Mads Davidsen is a Dane who has worked in Chinese soccer for nearly five years. His first major role was as a member of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s coaching staff at Chinese Super League (CSL) side Guangzhou R&F FC, whom he joined in 2013. After a year of unprecedented success, the duo left for Shanghai SIPG, another CSL side, where he serves as Eriksson’s assistant, Head Coach of the Under-23s and reserve teams, and is involved in building the club’s youth sector. The team continues to improve on and off the field but not all overseas coaches in the rapidly developing Super League have enjoyed such longevity and Davidsen has a theory why.
“China is almost a different world,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute one warm Shanghai evening. “Adaptability is crucial for overseas coaches because there is a risk of misunderstanding why they have been brought here. Some feel that the Chinese have brought them in to change everything and that is not the case. They have asked them to help and add some knowhow – not change 2,000 years of culture.”
Davidsen, who employs a mixed support staff of 15 foreigners and 15 Chinese at Shanghai, goes on to explain how he has used the cultural intelligence he has developed while working in China to navigate a path through what he calls the ‘soldier and survival mentalities’ that can hinder a Chinese athlete’s performance and development. He also has to tread carefully around the minefield presented by the Chinese desire to gain respect in public, which has been known to cost several coaches their career in China when they try to tackle a dressing room of players head on.
China’s ‘Lost Face’ Culture
Davidsen took his first post in China in 2012 when he was appointed the Technical Director at the Ebbe Sand Football Academy in Shanghai. He still had three months to work in a coaching capacity at Brøndby IF in his native Denmark before making the move and used that time to develop an understanding of Chinese culture.
“Being a backpacker will never enable you to understand the world,” he explains. “I read some books by people who had worked in China and I conducted some of my own interviews with people who had lived, worked or operated in China; I also wrote down some things that I wanted to achieve and, most importantly, how I could achieve them. It was a personal anthropological study and my aim was to understand Chinese culture and the way of leadership in China. I needed to know how I could take my philosophy of leadership into China and work most effectively.”
Davidsen quickly understood the importance of professional relationships in his adopted land. “In Chinese culture the relationship is more important than foreign people often understand; in fact it can even supersede knowledge. For example, if you’re a better coach than me but I have a better relationship with the General Manager then nine times out of ten I’ll get the job because he will trust me more because of that relationship.”
His most profound finding was the identification of China’s ‘lost face’ culture. Says Davidsen: “An important part of the Chinese culture is to enjoy the highest possible social status; one of the most important things for them as they grow up is the perceptions of others and their public reputation. If you can build your reputation then your parents and hometown will enjoy a reflected boost in their reputations too.
“If you’re a better coach than me but I have a better relationship with the General Manager then nine times out of ten I’ll get the job because he will trust me more because of that relationship.”
“Of course, you also have the opposite; if you lose face and embarrass yourself you can also embarrass your parents. And the family is very important for Chinese, which is also why their family name is the first one on their ID-card and then their forename is the last name as the family is more important than the individual.
China’s ‘lost face’ culture can fatally undermine a coach who fails to understand its pervasiveness from the boardroom to the dressing room.
Involving the Leaders
Davidsen’s awareness of the importance of relationships and the individual culture needs in China has influenced his and Eriksson’s relationships with their club leaders at the privately-owned Guangzhou R&F and currently at the government-owned Shanghai SIPG. “Hierarchical structures are rigid in China. I realised that every decision went through the leaders so as much as we were there to manage the players and coaching staff, I quickly learnt to manage up within the Chinese model.
“I felt it was important to involve the leaders a bit more than maybe they were used to in China, where owners tend to stay away from team affairs; you generally don’t see them and they don’t interfere; they just take the decision and let a General Manager implement it. By contrast, we involved them when we were buying players.
“I’d explain to them in detail why we knew this was the right player for the club and show him my analysis; sometimes they were impressed and even surprised at how meticulous we were in our detail about why one player was more suitable than another. At Guangzhou R&F, in the beginning the boss was a touch sceptical but he got used to working this way and, fortunately, our first two or three signings were successful and thereon the pathway was more open because he trusted us and we were doing good things for him.
“We essentially enabled him to get a better reputation by taking his football club from 13th to third in the Super League and his status was improved in Chinese football and Chinese society in general. That’s how we needed to look at it; work to make him understand that we could enhance his status within his own society.”
Giving Coaches Their Voice
Eriksson and Davidsen guided Guangzhou R&F into the Asian Champions League for the first time in their history in 2014 and soon Shanghai SIPG moved to take the pair to China’s biggest city. “We came in and they wanted us to copy what we did at Guangzhou: the way we worked, the way we signed players – with some small adjustments.”
With the confidence and experience of managing at a big Chinese club, he was able to quickly begin to work with a coaching team numbering 30 that was evenly split between overseas and Chinese staff. All foreign staff had to demonstrate their utility – “I’ve seen lazy coaches come here, grabbing what they think is easy money but, trust me, they’re out of here again in a short time” – where the Chinese staff are very loyal and in general hard workers, but due to the hierarchical culture need time to adapt to foreign methods.
