Coaching Overseas: The Experience by Jim Puleo (1998)


Introduction: Jim’s got plenty of experience doing various camps including the USA and USSR Junior distance camps. His teams have won at Junior Nationals, and coach of the year, and recent.. more recently has been traveling and working in Thailand on a multi-year contract. He’s also done some work in Saudi Arabia, in Turkey, most recently he’s been in the Caribbean helping out FINA with their series of clinics they do. It’s important that the United States coaches to be known and be seen and get to know some of the programs internationally.


Puleo: I promised my wife that I would do my best to watch my language, and I wouldn’t tell any dirty jokes. I’m not sure if you’re aware that they tape recorded these talks, later transcribing them for the yearbook. And, I didn’t want this talk to look like Nixon White House tapes, where every fifth word gets deleted.


This talk is going to address to types of overseas positions. One is going to be the short term the expert lecturer. Where you might go for a weekend or a couple of weeks. And, the other one would be the long term overseas employment, that would last several months or longer. And, I’m going to do a lot of bouncing around because I’m not a real great speaker, so take careful notes.


One of the things is that if you’re going to conduct lectures, and you go overseas, it’s really important that you prepare to talk. Take reference materials with you, especially areas that you’re not tremendously strong in. For example I’m more of an intuitive coach, I haven’t got a degree in Physical Education State, so I no doubt lack in knowledge in mechanics of physiology and exercise. But, that wasn’t my strength as a coach. I was more  of an intuitive coach and it’s almost impossible to teach you know, experience an observation to other coaches. So, when I was asked to talked on the science of swimming I had to do an awful lot of research. So I took a lot of reference materials with me, when I went over there.


My last trip was in Thailand where I was the consultant for Coach and Development and Education. And, a lot of their questions dealt with the science of swimming. They wanted to know a lot about the energy systems and work cycles. And, these were guys that really didn’t have a great on deck coaching experience. So, the analogy I kind of put together for those guys was a little like asking how to know the workings of the internal combustion engine before you learned the rules of the road. One of the things that you’re dealing with those coaches, is that you have to have a lot of patience. And, that’s when your coaching experience is going to come into play. You need an awful lot of diplomacy to tell them that it’s not necessary to have a great knowledge of the energy systems, otherwise you might insult them. Especially when they’re sitting on the deck smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper while the kids are doing laps. You have to be diplomatic or else you’re offending them. I was telling someone about a year ago that when I’m on the deck of a swimming pool at a swim meet, I do an awful lot of listening to other coaches. And, I learn a lot, whether it’s from an experienced coach or even a novice coach, by the ways they speak to other people. Because that helps me learn how to say the same things in different ways. And, that’s really important when you’re teaching coaches or teaching swimmers overseas — to be able to say the same thing different ways. Because they may not click. And, it’s the same way with our own kids here in the States. It’s important to have that tool in your coaching tool box, which is going to be questionable task. A good coaches tool box is able to take the same physical skill and describe it in various different ways so that different kids can understand.


For long term employment commitment, it’s important that you investigate the company that you’re going to be working for. Obviously here in the United States it’s pretty easy thing to do. If not investigate the company’s itself, then getting word of mouth from fellow coaches. Before I took the position in Thailand, I checked with two coaches that had been over there. So, obviously I put a lot of trust in what they had to say.


It’s important that you study up on the culture to avoid embarrassing incidents.  The name of this talk is Coaching Over Seas— The Experience, what I could do is just sit here and run an estimate, and talk about how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth overseas. And, I wasn’t going to do that, but here is one instance that I did put both feet in my mouth. I was in Turkey, for FINA. I was there with another coach from West Germany. We did a lot of coaching. In the mornings I was working with the swimmers, while Karl was talking to the coaches about club organization. And, then in the afternoons I would talk to coaches about coaching. And, so after the first ten days or two weeks, they gave us a day off, and they asked us what we would like to do. And, I said I would kind of like to go to Athens and I’d like to see the Parthenon. And, they exchanged looks and, they said we’ll see what we can do. And, that was when a translator pulled me off to the side and said, you know, the Greeks hate the Turks, they hate each other, they’ve been at war for five hundred years. And, you know, being a typical American I said, well, hell if you guys have been fighting for five hundred years, why hasn’t anybody won? Again, I didn’t really research anything about the country. And, remember how I said you have to have patience, well, they’re going to exhibit a lot of patience with you also.  Especially if you’re not very well prepared.

