Interview: Chris & Alexia Bates, Founders of Study & Play USA

Here at Study & Play USA, you might have seen that we have recently launched our very own podcast, ‘In The Huddle’.

In The Huddle was created to give students, parents, coaches, and athletes, an inside look at the journey through US college sport and all that comes with it, the demands, the excitement and the opportunities.

In the first episode, we interviewed the founders of Study and Play USA, Chris and Alexia Bates. Over the course of the interview, we will get to know them a little bit more and find out why they started and what Study and Play USA is all about.

Here’s the interview:

Q: You have recently started a podcast! How excited are you to be starting a podcast?

Chris Bates:

Really exciting. Look, it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for quite a while. And I think the timing is really, really good now. I think with everyone spending so much time online during the coronavirus situation, it’s feels like the right timing. So we can reach a lot of people through podcasts and tell a lot of stories about people. And I think through stories, people get inspired that maybe they can go along this pathway and have the similar outcomes to these people. So being able to provide information to families that can help them make a decision on whether this is the right pathway for them, and then celebrate some of the successes of student athletes and those that have finished college. I think these are all things that we’ve been wanting to do for a while. So a podcast is a great opportunity to do that.

Q: It’s excellent. It gives everyone an opportunity to listen in the car, at home, wherever they might be, and just really dive into the behind the scenes as to what happens in the US college sport pathway, and just kind of understand a little bit more about the role of Study and Play. So if we wind the clock back, how did Study & Play USA start?

Chris Bates:

Well, quite honestly, probably accidentally really or quite organically in that, my experience personally was phenomenal. I went to a place called Oklahoma State University. I was lucky enough to have a full scholarship to go play tennis there. And four years later, I travelled across a lot of America, playing tennis with my new-found teammates from all around the world. And I walked out of there with a business degree that was very reputable and came back to Australia and realized a lot of people really were very curious about that pathway, and maybe asking themselves, how do we go about doing it? So I started helping some people a couple of hours here and there. And then very quickly 30, 40 hours a week of my time, I was trying to help people get on the right track. So it just became an accidental start, but it’s something that we’re very, very proud of. And it’s something that motivates us daily, ever since then. That’s about 15, 16 years ago now.

Q: And Alexia, how did you become involved?

Alexia Bates:

Well, it really came down to the fact that we were so busy helping so many people. And like Chris said, it was organic in that we both had other jobs. Chris was a teacher and loved that job. And I had a job that I had been in for 10 years. And to be honest, we got to a point where we were so busy outside of that, helping families and athletes with the US college pathway, that there was really no choice to be honest. And we were so passionate about it. Really, we really had no choice but to go into it with everything, to be honest. So that is how it started, by just sheer busy-ness and our love for it really surpassed our other roles.

Q:  Chris, you mentioned before that you pursued the US college scholarship experience. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like for you?

Chris Bates:

It was, in hindsight, the best four years of my life, really, in terms of growth and development for me as a person. The four years for me really shaped me because I was able to grow up, I guess, on the other side of the world whilst playing a sport I loved. It helped me realize that I was a very good tennis player, but probably not quite good enough to go professionally, which I originally wanted to do. It helped me realize I was actually a pretty good student after all, which was a different view to how I saw myself prior to college.

America has a way of helping people find themselves and finding what they’re good at. And for me, my academic achievements over there probably, in the end, surpassed my tennis achievements in my eyes. But then again, there were plenty of hurdles for me as well and I was able to overcome homesickness bouts and a surgery here and there, and all the things that happen for a lot of athletes whilst living away from home. So all those types of things held me in good stead. There was such amazing support for me over there. And look, it’s getting close to 20 years ago since I’ve finished. And I still call Oklahoma my second home, which is probably a testament to the positive experience that I had.

Q: How important is it to end up at the right college?

Chris Bates:

It’s everything really, because students will do their own research and something will spark an interest in them, whether it’s watching ESPN or hearing through other people or looking at online videos, YouTube, about college. And they’ll start to picture themselves at different places. But those places may not be the right fit for them. So if it’s got all the bells and whistles and it’s beautifully located on a beautiful beach, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience is going to be positive.

There’s a lot of factors that go into getting the right college. The coach is really important, we always stress that with our student athletes. The student athlete themselves, their attitude is a crucial part of it. You need to go into this process open minded and flexible and willing to give things up. The perfect college doesn’t exist in my opinion. There’s always something about a college that would be better, there are colleges that tick the boxes better. So it’s about embracing the positives of your opportunity and going for it. So yeah, lots of things involved in getting the right fit.

Q: Alexia, can you dive in a little bit deeper about what the process is to actually find that right college?

