Before matriculating at Yale, Naishadh Lalwani ’11 had his share of individual squash victories, even earning a third-place national ranking in India. Yet for Lalwani, the biggest victories were yet to come. He said his individual victories do not compare to the feeling of winning a match for his team, something he could not experience in India, where he said squash is only an individual sport.
“Playing on a team is the one special part about the U.S.,” Lalwani, who is captain of the men’s squash team, said. “It’s so much more fun to be playing for something greater than yourself. I truly cherish having that team dynamic.”
While Sebastian Serra ’11 of Mexico City, midfielder on the men’s soccer team, has also enjoyed his Yale team experience, he said he never adapted to the American soccer style of play, which places on emphasis on strength and speed over finesse and technique.
Lalwani and Serra’s experiences prove that international athletes, who make up 8.6 percent of the total athlete population at Yale, can have vastly different experiences playing their sports in another country.
For some international athletes, those differences begin with the recruitment process. While some coaches have established international networks to recruit students from all over the world, some international athletes said they had to put in extra time and effort for looks from coaches at American universities. Other athletes and coaches interviewed also added that the recruitment process can be a challenge because of the different ways in which collegiate athletics are viewed across the world.
The emphasis a Yale coach puts on international recruitment varies greatly with each sport.
David Talbott, head coach of men’s and women’s squash, and Joakim Flygh, head coach of women’s hockey, said they put considerable resources into finding international recruits.
But Brian Tompkins, head coach of men’s soccer, said he primarily recruits in the U.S. Serra is one of three international students currently on the men’s soccer roster, and he said he walked onto the team upon his acceptance to Yale.
Lalwani said Talbott’s efforts are evidenced by the fact that all of the team’s top-five players are from outside of the U.S., and there are seven international players on the team.
Talbott said that he and his assistant coaches attend several large international tournaments, including the British Open and other world championships, in order to scout players. A portion of the squash recruitment budget also goes towards flying in international recruits for a 48-hour visit to make sure Yale would be a good fit.
Flygh said he and his assistant coaches probably spend a cumulative eight to 10 weeks on the road each year all across North America, including Canada.
Stephen Gladstone, head coach of men’s heavyweight crew, said that over the course of his years as a coach he has built up an international network of communication with coaches overseas.
“I have friends from all over the world from the times I coached internationals,” Gladstone said. “[The recruitment process] is no different if I heard from a coach in England or coaches in New Hampshire.”
But recruiting internationally presents a set of challenges for both coaches and potential athletes in other sports. The need to play professionally or not play at all in many countries means that the top athletes in other countries frequently do not have the academic qualifications.
Serra said in order to play soccer professionally in his home country, he would have had to drop out of school in the tenth grade.
“That wasn’t an option in my family,” Serra said. “But [the expectation to drop-out] makes it impossible for a coach in the U.S. to go and recruit kids, especially to Yale, when you need the strong academic background.”
Tompkins added that while soccer is played world wide, the socioeconomic profile of the typical American player tends to be middle-class or upper-middle class and from a family that values education. Outside of the U.S., soccer is the “street game,” much like basketball is in the U.S, he said.
“With the socioeconomics of other countries it tends to be that often the kids that are the best players are not necessarily going into higher education,” Tompkins said. “The very best players are going into the pros.”
Tompkins added that the talent pool in the U.S. over the past 20 to 30 years has been deep enough that it has not been necessary to place an emphasis on international recruitment.
But even if an athlete is both academically and athletically qualified, gaining attention from coaches can be difficult.
Vicky Brook ’12, who is from London, said it took a lot more work for her to receive the same amount of notice from U.S. college coaches as American tennis players. She said that she had to play in a large number of international tournaments in order to receive a similar level of recognition.
And while getting recruited to the U.S. is difficult for international athletes, the option of recruitment in their own countries frequently does not exist.
Brook and Jonathan Martin ’12, a member of heavyweight crew, said that within the United Kingdom there is no recruitment process at the university level, and one’s admission to college depends entirely upon academics. In fact, when Martin was applying to colleges in England, he was advised to refrain from mentioning that rowing was a part of his life.
Samantha MacLean ’11, captain of the women’s hockey team, said the same was true in Canada — athletics simply is not a factor in the college decision.
A CULTURAL DIFFERENCE IN ATHLETICS
The five international athletes interviewed said when they arrived on campus, they discovered that U.S. training places a much greater emphasis on strength and conditioning. Some said excessive conditioning could actually interfere with the sport itself.
“We did strength and conditioning to the point where it came before the soccer,” Serra said. “Our lifting coach here doesn’t really know anything about soccer.”
Serra said all of the time spent lifting in the gym translated to a much faster, stronger game on the field than is played in Mexico.
Yet “faster” and “stronger” are not always positive descriptions. Serra said the focus on brute strength made some soccer games at Yale feel more like rugby games. In the process, he said soccer lost much of its finesse and focus on creating plays.
But Emil Johnson, head of strength and conditioning for Yale athletics, said each team’s strength and conditioning workout is designed by professionals who are knowledgeable about the sport.
Tompkins acknowledged that in the U.S., strength and fitness does come before finesse at times in soccer, but he said that in order to win games you have to be able to exhibit both traits.
He added that this emphasis on power, agility and speed permeates through all American sports, not just soccer.
Not all international athletes interviewed believed that the American emphasis on strength and conditioning undermined the true nature of their sports.
Both Martin and Lalwani said that training at the collegiate level actually improved their levels of play in their respective sports.
Squash, Lalwani said, is a much faster-paced game in the U.S. than in India. He said in India, players can make up for being out of shape with talent, but talent alone is not enough at high-level collegiate squash.
“As a rower, I have improved considerably,” Martin said. “I have friends from the U.K. who were excellent athletes and now have dropped their sport. They don’t make it easy for you to do the sport that you love over there.”
Yet MacLean said making the comparison between training in one country and training in another country is difficult. She said that international athletes are making the shift from high school play to the collegiate level, and a higher level of training comes with that process.
THE AMERICAN RECEPTION
Some international athletes found that their sports were not as well received in the U.S. as in their home countries.
Serra said soccer is the premier sport in Mexico, but in the U.S. people are indifferent.
“It was weird coming here and seeing that soccer was not the game people wanted to go watch,” Serra said.
Lalwani attributed this indifference to the fact that the U.S. has more sports than other countries. He said squash is often front-page news in the sports section of Indian newspapers because it only has to compete with cricket, India’s main sport.
But even if a sport draws a lot of attention in a country, that does not necessarily translate to high attention on the collegiate level.
MacLean said that hockey is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in Canada, but Flygh, her coach, explained that women’s hockey teams garner more attention in the U.S.
Because of the country’s concern with gender equality, he said he has noticed that more female hockey players from around the world are actually coming to the U.S. to play collegiate level hockey.
“Playing in the U.S. is the best support you’re going to find because of Title IX,” Flygh said. “[Collegiate-level hockey] is the epitome for women’s ice hockey now … it’s the best environment for a female hockey player.”