If traveling abroad, one of the best voices of information on the country that you’re going to can be found at their embassy here in the United States. Before I went to Thailand, I went to get my work Visa. It goes to the Embassy, and they have an awful lot of information in there.


Another good resource is almanacs. Before I went to St. Vincent, that was the last trip that I took, just a couple weeks ago, I looked in the almanac to see just what the currency is, and where the place was because I had never heard of the dog gone place before. And, it ended up being just a beautiful trip. Also, I got onto the internet and I found a site with travel do’s and don’ts. And, it was really pretty helpful for me, as far as knowing what to do and what not to do because different cultures have, you know different do’s and don’ts. In Saudi Arabia, for example, if you cross your legs, you’re not supposed to show the bottom of your feet, because that’s insulting to the person who happens to see them. In Thailand you’re not supposed to touch the kid on their head.  You’re not supposed to touch their head.


If translators are necessary, it’s important to find out if they have a working knowledge of swimming. Even though we don’t look at swimming terminology as being tremendously difficult. It’s sometimes with other languages it’s difficult to translate. So, again, it goes back to your tool box being able to relay some of the things that you say different ways so that they can understand it.


As far as coaching. It’s kind of frustrating if you have a translator who doesn’t understand certain terminology. You can take a thirty minute lecture and all of a sudden turn it into an hour and a half talk. Because you’re saying something so that the translator is saying things to the coaches, the coaches are retranslating some of them that have some working knowledge of English, or retranslating back and forth, and then it comes back to you. So, it can be frustrating, and again, you just have to have patience with it.


If possible, what you want to do is visit the area. When I talk with my sophomores and juniors in high school, with their parents, about college and wanting to prepare themselves to go to college. One of the things I tell them to do is to make sure that they select a school in a climate and area that they will be comfortable. You know, if you hate the heat, if you don’t like hot weather, obviously going to school in Arizona would not be very ideal because you’ll be miserable and your swimming and your school work is going to suffer. The same thing applies if you were to take an overseas job, if you hate the heat, you’re not going to want to go to Saudi Arabia. Because, you will be miserable. You will be bitching and moaning the whole time you are there. And, your work will suffer because of it.


It would be wise to agree upon the payment arrangements, as  to whether or not you are getting paid in foreign cash or getting paid in US bills. When I was in Thailand, that was when the bottom fell out. When I first got to Thailand there were twenty five Thai dollars to the US dollar. And, when I left it was forty. So fortunately I wasn’t being paid five thousand a month. Because I would have gotten my butt kicked financially. I was being paid in US dollars. And, the reason why the job was shortened — I was supposed to be there for twelve months — the sponsor of the company had budgeted so much money for my stay: the transport, room and board and all that stuff. Well, when the Thai currency went from twenty five to forty eight, instead of being able to last twelve months, it only lasted eight months. So, I had to leave. But it was just great a job.

The Thai’s are just great people. Very open to constructive criticism and recommendations. And, I would go back there in a healthy heart beat if I could. It was just a great place. Many of the rewards include the fact that you do some traveling, and site seeing which is one of the things about the job.


I was able to go to Egypt for a couple of weeks. And, I never would have gotten the opportunity, with the salaries that we get paid as professional swim coaches to see the Pyramids. But, because of the opportunity of being overseas, I was able to see that and go down to see Tut’s Tomb and stuff like that.


You know, one of the things that’s really interesting about taking an overseas job, is it forces you to reevaluate what you’re doing. And, obviously that’s something that as coaches we should do seasonally anyway. You sit there and look at how successful or unsuccessful you were, and you know, coaches by definition we are performance critics. We critique our athletes practices and the competitions. And, it’s difficult but it’s also one of the things we have to do, to sit back and critique ourselves.


When you take a trip overseas, and you’re going to get an opportunity of either teaching coaches or other athletes, what you have to do is you have to put into words what is important for you. And, sometimes that’s not easy to do. Most of us don’t have the ability to take lactic and as I said before, I’m more of an intuitive coach. Instead of taking blood tests I just like to see the kid move his arms. And, then you know whether or not you’re supposed to back off or not. But to try and tell other coaches that that’s what you do is really difficult.


And, how much distance do you swim. I’ve had some success with some distance freestylers. But, is it because of the distance I put on them, or is it because those kids were just hard working kids? It’s tough. So, what you have to do is evaluate your program, because if you’re being sent over there as an expert, you have to be able to quantify why you do certain things.


