Getting paid to travel the world and pursue your professional athlete career seems a no-brainer. A dream come true for many athletes. But how does the reality of the life of an athlete abroad look like? Is it as adventurous, exciting and exhilarating as expected? Or does the bubble burst pretty quickly after stepping off the plane in your new “home away from home”? We interviewed and surveyed over a hundred professional athletes from all kinds of sports (soccer, volleyball, basketball, hockey, American football, etc.) these and a few more questions to explore their motivation, challenges and perceived integration abroad.
Good news first: Almost all of them (99%) recommend the life as an athlete abroad to others that are contemplating the move overseas. When we asked athletes what motivated them most to go abroad and play professionally, the number one answer was the search for new challenges (78%), closely followed by an interest to experience life abroad (71%). Other reasons to make the international move were: better salary (40%), higher level of competition (30%). More than half of the athletes told us that the move brought them closer to realize their dream.
So, how does the motivation and vision compare to actual life overseas? Hard to admit, but expectations often receive a reality check when routine sets in with practice, games and …well, the lack of other things to do. But let’s not forget that frustrations and misunderstandings are a normal part of the adaption to a foreign culture. Amongst athletes, the two most commonly mentioned challenges are the different coaching style (47%) and communication with the team (38%). Besides these work issues that affect your performance directly, professional athletes abroad also encounter challenging situations off the court, gym or field. Social isolation in the new country and homesickness are subjects that are often hard to talk about, but occur too often to ignore. For those that bring their partner, they often worry about their spouse becoming too isolated, while those that arrive single report difficulties dating. Overall, 9 out of 10 professional athletes we interviewed acknowledged some sort of challenge of making life overseas work.
Of course, professional athletes are imported for their key skills, physical abilities and statistics, and not their ability to fit into a new culture. But we shouldn’t forget that the mental burden and stress caused by said challenges can affect the way we perform. Help during the transition period of a newly arrived athlete is unfortunately most often still informal through team mates (66%) and not professional providers (7%). Maybe that is why many athletes told us that they felt pretty well integrated in their team by the end of the season, but not nearly as well integrated into the local environment and community. Overall, the way a player is welcomed by a club and its team is only one side of the medal. The other half is having the right attitude from the moment you disembark the airplane.
Most of the mentioned challenges and barriers can be avoided with a better preparation and a realistic set of expectations. By spreading awareness and addressing the issues, we hope the next generation of professional athletes abroad will receive more guidance from their agents, clubs, peers, and coaches. After all, the focus of professional athletes abroad should be on performing the sport they love while exploring new cultures all over the world. Following their dream!
About the author:
Susan Salzbrenner is the founder of Fit across Cultures, a boutique intercultural consulting company that specializes in helping athletes and coaches thrive abroad. Give her a shoutout @fitaxcultures or listen to her podcast featuring interviews with pro athletes and coaches abroad on iTunes