I learned so much in interviewing Hou. His integrity and grounding presence shines through his smile, as you’ll quickly see. I’m only sorry about the audio. Most is quite bearable, but some I had to fade out to quiet the wind and planes and text vibrations. The camera auto-refocused often but this is less annoying. You know what they say though: done is better than perfect! Video clip sources and topic timestamp navigation available through watching the below directly on YouTube.

Now for the write-up. Baltic tour done, it was time to get back to work in beautiful British Columbia. As luck had it, a good friend from many an ENYSSP conference — and indeed, the country rep for Taiwan plus a fellow EMSEP alumnus — was in town visiting his sister over the winter. We hung out as much as possible, from attending our first Decentralized Dance Party together to pausing for reflection at a serene Buddhist temple on Richmond’s Highway to Heaven, all the while not letting a minute fly by without somehow talking about sport and the mind… I quickly knew I had to interview Hou soon, to somewhere store his rich perspectives on these topics.

Hou stops to admire the iconography at the temple entrance

Houyuan Huang (en) hails from the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, where a passion for basketball led him to a career in education and sport, then to sport psychology graduate studies, and now towards developing ways for everyone — not just athletes — to holistically achieve their own fulfillment. He has been active online since that became a thing, from preserving workshops on Soundcloud to recording thoughts on national identity and not only on his very own YouTube channel, to blogging about the Mandarin Singing Club he ran while still a student in Finland. Dearest to my heart of all his internauting? That he’s a CouchSurfer!

Decentralized Dance Party!

Inspired by the freedom of Finland and the pragmatism of Germany during his studies in Jyväskylä and Leipzig, he has since returned home to found his own sport psychology consulting practice, MATT (en), where he now personally trains personal trainers in sport psych techniques to use with their clients. It is the first time I’d heard of sport psychology being used in this way, and Hou confirms it seems to be untested waters in Taiwan as well, but that the work is very rewarding. His many years of adventure and transitions are perhaps best captured in a video he made not long after finishing his studies abroad… something that resonated with me so profoundly, reflecting my own EMSEP experience, that it left me still and pensive with a smile and a sigh of how transformative an experience our program really was. I had made something similar once, but it really pales in comparison.

We met at the Olympic Cauldron in downtown Vancouver on Valentine’s Day of this year, right before Hou’s flight back home, immediately tackling the most difficult topic. Because, why not?

Defining sport

A part of Hou’s definition is acknowledging that other definitions exist, particularly the distinction some draw between “exercise” and “sport”. But when pressed, Hou sees sport as anything where you’re physically using your body to accomplish a goal in a way that is challenging and fun, with the last being key. External competition need not be present for a sport to qualify as such — it is enough that mere challenge exists, even if it’s simply internal.

Studying sport psychology in Finland

Hou’s first observation was Finland’s now famous, uniquely supportive approach to education. The Finns have many classes and lots of group participation, but students are ultimately rewarded solely with a pass/fail mark, something that made adaptation very difficult for many of the international students in his program since they felt their effort was not really being reflected by their grade. Hou’s mind, however, quickly started musing about how sports could one day be different if there wasn’t always one winner, a couple of runners-up, and then a long line of “I’m-sorry-see-you-next-times”. What if we really judged sport by cheering on those who met a standard and then supported the remainder who couldn’t? How might sport look then? More importantly, how might that change our world?

Hou was also surprised that in his practicum placement — a sport school in Jyväskylä — he didn’t see any sports on campus, nor hear of any competitions between schools. Rather, students were allotted extra time in their academic schedule to make room for their athletic training at clubs off campus. But this observation ran deeper: despite everyone being very athletic and healthy and always active in nature or playing sports (both in their free time as well as in clubs), Hou noted how — counterintuitively — few Finns win international competitions. He continues:

“Back home we talk about how we’re going to promote elite sports. And then people think, ‘If we have more and more people playing soccer, eventually we’ll have some good players.’ I believed that too, before I came to Finland. Here, everyone is very athletic, and competition-wise, they’re doing okay… as compared to Spain who, according to official EU reports, are ranked very low in physical activity but are doing so well in elite sport! I now think it’s a very different approach we need to take with promoting public health than just focusing on developing elite sport.”

And when I asked him about sisu, the tough national “grit” that is crucial to understanding Finnish culture, he had to laugh.

“In Finland, everyone’s talking about sisu! If there’s a wall, you try to break it… but this has a negative element as well, that you are now only focusing on breaking through barriers and not trying alternate routes or goal revision. Sisu is very powerful, but its use must be justified.”

I asked if sisu is a concept tied to masculinity, but this isn’t the case. It applies to everyone, reflecting the general Finnish egalitarianism norms where true value lies in work and not status. In a similar vein, there is no job hierarchy in Finland: you could be the president or the street sweeper, so long as you are contributing to society that is what is valuable.

