Qualitative Analysis of International Student-Athlete Perspectives on Recruitment and Transitioning into American College Sport
Recruiting international athletes is a growing trend in American intercollegiate sport, and international student-athletes play an increasingly prominent role in NCAA competition. This research answers the following questions regarding the recruitment of international student-athletes and their transition to college life: (1) what is the most difficult aspect of the international university experience?; (2) what do international athletes identify as the most important factor for a successful transition to American college?; (3) how did international athletes hear about athletic opportunities in the United States; (4) what advice would current international athletes give international athletes considering a move to the United States to participate in intercollegiate sport?; and (5) what would the athletes have done had they not played college sports in the United States? The researchers solicited the assistance of CHAMPS/Life Skills coordinators at 15 Division I schools who distributed surveys to student-athletes, who in turn completed the survey, sealed it in an envelope, and returned in to the coordinator. A total of 355 athletes completed the survey, including 192 international athletes. Homesickness and adjustment to the U.S. culture were identified as the most difficult aspects of the university experience for international athletes, while the most important elements to a successful transition for international athletes were a strong support system from teammates and coaches and also from friends and family in their native country. Only one-fourth of respondents learned about athletic opportunities from coaches in the U.S., while one-fourth of the respondents learned about these opportunities from friends, family, and other athletes. The top piece of advice given by respondents was to realize that playing sports in the U.S. will require important traits like focus, dedication, hard work, and persistence in order to succeed. The results of this study highlight the importance of transitioning international athletes into college life. Once international athletes are on campus, a member of the athletic department staff should oversee the athlete’s transition into college life, focused on combating the top three challenges identified in this research: homesickness, adjustment to U.S. culture, and language. This staff member should serve as a liaison between athletic department personnel and other campus resources to facilitate a smooth transition.
**Key Words:** international student-athletes, recruiting, transition to college
Recruiting athletes from outside of the United States is a growing trend in college athletics as international student-athletes play an increasingly prominent role in NCAA competition (6, 9, 22). For coaches, who must recruit talented athletes in order to be successful, “the pressures to win, and the penalties for losing, are exacting. Many Division I coaches’ jobs are predicated on the strength of their programs, causing them to recruit the best talent they can find, in many cases from the international pool” (19, p. 860). Evidence of a worldwide search for talent is found in the 17,653 international student-athletes that competed in NCAA competition during the 2009-10 school year, a large increase from the just under 6,000 that competed a decade prior (11). Among Division I schools, over one-third of the male and female athletes in both tennis and ice hockey, and over one-eighth of male and female golfers, were born outside of the United States (11). In addition to increasing participation numbers, international athletes have dominated in individual sports like tennis and golf, and led teams to championship performances (13, 22). However, international athletes face many challenges in adjusting to the language, coursework, dorm life, food, cultural expectations, coaching, paperwork, and the style of play in the United States. As international athletes continue to leave their mark on NCAA sports, coaches and administrators benefit from understanding what difficulties come with transitioning to life as a student-athlete in the U.S. and how international athletes learn about the recruitment process.
Previous research has examined the adjustment process for both international students and international athletes to college. While researchers have noted that a lack of groups with which to socialize is a problem for many international students (7, 10, 20), international athletes have the advantage of being immediately placed within a team structure (14). However, athletes may still face similar obstacles to a successful transition including culture shock, cultural differences, academic adjustment, homesickness, discrimination, and contentment (5). Ridinger and Pastore (17) were the first to create a model of adjustment for international student-athletes, which included four antecedent factors (personal, interpersonal, perceptual, and cultural distance), and five types of adjustment (academic, social, athletic, personal-emotional, and institutional attachment), resulting in two outcomes (satisfaction and performance) to define successful adjustment to college.
Researchers have also examined the recruitment of international athletes. Not only can coaches create winning programs through the recruitment of international athletes, but coaches can also maintain successful teams with international athletes through the establishment of talent pipelines (3-4, 21). Bale (3) identified talent pipelines in which concentrations of athletes from certain countries were found in particular NCAA institutions, with coaches hoping that friend-to-friend recruiting will result in attracting elite athletes from a particular foreign country. Bale (3) noted that institutions unable to compete for homegrown talent, due to lack of prestige or unattractive campus location, established talent pipelines with a foreign country. For example, a talent pipeline of elite track and field stars from Kenya was found at schools like University of Texas El Paso and Washington State University, and a pipeline of track talent from Nigeria was identified at the University of Missouri and Mississippi State University (3). Talent pipelines are an important recruiting strategy, particularly when coaches are unable to compete for local athletes or local talent is not available for certain sports (21).
