Applying Cultural Theory To Sports Coaching
Head of Coach Education for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC)
In 2012 I signed a contract as Head Coach of the Indian National Football (soccer) Team.
With my experience of 4 years working in the Republic of Ireland as High-Performance Director for the FAI (Football Association of Ireland) with not too big a difference in cultural behavior between Ireland and the Netherlands, I knew I had to study quite a bit more about India and the differences in leadership and behavior before traveling to this amazing country.
I studied and learned about the cultural dimensions of Prof. Geert Hofstede.
Incredible valuable information to understand the differences between people of different backgrounds.
I was invited to India for four days first to experience the different environments and to have meetings with the staff of the AIFF (All India Football Association).
As I never walked away from new challenges, I decided to take the job.
My preparation for the job started back home.
I got in touch with Huib Wursten of ITIM (Institute for Training Intercultural Management), explained my personal situation, and asked Huib if he could brief me on the cultural aspects of leadership and coaching in India. I met Huib for the first time when I was working for the KNVB (Dutch Football Association). I was given, together with a colleague, two assignments in Asia, one in China and one in Japan. Both were Youth Coaches Coaching Courses.
We got a short briefing by Huib before travelling to China. I remember that the information provided by Huib made it possible that we had a successful course in both countries.
We decided to have the meeting at Amsterdam International Airport hours before my departure to Delhi. I also invited the Technical Director of the AIFF (All India Football Federation), a Dutchman as well, to join me. He was already in the job for a little over a year.
The briefing was very to the point and aimed at specific coaching aspects on- and off the pitch and daily life aspects. During the presentation and after looking at all the information, the TD started laughing and told us that, looking at the presentation, he had already made quite a few mistakes in managing staff in the office in his first year in Delhi. He was unaware of the impact of the difference in leadership between the two societies.
To better understand the differences between societies, it is essential to know who you are and where you come from!
The knowledge used to understand the differences in cultural values and behaviors comes from the empirical study by Professor Geert Hofstede and the book 7 Mental Images written by Huib Wursten, who combined these different values.
Professor Dr. Geert Hofstede (Hofstede et al. 2010) carried out fundamental research into the dominant values of countries and the way in which they influence behavior in organizations.
Original data were based on an extensive IBM database for which, between 1967 and 1973, 116,000 questionnaires were used in 72 countries and 20 languages. The results were validated against about 40 cross-cultural studies from various disciplines. Analyzing his data, Hofstede found four value clusters (or “dimensions”) to be the most fundamental in understanding and explaining the differences in answers to single questions. He measured the differences and calculated scores for 56 countries on these four dimensions. Later research partly done by others has extended this to 85 countries and six dimensions. The combined scores for each country explain variations in the behavior of people and organizations. In addition, the scores indicate the relative differences between cultures.
The first four dimensions of national culture identified by Hofstede are:
- Power Distance (PDI),
- Individualism/Collectivism (IDV),
- Masculinity/Femininity (MAS),
- Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
Huib Wursten (Wursten 2019) developed a tool describing the effects of combining the four single dimensions and reducing the complexity. This led to 6 culture clusters (mental images) that can be more easily referred to, in order to understand cultural differences in practical terms.
Six mental images of society©
Each mental image represents a cluster of countries with specific characteristics (scores).
* The contest model (`winner takes all’) Competitive Anglo-Saxon cultures with low power distance, high individualism and masculinity, and low scores on uncertainty avoidance. Examples: Australia, New Zealand, UK, and USA.
* The network model (consensus) Highly individualistic, `feminine’ societies with low power distance like Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Everyone is involved in decision-making.
* The organization as a family (loyalty and hierarchy). Found in societies that score high on power distance and Collectivism and have powerful in-groups and paternalistic leaders. Examples: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore.
* The pyramidal organization (loyalty, hierarchy, and implicit order) is found in collective societies with large power distance and uncertainty avoidance. Examples: much of Latin America (especially Brazil), Greece, Portugal, Russia, and Thailand.
* The solar system (hierarchy and an impersonal bureaucracy). Similar to the pyramid structure, but with greater individualism. Examples: Belgium, France, Northern Italy, Spain and French-speaking Switzerland.
* The well-oiled machine (order) Found in societies with low power distance and high uncertainty avoidance, carefully balanced procedures and rules, and not much acceptance of hierarchy. Examples: Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and German-speaking Switzerland.
Note: In the book 7 Mental Images, Japan is the 7th mental image as a stand-alone cluster as no other country has the same combination of dimensions.
The differences between India and the Netherlands.
In the book “7 Mental Images ” (Wursten2020), India is described as ‘The organization as a Family’ while the Netherlands is described as the ‘Network System’.
|SCORE IN THE DIMENSIONS||SCORE IN THE DIMENSIONS|
The images above show considerable differences between India and the Netherlands regarding Power-distance (PDI), Individual/Collectivist (IND) and Masculinity/Femininity (MAS) dimensions.