But what about that famous Finnish shyness? Coming from Taiwan, Hou was used to a culture that hides expression, “But in Finland they do so on a whole new level,” he smiles as we talk of Finnish stereotypes-turned-jokes. “There is a great wall there, and it is very difficult to break through. You either have to show your effort or prove your consistency over time to be accepted.” Sometimes when you work with Finns they aren’t very responsive, but this only proves the old adage “still waters run deep”. It might not be until energy or change accumulates to a certain point that you will see some feedback or the performance result you’re looking for; before this, the going might seem very frustrating. Ultimately however, Finland is a very intelligent society and the people are really accepting of novelty, remarkably dependable, and sincerely helpful. Hou remembers a story, “I only borrowed books twice at the library — which means I use the Internet well! — but both times when I asked strangers for help finding a book they left and returned a few minutes later, book in hand.”

Jyväskylä and Leipzig in context

Studying sport psychology in Germany

Hou’s second semester was spent in the famous student town of Leipzig just south of Berlin, in what was once East Germany. He found the Germans’ quick friendliness a contrast to the Finns up north, but overall saw more commonalities than differences between the cultures, especially in both groups’ love of precision and practicality. But where Germans really excelled was in their critical thinking. “When working with them, you must be sure that you have a good point you’re sharing, and also be open to any criticism — it’s not personal, it’s how they are educated,” Hou explains, outlining how Germans draw a big distinction between themselves and their work. Criticizing the latter is how you improve, and (generally) not a reflection on the former.

Practising sport psychology in Taiwan

… this German style is in direct contrast to Taiwan where now students are slowly encouraged to ask questions, though the culture still encourages asking good questions. You can imagine the large internal struggles going on, resulting in few queries ever emerging from big groups. For this reason, working with smaller groups is preferable to foster a safe atmosphere for openness and curiosity to emerge, something people from more expressive cultures like North America often miss. A neat technique for drawing questions from an otherwise stone-faced crowd like this is to ask the more expressive individuals in the group to collect and then share contributions from the rest.

Since returning home from his studies, Hou is often asked if the Finnish education and sport systems could ever be “brought” to Taiwan. He does not ever see this as a possibility. “We would need to move Finland to Taiwan to get their system working here; our result-oriented culture just wouldn’t work with systems that focus more on process than outcome.”

Regarding sport psychology, the field is very active and quite popular in the country, with 10-20 departments in colleges and universities throughout already offering classes as part of their regular curriculum. There is a well-established sport psychology society that licenses its members under a legally-protected title that translates to “sports counsellor-teacher”, ensuring each member undergoes thorough training involving comprehensive internships and coursework. A big difference though, is that work (and therefore funding) is generally doled out through government programs, making practicing without a license very difficult if not impossible.

Applied advice

Hou has only been practicing for a handful of years but in this time (plus the years he’d spent working in classrooms) he’s picked up some great tips, particularly regarding the power of choice in raising motivation (which he hater learned as the autonomy aspect of Self-Determination Theory). “When my students were given an option in their activity, they were much more willing to engage in it. Once given autonomy, they start to speak with their choice,” he explains. For example, having students in a PE class run either two laps on the inner track or one on the outer track: “It really doesn’t matter for me, I just want them warmed up. But you should see how carefully they start calculating and weighing their options!” Another thing that’s becoming clear to him is how everyone has their own world inside their heads:

“It’s like a tiny city that’s been in there for 20-30 years. It’s hard to rebuild that so that it looks like the city I carry in my head. But perhaps I can help them add a building that I know very well into their city, which doesn’t mean tearing everything they have in there down but will rather help the rest of their world function even better.”

As for regrets, the biggest that comes to mind is simply wishing he had access to a sport psychologist while still playing basketball. Many of the things he now knows he could have certainly applied to himself. For example, when coaches stress commands like “be focused” or “never give up”, what does that really mean? “What if I’m really tired? We must clarify these terms. Like when I’m told to focus, it’s important to know where to focus.” Ultimately, Hou notes, it comes down to being lucky. And how do you get luck? By finding resources that make sure it tips your way whenever there chance is in question… to which end fostering a growth mindset really helps.

Regarding working with athletes, Hou has a neat trick of first asking “Where can I screw up?” in place of “How do I succeed?”, especially with younger players. This shift in conversation quickly brings about laughter, but also leads to a very sincere discovery of the correct behaviour required for success. His ultimate philosophy though, is to only work with people who want to be there. “If you’re sure then I’m sure I can help you. If you’re not sure yet, then spend some more time figuring it out, because I don’t want to push you,” he calmly explains. His best practical advice?

“Practice what you preach! If you think something is important, train it yourself. As a physical trainer or coach I can both practice and teach with my hands and my feet. But for psychology, language and behaviour are the only ways I can pass it on. To write, to think, to express it, you have to know it.”

This reflection ties into his personal motto as well. “I might not choose the best, but whatever I choose, I make it the best. Don’t waste time always looking for the best, be happy with what you have now and make it the best.”

Finally, his go-to resources are Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog newsletter and book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes that Stick, as well as Axel Hacke’s Der kleine König Dezember (The Little King December in English) for fun. He finds the APA’s Div. 47 listserv a great source of information and his favourite movie? Go figure, it’s Peaceful Warrior, the same as our friends from Gdańsk and Vilnius.

Wrapping this post up, I can hint that Hou is but one of three “Finns” I’ve recently interviewed. The others hail from Israel and India… coming soon! For now though, let’s wrap this up with some final memories from our temple visit and the fantastic experience that was the Decentralized Dance Party.

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