This research seeks to provide answers the following questions regarding the recruitment of international student-athletes and their transition to college life: (1) what is the most difficult aspect of the international university experience?; (2) what do international athletes identify as the most important factor for a successful transition to college?; (3) how did international athletes hear about athletic opportunities in the United States; (4) what advice would current international athletes give international athletes considering a move to the United States to participate in intercollegiate sport?; and (5) what would the athletes have done had they not played college sports in the United States?
The sample for this study included N = 355 athletes from 15 NCAA Division I institutions, including n = 192 international athletes. Schools selected for this study were based on a need to collect data from purposive clusters of Division I institutions, given certain factors may influence international student-athletes’ experiences at their United States institution such as school size, the size of the community within which the school is located, and the geographic location of a school (3). Seven schools were members of the Football Bowl Series (FBS) conferences, while eight were not. Eleven conferences were represented in the study. Eight schools were located in large metro areas with populations over 400,000, while seven were located in communities with populations under 170,000. Six schools were located in the eastern third of the U.S., six were located in the Midwest, and three were located in the western third of the country.
The researchers solicited the assistance of CHAMPS/Life Skills coordinators from the 15 schools via phone to see if they would agree to participate in the study. The researchers then collected the names of all international student-athletes listed on website rosters. The coordinators were instructed to distribute the surveys to the student-athletes, who in turn completed the survey, sealed it in an envelope, and returned in to the coordinator. Participation in the survey was voluntary and a letter indicating the participant’s rights were included, per the approval obtained by the university Human Subjects Review Committee.
A total of 192 athletes representing 57 countries responded to the survey for a response rate of 39.6%. The top three countries represented were: Canada, 24%; England, 8.3%; and Puerto Rico, 7.8%. Males accounted for 45% of the sample and females accounted for 55%. The responses from the open-ended questions in the International Student-Athlete Survey were content analyzed. Two raters independently examined the data and codes were developed to categorize written responses (18). To test intercoder reliability, the coders independently examined 20% of the sample. The codebook and coding protocol were clearly understood, as the correction for chance agreement (Scott’s Pi) exceeded .8 for all but one question, which yielded an acceptable .77 (23).
In addition to frequency counts for each question, chi square was utilized to examine differences between demographic variables, including: gender, native area of origin (Canada, Europe, South America), length of time in the United States (0-2 years, 2.5 to 3.5 years, 4+ years), type of sport (team or individual), class standing (freshman/sophomore and junior/senior), whether or not the athlete used a campus visit, number of schools considered (0-2, 3+), and whether or not the athletes had a full scholarship.
Ten variables were identified for the first question, “what is the most difficult aspect of the international university experience?” Homesickness was the most difficult aspect, accounting for 24.1% of all answers, followed by adjusting to the U.S. culture, 20.5%; and adjusting to the language, 14.7%. Table 1 displays all ten coded answers for question 1. In order to examine the difference between various demographic variables through chi square analysis, the ten answers in Table 1 were re-coded into four variables (language and cultural adjustments, homesickness, athletic and academic transitions, financial and logistical difficulties, and other). First, chi square analysis revealed that European athletes were more likely to note language and cultural adjustments as a difficult aspect of the international university experience than non-European athletes (χ2 (4, N = 278) = 12.1, p = .017). Second, Canadian athletes were more likely to identify financial and logistical difficulties than non-Canadian athletes (χ2 (4, N = 278) = 29.8, p = .001). Third, athletes participating in individual sports were more likely to identify language and cultural adjustments as a difficult aspect than athletes on team sports, while athletes participating on team sports were more likely to identify homesickness than athletes on individual sports (χ2 (4, N = 278) = 11.4, p = .023). Finally, freshman/sophomore athletes were more likely to identify language and cultural adjustments than junior/senior athletes (χ2 (4, N = 278) = 11.7, p = .020).
Seven variables were identified for the second question, “what were the most important factors in helping you transition to university life in the United States?” Over one-third of respondents indicated that a strong support system from teammates and coaches on their college team was important, and 20.2% indicated that a strong support system from friends and family in their native county was important. Table 2 displays all seven coded answers from question 2. The answers in Table 2 were re-coded into two variables (support system identified as important, support system not identified as important). First, chi square analysis revealed that athletes from the Carribean/South America were less likely to cite the need for a support system from coaches, family, and friends than athletes not from that area (χ2 (4, N = 267) = 7.3, p = .006). Second, junior/senior athletes were more likely to identify the importance of a support system from coaches, family, or friends than freshman/sophomore athletes (χ2 (4, N = 265) = 6.9, p = .006).
