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Going abroad to play: Motivations, challenges, and support of sports expatriates

With the world becoming more and more interconnected, many professional athletes also spend a part of their career abroad. As they move abroad, they encounter many of the challenges that business expatriates face, as well as some that are unique to the sport industry. A paper written by myself and Susan Salzbrenner from Implement Consulting Group has just been published by Thunderbird International Business Review [1]. In this blog post I give a short summary of this article, which is based on data collected by Susan in her work for Fit Across Cultures.

Why a focus on sports expatriates?
Professional athletes who move abroad are a vulnerable group; they are young, under high performance pressure from the day they arrive in the host country, and face a career with a short life-span, that can end from one day to the next. This emphasizes the importance of supporting this group of self-initiated expatriates. Better support of sports expatriates would not only benefit the professional athletes themselves, but also their clubs who are facing increasing competition for the best talent.

Why do sports expatriates move abroad?
The main motivations to move abroad were an interest to experience life abroad, followed by the search for new challenges. Financial motives are not the most important motives to move abroad; the emphasis instead is with personal and career development.

“And the best way to [prepare for a professional league] was to go overseas. But on top of it, not only was it a good way to propel my basketball career, but it also gives me a chance to travel”. Marissa K.

What challenges do sports expatriates experience?
The most commonly mentioned challenges were the different coaching style and communication, both within the team and outside work. This includes language, which can complicate things if you have to attend practice in a language you do not speak.

“A lot of it was just trying to get by, and figure it out on my own, which is not an ideal way to do it. But I definitely got the hang of it, after a few weeks.” Ryan

How were sports expatriates supported?
Support was mainly informal; the most common sources of support were colleagues, club management, and coaches. Very few were supported by external professional providers such as a relocation agency or an agent. When asked about the areas they felt they needed the most help, the athletes would like to be better integrated. Almost half of respondents wished to receive more help with translation and language skills and learn more about cultural differences. In light of the challenges that sports expatriates face both with regard to playing and living abroad, it could be worthwhile for clubs to offer more support to their expatriates, especially since they would like their athletes to perform at their highest level the day after arrival.

“I hate the first couple of weeks. Everyone already knows everyone, and you’re usually just thrown in.” Marisa F.

Picture of the basketball hoop by Eddie Welker and of the volleyball player by Farmington Strength, via Flickr.

[1] This paper (Van Bakel, M. & Salzbrenner, S. (in press). Going abroad to play: Motivations, challenges, and support of sports expatriates. Thunderbird International Business Review) is included in a special issue on “Opportunities and Challenges in International HRM” which came out of the third Global Conference on International Human Resource Management in New York in 2017.

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