Sports gap year: Out jump your job opposition

Create a winning impression for future employers with a sports gap year, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

"I 'm mad about sport and mad about Arsenal, so when I read about a new gap year scheme that the football club was running, I jumped at the chance of applying," says John O'Brien, 21. He now spends his mornings in an inner city London school working with children who are underperforming in English, maths and IT. "To help encourage them to get their work done, we give them a football coaching session in the afternoons," he says. "It's working well. They are improving."

O'Brien is one of a growing number of young adults choosing to spend their gap year focusing on sports. "We'd thought about running a gap year for a while and actually put it into practice for the first time this year," says Alan Sefton, head of Arsenal in the Community. "Basically, the people who get on it spend roughly four months doing what John's doing, alongside taking courses in coaching. Then they spend four months doing the same thing abroad - in John's case in Australia."

Like many organisers of sports-related gap years, Sefton insists participants don't have to be brilliant at the sport. "More important is enthusiasm and communication skills." And the benefits are multiple, he says. "They get coaching qualifications that can lead to future jobs and they come out with an unparalleled experience as a result of having made good friends, having had time abroad and having made a very positive difference to young people's lives."

While this scheme is voluntary, there are opportunities to get paid for doing a sports-related gap year, as Al Gosling, CEO of the Extreme Group and founder of the Extreme Sports television channel, explains. "Extreme actively recruits gap year students across the wide variety of businesses within our group structure to do a paid placement."

He adds that, for many people, the gap year is directly relevant to their career. "One guy who's a marketing student is with us for a year and he assists with marketing, PR, brand-building, product development and new business. He surfs and loves to take part in most of the sports you see on the Extreme Sports TV channel." Other advantages of the scheme include gaining an in-depth understanding of the sports industry and some very transferable skills.

There are literally hundreds of sports gap year opportunities, ranging from being trained in snow sports or scuba diving to working as a flying instructor or teaching swimming. And while there are plenty of opportunities in the UK, there are many more abroad, particularly in developing countries.

Probably the best known company organising sports gap years is Gap Sports. "Gap years can be spent doing practically every sport you can think of, from hockey to netball and from basketball to football. There's also a range of countries you can do them in," says Gap Sports spokesman Steve Perry.

Others, such as SportSkool, specialise in a certain area. Paul Beard, operations manager, explains: "With our scheme, you go away for 11 weeks to Canada or New Zealand and get qualified to become an instructor, as well as learning first aid and some avalanche safety. So you get to ski every day, but with a focus."

The company has now launched PoloSkool, which gives tuition in Argentina. "You don't get to qualify as an instructor, but you do get top quality tuition for a much cheaper price. We're also starting to do ScubaSkool in Honduras, where you learn how to be a dive master."

The fastest growing areas over the last few years are winter and water sports, according to Richard Oliver, chief executive of the Year Out Group. "If you take sailing, the opportunities range from learning to sail with a dinghy instructor right through to being an offshore skipper, where you pick up someone's high-priced yacht and take it to somewhere like Massachusetts for their next big race."

The attributes you need depend on the activity you go for. If it involves teaching kids, you'll obviously need to have empathy with children, and if it involves a lot of hardcore activity, you'll need to be reasonably fit and resilient.

"Even if the sport has nothing to do with your future career path, it will boost your CV," says Oliver. "Better still, in an interview, if you can lean forward in your chair and make an energetic case for why you did it, it will make you stand out above others who have sat around on their bums. It can only impress a future employer."

Daniel Satchell, 25, agrees. "I spent my gap year on a project at a surf school in South Africa and it definitely helped my CV." The experience gave him a massive confidence boost. "I'd never really been a leader, so taking groups of children out on my own really helped my confidence. It improved my surfing too. I've come on leaps and bounds."

Case study

Dan Cotton, 27, took a gap year after university to teach cricket to children in South Africa. He went through the company Gap Sports.

"I wanted to spend my gap year doing something more worthwhile than backpacking, although I did want to see some of the world. I'm very keen on cricket - I'm a qualified coach - so I approached Gap Sports to try to find something appropriate. I got a placement in South Africa working with underprivileged kids.

It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The biggest reward was the way in which it tested me. Here, when I coach kids, they have all the facilities and equipment they need, but over there we'd often find ourselves on a gravel surface with a few stumps, a bat and a tennis ball. In addition, there was a communication barrier because we spoke different languages and there was the racial divide. I had to think, 'How can I get 30 kids involved with this when they don't even understand me?' But I did it.

The trip touched me because it made such a difference to the children. The teachers over there tend to be in an older generation and don't have the time or energy to teach sport. Many of the kids have lost entire families to Aids and sport is a great common ground from which to give the love and attention they really need."