TENNIS STAR DANIELA HANTUCHOVÁ ON THE LANGUAGE OF THE COURT VS. THE COMMENTARY BOX

by Lauren Pitts

IN THIS COLLABORATION BETWEEN UNIVERSIDAD HUMANITAS, CAPITEL AND CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS WE LEARNED ABOUT HOW SLOVAK TENNIS PLAYER DANIELA HANTUCHOVÁ, FROM A YOUNG AGE, LEARNT ABOUT DISCIPLINE, COMMITMENT, WILLPOWER AND HOW TO USE ENGLISH TO NAVIGATE THE INTERNATIONAL WORLD OF SPORT. AND OF COURSE HOW TO PLAY TENNIS.

Daniela’s career has taken her all over the world. She’s worked with coaches and players from many different countries and although they don’t have the same first language, they’re on the same page. Using English as a common language is a strong starting point, but it’s just as important to understand the cultures and personalities of the people you’re with.

When was it that you started to learn English?
I was 9 years old. Because here in school in Slovakia, the first language we normally learn is German. So Slovak is our native language and in schools it starts with German.

Did you enjoy the experience of learning languages when you were at school?
Absolutely. Also because I started to travel so early in my life, I had no other choice. It was interesting to see how what we learnt at school was one thing, and then we came to the real world. I had to face the reality and I realised I needed to pick it up big time, because it was not really the stuff they would teach us at school. Especially going to tennis. I actually learnt the book about tennis in English, just to kind of start to understand the words about the technique and what I needed for my sport.

Is there something you remember struggling with, or an area of English you found particularly difficult?
Slovak language is super difficult. I think we are in the top 5 most difficult languages in the world. So on top of that having to learn German, I have to say learning English was a little bit easier. But it was more about just starting to understand the real English, not the one as I said that they teach you at school. It was more the slang words which I never came across that I struggled with.

When did you start playing tennis and why?
Well when I was 5 years old, it was 1988 and it was the Olympics in Seoul in Korea. And Miloslav Mečíř from here won the gold medal for Czechoslovakia in tennis. It was the first time I saw tennis on TV and I asked my parents right there if they could buy me a tennis racket so I could go to the Olympics one day as well.

So aside from playing the actual game, what is it about tennis, and being on the international professional circuit, that you enjoy the most?
I really enjoyed getting to learn different cultures while travelling. I definitely believe that makes us so rich as a person, to try to understand different mentalities in different countries. But also what tennis taught me as a person. How I had to go about my training and obviously the discipline and the will power and accepting different situations at a very young age, has helped me to grow up very quickly.

Do you think it’s important to encourage those kinds of attributes in children? Like motivation and determination?
Absolutely. I think that’s why it’s also important to encourage young kids to do sports. Because I don’t think any other platform can give you those benefits and those emotions and that understanding about yourself. I think that’s where sport, in anyone’s life, plays a huge role. You don’t have to be a professional or an Olympic winner to still be able to push yourself and go to your limits, wherever they are. And that’s when you learn how to be committed, how to be disciplined. And also your mind just becomes so much more fresh, you feel good about yourself and then you can study so much better.

How does communication on the international circuit work for all of you?
I think it’s very interesting and a very good question because you normally work with coaches from different countries. And even though you speak in English with most of them, what they say on the court can have a totally different meaning to how you would say it, or how a coach from another country would say it.

I think it’s very very important to really make sure everyone is on the same page as far as the meaning of the words. Because it can sometimes be a little bit confusing, especially before a big match. It’s just that cultural difference that can be sometimes tricky. So it’s important at the beginning to make sure they talk the same language, even though it’s English.

When you were playing tennis, you must’ve been interviewed many times and put on the spot after matches. Has your background in learning English prepared you for these situations?
Well especially when you do the interviews right after the match it’s always tough. Because there are so many emotions involved and that’s when you really go to your native language. With the emotions and adrenaline, you are in your world. So I think that’s where most of the players have the biggest difficulties, trying to explain those emotions in English. And then once you cool down and you get to the media room, that’s when you put your working head on as a media person and try to be more focused. But on the court, you’re tired and there are so many things going through your mind. So it’s tough to put it in words in a language that’s not the first language for you.

[With sports] you learn how to be committed, how to be disciplined.

I think it’s very very important to really make sure everyone is on the same page as far as the meaning of the words.

So now you’ve retired, you do commentary. So if you have to commentate a whole match in English, do you find that difficult, or does it now come quite naturally to you?
It is tiring. It’s not difficult, it’s just it takes a lot of effort for me. And as I said, it’s probably easier than doing it in Slovak because I’ve done it for the last two years. But what I did find difficult was that if I had an idea or thought that I wanted to say in between the points, in my head in Slovak I would have the time to say it. Because our language is very quick. But in English I thought I needed more time to explain things, so it was more about the timing. And when to pause and when to go for it. It was much more tiring, say, 2 years ago, than it is now. Obviously if you’re working 16 hours a day not in your language it is going to be mentally draining! But that’s fine.

You now have a podcast series where you interview people, so now you get to ask the questions. What do you think the core values of inspiring people are? And how does having those values instilled in you help you get where you end up?
Definitely humbleness. It’s the one thing that puts all my guests in common. I find that the more success they have, the more normal they are. And that’s why I appreciate all of them so much, because I learnt so many things because they’re such inspiring people. Discipline is another key word. From whatever profession they come, whether actor, athlete, singer, the successful ones have the discipline and acceptance. Acceptance to make mistakes, to want to learn to improve, to accept that we are not perfect. So humbleness, discipline and acceptance. Those are the three ingredients so far from everyone that I’ve interviewed.

Would you encourage budding young sports players to focus on their language skills alongside their sports training, because of the potential international opportunities?
Definitely, especially these days, when their social media is such a huge part of their career. So that’s where I would encourage them to understand that it’s part of their job, it’s part of their responsibility to present their own brand the best way they can. They can gain a lot of fans thanks to that. If they are able to express those emotions on the court, and people in the crowds can understand them, obviously they will relate to them much more. So absolutely yes.

So kind of on the flip side of that, would you say that playing a sport is a good way to help develop language skills? If you’ve moved to another country and you need to pick up the language?
Oh absolutely. I think it’s such a great, safe area to start from. When I was in Italy I didn’t speak the language, but I was in a tennis club where I was training, and suddenly the sport becomes the language to start with. So you feel safe. Because ok, you don’t understand anything, but at least you can hit forehands and backhands with someone else on the other side of the court without having to understand him/her. And then slowly you start to be more brave, and slowly you start to feel comfortable. Whether it’s tennis, golf, even running. Sport is such a universal language, that it’s a great way to start if you are in a country where you don’t know anyone, you don’t know the language. At least with sport you know you don’t really need to talk that much!

It’s a good way to meet some people as well and integrate yourself in a culture.
Especially if you want to be active, you want to go to a sports club.

Photo by Mai Groves vía Shutterstock.com.

Lauren Pitts, Marketing Executive, Cambridge University Press. The World of Better Learning blog of Cambridge University Press.

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