Eight variables were identified for the third question, “How did you first learn about opportunities to earn university sports scholarships in the United States?” One-fourth of the respondents learned about these opportunities from friends, family, or other athletes, while another one-fourth indicated they learned from individuals who had previously participated in U.S. sports. Only 23.9% learned from personnel related to U.S. college sports (i.e. coaches and administrators). Table 3 displays all 8 coded answers from question 3. Chi square analysis revealed that athletes playing team sports obtained information regarding U.S. college sports differently than athletes participating in individual sports. Team sport athletes were more likely to obtain recruiting information from those involved in U.S. college sports (i.e. coaches and recruiters) than individual sport athletes (χ2 (1, N = 180) = 4.4, p = .030). Additionally, athletes participating in individual sports were more likely to learn about scholarship opportunities through personal relationships with family, friends, and athletes, while team sport athletes are more likely to learn about scholarship opportunities through those involved with the institutional sport structure (i.e. coaches, administrators, recruiting services) (χ2 (1, N = 180) = 4.9, p = .02)
In a related question, international athletes were asked to compare the athletic facilities and athletic opportunities in the United States and their home country. The respondents overwhelmingly indicated that both the facilities and opportunities were better in the United States. Only ten percent of the international athletes believed that either the facilities or opportunities in their home country were better than what was available in the United States.
Fourteen variables were identified for the fourth question, “what advice would current international athletes give international athletes considering a move to the United States to participate in intercollegiate sport?” However, only four variables occurred in greater than 7% of the responses. The top piece of advice given by one-fifth of the respondents was to realize that playing sports in the U.S. will require important traits like focus, dedication, hard work, and persistence in order to overcome challenges. Second, 18.9% encouraged prospective international athletes to do adequate research on schools before deciding which school to attend, such as getting to know the coaches, athletes, and athletic facilities. Third, 14.2% recommended making the decision to play in the United States because it was such as an excellent opportunity. Fourth, 11.8% indicated it is important to consider academics and majors that can be used to obtain employment in their native country, meaning it is important to find the best overall fit between academics and athletics when deciding on a school.
Finally, international athletes were asked, “what would you be doing now if you had not had this opportunity to play for an NCAA university?” Responses were categorized by what the athlete would be doing (i.e. working, attending college, playing sports) and where they would be living (i.e. native country, United States), as presented in Table 4. Only seven athletes indicated they would be attending college in the United States, while 105 respondents indicated they would be attending college in their native country and only 33 would have continued to play sports in their native country.
American NCAA Division I universities provide opportunities for elite athletes from outside the U.S. to pursue their university degree while continuing to train and compete at a high athletic level, an opportunity not possible in many other countries. However, international athletes face challenges in adjusting to life as a student-athlete. It should come as little surprise that international athletes felt the most difficult aspects of playing university sport in the U.S. were dealing with homesickness, cultural differences, and language barriers. Many cross-cultural sojourners find themselves dealing with similar issues once the initial excitement of being submerged in a new culture wears off (1, 12). In fact, the greater the cultural distance between the sojourner’s native country and the host nation, the greater the adjustments international athletes would be expected to make (17). As was demonstrated in the results, Canadians, whose native country is culturally quite similar to the U.S., were much less likely to indicate a concern with homesickness, cultural differences, and language barriers (for many Canadians, the language barrier is non-existent). Canadian athletes were much more concerned with financial and travel logistics. The results also indicated that freshman and sophomores struggle with these issues more than experienced athletes in their junior and senior years.
The respondents to the survey revealed two key strategies to overcoming these difficulties and successfully transitioning into life as a student athlete during the first year on campus. First, international athletes indicated the high importance of understanding what international-student athletes are “getting themselves into” before committing to an NCAA school. Advice dispensed by the sample in this study focused on understanding the dedication and commitment required of an NCAA Division I athlete, knowing the differences between schools, coaches, and athletic programs at various universities, and learning which schools and academic programs could offer international athletes the best opportunities back in their home country after their college career is complete.
This strategy aligns with prior research. Craven (8) suggested the more athletes and coaching staffs are prepared and educated about the cultural differences they may experience while submerged in another culture, the easier their transition and adjustment to the new environment will be. In Bale’s work, several of his subjects suggested the U.S. college experience was not what they thought it would be, as over 30% encountered problems with U.S. coaches, nearly 25% had difficulties adjusting to the climate in their new location, and over 20% lacked motivation with academic work (2). When offered the chance to be a varsity athlete at an NCAA Division I school, many international athletes are initially so excited about the opportunity and chance to travel to the United States that the location and environment of the specific school they attend is not a key factor (15-16). As the results of this study indicate, however, current international athletes believe it is important for international student-athlete prospects to consider many issues beyond just an opportunity to compete in the U.S. college system before making the commitment to attend a U.S. university.
