Tuesday Tips: A guide for athletes thinking of heading to the States

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2018 British champion Nethaneel Michell-Blake has success at Louisiana State University. Photo: MV4R Photography

Many talented athletes decide to continue their athletic and academic careers across the pond in the United States due to the lure of a high-quality training environment and heavily-discounted university cost. There have been many successful stories, but also some not-so-successful, and with so many different decisions to make, it is important for any prospective student-athletes to understand the process. This Vinco Guide hopes to inform potential student-athletes of what lies ahead.

Tip #1: Start Early

Primarily, it is important to start this process as early as possible. It can be a surprisingly long process when you consider all the paperwork that needs completing. Do not underestimate how time-consuming it is to fill in all the forms for your NCAA eligibility as well as to obtain your visa, which is approximately a month-long process that can only be done once everything else is finalised.

If you have started the process early, you may have time for your shortlisted universities to pay your travel to the States and let you visit each of them, which will provide you with a clearer perspective of where you would like to go. Starting early also avoids the problem that every university only has a limited amount of scholarship money available to hand out each year, hence if you leave it too late to begin contacting coaches, they may have already finished recruiting and have no money left to give, even if they would have been interested in recruiting you.

Tip #2: Think Financials

Do you need to go through an agency? There are many student-athlete agencies out there that can guarantee you a ‘full-ride’ scholarship and will do a lot of the doggy-work for you. Granted, they could strike you a slightly better deal. However, this service generally costs anything between £2,000- £6000 and after paying their service fees, you are likely going to be left with the same amount of money you would have received if you did it all by yourself, or even less. If you are a talented athlete, there is no real reason to go through an agency because there will undoubtedly be several coaches interested in you and offer a scholarship that you deserve.

Also, you must be wary that the term ‘full-ride’ is not 100% accurate. Although this is practically true, you will still have to pay the NCAA fees, fees for your visa and possibly application fees to your chosen university. Moreover, no university is able to pay for your flights to and from the country, so you need to make sure you have money saved for flights. You can expect to pay well over £1000 before you have even left the country, but of course, that is barely any personal expense considering your substantial savings on free tuition and accommodation.

Tip #3: Undergraduate or Postgraduate?

Are you looking to go as an undergraduate or a graduate student? A recently more occurring theme is that athletes decide to head out to the States for graduate studies. For those that are currently contemplating, a key consideration for this is understanding your development as an athlete and knowing your priorities. For those athletes currently at international or high-national standard, going as an undergraduate may well be a good option to continue to progress your athletic career in a highly-competitive environment.

These athletes already have the fortune of having an abundance of quality options to choose from. However, for athletes that are slightly below this standard, it may be wiser to have the chance to continue athletic development in the UK. The traditional university age of around 18-21 is a pivotal transition between junior and senior rankings: a key stage where several of the most talented athletes drop out of the sport whether due to recurring injury, loss of ambition or simply burning out, whilst unknown juniors (the late bloomers) suddenly emerge and become more competitive in their later years. For the late bloomers that decided to ply their trade whilst studying in the UK for their undergraduate studies, they can now look to the possibility of America with more options that would not have been available to them if they decided to go three or four years prior.

Tip #4: Research, Research, Research

A difficult dilemma prospective student-athletes find is figuring out how to establish where they want to go. Alas, look to your good ol’ friend powerof10. A great starting point is to look at the results page, which will show all American collegiate results that have had competing British athletes. This is very useful information as it shows you which coaches already have British connections as well as actually showing who is currently out there. This gives you a perfect chance to find out which people to contact as there is no better research than finding out first hand from athletes who have the experience. (Do not be afraid to message them as they will be more than happy to help!).

Tip #5: Location, Location, Location

Wikipedia, in this case, is a great resource for listing every university in each division as well as their location in the country. Remember, there is more than the student-athlete life than being a student, and being an athlete. Think about where you want to spend a few years of your life living. You have the option of living in the heart of one of the country’s biggest cities or perhaps live on a phenomenal, secluded campus. Living in a thriving big city means it is impossible to be stuck for something to do, but do not rule out a university that may be in a quieter area as you will have ample opportunity to travel when competing. Bear in mind the varied costs of living in different parts of the country as well. Moreover, you must consider the climate you will have to become accustomed to for training. Some parts of America have the extreme realities of athletes having to train in 40 degrees in the summer or freezing cold conditions in winter, whilst other locations are blessed with 20 degrees all year round.

Tip #6: Think Which Division Will Be Best for You

The American Collegiate system has division I, II, III as well as the NAIA. Generally speaking, the list is in descending order of the standard. Division I boasts athletic teams that can probably rival some professional teams, and usually those at the top of this level are of international standard and if you are capable of getting onto such teams then your research process will be a lot simpler. Nevertheless, just because a team is in division I does not mean that it is superior to every team in the lower divisions. Whilst DI has more depth, there is still a high standard in DII. In fact, there are several teams in DII that would not look out of place in the upper division. And the same can be said for DIII and the NAIA teams. In contrast, some DI teams can resemble a standard more suited to a lower division, as it varies depending on where funding is prioritised in each college’s sports teams.

Something to consider if you are perhaps on the border between two divisions is what you can benefit from the division. Do you want to be competing in championships? A 3:42 1500m male runner will be hoping for a national medal in DII but may scrape into qualifying for DI National Championships. Again, considering the financial implications, your scholarship will reflect your worth to the team – if you want a full scholarship you are likely going to have to look at the teams where you will be one of their top athletes, which may be a lower division. On the contrary, taking a lower scholarship offer from a better school will imply that you will likely be getting pushed by higher quality athletes that could help you further improve.

Once you have decided on a shortlist, begin contacting the coaches of these schools. Most coaches will have their contact details on the schools’ athletics page. A simple email telling them that you are interested in their programme and your current times is all that is needed to get yourself on their radar.

Tip #7: Training

This is the decision that will have the biggest influence on your progress as an athlete. Just like in England, all coaches in the States have different philosophies and it is important that you buy into one philosophy that you think will benefit you the most. Talk to the coaches as much as possible about their training philosophy and find athletes on Strava to see the sessions that you will likely be doing the following year.

Looking on TFRRS, powerof10’s American cousin, is also a great way to find out about the teams as this website shows every team’s current roster. From this you can gauge what kind of programme the university has, as some teams are more orientated towards the cross country season and predominantly consist of long distance runners, whilst others teams feature athletes that are more focused on the middle-distance events. You can also track and see if the current athletes improve throughout each season to see if the training programme appears to be working. Social media might also give a good indictor of whether you could see yourself settling in with a training group, and of course you may wish to message athletes to find out what their training group is like!

Tip #8: Choosing a Degree

Obviously, you are also going to be studying when you head to America and this should have an impact on where you decide to go. If you are an undergraduate, the degree you will receive will carry more importance to you than a postgraduate degree. This will likely be the most important qualification you will show employers when you begin looking for a job. Make sure the university has a degree that you think will maintain your interest. As a graduate, the subject of the degree may not necessarily be as important. Nevertheless, there may be schools that offer masters degrees which could really accelerate your career, so it is still worthy of thought.

By starting your research early and taking advantage of the abundance of resources such as social media, results databases and Strava, it is easy to get a clear picture of where you want to go to become a Student-Athlete, before starting contact with the coaches and finalising where your journey will take you.