“Instinctively they’re a little scared of me to begin with because I’m a European coach,” he explains. “I’m way above them in the hierarchy and they also know that I can get them sacked; moreover, the Chinese staff will very rarely ask you a question, they will never challenge anything that you say, they will rarely interfere with anything you do.
“So it is my job to involve them as much as possible and to make them feel comfortable. I’ll try to make them relax as I explain my demands and as long as they’re doing a proper job then I support them 100% and that’s how I seek to build those relationships.
“My two assistant coaches for example with the Under-23s are starting to feel more comfortable now. I still need to ask questions but now they will give me an honest answer because they know their job is not on the line because of a difference of opinion, which is a sign of the trust we have developed.”
Operating and succeeding in another culture sees Davidsen walking in a minefield of cultural difficulties, where the key is to adapt and develop new tools. So, for example, you don’t criticise a player in the media.
To avert this risk, Davidsen has sanctioned an innovative, personalised video system that builds on the one to one feedback processes that are increasingly common with millennial athletes worldwide and utilises China’s status as the most online nation in the world. It also enables him to circumnavigate the language barrier that exists between him and his players in spite of the best work his translators.
“I’ve seen lazy coaches come here, grabbing what they think is easy money but, trust me, they’re out of here again in a short time” – where the Chinese staff are very loyal and in general hard workers, but due to the hierarchical culture need time to adapt to foreign methods.”
“It took me a little while to find out how much better it was when I explained something to them backed up by a video of what it was I was trying to say. Now we have a professional individual video system set up where the players will get all the videos I want them to see sent straight to the phones.
“They have their phones with them all the time anyway, whether they’re on social media or whatever, so we thought it would be good to implement some learning. We worked with a software company to get data or feedback from training or a match sent to their phone. So we don’t necessarily need to sit down in a room or turn on a computer and so the process is more efficient. They can watch the clips wherever and whenever they are and they don’t need to be in a certain place.
“At the beginning they were not used to it but they were soon asking my assistant coach for videos from the last game; when the players started to request such things I knew we were doing something right.”
Understanding a Survivalist Mentality
Davidsen also notes that Chinese athletes tend to have the ‘survivalist’ mentality that has long been noted in African soccer players. “China isn’t necessarily a country where you can fight your way out of poverty,” he explains. “But the money in football is enticing; therefore these players are hungry to succeed because they want to provide for themselves, their families as well as improving their social status. I call it ‘outer’ motivation.”
The pressure can therefore be massive on these young players as the Chinese culture also involves an understanding that a kid has to take care of his parents financially when they are retired. “It is a very different pressure than we had at Brøndby, for example. In Denmark, a failed footballer can just walk into a university, which is free. So it’s a different life.”
Davidsen ensures that if any of his Under-23 players are released then he will have already arranged for them to transfer to another club to help them on in life. However, when players make the grade, their motivation can suffer. “A player can go far on outer motivation but the danger comes when you suddenly succeed, when you suddenly have enough money; what’s left in motivational terms?”
He believes that the answer lies in sparking their continued development and this idea feeds into the individual development plans, which are based in part on the videos sent to the players’ phones, that Davidsen has created with his players. “We try to make sure that they’re playing for something more than their salary; that there is a bigger meaning in their life or the feeling of actually being good at something and ultimately being remembered for more than just earning a lot of money. Finding that motivation takes time but it will make their career better and longer if we can succeed.”
Davidsen has enjoyed some success in this regard with supplemental training before and after the main sessions. “When I first came to Shanghai I’d say training was finished and ten seconds later the players were gone; then I started to take individual players for extra training, sometimes before and sometimes after training. I soon demanded it of them.
“The biggest applause you can get in China is that during a discussion my assistant will say, ‘oh, you’re so Chinese!’ He means that I completely understand how they think and it’s now much easier for me to work here.”
“I’d take them out for an extra hour and talk about the details; ‘we’re working on for example your left foot and try to feel how nice it is to actually play with your left foot now after three months; now you’re a much better player and you have far more confidence in how you play.’ After a while during each extra session I had 20 players hanging on the fence who also wanted more training and were asking my assistants what we’re doing, why we were training more, what the point was. I made it so that they came to me rather than me having to go to them; and now we have the opposite and have to tell them to go home because they work so hard individually! I’ve given them individual plans, made those plans with them, and now they can do it themselves. They want to take control because it’s fun and they can feel they’re getting better and it’s become a big part of my coaching strategy.”
Davidsen has successfully implemented his coaching strategies in both Guangzhou and Shanghai but it is his personal adaptation that gives him the deepest satisfaction. “The biggest applause you can get in China is that during a discussion my assistant will say, ‘oh, you’re so Chinese!’ He means that I completely understand how they think and it’s now much easier for me to work here.”