The second key factor in transitioning into life as a student-athlete is the development of a support system first built on teammates and coaches, but also built on family and friends back home. It is important for coaches and teammates to understand that international student-athletes identified developing a support system with them as the most important element of a successful transition. It is clear the relationships developed with the people international athletes spend the most time with are a key determinant to a successful transition. Coaches should also ensure international athletes have the technical support to maintain relationships with those at home through various video, chat, and online communication resources.
Another key finding in this study was that most of the respondents would not have moved to the U.S. or continued to participate in sports without the opportunities presented through American intercollegiate sport. One of the attractions of U.S. college sport is access to high quality facilities and abundant opportunities. Results indicated that the respondents felt the athletic facilities and athletic opportunities available to them as an NCAA Division I athlete were superior to their options in their native country. This finding could potentially be skewed as young athletes who did have access to better facilities and opportunities in their homeland may not have considered playing in the U.S. college system. However, this finding has key implications for sport managers outside of the U.S. Administrators of sport clubs in non-U.S. countries may lose elite athletes at the peak of their career as those athletes choose to accept an NCAA scholarship. If such club administrators hope to retain these athletes, they may need to examine the attraction of competing in the U.S. collegiate sport system (namely competitive opportunities and facilities) and attempt to replicate those factors in their native country. More research examining this specific issue is needed.
Finally, one surprising finding from this study is only a quarter of respondents indicated university athletic department staff, such as coaches and administrators, were the key source of information regarding the opportunity to compete in the United States college system. As illustrated in the introduction to this paper, recruiting is arguably the most important element in developing an elite college athletic program and many university athletic departments dedicate a relatively large percentage of their resources towards this endeavor. Yet the recruiting process does not seem to be overly efficient in reaching international prospects. Many of the respondents in this study indicated family, friends, and acquaintances that had competed in the U.S. college system were more important sources of information about playing opportunities at NCAA schools than were the coaches whose job it is to recruit these athletes. This study illustrates the need for coaches to more effectively and efficiently recruit the international landscape.
American college sports provide an opportunity for athletes from countries outside the U.S. to continue their playing careers and educational training in the United States where high-level athletic facilities and strong competitive opportunities abound. International student-athletes must overcome many challenges and obstacles upon arrival on campus, including homesickness, adapting to the culture, and learning the language. Coaches and teammates play an important role in helping international athletes develop a support system that will assist in the successful transition to a student-athlete. Athletic administrators also play a key role, as discussed in the next section.
### Applications In Sport
Once international athletes are on campus, a member of the athletic department staff should oversee the athlete’s transition into college life, focused on combating the top three challenges identified in this research: homesickness, adjustment to U.S. culture, and language. This staff member should serve as a liaison between athletic department personnel (i.e. CHAMPS Life Skills coordinators, compliance, eligibility, coaches) and other campus resources (i.e. academic advising, international office) to facilitate a smooth transition. The liaison can coordinate paperwork deadlines, information updates, cultural sensitivity training in the athletic department, and any programming that might benefit the international athletes. Such programming could include a peer mentoring program, utilizing transition to college coursework, placing international athletes with experts in teaching the English language, offering open forums for athletes to socialize with athletes from other teams, developing information packets with multicultural resources in the community and university, and establishing relationships with host families in the community (under the supervision of the compliance office). Acquainting athletes with American college life should begin as soon as possible, either on an official visit or having international athletes arrive on campus as early as possible to adjust to the language, culture, food, teammates, and academic expectations. Finally, developing a strong relationship with the international office is important in order to ensure all government paperwork is completely in an accurate and timely fashion.
Finally, in contrast to domestic athletes who take official and unofficial visits and have many other opportunities to develop relationships with coaches who are recruiting them, international athletes rely on their personal support system (i.e. club coaches, former athletes, family, friends) to gather information on U.S. colleges. NCAA coaches must continue to improve their international recruiting connections with former athletes and club coaches because they are still the top source of information about competing in the U.S. college system. If NCAA coaches want to successfully recruit international athletes, they should focus on improving recruiting connections with key members of an athlete’s personal support system. Previous research by Bale (2-4) has established some institutions are able to develop talent pipelines where information about an institution is disseminated by athletes who competed for a particular school in the past.
1. Adler, P. (1975). The transitional experience: An alternative view of culture shock. The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15, 13-23.
