How to Work Through Cultural Differences When Coaching Abroad

How to Work Through Cultural Differences When Coaching Abroad

Cultural differences may present new challenges to your training, but wherever you train, you can always find a way to create a community around sport.

Living and working as a coach abroad presents a number of challenges including cultural differences, language barriers and much more. For the past 10 years, I’ve coached at a chain of female-only gyms in Saudi Arabia called KORE. In my time there, I’ve learned to work around extreme weather, spotty transportation, and limited access to facilities; all while working around a different cultural perception of gender. While it’s challenging at times, I’ve learned that where there’s a will there’s a way, and the athletic community in Saudi Arabia is both vibrant and growing. Here’s what I’ve learned in my time as a coach abroad.

Gender Segregation

It was a major shock to begin coaching in a country that segregates males and females not only in the gym but also in restaurants and other public spaces. Currently in Saudi Arabia (with the exception of gyms on expatriate compounds), there are no co-ed gyms, which means it would be illegal for a male to be seen inside a female licensed gym, unless outside of working hours and for maintenance purposes only. While the lack of access to female-only facilities (addressed below) proved challenging, I’ve found that the segregation itself actually fosters an amazing sense of community among the women I work with, possibly due to the shared challenge of access. I often find that groups sharing similar beliefs around participating in sports and fitness activities, tend to form stronger communities as they bond with like-minded individuals. 

Access to Facilities

In Saudi Arabia, sport and exercise are definitely not as developed as in the western world. Access to gym facilities, especially for females, was scarce until recently—and in many places remains a challenge. 2 years ago, for example, there was no such thing as a licensed Saudi gym for females. Physical education is not included in the Saudi school curriculum for females, so many Saudi women start from a very basic level of understanding.

Additionally, access to swimming pools, in particular, has proven extremely difficult. Swimming lessons, coaching, and training are very rare, as recreational facilities with pools haven’t been made available to the larger market until just recently. The existant swimming pools are usually only found in expatriate compounds or private homes. To overcome this I relied on the endurance sports community and was sometimes able to help my athletes gain access to private or compound pools. When it comes to resources like this, connections are really valuable—and this is true wherever you are in the world.  

Transportation

Once you find a reliable facility, you need to find a way to get there. Like in many Middle Eastern countries, the car is king in Saudi Arabia, which means that public transportation infrastructure has (until recently) been scarce and, for women at least, generally viewed as unsafe. Until recently (June 2017) females were not legally allowed to drive. Once again, the community rallied to solve this problem. We set up consistent, dependable carpools among licensed women and family drivers to transport women to the gym to train. If you or your athletes are facing transportation issues, remember you just need to be at the same place at the same time and see how you can combine forces to overcome the hurdles presented to you.

Extreme Temperatures

Summer lasts 9 months of the year in Saudi, which brings some extreme weather conditions. At its peak, temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees centigrade (122 F) which makes walking or cycling at “normal” hours nearly impossible. Fortunately, where there’s a will there’s a way, so we generally start summer sessions around 4 AM, with good turnout rates. If you’re confronting environmental barriers to training, expanding your time frame can be a valuable tool.

Dress Code

Temperature challenges aside, seeing a female exercising outdoors in Saudi Arabia is still uncommon, given the attire deemed culturally acceptable for women. Saudi females are required to wear an abaya (a full-length gown that covers the body.) Harassment is still, unfortunately, a risk for any woman seen dressed immodestly or traveling alone, so in many cases, this dress code is a matter of safety.

Fortunately, female athletes in Saudi Arabia have started creating sport-specific abayas, allowing them to exercise outside without being seen as immodest. We also take steps to avoid harassment by meeting outside the city at off-peak times, always in a group, and preferably with a male present. While conditions are improving, I do not recommend that any of my athletes train solo. 

You might have read all the above and thought, “how can you train there?”  Well, as surprising as it might sound, there is actually a buzzing triathlon community here, and we make it work! 

Looking to the Future

Every day, there is more tolerance for females exercising outdoors, as well as a growing effort from the government to enable females to join events and enjoy the same opportunities as males. Since I started working here, I’ve seen a massive shift in opportunities for females not only to exercise, but to travel freely, drive, and even work as a recognized fitness trainer! We’re also seeing Saudi women represent their country in sport, participating in what would have previously been male-only events. Things still have a long way to go but it is wonderful to see that Saudi Arabia is finally opening its doors and eyes. 

Wherever you live and train, you can find a way to create a community and enjoy the benefits of sport—and with some patience, you just might find that things begin to shift for the positive.


Jill Calvert is a triathlete, certified IRONMAN Coach, working toward a BSc in sport exercise and science and the founder of Tri Built Me, an endurance-based coaching platform focusing on building athletes of all abilities and communities. She currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia where she has grown and developed a Fitness brand and a team of passionate female coaches who offer professional Fitness training in Saudi. Learn more about Jill at www.tribuiltme.com, @tribuiltme