When I first came to Barbados for study abroad, joining a sports team on campus was literally not even on my priority list. I hadn’t played any sort of organized team sport since high school, and it didn’t seem realistic to me that I would start up again on a Caribbean island three quarters through my collegiate career. But mid-February rolled around, and a couple things began to happen: I started to become socially and physically complacent, and I started to put on some pounds. Luckily, one of my hall-mates walked by me one day, tennis racket in hand, and a solution began readily forming itself. Eager to figure out what opportunities there were to play tennis on UWI campus, I discovered that there were Intermediate level practices every Monday. Recognizing that joining the tennis team would solve both of my current issues, I told him I’d be there next Monday ready to go.
I cannot speak for all of UWI sports, but from what I have experienced and heard, sports practices are a bit different at American colleges as opposed to the University of the West Indies. If you want to play sports on the varsity level in the United States, you’re going to most likely have to be recruited, regardless of the sport. Practices are generally everyday, with strict workout regimens and rules about attendance and conduct. If you play football for the University of Richmond, for example, you’re more or less eating, sleeping, and breathing Richmond Spiders Football. Here at the University of the West Indies, multiple exchange students have just shown up at practice and walked on the basketball, field hockey, and volleyball teams. The sports facilities on campus consist of a field hockey field, the cricket oval (duh), cricket batting cages, an indoor “coaching center”, one tennis court, one basketball court, and a soccer field down the road.
Now one thing I need to make clear before I continue is that I am in no way saying that UWI sports are a joke compared to collegiate sports programs in the United States, but rather that they have a refreshingly laid back approach toward most of their sports programs. You won’t find UWI students having meltdowns or burn-outs over sports-related stress (save cricket, maybe), like many United States’ students will have before they even get to the collegiate level. I find most students with which I talked about their experience playing sports for UWI love it, and some even get the chance to play in games throughout the Caribbean.
Tennis practices, however, are tough. If I had managed to convince myself that I wasn’t out of shape before I joined the tennis team, well, that changed fast. The Intermediate level team is composed of about 10-12 students, about 9 boys and 3 girls, on any given practice day. Needless to say the coaches have a tough job trying to get 12 players sufficient playing time on one court, but they do a great job of creating a program beneficial for everyone. They’ll have four stations, for example: One station will be a ground-stroke or volleying drill, another two will be some sort of cardio exercise (think burpees or frog jumps), and the last might be hitting against “the wall” (the tennis court is right next to the indoor coaching center). The Intermediate group was a great bunch of people and I made friends quickly, but one of the coaches, Raymond, decided I needed a bigger challenge. Thus about three weeks after joining the team I was bumped up to the Advanced group.
Now, I’m a competitive dude and was thrilled about getting more playing time with the Advanced group, but I was also pretty nervous. What if I showed up on Wednesday and just got absolutely thrashed? Well, it turns out a little bit of pressure can go a long way when it comes to motivating me. I crushed a red bull after my Wednesday night class and headed over for my first practice with the Advanced group. This was a smaller, more intense group, with only about 4-6 players per practice day, and it quickly became apparent that they were good. But as I said, I was extremely determined not to embarrass myself, and I played my guts out for two hours in an attempt to win their respect.
A month later, and I am like a giddy child before Wednesday and Friday night tennis practices. The coaches really want to see us improve, and are extremely constructive in their advice. One of them even plays on the Davis Cup Team for Barbados! I feel incredibly fortunate that I am more or less getting semi-private lessons twice a week for free. And my teammates are awesome- we’re all extremely competitive but it doesn’t take much for us to break down and start laughing when someone shanks a ball over the fence. It’s not uncommon for us to stay an hour later after practice hours and just hit around, even though we’re all exhausted from the two hours of drills and cardio beforehand. There have been many incredible things that I’ve done and seen in Barbados, but I would say joining the UWI tennis team has had the biggest impact upon my study abroad experience thus far.