TEMPE – As Arizona State assistant track coaches Ronnie Williams and Tamara Ards demonstrated the proper technique for sprinters to explode from their starting blocks, about 30 coaches from China looked on, appearing perplexed.
When the ASU coaches finished their demonstration, a translator in the crowd began speaking in Chinese, followed by a Chinese coach.
Now it was Williams and Ards who stood in puzzled silence before the Chinese coach’s question was translated into English.
As one might expect, a language barrier is the greatest challenge facing Sun Devil coaches, who are partnering with the Pac-12 Conference, the University of Utah and the Federation University Sports China and Chinese Scholarship Council to bring almost 100 Chinese coaches to Tempe to exchange coaching ideas in swimming, track and basketball.
“When we’re talking about a drill, do they mean like a drill – like a drill bit – or are we talking about like an actual drill or exercise?” said ASU assistant swimming coach Dan Kesler. “The little communication and translation on what that means is probably the biggest hurdle that we’ve had so far.”
Chinese track coach Wu Wenhui agreed. Speaking through an interpreter, Wu said communication issues have “caused a lot of problems when we communicate to other people in America.”
However, the coaches have worked together to find ways to communicate their ideas. Kesler said it can be as simple as coming up with a different example that conveys the message.
“A different word. A different way to communicate it. Demonstrating it,” he said. “Any way to communicate it – sign language – any way.”
‘We have a lot to learn from America.’
“I looked forward to this training, because I thought that the training style in America is way different from that in China,” said swimming coach Li Yajun, also through an interpreter. “I want to learn more and – when I’m back home – I want to get a better way to train the swimmers.”
Even coaches who were some of the most accomplished athletes in Chinese history said that they learned new techniques from the ASU staff.
“What I’ve learned today and what I’ve learned from when I was young are somewhat different,” said track coach Li Xuemei, who still holds records for Asian women in the 100-meter (10.79 seconds) and 200-meter (22.01) dashes that she set in 1997.
“When I go back to China, I need to adjust to those differences and train each student differently based on their own abilities,” Li said, also through an interpreter.
Along with the technical aspects of American coaching, the Chinese coaches have been focused on learning more about the positive aspects of American sports culture.
“There are a lot of differences between America and China,” Wu said. “American sports culture and spirit is very active and passionate. We have a lot to learn from America.”
The Chinese coaches aren’t the only ones learning.
“I went to (an ASU football) contest once and there were like 70,000 people there,” said swimming coach Wang Xiaojun through a translator. “That, I have never seen. So it was very exciting. In my university, for a contest, there are usually less than 10,000.”
The Chinese coaches aren’t the only ones learning from the experience, though.
“For me, personally, it’s making me learn,” Kesler said. “I have to really dig deep and figure (things) out, really look at my lesson plans and how I put things together. So, for me, it’s also awesome because I get to learn a lot, too.”
The visiting Chinese coaches may have coached on opposing sides in the past, but they have come together on this trip in an attempt to improve the overall competitive level of their sports.
“Only through competition can we make progress faster,” Wang said.
Arizona State coaches were excited to have the opportunity to help other coaches improve their strategies.
“I have really embraced the program, and I get excited when I see the delegation in our facility, because I think as a coach you want to share and you want to learn,” said ASU basketball coach Bobby Hurley. “We want to share, we want to be able to show our training techniques and see if they can improve them working with their athletes.”
Kesler agreed, citing the studious nature of the Chinese coaches and their willingness to learn.
“They’ll have the workout, and they’ll follow along, ask little questions when they come up and they are really good about taking notes and trying to figure out what is going on and why we are doing it,” he said.
Li and the other coaches from China hope to learn as many skills and techniques as possible before they return to China in December.
“I want to learn the good parts that will sit well for other people and bring it back to China so that I can teach my students,” Li said.