The NCAA Explained: Part 2
BY CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
Foreword by Neuff
Following Charlie Wakefield’s first blog on the NCAA, we are pleased to present this latest piece, which goes into further detail about what you could expect to find as a British athlete studying and competing in the US.
As you read on, you will hear about Charlie’s experiences in the States as a middle-distance runner. However, we’d like to emphasise that what Charlie speaks about here does NOT necessarily reflect what your schedule may look like or how other athletes may view the NCAA.
However, we would still strongly encourage all athletes to read this article in full, as the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) is vastly different to how BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sports) operates, and what Charlie discusses here is an excellent foundation in helping you understand whether competing with the NCAA is something which may be of interest to you further down the line.
With the above being said, we hope you will enjoy this piece. If you need further advice on this topic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, where Charlie will happily advise on the NCAA lifestyle and application process where possible.
Welcome to Part II of my blog on the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) in the United States! My name is Charlie Wakefield and I made the jump to train and study in America as a student athlete last year, but returned home and reapplied to study in the UK following my experience living, studying and training in the US system. In this blog, I answer your questions about what my experience in America was like and more general questions about the NCAA and beyond!
Q: WHAT DOES THE DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN NCAA STUDENT-ATHLETE LOOK LIKE?
Notice how “Student” comes before “Athlete” in “Student-Athlete”? You’re a student first, athlete second, and that means you still have to study at university like any other student! From my experience, the commitment to work largely depends on what year you’re in and what university, however I would say that due to the structure and nature of the classes, it’s a lot more flexible in the US and British students often find it quite easy, at least in the first two years.
This would be a typical day for me at university on a weekday:
08:00: Wake up and get ready for class
08:30: Breakfast in cafeteria with teammates, walk to class
09:00: Class 1 – Psychology 101 (example)
10:00: Study at Coffee shop with friends/teammates post class OR physio work
11:00: Class 2 – Inferential Statistics 209 (example)
12:00: Class 3 – Public Speaking 101 (example)
13:00: Lunch with friends/teammates in cafeteria
13:30: Power nap/recovery/study
15:00: Get ready and walk down to the track for training
15:30: Training at the track – either a session or a run
17:30: Finish training, walk back to room and video call girlfriend/family/friends
18:30: Dinner – cafeteria with teammates
20:00: Evening free time, normally would study in Starbucks on campus with friends or sometimes walk down to the lake
22:00: Head back to room, rest/recovery/relax
Q: WHAT IS IT LIKE SHARING A ROOM WITH SOMEONE ELSE AT UNIVERSITY?
In America it’s the complete norm to have a roommate for the vast majority of your 4 years at college.
I initially was set to be sharing with a 6ft 3 giant American football player – ironically one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met! However, despite getting on really well with my initial roommate, we never actually shared a room as I managed to move in with an athlete from the cross-country team before he arrived.
I shared a room with French International steeplechaser – Titouan Le Grix. To this day, Titouan is a great friend of mine and sharing a room with him was one of the best experiences of my life. I was able to learn a lot from such an experienced and accomplished athlete such as his recovery routine which by the end of the semester I was copying and doing on my own.
Yes, you may get unlucky and end up sharing with someone who isn’t on your track and field/cross-country team, however in most cases in the first year the coaches will make an effort to try and arrange for teammates to be roommates. In your second year, normally you get the option to arrange your own accommodation with your friends or teammates, however this may vary from university to university.
Q: WHAT ARE THE MAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN STUDYING IN THE UK AND THE USA?
UK universities and even the best athletic clubs in BUCS, all have a drinking culture that you just don’t find in America. In the US, the legal age is 21, and the only time I can really remember the team drinking was the weekend after we’d finished the biggest track meet of the season. UK athletics clubs will often go out on a weekly basis, and that’s not to say you have to get involved, but it’s the reality of it.
US university felt to me like a continuation of high-school, and the classes are often structured like sixth form as opposed to the UK where it is much more independent, and lecture based.
The education in America is much broader, and I found myself taking a strange mix of classes, a lot of which had nothing to do with my ‘major’. You can pick and choose your classes, but the university puts requirements like in your 4-year degree, you have to take an Art class, a modern language, P.E. and other classes that seem completely irrelevant.
In the UK, if you are doing a maths degree, it is so much more focussed, to a higher level academically, and you are at university to study MATHS – that’s it. I had a friend who was able to take a 4th year English Literature class in his 1st year at university (and aced it), which should tell you enough.
*DISCLAIMER* This may differ between universities and certainly between degree programs – some have different requirements.
NCAA VS BUCS
It is undeniable, even by just looking at the results, that the standard of athletics in the NCAA is considerably higher than at BUCS.
Yes, BUCS has some elite athletes at the top end, but the NCAA will have Olympic standard athletes failing to medal at their national championships. A lot of the top end athletes of the NCAA D1 will go on to sign pro contracts, and many will return to their respective countries to win domestic senior championships without medalling in the NCAA.
