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Does sport really cross cultural boundaries?

31 July 2009

± minute read

    Does sport really cross cultural boundaries?
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Differences between Malawian and American soccer players

Author: Dr. Christina van der Merwe It is easy to assume that sport, like soccer, is identical across the world. The rules, playing field, number of players, objectives and skills required are the same. However, research shows some cultural differences in the psychological meaning of sport in different cultures. One such study was conducted by Andrew Guest, where he compared the motivations and meaning of sport participation between an American and Malawian soccer team. The one team, from a private Midwestern University in the US, was compared with a team associated with a Government-sponsored University in Malawi. They were similar in regards to the relative educational and class status, but varied most clearly in their cultural context. Neither the US or Malawian players indicated future ambitions related to sport. Qualitative data was obtained through semi-structured interviews gathered over a period of three years...

In general the US responses tend to consistently cluster around particular themes, while the Malawian responses showed more variety around themes. One theme which emerged was around the reason the players spend so much time on sport. Competition was the most frequent identified motivation for the US players, talking about pride and positive identity through internal satisfaction of accomplishment. The US players saw sport as a “competitive proving ground”. On the other hand no Malawian players talked about competition, but identified status as motivating, and a chance to demonstrate their worth through exhibition- they saw playing sport as a “demonstrating ground”. On the sport field these players could exhibit abilities regardless of competitive success. When asked what role sport play in their daily life the results showed that the Malawian players referred to sport as apastime, while the US players saw it as an outlet. Pastime referred to a diversion to pass the time, while an outlet was seen as a means of expression and allowing someone to become more than he is. How to justifying the money spend on sport, the Malawian players responded with this being a pastime which allows a person to avoid trouble. They stated that sport gave something to people who were experiencing difficulty in school, or who would otherwise not be productive members of society. Although avoiding trouble was mentioned by the US players as well, they added that sport developed self-improvement and give people an expressive outlet. Another difference between the teams was observed in the reserve group. Both teams carried a roster of around 25 players, where only about 15 will get playing time in a game. In the Malawian team, the bottom 10 players were often absent from training, but ready when there was a game. They came from out of nowhere with the hope of getting playing time, while they have done little to prepare for the games. They were often optimistic that they could succeed, if given the opportunity. The US players were the complete opposite. The players least likely to get into the game were often the most dedicated practice players. With no tangible reward in sight, they would put in long hours of training, but be content to be observers at important games. However, when the coach indicated they could suddenly be asked to play, they reacted with visible anxiety. The US players had an understanding of self-improvement, suggesting that one’s performance is a product of ability, which is acquired through effort. In contrast, the Malawian players believed one’s performance is the expression of an innate self.  The US players also talked about their development as a continuous process, while the Malawian players saw theirs as a sporadic display of innate ability dictated by opportunity. Understanding these differences is important for the growing number of humanitarian agencies attempting to use sport to address social problems in diverse communities. These efforts make the assumption that the meaning of sport is universal. Looking at this research, if sport participants do not derive psychological motivation, such as competition, as an intrinsic good or for self-improvement, then certain sport practices emphasizing competition and abstract self improvement might need modification. The approach coaches adopt in training programs with players from diverse cultural backgrounds, could maybe understand the differences in the motivational factors of some players. Guest, A.M. (2007) Cultural meanings and motivations for sport: A comparative case study of soccer teams in the United States and Malawi. Athlete Insight, Volume 9 (1)

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