Alexia Bates:

When we talk to families, something that I like to explain it as is a huge jigsaw puzzle, and piece by piece, the picture becomes clearer. So there is a lot of trust that’s placed in us with the process. And we don’t take that on lightly, but the process can start as early as year nine, and there’s things that can be done at that stage. But it really comes down to a balance of athletics and academics, keeping both. In the US, you’re a student-athlete and ‘student’ comes first. And sometimes for Australian students, that balance can be difficult. So starting the process officially in year 11 to start working through everything and getting everything you need to talk, be in front of coaches, learning how to speak with coaches.

And honestly, the longer that you can have in that part of the process, the more likely of your right fit outcome, because it educates you. It educates you about what you like and what you don’t like. You’ll come to this with your own ideas. But as you progress, you will be educated, whether it’s by us, whether it’s by coaches, your coach here in Australia, all sorts of things. So for us, the process is in depth and we like it to be as long as possible, to really work with our families. And I have to say that that’s something that we love, because that means we get to know our Study and Play family so well by the end of this, because we’re working with them for so long. And I have to say, that’s something that I absolutely love about what we do, is those close relationships.

Chris Bates:

Just to quickly expand on that, the better our relationships, the better it is for the student really over there, because over the process, they are going to get to know us very well and vice versa. So when they’re in college, they’ve got a support network back here of people that have been there, done that. I think that’s a big thing. And I think that’s comforting for parents as well to know.

So if things do go wrong, which inevitably in life, you’re going to have your moments, whether it’s in America or here or anywhere else, but whether it is homesickness, whether it’s an injury, whether it’s being dropped from the team for a week, or whether it’s someone on the team bus really annoying you. It can be minor things, it can be big things. When you’re away from home, they can be amplified. So it’s nice to have a support network back here. And we love that role probably more than any part of the process, to be honest.

Q: I imagine you’re leaving all of your support networks here in Australia to travel into a new country mostly without your friends and those people that have supported you so far. So I imagine it would be a very daunting process to go through. Chris, what was your experience leaving Australia?

Chris Bates:

Yeah. Well, I didn’t want to basically. I’m the youngest of four boys, very, very close, tight family. I had travelled a lot as a tennis player prior to that, but it was always fleeting trips and I was never too far from a dose of home. So the idea of going for four years was initially really daunting for me. But I got a phone call from one of the players on the team actually, who was also Australian, and I’ll never forget that. He said, “Come here for a semester. When you get back, Australia won’t have floated away from the rest of the world. It’ll still be there. Your family will still be there. You never know, you might come here and love it.” The rest is history.

I obviously stayed for four years. But multiple trips back in between. And that made it a little easier too. Every semester is just over three and a half months of your life and with breaks in between and opportunities to come home and see family. So, yeah, I found it hard. There were times, interestingly, the homesickness for me set in as I neared my trip home, not when I arrived in America. It was always the closer I got to arriving home, it seemed to make myself more homesick.

Alexia Bates:

And something that we see a lot in our student athletes is that they form friendships very quickly. Their team becomes family, their coach becomes family. And American student athletes or students, they rarely go to college in their hometown. So something to remember that it’s not just the internationals, it’s almost everyone on campus is away from home. So very different to the Australian university system. You’re around other people in the same boat and that can really help combat homesickness because everyone’s feeling it and they’re there to support each other. Hence the quick forming friendships and long lasting bonds.

Q:  You mentioned earlier that the longer that you can have a relationship with a potential student athlete, the better. At what point, for someone listening, should they be thinking about this pathway for themselves?

Alexia Bates:

It’s never too soon to learn about it. And we are pro-education here, in that we want to educate people about the pathway, and it doesn’t matter how early that is. But from an academic point of view, year nine and 10 are the best time to connect with us to learn about the pathway and discuss subject selection, which is a critical part of the process, and make sure that you set that up properly. So you can do all of those things without officially or formally committing to the process, but just so that you can make the first steps in the right direction. To really start the process and to maximize opportunities, our ideal time is the beginning of year 11, to start the process that is. And there’s a lot of reasons, but the main ones is that year 11 and 12, here in Australia, is really full on.

It’s far more full on for an Australian high school student than a US high school student. So to be able to have two years to work through that process, it allows time to maximize opportunity, to speak with as many coaches as possible to help find that right fit and to be educated about the process. But it also allows the student to really enjoy what they have going on here in Australia as well. There’s a lot of milestones that happen in those years whether it’s semi-formals, formals, graduation, all sorts of things. And it’s really important to enjoy this process, as well as get the most out of it. So yeah, ideally, starting in the beginning of year 11 is the best time. Year 12 is certainly not too late at all. It just means that we’re having to condense things a little bit.

