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Thumbs Up! Non-Verbal Communication in International Sports Teams

Believe it or not, but every interaction and communication you have had today happened to more than 70% non-verbally. In a multicultural team, with players from different backgrounds coming together, how can you ensure that everyone receives the same message you are trying to communicate? Can non-verbal communication in international sports teams work seamlessly?

As humans, we rely on our eyes and visual sense when decoding any message we receive (83% seeing, compared to 11% hearing, 3% smelling, 2% touch, 1% tasting). As an athlete or coach, nonverbal communication is a key to success and a powerful tool to enhance performance and team work. You rely on it during games, practices and tournaments. When players are far apart from each other or the coach wants to signal changes in position or strategy (or simply encouragement), you are often times signaling what you want to communicate without speaking.

nonverbal-communication-in-international-sports-teams

What makes up our non-verbal communication?

Who has not seen their coach frantically waving around on the sidelines while you are trying to guess what she wants? The crowd at your game is so loud that your coach is forced to “signal” his input during your time-outs or breaks. Your body language clearly shows that you are not agreeing with the instructions. All of these small situations are nonverbal interactions that give clues to our coach or team mate.

Before we take a closer look at the cultural differences that can exist in our non-verbal communication, let’s zoom in on what exactly non-verbal communication includes:

Facial Expressions (e.g. smiling, frowning, eye-brow raising)
Gestures (e.g. waving, pointing, counting, or culture-specific ones like thumbs up, or the moutza)
Posture and Body Language (e.g. arm crossing, leg crossing)
Proxemics (a.k.a. personal space/distance)
Eye Gaze (e.g. staring, blinking, winking)
Haptics (a.k.a. touching to communicate)
As you might have guessed, the culture and background of a player can have an influence on many of these nonverbal communication styles. Actually, the only nonverbal communication that has been found to be universally understood among all citizens of the world are facial expressions of the four basic emotions that are happiness, sadness, fear and anger.

All other elements of nonverbal communication are heavily impacted by where you grew up. In fact, if you have players on your team from Brazil, and you are showing them the A-OK sign (making a ring by putting your thumb and index finger together), you could be offending them massively without any intention from your side. In fact, many of what we think are universal gestures, are actually not. (check out our Rough Guide for Rude Gestures from Around the World for a more detailed overview).

Be sensitive in how and what you communicate

Become aware of your body language when you are giving feedback to players: are you encouraging them to get better, or telling them that you don’t really believe they will ever grasp what you want from them?
Over-verbalize instructions, tactics and feedback with players of an international team. When you have a roster full of players from different cultural backgrounds, it is safe to assume that your message will never be received the same way by each of them. If you need to make a point, verbalize it. Spell it out, don’t leave things unsaid or use mimic and gestures to do your job. It can be misread and lead to frustrations for both you and your players.

Observe cultural differences in nonverbal communication. Observe your team mates or your coaching staff. Ask questions to understand what certain gestures or body language means, research online about it.
Become aware of your own body language, mimic and other nonverbal elements of your communication. How could they be misinterpreted? Tone it down a little in the beginning or teach others what you are really trying to say.
Show respect towards your coach by maintaining open communication lines, even nonverbally. Coaches pay attention to body language and mimic on the court/field and in practice, so use it to your advantage and be culturally sensitive.
Since many elements of our conversations are automatic and we take them for granted, we need to make a clear effort to bring them back to consciousness. Here are a few questions to to get you started thinking about adapting your nonverbal communication in international sports teams:

Should I look someone in the eye when talking?
What does my head nodding signify to this player or coach?
When should I interrupt someone in a conversation? When is it my turn to talk?
What does silence mean to my team mate?
How close is too close in a conversation?
Is it appropriate to smile during this kind of feedback conversation?
Does my body language and posture undermine or underline what I am saying?

So, next time you are giving the “thumbs up” sign to someone, think again. Will your nonverbal message have the hoped for effect?

About the Author

Fit Across Cultures founder, Susan Salzbrenner, has experienced first hand what it means to establish yourself in a new culture, overcome communication hurdles, and reach targets while feeling lost and misunderstood.

With a background in organizational and clinical psychology (M.A.) and a certification as intercultural trainer, Susan trains, coaches and writes about intercultural communication, sports psychology and how culture and diversity affects performance.

She started her passion for sport at the age of three with gymnastics and ballet, and was introduced to basketball during an exchange year in a U.S. high school.

She has lived and worked in six different countries (Germany, USA, Australia, Denmark, China and France), traveled extensively around the globe, learned (and failed at) many languages, and played basketball along the way. She is currently based near Paris, France.

Read Susan’s blog here.

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