4 June 2015

TEAM UNITY: HOW LANGUAGE IMPACTS PERFORMANCE

Daniel Gallan

The Royal Belgian Hockey Association (RBHA), despite being a successful organisation, has a unique challenge in world sport. They are an international team whose players speak multiple languages. Clubs and franchises around the world can relate, but not many nations can. Multilingualism exposes individuals to different cultures, but when coaches and managers are trying to unite their players under one ethos, it can prove challenging. Murray Richards, High Performance Manager for RBHA explains how his team have overcome this obstacle.

The Royal Belgian Hockey Association's men's team celebrate John John Dohmen winning goal against India in the 2014 FIH World Cup. Team unity is vital for success and Belgium's rise up the rankings is indicative of a successful programme. Image supplied by the Royal Belgium Hockey Association

The Royal Belgian Hockey Association's men's team celebrate John John Dohmen winning goal against India in the 2014 FIH World Cup. Team unity is vital for success and Belgium's rise up the rankings is indicative of a successful programme. Image supplied by the Royal Belgium Hockey Association

When Makhaya Ntini, South Africa’s third highest wicket taker in Test cricket, was offered a scholarship to Dale College (a prestigious high school in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape) at the age of 14, he couldn’t speak any English.

“I couldn’t speak English properly, and I wasn’t sure what to say because I was scared it would be the wrong thing,” he told ESPN Cricinfo’s Firdose Moonda, in 2010. Even by the time he made his debut for the Proteas against Sri Lanka in 1998, at the age of 20, the Xhosa speaking former cattle herder was hardly fluent in either English or Afrikaans, the two primary languages in South African cricket at the time.

The “Mdingi Express” finished his career with an impressive 390 Test wickets at an average of 28.82 balls per wicket. So impressive are those figures that it is easy to neglect how difficult those early years must have been. Not only must the social challenges have been staggering, but communicating strategies and game plans must have been extremely difficult.

Ntini had to learn quickly that cricket, like all sports, requires effective communication. Luckily cricket is a stop-start game with enough time between balls, overs, sessions, and innings to slowly tackle any language barriers that may exist.

Some sports do not offer the same luxury of time while a match is underway. That can prove challenging to a cohesive game plan as Murray Richards, the High Performance Manager for the Royal Belgian Hockey Association (RBHA), knows all about.

“It’s probably the biggest challenge we have,” he says. “There will always be a minuscule but key delay in communication.  When you get to the elite level, that delay certainly has an impact on performance. If you have to hesitate, even for a second, to think about what you are going to say or what a teammate has said, it can prove costly.”

Belgium has three official languages; French, Dutch (Flemish), and German, although German speakers account for only 1% of the population. The two main languages are also divided regionally with Dutch speakers primarily living in the north, and French speakers in the south.

“The country is practically divided in two, with regional passion often outweighing national passion,” says the Australian. “You can almost draw a line dividing the country in half and in many ways the two regions are separate nations.”

This has created an issue where the national hockey teams have become microcosms of the country in general. Richards says that during breaks in training, after matches, and at social events, the players form separate groups based on what language they speak. Most of the time, the players aren’t even aware of it.

“It’s unconscious behaviour,” says Richards. “On the pitch we have two dug-outs, and often the French speaking players will go to one, and the Dutch speaking players will go to the other. We’ll ask them, “Is this the French speaking dug-out and that one for the Dutch?” They’ll realise that they’ve done it unintentionally and change it up.”

The u21 women celebrate a goal in the 2014 European Cup. Being able to understand each other on the field is something that the RBHA youth team's have struggled with, but they are improving.

The u21 women celebrate a goal in the 2014 European Cup. Being able to understand each other on the field is something that the RBHA youth team's have struggled with, but they are improving.

Team unity is vital for success and anything that creates divisions needs to be stamped out. The RBHA hosts four training camps throughout the year for the men’s and women’s teams and are planning on having language themed camps. The first of these camps will be held exclusively in Dutch, with French and English to follow. Players are encouraged to learn the other prominent language so that when a player speaks on the field, anyone can understand him or her.

The effects can also be felt off the field, where a breakdown in communication can lead to disruption. “We were in a team meeting, talking about wages, and things got a little heated when the language barrier became a problem,” says Richards. “One of the Dutch speaking players said something along the lines of “if you work hard, you will get a certain amount of money based on effort”. The word “get” caused confusion and some of the French speaking players thought the Dutch speaking players were getting preferential treatment. This is why we strongly encourage players to learn both languages.”