With this knowledge in mind I would like to share with you my experiences in Indian society as a football coach for the Indian National Team.
Being a coach in India or the Netherlands is a big difference. In India, players and staff expect you to be the leader who takes all the decisions and has all the answers. No discussions.
In the Netherlands, coaches expect players to come to you when they have questions or suggestions.
We say: “The door is always open”. For example, players will give their opinions during training sessions when they don’t agree with certain situations or behavior by players or the coach.
Coaching in the Netherlands is also involving the player in ‘solving’ certain situations during sessions.
The coach can ask you what you think the solution should be in a specific tactical situation on the field or why you made that decision at that time. Then, the players will give their responses—discussions for the team’s development.
My vision about coaching football is that players’ involvement in how we want the team to play will help the team to improve faster and with higher quality, i.e., better communication between players on the pitch. I realize that this vision has developed in the Netherlands, where hierarchy is not very strong, and speaking up is learned at a very young age.
In India, it is the opposite.
These differences are shown in the images above and scores on the dimension PDI: Power Distance.
Realizing the differences between the two countries, I chose to implement my coaching style with the Indian national team as I believed in the strength of better communication and understanding.
Another vital leadership aspect for Dutch coaches/managers going abroad and highly underestimated is related to ‘loss of face.’ In the Netherlands, correcting players in front of the group or having strong discussions is not a big problem. It is seen as helpful for the development of the player or team (Teambuilding). It’s related to a high score on the Individual dimension of Hofstede.
In India, with a low score on the Individual dimension meaning Collectivism in general, the coach strives for harmony and will choose his words carefully. No loss of face as loyalty plays an important role.
Dutch people abroad are often seen as very direct or even rude in their approach, not realizing the significant impact of their actions. Throughout the years, I have seen enough examples of coaches being fired and up today not realizing that they made the big mistake of insulting people, often in higher positions such as a President or owner of a club. Just behaving or acting the way you are used to back home clearly shows a lack of understanding and respect for the people you are working with abroad.
Plan of action
First, I decided to only work with local staff members as I wanted to leave a legacy for them in the years ahead.
In the office in New Delhi, I first met with my assistant coach, a former national team player and interim head coach of the national team. I explained to him my vision of how I want to play with the team and how to coach the players. He is from Goa, a small state in the south of India famous for its beautiful white beaches and holiday resorts. I built a great relationship with him and still consider him a friend, although he still calls me Mister Wim! Even after all these years (from 2012) it feels strange to me, but I understand where it comes from. Dutch people are not used to hierarchy in their society compared to India, where it is quite strong and accepted.
In those first days at the office, I also met with my team manager, a young enthusiast former professional player originally from Bengaluru, a big city in Karnataka, in the south of India. Every time I spoke to him, he stood up straight like a military, saying ‘yes Sir’ after every sentence.
After a few days, I managed to make him a little more relaxed. I also build an excellent relationship with him. I met his family, father, mother, and close relatives. Two years later, after I left India, I returned to Bengaluru as I was invited to his wedding. During my time as a coach, he spoke about and explained the process of his Hindu family finding a woman for him in his hometown he could marry. He was very open about it, and every time he flew back home, he told me he would meet a few women to see if the right one was there for him.
The wedding was a wonderful experience. My wife and I were treated as high-profile guests for this 3-day wedding. Ever since, I have stayed in touch with him and his family. In 2019 because of work, I revisited them.
My other staff members send me messages yearly around Christmas and New Year.
Relationships in India are for life.
In the office, I also organized a meeting with the captain of the national team, a well-accepted, highly appreciated, and experienced player, the top striker who, at that time, was playing for Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. He proved to be a big help for me in teambuilding on the training pitch.
After a few weeks of preparation, a training camp was planned in a great sporting facility south of New Delhi. We had five weeks to prepare for a friendly international tournament in Delhi: The Neru Cup.
First, all staff members were invited to have a few meetings about the program and management of players and staff. Then, I informed them about my vision of leadership, so everyone was aware of the differences to be expected.
Then I explained to the technical staff members, my assistant coach, goalkeeper coach, and fitness coach my coaching style and how I wanted to implement it for the players, particularly on the pitch.
The day after all players assembled and in the first meeting, I explained what to expect from the staff and me, the style of play, the coaching style, and the changes they could expect.
Being appointed National Team Coach of the Indian football team doesn’t mean you are only dealing with football matters on the pitch. You also become part of daily life in India, which is a big difference compared to the Netherlands. You cannot learn everything from a book. You have to experience and literally feel the difference in daily life.
Early mornings I read the Times of India to understand what was happening in this vast country daily.