If you’re considering overseas employment, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself, prior to employment. I got some of these things from a Peace Corps Employment Application. One of the questions is “Am I taking this job to get away from problems at home or at work?” Am I taking this job to get away from my Board of Directors, or you know, is the wife and kids starting to get on my nerves, is that why I am going to take this job. Obviously, it that’s the reason, it’s not a very good one. Often times if you have a lot of problems, you have to look back, and perhaps the problem is you. You know, the common denominator might be you if you’re having a lot of problems. And, obviously you don’t want to just run away and take off on an overseas job for that reason. Am I really interested in learning about another country and its culture? Again, if you’re not going to be open for that kind of stuff, you’re just going to hate it. You’re just going to sit around and bitch and commiserate with other people.


Now, for a short term job, if you’re in a place that’s not really comfortable you can hang on and you can last it out. But if you’re going to be there for you know, five or six or eight months, sometimes it can be difficult.  And, you have to be willing to want to learn about the culture and enjoy it. It’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed.


Here’s one of the things to consider. When you look at things in a western mental manner, you might tend be critical of the culture, simply because they’re at odds with your value system and living style. There’s an expression called being an ugly American. Which is kind of what I was in Turkey. Being an ugly American is just being somebody who is just so aloof in their relationships with other people. You know, when I was in Thailand I saw a statue, an old statue that was over two hundred years old — older than when the United States was founded. That helps you put some things in perspective. When you visit another country or another culture of other peoples, you have to remember they were around a hell of a lot longer than we were. And, you have to have that respect and appreciation for it.


Like I said, not only is it important for you to be patient with them, but they’re going to have to show they will show some patience with you. You know, I am willing to learn a language before I leave, until you learn well abroad. If I ever get to go back to Thailand, I would definitely try to pick up on the language, maybe buy the little cassette tapes, plug them in while I’m asleep or whatever you’re supposed to do with those things. But, I wasn’t willing to do that when I was in Saudi Arabia. Because I knew my time there was going to be short lived. But, it’s important. One of the things it does, is that if you’re willing to show that you’re going to learn the language, it shows personal integrity on your part. And, that is something that they appreciate. If you can say hello, good-bye, yes, no, then that helps.


Sometimes you are inclined to think of them as the foreigners, but actually you’re the foreigner in their country.


I want to adapt my management style to fit the ways of the culture. I’ve been known to lock the gates of my swimming pool, if a kid were more than ten minutes late. Well, when you’re overseas, if you lock the gates ten minutes after practice was supposed to start, you’re locking out ninety five percent of the athletes. It’s important to be able to adjust  you’re management style.


But when I was in Thailand I found out that I had to start doing a lot of paper work. And, I hate paper work. I HATE paper work. I was doing a lot of reports. And, not only did I have to do a report for the main guys, I had to do side reports for guys that just wanted to be kept abreast of what was going on. So, all of a sudden, I’m not just coaching the kids and working with coaches, I’m having to do an awful lot of administrative stuff which I didn’t know I was going to have to do. We’re so use to having kind of a set way of doing things. But, in some countries it’s not that way. And, you have to be able to roll with it.


You know, am I willing to give up many of the conveniences I currently enjoy. When I was in Saudi Arabia and in Thailand, you just don’t drink water out of the tap. You have to buy bottled water. And, that’s such a minor thing, but it’s something you have to do. To sit down and watch television, it’s going to be in a foreign language. When I was in Saudi, you have soccer twenty four hours a day on TV. And, I hate soccer. But, you just, you know I guess you have to learn to appreciate it.

Ask yourself if you will be able to cope with difficulties such as lower living standards. When I was in Saudi, I was in a city that was a coastal town. And, the water table froze, and all of a sudden you had raw sewage floating in front of our door. You know, there’s not a whole lot you can do. I mean people clean it up and you have to live with that. But, you know, if it makes you queasy, then you got to sit there and just complain about it, well there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You have to just avoid stepping in it, I guess.  But, you have to live with it.


Do you have the emotional stability and flexibility to coping with culture shock and stress? I think one of the main things for doing that is that you have to have a sense of humor. You have to be able to sit back and laugh at the situation. It’s kind of tough to laugh about raw sewage running out in front of your door.


One of the other things is am I independent enough to stand on my own with little guidance from the home office. Well, again, you’re being hired as the swimming professional. And, sometimes you have to make decisions and they’re not going to be popular decisions. But, that’s the same as what you do right now with your own clubs. If you haven’t rubbed anybody wrong then you just haven’t done a very good job I must have done a great job, because I’ve rubbed a lot of people.