Q: What are some of the emerging sports at the moment?

Chris Bates:

One of the ones that we’ve seen massive growth in, in the last four or five years is rugby, on both the men’s and women’s side. So for example, those listening, you might have seen the success of the American sevens teams on both the women’s and men’s side. They put a lot of money into that. When Americans put money into sport, they invariably do well because they do have an amazing population of good athletes and raw athletes. But I suppose for Australians playing rugby, the opportunities over there are really increased because even though they do have such amazing athletes over there, we’ve got the nuances of the game that we’ve grown up with here that become really valuable to the coaches over there.

So it’s nice to have an Aussie on the team who can play that role of being almost like an assistant coach on the field whilst developing their own game. So rugby is a big one. Every year, generally, there are emerging sports that are considered. Beach volleyball is a reasonably recent one as well. Believe it or not, 10-pin bowling emerged a few years ago. 10-pin bowling is a scholarship sport. Yeah, so there’s a whole range. But generally, around about 25 sponsored or scholarship sports.

Q: You’re both in Australia. What would a normal year look like? You’re obviously working with US time zones, Australian, and I know for a fact that there’s other countries that you work in. How do you both manage all of that?

Alexia Bates:

It’s a balance, it’s exciting. For us, there are a lot of early mornings and there are a lot of late nights, with time zone differences. But what we love is we have our day here in Australia and we wake up to everything that comes in from the US. And that’s the best feeling, seeing all of that coach communication come through overnight, opportunities for our student athletes, as well as updates from our student athletes in the US. So I think that’s a pretty cool part of what we do, it’s almost two days in one. But yeah, it takes a lot of management, a lot of time management, but also we have a tremendous team that work with us. So it is not just on our shoulders. We have a fabulous team who equally is passionate about the pathway. They’ve either done it themselves, experienced it themselves, they’re either former teachers or parents themselves. They’re so passionate about this pathway. We all really work together, across all those different time zones and all those different roles that we play.

Q: Chris, did you ever imagine that this is where you would be at the moment, after starting with tennis and then being a teacher and now Study & Play USA?

No, I didn’t think I’d be doing this. I tell this story very, very often to students who get a little bit stressed about having to pick what they want to study at university. And I think my story, and there’s so many other people like me obviously, was that in Year 10, I was staring out the window during school classes, dreaming of playing a Wimbledon and being a professional tennis player, name up in lights. Not long out of school then running out of money pursuing that dream and going to college in America. Initially temporarily, I wasn’t planning on staying for four years. Four years later getting a business degree, then working in America for a little bit, coming back to Australia, deciding one day I want to be a teacher.

So pursuing that and then some coaching as well. And then, as we know, accidentally falling into the Study and Play USA role. So I guess that’s a good lesson for kids to realize that there’s no secret or one way to figure out what you want to be doing in life. It’s just whatever you are doing at the time, doing it to the best of your ability and opportunities will come your way. But yeah, very, very happy that we’ve landed here and we’re living the dream, I guess. It’s a pretty awesome job, that’s for sure.

Q: What are some of the plans that you have going forward to deliver through the podcast?

Alexia Bates:

Yeah, we’re really excited about the podcast. Chris and I, and our team, we talk about college sports, student athletes, the opportunity 24/7. And we could talk about it forever, and we have so many stories and so many experiences. We’ve met so many great people throughout the 15, 16 years we’ve been doing this. So it’s really a combination of all of those things. That’s what the podcast is going to be. There’s going to be talking with student athletes who have graduated, who are living that experience now, as well as parents’ perspectives. But not just that. There’s going to be so many other interviews with different people who can help our student athletes as well as just Australian students who might be in year eight and thinking about this pathway and not necessarily got their heart set on it just yet. But there’s so much that they can take out of it as well.

Chris Bates:

Yeah, absolutely. This pathway is not about placing kids into college for us at all. That’s part of it obviously, but it’s what happens when they get there. And it’s also the process to getting there. So this is just one big personal development journey really for these kids. And the way we see it is whenever we first meet them, and for some, we met with a family with a daughter in year seven this week. If she ends up going to college and then finishing college, that’s a 10 year union between us and that family. And there’s no reason why it needs to finish there either. We’re very interested in the futures of these kids and where college leads as well.

Chris Bates:

So we’re going to try and bring the audience a lot of perspectives from, as Alexia said, parents and students themselves, former students, students on their way to college, people in America. Some American coaches as well, and their perspectives and advice, I suppose, for families on how to best maximize this. And there’s a few surprises coming as well. We think we’re going to have a few special guests that people are going to want to get to meet.

Listen to this episode and many more here!

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An Aussie's Transformative
US College Journey

By Study & Play Director, Chris Bates