2. Bale, J. (1987). Alien student-athletes in American higher education: Locational decision making and sojourn abroad. Physical Education Review, 10(2), 81-93.
3. Bale, J. (1991). The brawn drain: Foreign student-athletes in American universities. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
4. Bale, J. (2003). Sports geography (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
5. Berkowitz, K. (2006). From around the world. Athletic Management, 18(6). Available online at <http://www.athleticmanagement.com/2007/01/15/from_around_the_world/index.php>
6. Brown, G.T. (2004, Dec. 6). Foreign matter: Influx of internationals in college swimming tugs on bond between campus and country. The NCAA News, p. 5.
7. Chapdelaine, R., & Alextich, L. (2004). Social skills difficulty: Model of culture shock for international graduate students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 167-184.
8. Craven, J. (1994). Cross-cultural impacts of effectiveness in sport. In R.C. Wilcox (Ed.) Sport in the global village, (pp. 433-448). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.
9. Drape, J. (2006, Apr. 11). Foreign pros in college tennis: On top and under scrutiny. The New York Times, p. D1.
10. Furnham, A., & Bochner, S. (1986). Culture shock: Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. London: Methuen.
11. NCAA. (2010). 1999-00 – 2009-10 NCAA student-athlete race and ethnicity report. Available online at <http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/SAEREP11.pdf>
12. Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177-182.
13. Pierce, D., Kaburakis, A., & Fielding, L. (2010). The new amateurs: The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s application of amateurism in a global sports arena. International Journal of Sport Management, 11(2), 304-327.
14. Popp. (2006, September). International student-athlete adjustment to U.S. universities: Testing the Ridinger and Pastore model. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Association for Sport Management, Nicosia, Cyprus.
15. Popp, N., Love, A., Kim, S, & Hums, M.A. (2010). International student-athlete adjustment: Examining the antecedent factors of the Ridinger and Pastore theoretical framework model. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 3, 163-181.
16. Popp, N., Pierce, D., & Hums, M.A. (in press). A comparison of the college selection process for international and domestic student athletes at NCAA division I universities. Sport Management Review.
17. Ridinger, L. & Pastore, D. (2000). A proposed framework to identify factors associated with international student-athlete adjustment to college. International Journal of Sport Management, 1(1), 4-24.
18. Riffe, D., Lacy, S., & Fico, F. G. (2005). Analyzing media messages: Using quantitative content analysis in research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
19. Weston, M. A. (2006). Internationalization in college sports: Issues in recruiting, amateurism, and scope, 42 Williamette Law Review 829.
20. Westwood, M., & Barker, M. (1990). Academic achievement and social adaptation among international students: A comparison groups study of the peer-pairing program. International Journal of Intercultural relations, 14, 251-263.
21. Wilson, R. (2008). A Texas team loads up on All-American talent, with no Americans. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(18), p. A30-A31.
22. Wilson, R., & Wolverton, B. (2008). The new face of college sports. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(18), p. A27-A29.
23. Wimmer, R., & Dominick, J. (2006). Mass media research: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
#### Table 1
Most Difficult Aspects of International University Experience
|Adjustment to U.S. culture||57||20.5|
|Adjustment to being an athlete||23||8.3|
|Financial insecurity or finding a job||15||5.4|
Note: Respondents could have multiple answers in their written response
Intercoder Agreement: Scott’s Pi = .89
#### Table 2
Important Factors for Successful Transition to University Life
|Strong support system from teammates and coaches||91||34.1|
|Strong support system from friends and family back home||54||20.2|
|Possess of key personality traits (experience, desire, patience, etc.)||49||18.4|
|Strong support system from academic advisors, tutors, professors, and administrators||25||9.4|
|Adapting to U.S. culture and the English language||20||7.5|
|Time management and organization||13||4.9|
Note: Respondents could have multiple answers in their written response
Intercoder Agreement: Scott’s Pi = .82
#### Table 3
Source of Information Regarding Athletic Opportunity in the United States
|Family, friends, and athletes||45||25|
|Individuals who had participated in U.S. athletics previously||44||24.4|
|Coaches and recruiters involved in U.S. college sports||43||23.9|
|In native country from high school coach or administrator||29||16.1|
|Sport recruitment service||4||2.2|
Intercoder Agreement: Scott’s Pi = .87
#### Table 4
Life without American College Sports
|Working||Attending College||Playing Sports||Total|
Intercoder Agreement: Scott’s Pi = .85
### Corresponding Author
Dr. David Pierce
Ball State University
School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise Science
Muncie, IN 47306