can be found from my agent mentor, Ryan Jay Owens, in the form of a video playlist course called Pro Volley 101.

Professional sport: entire team and coaching staff are on contracts and paid salaries, in addition to various compensations through sponsors for housing, transportation, education, and food.

Semi-professional sport: at least one player is on a contract and paid a salary, but it's usually more like 30-50% of the team and staff who are receiving some sort of compensation.

It can be extremely tempting to allow a low-level season to become a sports vacation! There are athletes who enjoy a very nice and frugal lifestyle in low semi-pro levels, just being generally more talented than everyone else. This is referred to as a "hobby athlete." But, if we're serious about playing at as high of a level as possible and on a way better team someday, here are some tips for successfully navigating through our semi-professional (and sometimes even fully professional) sports existence.


1. BE AWESOME.


We should be blowing away our coaches and teammates with how much better we are than the rest in practices and matches ... making them realize how lucky they are to have a player who is too good for them. Every play is an opportunity to improve and show the talent and effort the club is looking for from us. 


This doesn't mean showcasing our own abilities by making others look bad; rather, it's an attitude of showcasing our abilities within the framework of the team and system to make the team look its best.


2. BE AWARE.


We have already established that sports abroad are not American college sports ... mostly because these sports are not in America. This means cultural intelligence plays a huge factor in how quickly we can integrate into our new teams. We Americans might be offended when we first come abroad and everyone demeans us for being "young and inexperienced" because we have just finished an illustrious college career where we were constantly praised for being "mature and experienced." It can be really confusing to actually be older, but less automatically respected. 

On the flip-side, we Americans are used to hearing about how "old and worn out" our bodies are at the ripe age of twenty-two, while the rest of the world laughs at this idea and doesn't really worry about our physical prowess until our late twenties, at the earliest. In only one main way is playing sports abroad like still being in college: it's exactly like going back to university for a brand new degree in cross-cultural communications, complete with language crash courses and a full-time case study in adaptation skills.

The most helpful person in this domain is Susan Salzbrenner, from Fit Across Cultures. Her company and her book, Play Abroad 101, are daily assisting athletes in their quest to succeed overseas, and I just wish she had written her wisdom before I left the USA in 2011!


3. BE HUNGRY.


Every. Single. Match. Is. A. Tryout. 
Every coach and club is watching to see if we're worth a contract, and the easiest way to move up an entire division (besides winning it with our own team) is to get hired by the team that wins the whole thing. 


This attitude changed my life and career when I was able to sign with the team from my league that was moving up, and I haven't had to play at such a low level ever since. I would even take it a step further and say that every practice is also a tryout because, as one of the few or only foreigners on the team, everyone is watching us at all times.


4. BE PROFESSIONAL.


Our professionalism is key, both on and off the court. All of us have different personalities and lifestyles, but generally reserving our best energy, effort, and attitude for our practices, matches, and club events will go a long way in building our international reputation within our sport. 


We all know our sport worlds are small. Even when our network is just getting started, we are already noticing who-knows-who and those same stories/opinions we're hearing about others will be shared about us. Do we practice hard/listen to the coach/help teammates look better/perform consistently well in matches/win games in crunch time? Or do we show up late/ignore the leadership/make ourselves look better at the expense of our teammates/perform only when we feel like giving extra effort/not care about winning?


5. BE GOAL-ORIENTED.


We have to decide what our objectives are and what the long game in this sports abroad lifestyle is for us. Coasting or drifting through a low-level team or season is not an option! That's for hobby athletes, and even though I consider myself more a part of that group these later days in my career, I can't coast or drift because I won't be able to keep my contract or maintain positive relations within my network! Setting daily, weekly, monthly, and season-long goals keeps us focused on what we can achieve both now and in the future. So, if we're serious? DOMINATE. If we're not sure which group we belong to? Drift, and probably be unsatisfied with a lost opportunity.


6. BE WISE.


We will all have to deal with low-level and/or different-thinking coaches and/or teammates, even at the very top levels in our sport. 
It is not our job to teach them; it is our job to support them. 
Doesn't mean saying they're right when they're wrong, but it does mean being thankful (out loud!) for what they can do, encouraging them when something is right, and helping them look great even if they never do the same for us. It also means having an open mind to understand that we don't know everything and there can be many great things we can learn from those who have had different experiences and ideas than we do. Different does not always equal bad. The right people will notice our wisdom and maturity and this is an important aspect of networking and teamwork at every level!!!


7. BE STRONG. 


The season abroad can be long, and the number of seasons we can stay here is even longer! If one season doesn't seem to work out for us, there is always another season the next year. We also can learn about which league and level is the right fit for us, and we need to really be honest with ourselves about where we belong. 


Use this time abroad to grow as a person, athlete, and teammate. The lessons we learn and the memories we make here are going to change us forever. Choose to become stronger and better from all of it, and enjoy every minute of the journey!


Have you spent time involved in sports while abroad?
What other advice would you give to athletes and coaches overseas?

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