Common Myths About Studying Abroad as a Student Athlete

by Susan Salzbrenner
A local on a bikeride.

Do like the locals do: hop on a bike to explore the countryside as they do in Cambodia.

According to the NCAA, student athletes typically work an extra 20 hours per week compared to your average college student. Twenty hours on top of your normal load! It isn’t hard to imagine that studying abroad or dreaming about adventures in foreign countries does not land on the top of a student athlete’s priority list. There is a uniform, mythical understanding that student athletes just cannot study abroad. 

However, having to choose between your favorite sport and the experience of a lifetime abroad seems a bit unfair; after all, our lives are becoming more complex and globalized, student athlete or not. So, let’s take a look at some of the myths that have made it so impossible for student athletes to go and see the world, in order to resolve these nonexistent issues.

“I don’t have time.”

We’ve already established the fact that student athletes definitely do have a tighter schedule than other students. Instead of sleeping in or hanging out, they hit the weight room or the gym for the second practice of the day. But if you look at it objectively, this is only true for part of the academic year. Unless you play two sports in college (no mercy for you guys!), there is at least one distinct period during which you do have a more relaxed schedule. Make it your goal to find a study abroad program that targets that time frame. Not everyone has to study abroad during the fall or winter semesters. 

If you really cannot commit to a full semester abroad, then check out alternative programs abroad for student athletes, like internships or volunteering, or explore alternative semesters like a January program or summer study abroad programs, to nevertheless embrace the experience of living in a different country.

“My coach will never let me go!”

Well, if you tell your coach a month before you are planning on studying abroad, he or she will most likely not be too enthusiastic in supporting your idea. But overall, studying abroad as a student athlete can be integrated into the season preparation, by keeping an open dialogue and remaining somewhat flexible with your timing. If the coach is really interested in the future development of his or her players, he or she will understand and support the idea of an athlete studying abroad for reasons of personal growth, maturity level, and leadership qualities. Play with these ideas when presenting your plan.

“My sport is not played abroad.”

Many student athletes would be surprised to find out how many countries represent their sport. While other sports might dominate media abroad (e.g. soccer in Europe and South America, rugby or cricket in India and Australia), typically niche sports have developed a tight network all over the globe. What better way to meet people than by tapping into such a network (e.g., lacrosse in Germany is growing, basketball is huge in China, American football has big leagues in Europe). If you cannot find anything remotely related to your playing level, why not try another local sport? When else will you have the opportunity to try it out? Your body might even benefit from changing exercises, styles of play, or different muscle activation due to different movements.

A soccer player in Hong Kong

Fancy playing soccer with some folks in Hong Kong while studying abroad?

“There are no study abroad programs for student athletes.”

Actually, there are quite a few programs that cater specifically to student athletes who want to study abroad. Whether it is directly through your international office or through an external provider is up to you to find out. Certain universities have actually distinguished themselves by sharing successful stories of student athletes studying abroad. External study abroad programs for student athletes are provided by groups like Global Players, Athletes in Action, TeamGLEAS, and Beyond Sports pride themselves with being built to utilize what athletes have to offer.

“I can’t stay in shape while studying abroad.”

“There is always a way to go if you look for it,” said Ernest Fitzgerald. When it comes to studying abroad and staying in shape, he is more than right. Hop on a bike, put on your running shoes, or join a club! Universities typically have great facilities to work out, take classes or find a team to join. Don’t miss out because you are afraid of injuring yourself. In some countries, sports are organized through local clubs or associations, which can easily be found online. Joining one of these is a great way to meet locals and experience the local culture through their eyes. The experience of studying abroad is all about adapting, finding a solution to a challenging situation, and remaining flexible. Studying abroad as a student athlete will require discipline, independence, and more self-control (since you lack your teammates and coaches), but those are lessons you learn abroad anyway.

What about you? Are you a student athlete contemplating a study abroad program? What’s holding you back?