Coaches are encouraged to do the same. Belgium is an emerging nation in hockey and many of the coaches speak neither French nor Dutch as a first language. Emotion is a massive part of coaching as conveying the appropriate message in tough situations can be the difference between winning and losing.

The England Football Association came under criticism when they appointed Fabio Cappello, an Italian, in 2008. Concerns were that the highly decorated manager could hardly speak a word of English. In the same year, the South African Football Association paid a heavy price when they hired Brazilian, Joel Santana, who couldn’t speak any of the 11 official languages in the country. Former Bafana Bafana striker, Shaun Bartlett, told the Mail & Guardian, “It must be confusing for the players trying to figure out what he wants, especially on the field.” As you would imagine, his reign ended in ignominy when South Africa failed to qualify for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations.

“It is important for the players to be able to express themselves in their native language,” says Richards. “We make sure there is a member of staff who is completely fluent in both languages because understanding emotion is vital to understanding the person. That can only be conveyed when expressing yourself in your mother tongue.” As former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

In a fantastic article by Sharda Ugra on Cricinfo, the senior editor notes that when listening to one speak in his native language, you “hear their personalities speak with openness and humour.” Through that, the individual is “freed (from) the straitjacket of clichés.”

This freedom is felt on the field. As Richards explains; when the team is winning and the game plan is being executed properly, communication is easy and bilingual. When the teams are behind on the scoreboard, communication breaks down as frustration from the game inhibits the players’ ability to switch between languages. This applies for both speaking their second language and trying to understand it. The rub is that communication becomes more important when things aren’t going well.

“To get yourself out of a bad situation, good communication is key,” explains Richards. He goes on to tell me that he has seen his sides melt down as a result of frustration that was exacerbated by poor communication. He believes that in those situations, the results may have been different if everyone on the team was able to express themselves to their teammates better.  Furthermore, this amplifies the two group mentality.

To avoid this, the RBHA applies methods and verbal cues during training to navigate this obstacle. Body language becomes crucial as well as certain key words that can be reiterated to invoke positive feelings instilled during training. The players are also given a list of common hockey terms in English, French, and Dutch as part of their coaching manuals.

The RBHA provides strict instructions on how players need to conduct themselves in order to break the divisive nature of Belgian culture. They are told where to sit on busses and planes, which teammates they need to interact with during meal time, and whom they are to share a room with when on tour. This is all to combat the unconscious tendencies that players have towards spending more time with teammates who speak their language. “When they’re tired after a game or practice, it’s understandable that they would want to talk with their friends in their own language,” adds Richards.

This hasn’t had a completely positive effect. As mentioned, many in Belgium identify with their region and language more than the nation as a whole. By stripping away the language bias in players, the RBHA has inadvertently stripped away passion from their players. “The regional passion is a very important part of who the players are,” says Richards. “We have worked so hard to remove that bias that often players are left to search for reasons to be competitive.”

Murray Richards overlooks a match. His understanding that team unity and cohesion is vital for success has allowed the RBHA's teams to establish themselves on the world stage.

Murray Richards overlooks a match. His understanding that team unity and cohesion is vital for success has allowed the RBHA's teams to establish themselves on the world stage.

The RBHA has spent so much time trying to rectify the regional and language bias in the players that Richards admits they have spent less time on actually playing the sport. “In our youth teams there has been a stagnation of performance,” he says. “We have invested so much time trying to create a unified team that we have lost time that we could have been training.” It is a necessary sacrifice though. Teams like Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Argentina don’t have the same language barriers as all their players and coaches speak the same language. As a result, those nations don’t have to contend with regional competition on the level that is evident in Belgium.

“We needed to make the changes within our structures, and it was always going to result in a trade-off in some areas,” says Richards. “We needed to get the players feeling positive and enthusiastic about the Belgium national team while still keeping the passion they feel for their region. We needed to get everyone on the same page and working towards a unified goal. I hope that with all the effort we’ve put in, the cultural side becomes automatic and we can deliver a controlled product to the players.”

A unified philosophy that seeks to bridge the language gap that divides the country has proved a success. The men’s team has climbed ahead of England into 4th place on the FIH World Ranking. With both the men’s and women’s teams set to host international tournaments in Antwerp later this month, the time for talk is slowly ending. When both tournaments begin, the nation that is able to speak the universal language of hockey fluently, is the side that will walk away victorious. 

For more details on the RBHA’s upcoming international tournaments, visit the FIH’s website here

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