It would be easy to say one understands everything immediately, it simply is not, but the knowledge and awareness about the existing differences I gained before travelling made me much more alert and accessible to them. Nearly everything you see around you is different compared to what you have ever experienced before.
As a National Team Coach, you are not working with your players daily compared to a coach at a professional club. Therefore, there are only a few moments a year where you have the opportunity to work with the national team.
FIFA windows are planned for International competitive and friendly matches. Also, through AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and SAFF (South Asian Football Federation), the national teams’ matches and tournaments are organized.
On days not working with the national team, during the week, I was in the office of the AIFF (All India Football Federation) in Delhi. On weekends, I travelled to the various stadiums around India to watch my players perform for their respective teams. I have seen all corners of India through my work but also made some trips to lovely places around the country. Every day I met different people and engaged with them. People like to know where you are from when you travel or stay overnight in a hotel in big cities like Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi, and Bangalore. When asked about aspects of daily life in India, I learned a lot from my staff members.
Once I heard someone say the phrase: “Adapt or die”… I know that’s a bit harsh and should not be taken literally, but the message is clear.
Once you blend in, life becomes much easier.
On the pitch
The first training session is vital as a first attempt to start creating the style of football with the players and staff.
In preparation for the first team meeting, I had a special meeting with my team captain and my assistant coach about the coaching style and the implementation for the team. I explained the exact meaning and how I wanted him to help me on the ground with the players. His experience playing for a Portuguese club in Europe helped me a lot as he was used to different styles of play and coaching.
The respect for him by the other players was immense. Hierarchy is clearly defined.
I will never forget the first training session the day after briefing the players. In that briefing, I explained the most significant difference for them and the reason behind it: the coach will, at a specific moment during the session, stop the play and ask for your opinion in that particular moment and what could have been done differently. I told them I knew they were not used to that but would try. So be prepared! My captain repeated it in Hindi to make sure everyone understood.
So, the training started the following day.
At a certain moment during the tactical exercise, I stopped the play and asked a player what he thought of this particular situation and, if he could do it again, would he change something? Just as I mentioned the day before and enforced by the captain.
The player concerned appeared to be in shock, looked at the ground, and didn’t say a word. Then my captain stepped in and helped the player (and me) to solve this ‘awkward’ situation for the player.
He just shouted: “answer the coach! We discussed this yesterday, so what do you think?”
To make a long story short, I knew the players had to get used to this new situation. Still, only step by step they felt more comfortable with my approach and, after a couple of sessions, even started discussions amongst themselves in situations on the pitch (not with the coach, though…!). It helped communication between the players and me but most of all between the players themselves. And that is very convenient when they are out on the pitch during a football match as most decisions are made by themselves and not by the coach.
I also realized that when the players return to their respective clubs, the situation would be ‘back to normal “for them. But during my time in India working with the national team, I managed to install this specific coaching style with my Indian staff with the Dutch low hierarchy aspects opposite the higher hierarchy in India.
I prefer to call my leadership style in India a ‘Situational leadership– style. I was the boss/father figure for my staff and players during most of the day but could switch easily to
‘consensus/negotiation ‘style on the pitch with my players.
My captain of the team in 2012 already had quite some status back then. Today, his status has grown to that of a real celebrity like a Bollywood star. He is now also the all-time top scorer of the Indian National Team.
The players of the team had and still have a huge respect for him. I have tried to use his status and strong influence in my attempt to implement the new coaching style with the players. His role was accepted by everyone in the team, staff included.
During press conferences for me it was no problem to compliment him on his performance and emphasize the importance of his leadership role for the team.
I even got to know and meet the former captain and top scorer of the national team and experienced the status he had in India already back then. He still is a very famous personality.
For the players the position of the captain has never been a problem. I’m sure this would not have been the same in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands people say ‘if your head sticks out above the ground level, it will be cut off’…there is a strong emphasis on equality amongst people.
The captain though, never tried to use his status to influence me for his own benefit. In my opinion because of his personality.
Changing a style of play knowing that the players at their clubs overall used another style of football is not easy, especially when you don’t have the players available every day. One of my tasks mentioned by the TD of India was changing the play style and searching for new young talent.
Analyzing the players’ potential made me believe that it was possible to change the style based on more possession, attacking driven with a solid defensive organization. This development was shown in recent years in world football.
After our five-week preparation, we played the tournament in Delhi with three other higher-ranked National teams. Eventually, we reached the final, playing against a very strong National team from Cameroon, and won the match after penalty series.
The quality of football was of a high level and the players showed they could play the style we wanted them to play. The joy after the final was incredible.
Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., & Minkov, M. (2010). “Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind”, Third Revised Edition, McGrawHill 2010, ISBN 0-07-166418-1. ©Geert Hofstede B.V. quoted with permission
Wursten Huib. The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized word (2019) ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347