Answers to Questions:


Jim: The question is who do you contact for travel. You can either talk to Tom Avischious of United States Swimming, or contact John Leonard. John was the one who I contacted for the Thailand position. And, sometimes it’s through ASCA with their job services, they often have international opportunities.


Q: You were talking about the long term contracts, what about your family. Do you look at how long the contract is and do really want to be a year away?

Jim: My first few jobs, well I went to Turkey for a couple of weeks, I was single. When I went to Saudi Arabia I was single. When I went to Thailand I was married. I married late in life, and it was something that she had to support. And, initially she was very supportive. And, the closer I got to leaving, she started having second thoughts. And, we ran up a hell of a phone bill when I was in Thailand. Because we always talked about, you know situations at home. You’re right though, if you’re going to be away from home for a year, it is tough. It’s real tough. While I was there, they extended my contract. They really enjoyed the job we were doing. And, if I do say so myself, we did a hell of a job there. They extended the contract for two more years, so I would have had  a three year contract. And, I would have brought my wife over, and you know, that’s through contract re-negotiation, because I wanted to be in a bigger place. The apartment they got me was essentially like a studio apartment. Which is all I needed, because I was hardly ever at home. But, I was traveling throughout the kingdom. But, our son is seventeen and he’s going to be eighteen in January. And, that’s when I had claimed I was going to bring my wife over. But, situations change. Again, you’re right, it’s something that you have to take into consideration.


Q:  So, you’re saying, you got a two year contract to go somewhere, and something happens, and you’ve brought your family over there. And, I guess you’ve just got to bail.

Jim: There are certain things that are in your control and certain things that aren’t. And, the things that aren’t you can’t just sit there and cry about them. I mean if you’re over there with a two year contract and something happens where you have to change, you’re just going to have to change. But, I had to bring my wife over earlier with the son, and put him into a school. Things just didn’t work out.

Jim: No, I don’t know any female coaches that have done any traveling, but then again I haven’t done a whole lot of research. But, you know a lot depends_ a lot depends on the culture. For example, if you were in Saudi Arabia they wouldn’t welcome you with open arms. As a matter of fact, that one of the things about being in Saudi. For example if a woman and I were in a car, you would have to sit in the back seat. You could not sit with me, because we’re not married. If you were to take a public bus in Saudi Arabia, you’d have to sit in the back. Not only that, but they have a partition. As coaching opportunities for females overseas, a lot of it is going to depend on whether or not they can accept you as an expert. But, there are countries that would welcome you with open arms. I think when I was in St. Vincent, they just want somebody to come in there. They need to have some of us to come in and explain to them how we do things in the United States that made us successful. And, in St. Vincent for example, they really didn’t need an ASCA Level 5 coach. Actually, they really needed somebody to teach them how to do swimming lessons.


When I first went over to St. Vincent, here’s my schedule: at eight in the morning, I would teach forty minutes of swimming lessons. We’re talking blowing bubbles out their nose. That’s what we did. And, then I’d have the coaching talk. Then in the afternoons, we brought in the better swimmers. And, went through drills and, then went to another hour of lectures. And, fortunately I had enough talks that I had devised when I was in Thailand.


Q: Do you think a lot of the information you’re giving applies to a younger coach I think about trying to learn from other coaches. Jim: It’s two different jobs, that you’re looking at, you’re looking a short term or long term. OK. The short term jobs for a weekend or two or three weeks, obviously those questions aren’t all that important, as much as the long term. Long term, if you’d rather see long term overseas employment then those questions are very viable.

Jim: I think it is important that you spend time with the swimmers. For an example in Thailand they have ten year olds train twice a day, seven days a week. And, they’re wondering why they didn’t have any fifteen year olds. And, the parents because they didn’t have the coaches who are respected as members of our profession in the United States, felt that they knew more than the coaches. So, they would take a child from one program and drive him across town to another program, to get that much more work. But they perceive you as being a better stroke coach, but I was a better training coach, they would take you for strokes, and then immediately bring the kid over to my program for a hard work out. And, we’re talking nine year olds. And, you know, that was one of the things as I went through the FINA guidelines that were established back in 1990 about how to develop a child for long term.  And, the coaches all said, that’s a great idea, but our parents won’t do it. And, I would also talk to the parents, and the parents would say, that’s a great idea but our coaches won’t adhere to that. So, they’re pointing accusatory fingers at each other. It’s sharing with them. Everybody in here has a vast amount knowledge but it’s knowledge that we kind of take for granted. But, it’s stuff that if we share with people that know less than we, it’s stuff that is appreciated. And, stuff that for some  of the developing countries, you know, we just need to get over there and share it with them. Like at St. Vincent, you know, they had no idea what a streamline was. The kids were just coming off the wall, their elbows couldn’t have been more bent coming off the wall, they tried.


