Adjusting to Life as a Foreign Coach
This is a unique 4-part article series for those current or aspiring coaches who are considering working in a foreign country. In this case, my experience in China as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with the Chinese Olympic Committee (for both their Long Track and Short Track Speed Skating national teams) will serve as an example. With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics concluding last week, I thought this would be the perfect time to share my story. China is a bit different from other countries…from the language barrier, way of life, being somewhat cut off from the rest of the world with media and communication, and a population for 4 times that of the United States. In this article, I will cover what I went through, over 10 months in 2019, in a variety of areas. You think you know what to expect, but you have no idea what you are in for until you step off the plane. (This is only what I experienced, and does not represent the viewpoint of every foreign coach in China)
Application Process & Prep for Departure
There are various ways China brings in foreign coaches. Some teams sign a direct contract with a coach or even an entire foreign-based elite performance training company. There are also private groups that act as the "go-between" or "middleman." This was my route. I found this opportunity online to work for the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) and one or more of their Olympic teams as a Strength & Conditioning / Performance Coach. The group that would interview me, submit my application materials (grouped with additional potential coaches), and arrange to get me to Beijing was called Beijing Yanding. The gentleman I did my video interview (Daniel Crumback) was then their Director of Performance & Rehabilitation (he is a Physical Therapist and former member of the Canadian Armed Forces). I met all of the requirements set forth by the COC (Master's degree, CSCS, 5 years with a professional, Olympic, or Division 1 college program, etc). We waited several weeks before learning I was accepted and heading to Beijing. I finally received an 18-page contract in early November 2018. This is where you must have patience because it then took 3 months before they could get me over there. I left my full-time job at the end of November that year thinking it wouldn’t take too long. Boy was I wrong. Here is a list of a few things I did during those 3 months before departing:
- Filled out many forms for the COC
- Apply for Z Work Visa through local Atlanta Visa office (passport needed)
- Visa office sends passport to the US-based Houston Chinese Consulate (USD 300)
- Had very small photos made at the post office (for additional foreign visas if needed)
- Gave notice at the current job (prematurely)
- VPN (Virtual Private Network – obtain online before leaving - $12-15.00 monthly)
- Hurry up and wait (drove for Lyft/Uber for 2 weeks before leaving)
**Please note: The Houston, Texas Chinese Consulate was closed in 2020, however, there are others, including Washington D.C.
Following 17 ½ hours in the air (5 to San Francisco / another 12 ½ to Beijing) I arrive in another world. Beijing is 13 hours ahead of Atlanta (eastern time) half the year and 12 during daylight savings in the summer months. Their international terminal is a high-end fashion mall with a gigantic roof. The largest airport I have ever seen.
After waiting for another Athletic Trainer (from the USA) to arrive, our DIDI (Chinese UBER) takes us to our hotel (DA BAO Hotel) in the Dongcheng district of Beijing, where they put us up until we are placed with a team. I soon learn some coaches have been there waiting several weeks for a team already, which made no sense to me. Fortunately, within only 48 hours, I find out that I am headed to Speed Skating!
A few items that were required in the days after we arrived:
- Medical Exam (7 exams in 7 different rooms)
- Phone Number (needed an unlocked phone and a translator at China Mobile)
- Bank Account (requires a translator / no online banking allowed for foreigners)
The medical exam was much different than here in the states, going from room to room as opposed to just one person. The oddest exam was the abdominal ultrasound done while laying on my back as if I were pregnant. And yes, I had a Chinese phone number and bank account. Those were required during my employment. A translator was critical to set up both as well. Doing it yourself is a language nightmare. I do not recommend trying that. Most everyone pays for things with a bar code from the We Chat app on their phone, which is why the China mobile number was necessary. Cash is scarce there, but still can be used by foreign tourists.
Meeting Your New Team
Changping & Calgary
Speed Skating’s temporary training location in early 2019 was in Changping (75-90 minutes NW of Beijing). My fellow Australian colleague (Scott Andrews) and I are driven up to meet a portion of the team and staff and check into our rooms. The entire Speed Skating team (both Long and Short Track) at this time of the year are spread out between China, Canada, and the United States as far as training and competition. At this point, we do not know whether we are with Long or Short Track. We meet the newly named Director, 4-time Gold Medalist in Short Track, and the most decorated Winter Olympian in the history of China, Wang Meng. In less than a week, we both learn we will be taking over for coaches whose contracts were ending, and that would be…..in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. So, here we go….and flying back over the international date line for the 2nd time in 2 weeks.
Changping Training Site
Western Canadian Rockies
Calgary, Alberta / Canada
While we were still in Beijing, we also had to meet the staff from Team China Sports Performance & Rehab. They would be the ones we would send our weekly reports to. Overall, throughout the journey, I would learn that there wasn’t just one main person I would report to. There were the Heads of Sports Performance (Steve Nightengale and Simon Taylor – both from England) for the Team China group just mentioned. Then there was the Director of Speed Skating (Wang Meng), Team Leader, Head Coach (one for each of Long Track and Short Track), and the main coaches for each group level (Juniors, a Challenge/Mid-level group, and Senior level). I would end up working my way up from the juniors to senior-level Long Track before being moved to the Short Track team late in 2019 (which I considered a promotion, to be honest).
During my 10 months with Speed Skating, we trained in some interesting spots. Most were in mainland northeastern China, one on Hainan Island (south of Hong Kong), and Calgary, Alberta (which hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics and boasts the “Fastest Ice in the World” which explains why many Long Track skaters from over the world come to train here. Most world records in Long Track seem to fall in both Calgary, as well as Salt Lake City, Utah (2002 Winter Olympics).
Our training locations (in 2019 calendar order)
- Changping (initial temporary training base in China)
- Calgary (Olympic Oval and University of Calgary athletic training facilities)
- Hainan Island (Preseason camp held on the property of the Four Points Sheraton)
- Grassland Hunting Grounds (2nd Preseason camp, held in the middle of nowhere)
- Hailar/Hulunbuir (1st ice training-Inner Mongolia region of China, close to Russia)
- Daqing (2-week emergency move due to ice surface issues in Hailar) NE of Beijing**
- Calgary (2nd trip to Canada – late summer into fall – longest stay of all locations)*
- Beijing (New ice training oval permanent facility opened in October)
You name it, we used it as transportation. Bus, plane, train, van, and even an occasional automobile. When the entire long track team traveled together, it was at least 125-150 people (athletes and staff). The airport would always feel like an all-day adventure with the amount of luggage involved). Fortunately, most of the time, the team paid for luggage that exceeded the weight limit. But you still had to pack carefully, in case they couldn’t cover overweight bags). The longest trip I encountered was from Daqing (NE of Beijing) to Calgary. That included 4 airports (Daqing, Beijing, Vancouver, and Calgary), 3 flights totaling 15 hours flight time, and approximately 27 hours overall if I am correct. But arriving in Calgary to me felt like landing back in the United States. That is how different everything is in China.
END PART 1
In PART 2 we will cover our ever-changing Performance Training Facilities, Living Accommodations, the International Colleagues I worked with, the most valuable Translators, The Things You Take for Granted living in the United States, and always Be Ready for Anything!