Natasha Cockram reflects on her time in the NCAA to provide an insight for student athletes considering a similar path.

It’s that time of year where talented junior athletes will soon be finishing school and looking at universities, while graduates are looking at graduate schools.

It can be a daunting process especially when you are looking at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in America.

You are receiving messages from coaches from the other side of the world and they are all selling you their universities, what they have to offer and promising you things that will win you over in order to commit to their program.

It’s exciting, you have an opportunity of a lifetime; to pursue a sports scholarship in the ‘land of opportunity’. It really is a fantastic prospect, however as I have experienced, it is very important to do your research before committing to the coach, because many coaches are brilliant at selling the dream rather than the reality.

Being sold this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’, doesn’t always mean the program or university is a good fit for you. It’s always going to be a hard process choosing a team and university without paying a visit, as it’s impossible to know whether a team is a perfect fit until you are on it.

Going in blind when researching, not really knowing what to look at makes it easy to miss things. I thought I did my research, but looking back now I wish I had researched far more than I had done, but I was naive for believing the dream that my soon to be coach had sold me.

After spending four years on a Division 1 collegiate team, moving away from the sport, and now returning to pursue a post collegiate running career, I have reflected back and hope I can be of some help to those that are also looking to run collegiately.

Not only does this apply to those looking at pursuing a collegiate career, but aspects can also be applied to those seeking a coach or team no matter what level of running you are at.

The majority of NCAA Division 1 schools will have roughly the same facilities. The name on your vest doesn’t make you fast or happy; you have to buy into the program and culture – that is what will make you successful.

No matter how big or prestigious the university is on paper, when you are spending up to 20 hours a week with your coach and most likely the majority of your time outside of training with your teammates, travelling and weekends away with your team; that is a far more important factor to consider.

You could be at the best university in the country or be in what you would consider the coolest American state, however, the people that you are surrounded by day in and day out will have a far bigger impact than location.

These are the people who are there to support you when you are having a rough time and the people who will celebrate with you when you have success.

My advice for student athletes

My experiences have taught me a few things that I feel are important to share.

1) Social media is a great tool for doing some deep investigation into university teams. A lot of athletes tend to share both positive and negative stories and these can tell you an awful lot about the university and their running experience.

Often more sensitive stories around health are shared later on when the individual comes to terms with what they have suffered and are ready to share their stories.

It’s incredibly pleasing and inspiring to see teammates that I helplessly watched suffer when at university now excelling within either sport or life in general.

There’s nothing to stop you from looking at past rosters and doing some intense social media stalking…it’s surprising what you can learn.

2) Another good indicator to look into when choosing a coach is whether the coach recruits established athletes, whether their times improve or stay the same (or in my case got slower), or whether the coach recruits’ athletes that they see to have the potential and help turn them into NCAA champions.

It also says a lot about a coach if you see that they coach an individual through the collegiate system and then continue to coach them post collegiately.

This is an automatic positive indicator as it shows the coach-athlete relationship is working.

3) Something else to consider is dropout rate (as an example, I started in a class of 11 and by my senior year there were only five left and only one healthy).

You may not be able to find out the reasons for dropouts, but the figures can tell you a lot about the program. Quitting a team will never be a light decision as it means giving up funding and potentially leaving you without the university education you wanted or leaving you swimming in debt.

4) Another good indicator to look into is how many athletes continue their athletic careers after college. NCAA is a brutal system and often coaches will run their athletes into the ground resulting in a short career.

The reality of a lot of teams is that you are just a number and you are disposable. You use up your eligibility and then are disposed of.

5) Finally, something else to consider is just because the university has continued success on the men’s team suggesting the coach is good, doesn’t mean the coach is a good women’s coach and vice versa.

I am all for equality but in reality, for the most part, men and women require different training.

You must be able to trust that your coach has your best interests both athletically and academically.

If you have a lecture you are required to attend for your chosen degree that clashes with a recovery run, will your coach let you attend and do the recovery run around the lecture?

You must be able to talk openly about sensitive things and trust that your coach will trust you as much as you should trust them.

RELATED: “Running has gone from ruling my life to giving me a sense of freedom”

Natasha Cockram features in the ‘Fast 10: class of 2019’ and over the course of the year will share her running journey. You can follow Natasha on Twitter and Instagram, while further information about the ‘class of 2019’ can be found here.

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