Q:  when we were talking about family, and you said we did   a good job, did you go over there with other Americans?

Jim: No. No, when I referred to we I was referring to the organization. In that respect I’m kind of a real strong team player. We was me. I mean I was the coach and development educational program when I was there. But, you know obviously I won’t just say that I did all this, I was there working for the Thailand’s equivalent to ASCA. We have the American Swim Coach Association here, they have the Swimming Coaches Association of Thailand. So, when I said we, I was referring to the organization. I held answerable to the Board of Directors of Swimming Coaches Association of Thailand.

Jim: Contracts, it’s how you negotiate it. When I went to Saudi Arabia everything was included. We stayed in the coaches villa. Transportation back and forth was supplied. When I went Thailand the same applied. The only real key sticking point, and it wasn’t through any forethought of my own, believe me, I wish I was smart enough to realize that the economy was going to go in the toilet when I was over there. The real key is establishing how you’re going to be paid. Whether it’s going to be in the foreign currency, or the United States. And, whether or not you’re going to have the money sent to the United States or right there.


Q:    When the job is done, how could you go about setting   up yourself, when you came back? Does ASCA help with that?

Jim: When I came back to the United States when the Thailand thing, the contract expired on itself — it was supposed to be twelve months, and it ran out in eight — so, I was back here without any great, you know knowledgeable warning of what was going to occur. And, if it hadn’t been for friends who helped when I got back to the States, I would have been up the creek.  But, when   I came back from Saudi Arabia, it was, you know, I knew when I was going to be home and you just start preparing yourself. Fortunately I have a very supportive wife and some very good friends who helped when I came back.


ASCA would help if you were to get the Job Service Bulletin.


Jim: The question was on the short term jobs, like with FINA. Well FINA they supplies the airplane ticket and the Olympic Committee of the country that you’re visiting, will take care of your housing, your meals, and FINA will supply fifty dollars per day, including travel. And, that’s non-negotiable. So, you’re not taking these weekend or week long trips to make money.


Jim:   I think there’s a market to bring swimmers over here for training. I think there’s a need to bring some of the coaches over here. When I came back from St. Vincent they were going to send a coach for a couple of months. I think that’s kind of overkill. What I suggested they do is send a few coaches to this clinic. But still, I would think that to coaching experts to the countries is a good idea. Just to experience what they are having to have to go through. You just don’t know what it’s like till you go over there. You know, it’s like walk in a mile in your shoes.  To go  to St. Vincent and see that all they had on the entire island are two hotel pools, and the rest of the training is in the sea. That’s pretty tough to do intervals when you’re swimming to a buoy with a current. So, it’s important to send an expert over there to see what they’re training situation is like. But, then I think it’s probably more advantageous for them to send coaches over here, and do a mentorship like the United States Swimming had there for a while. Young coaches here in the States can go to some of the top coaches in the country and just observe. I think that if I was a young coach again, that’s what I would do. I coached for ten years before I worked with a top coach and I learned more in that one year with him than I had for the previous ten years.


In summation I would like to suggest for visiting experts, if you’re offered the opportunity, for you to give pause and question what you’re doing. It forces you to evaluate and to be able to articulate what it is that makes you a successful swim coaching professional. For new coaches, those of you who are just breaking into the swimming ranks, you’ll receive an opportunity for filling that coaching tool box that we’re talking about. That being able to articulate, be more versatile how you describe physical action in words. It will give you a great appreciation for our resources here in the United States. And, quite frankly what a great country we are. I know when I came back from one of my overseas trips I just fell on my knees and kissed the ground.


For older coaches, such as myself, it gives us an opportunity to share our knowledge and experience and stuff that we just take for granted. And, if you like to travel and see different parts of the world, where most of us can only read about, because we don’t have the funds to do the traveling on our own. It’s just the price you want to pay.


I’d like to thank ASCA and John Leonard for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon. And, this will remain one of the high lights of my coaching career. Thank you very much.

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