The standard of athletics, in particular the sheer strength and depth in the US, is unmatched by anything else in the world, and if you want the very best competition, it’s the place to be. Just be aware of the commitment you’re undertaking and the trust you’re going to have to put into a coach you’ve never met for the next 4 years of your life.
Q: WHAT TIMES/DISTANCES DO I NEED TO BE CONSIDERED FOR A SCHOLARSHIP?
It depends on the team. That’s the simple answer, Oregon is going to have different standards for the track and field team than a much smaller university program. The best place to find answers to this is to search through potential universities you’d be interested in on https://www.tfrrs.org/.
TFRRS is like the Power of 10 for US college athletics and you can filter through teams and meet results of conferences/regions etc to see if your times would make a coach interested in recruiting you to their team. Typically for a full scholarship, you need to be bringing something to that team that would have quite a big impact on their squad, so for example one of the top 2 competitors in that discipline with a PB that could score points at their conference meet.
Q: WHY DID YOU COME BACK TO THE UK AND REAPPLY?
When I was in the states, I made the decision only a few months into my time that I wanted to return to the UK to study, and so submitted another UCAS application as a late applicant from the United States. I don’t regret my time in America at all, I think it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had: I made some incredible friends for life, had some adventures, and would relive the experience if given the opportunity. Here are the realistic reasons why I personally opted to leave the NCAA:
A 5 or 6 hour time difference is not great fun, and it can often mean calling or texting friends and relatives back home at awkward times of day for both you and everyone back home.
It often meant conversations with friends might go on for days on end, text by text, and I personally found the distance quite difficult. 4-5 months at a time on the other side of the world with realistically about 3 months at home every year alongside lengthy and expensive flights is tough. I decided it wasn’t the best option for me after trying it, especially as I was in a long-term relationship and close to my friends and family back home. You can’t travel home for a weekend, and you need to come to terms with the fact that over the next 4 years, cumulatively, 3 will be spent in the USA and 1 in the UK.
Of course, if you are seeking adventures, independence and a new group of friends then that might be a big plus, depending on your circumstances!
*DISCLAIMER* I cannot speak for all universities when it comes to the quality of the education but can only describe my own experience of the American education system.
All the European athletes I spoke to on my team said that they found the education and the classes really quite straight forward.
To me, going to the states felt like the standard was pre-A-Level, particularly in some classes in the first couple of years. The system is totally different to the UK; very broad, class based instead of lectures, and virtually zero standardisation across classes and professors.
As I mentioned before, the topics are much broader, which didn’t suit me so well as I was keen to learn greater depths on my chosen subject. The advantage of this is that it means you can dedicate a lot more time to your athletics and you’ve got the time and energy to apply yourself to it.
There is much greater variation in academic standards and experiences in the USA, and so I would encourage you to also consider this when applying to the US, and not necessarily choose a university based solely on its athletics programme.
In the NCAA, you are very much controlled by the coaches that sign you. In essence, the contract you sign could be simplified as you receive: scholarship and in return you give up: your legs, life and autonomy.
I found that it’s the norm in the US to have your training program and weekly schedule strictly planned and there is zero tolerance on missing a run or a training session etc. It is quite military, in the sense that everything is planned and arranged for you, the communication is one way, you don’t have to think, you show up to training and do as you’re told, and some people thrive in that environment.
Clearly (given the exceptional quality of NCAA athletics) this approach works for many athletes and regularly produces champions. I much prefer a training environment where you can plan your own race schedule, adapt your training based on your needs, and have a close working relationship with a coach that knows you well – that is the advantage of the UK in a nutshell. If one set program worked for everyone, then everyone in the world would be doing exactly the same training.
SHOULD I JOIN THE NCAA?
In conclusion, there are a LOT of differences between the UK and the US university systems, and even tiny things can have big impacts on your university experience. It is certainly not true that one is better than the other, as everyone has different needs for education, training and personal life.
The best piece of advice I could give someone if they were thinking about applying to the NCAA, is to take your time, ask the coaches the difficult questions, choose a university you’re completely confident in, do your RESEARCH and know exactly what you’re signing up for. I underestimated how much my life would change, and in different circumstances, I think I may have been inclined to finish my degree in America: it was an adventure, and I don’t regret it for a minute, however had I known what I know now about the NCAA, I do think I would’ve done things differently and potentially chosen a different university/training program.
If you have any questions or concerns about the NCAA, please feel free to get in touch with me and I will do my best to get back to you!
Thank you for reading and best of luck for the outdoor season this summer!
ABOUT CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
Charlie is predominately an 800m/1500m runner, but he also runs 5K and cross country.
As part of our blog team, Charlie will primarily be making content focusing on middle-distance events.
His goals over the next 5 years include achieving an England/GB vest on the track and breaking the 4 minute mile!