Warning: US track scholarships can damage your health

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Warning: US track scholarships can damage your health

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As a coach and team manager at Tonbridge AC for the past 14 years, I have seen many young distance runners grow up with us and move through from under 13s to become seniors. Every one has a story behind them, which is full of ups and downs, plus choices that they have had to make, writes Mark Hookway

A number have been good enough to capture the interests of American universities, offering an athletic and academic education, backed by a scholarship offer. In just four years there have been eight athletes, close to me who have taken up this offer, plus one other from the club. We have at least three others, who have had some current dialogue with potential recruiters.

Now we have read articles in Athletics Weekly and the like, by athletes, supporting the experiences in the USA, but here I want to highlight that it is not necessarily a bed of roses.

At one stage, four years back, I used to sit on the fence a bit. Ok, deep down, I would dearly love our best young runners to stay in the UK and with the club, but at the same time, who am I to hold a crystal ball and say it will or won’t work out for you Stateside?

‘I could almost describe my attitude as one of anger and frustration at the way some have been treated and what has developed’

I couldn’t deny that the financial situation, the opportunity to dedicate so much to their running career and potential life experiences were huge attractions and not one I would have advised saying no to.

Turn the clock forward just those four years and my view has been changed. As I write this I could almost describe my attitude as one of anger and frustration at the way some have been treated and what has developed.

Eleven separate universities have been involved, across the nine athletes and at the time of writing not one could be seen as a clear success.

The closest that the group has got to a success is one gaining a part-time assistant coach role, following on from his time out there. Some have gone almost straight from school, whilst others have gone with a UK degree already in the bag, the latter of course seemingly having fewer risks.

At one stage my opinion changed to ‘there are positives and negatives and it can be a great experience when things are going well, but also a lonely place if ill, injured or lacking form.’ Now I am more inclined to be anti about how things have turned out for just about all of them.

‘It’s a great feeling to be wanted for your running and offered finance to do it’

To start with, if you perform in the UK, you will show up on the Power of 10 rankings or results and be approached by the universities. It’s a great feeling to be wanted for your running and offered finance to do it. As one parent said ‘he [the athlete] feels excited and flattered.’

The initial process for actually getting there can be an administrative nightmare and after months of work and cost, including a visit to a prospective university, one athlete didn’t even get beyond that stage. He ended up at a UK university and running well, but at an enormous cost to his parents.

We have had three runners that didn’t make it past the first term or semester. One was told on arrival that the aim was to be on 90 miles a week by early October, when he had barely run half of that previously. Not surprisingly illness developed, with low energy levels and disillusionment. He returned to the UK and has been training and racing well back home.

The other two, from these examples, have not been so lucky. One hasn’t raced since and the other has been struggling. Both were highly motivated and good athletes before they went. One of these was caught up in another danger of the US system, which is when a head coach recruits you, but moves on and is replaced by another. The relationship and attitude was completely different to the one that was sold to our guy.

So that leaves the remaining four, all of which are currently signed to US universities and trying to train and compete. Two of these have had experience of more than one establishment.

‘The pressure cooker environment of the US university system does not necessarily encourage long, uninterrupted spells injury-free’

Athlete A had a short spell in the States first time around and in the space of three months picked up a stress fracture, probably from doing so much running on cambered roads. His second spell has been dogged by shin issues and he didn’t progress beyond the conference championships. In between his two spells out there he came home, got fit and healthy and ran personal bests, but the luxury of taking our time was of course available.

This raises a key point in that when in the US you are there to race and represent your university. It’s an expectation. A slight injury, illness or loss of form is less likely to be dealt with by a spell of recharging, getting right and being patient.

Athlete B is probably our worst example of how bad things can get. Two universities, both spells involving injury, low iron levels and accusations of it ‘being in your head’ have left him disillusioned and demotivated. Again, he had a spell at home between the US college experiences and ran well and successfully.

However, back in the States the feeling of having to prove yourself in training and racing to get on the team can be a heavy burden. This doesn’t then necessarily encourage you to make the right decisions for you as an athlete.

I generally believe that to become a successful distance runner you need a lot of patience and work for long, uninterrupted spells injury-free. The pressure cooker environment of the US university system does not necessarily encourage this.

The penultimate athlete has had ups and downs in a year in the USA, as a postgraduate athlete. He is sensible, strong and had developed his training to a level that could cope with the demands out there. However, two injuries since the turn of the year have seen difficulties rear their head. The communication, diagnosis, follow up and care has not been at a level we would expect.

‘I am sure that when they are older some will look back with affection on their experiences in the USA, but it hasn’t made any of them better athletes’

We have experienced athletes getting good treatment such as plenty of massage and physio work, but not necessarily diagnostic attention to resolve issues. It seems to me that the aim is to patch them up and get them racing quickly, partly as their running careers there are relatively short and partly as the prime reason for being there is to compete.

The final athlete is possibly our most successful in the States. He has had some good performances, but his personal best at 1500 metres, his main event, is less than a second better than it was three years ago, whilst his 800 metres is no better. This is against a background where the university coach reassured us that he would develop into a world class athlete whilst there.

So that’s the background to some from Tonbridge AC and it’s not a great picture. I am sure that when they are older some will look back with affection on their experiences in the USA, but it hasn’t made any of them better athletes, so far.

My advice now would include a few things:

  • Firstly, don’t go straight from school. It’s difficult enough moving away from home anyway, without being on the other side of the world. It’s unlikely that your training and strengths will be developed enough at 18 to cope fully with the demands. Finally, if things do go pear-shaped you are putting your academics at risk, without having already established good UK qualifications
  • Secondly, don’t take for granted what you have back home in terms of support from parents, club, coaches, family and friends. A stable and consistent life can be a real bonus when building your training
  • If you do consider going to the USA, try doing some research by talking with others who may have attended the establishment and know the set up. If in doubt don’t take a risk
  • Be careful of false promises as some coaches are like salesmen promising the world and results but changing tact when things start going awry
  • If you are prone to injury, illness or struggle with your form, then think carefully about going. How would you respond to the added pressures and expectations?

If anyone asks me for an opinion now about a USA track scholarship for a young UK distance runner I would say that I am now against it, especially if someone hasn’t fully grasped the risks involved.

Of course some will be in a ‘nothing to lose by trying’ situation and I fully understand that.

Hopefully, my crystal ball still isn’t working and some of our guys out there will have good years to come. This won’t make me eat my words, but maybe will help once again address the balance in my mind about the arguments for and against the US collegiate system.

Words from @MarkHookway, Tonbridge AC coach and team manager
This article appears in the fourth edition of Left Spike from July 2016