Tyler Andrews is a professional runner for HOKA ONE ONE and a co-director of Strive Trips, leading student-athletes on service-learning based summer programs in Peru and Kenya.
Every person I’ve met who’s taken a gap year has said some variation of the same sentence: “It was the best decision I’d ever made.” This isn’t hyperbole, but is the literal truth based on my experience of talking with hundreds of college students and young adults over the years.
And I, too, was lucky enough to decide to take a gap year and, just like all the others, it really was the best decision of my young life.
What’s a gap year?
A gap year is when a student takes a year (or several years) as a break in their educational (or career) journey. The most common time to take a gap year is between your senior year in high school and your first year of college, but I’ve also known students who’ve taken gap years during college, college graduates who take a gap year before starting work, or even adults who take a gap year once they’ve begun working (though, this is usually referred to as a “sabbatical year” or something similar because adults want to feel more distinguished).
I took that most traditional gap year after my senior year in high school. I’d already been accepted to college and, after a simple letter deferring my acceptance for a year, I was all set. During that year, I worked various jobs, continued my athletic training as a distance runner, spent time with my family, and grew immensely as a person. That year ultimately completely changed the course of my life.
Why take a gap year?
I’ll break it down into four important points.
Work. I’d had the occasional summer job in high school, but my gap year was the first time I worked a full time job… at Wendy’s. That’s right, I made hamburgers and poured frostys from 4pm to midnight 5 days a week. I met people from completely different walks of life, learned about the value of hard work, and actually made some money to help fund some of the more fun parts of my year and my upcoming college expenses.
Travel. With some of my Wendy’s money, I spent 3 months in Quito, Ecuador as part of a volunteer placement. Going to Quito was the first time I’d travelled by myself and I’d never been to a country like Ecuador before. I learned more Spanish in my 3 months there than I had in 3 years in high school classes. More importantly, I completely fell in love with the region and would end up returning every year since then, and the experience would help me earn my first job with Strive while I was in college.
Think. I’d gone into my gap year thinking that I wanted to study a pre-med program and eventually become an MD. My placement in Quito — working at a public children’s hospital — was supposed to be a way to dip my toe into the world of medicine. What ended up happening was that I completely changed my academic trajectory. Working in that hospital made me realize that I really wanted to tackle bigger systemic issues as an engineer vs. pursuing a degree in medicine. My gap year gave me the time and opportunity to think enough and make that decision based on real world experience before getting too far down the pre-med track.
Breathe. Lastly, a gap year gives you the time to just breathe, relax, spend time with your family. At the start of my gap year, all four of my grandparents were alive; all of them had passed by the time I graduated from college. I was lucky enough to spend about a month living with my paternal grandparents during that year, hearing their stories and helping them shop for groceries or go out to the movies. Even as an adult, I often see my friends and peers rushing through life, struggling and stressed out because of arbitrary time-lines and goals they’ve set for themselves, comparing themselves needlessly to peers who already have this job or that degree. I’m here to tell you: don’t worry. Breathe. College will still be there in a year, and you’ll be a better person, a more appreciative and mature person, having given yourself this year before you arrive.
Gap Years for Athletes
Now, the final piece of the puzzle. You’re an athlete — whether a runner like me or a football or softball player — is the gap year still a good idea?
I can’t speak particularly well to other sports, but let me address the runners (and other endurance athletes) out there and hopefully the rest of you can take something from this as well.
When I graduated from high school, I’d really only run one year of competitive cross country and had a PR of 18’30 in the 5K (a time with which I’d struggle to make an NCAA team at any division). As a young person with an even younger “training age”, I had plenty of room for improvement and, as a motivated runner, I spent my gap year training by myself and with a local club team and improved my times enough that I’d be able to walk onto a Division 3 (or weak Division 1) team the following year.
Now, I work for a program called Strive, which organizes international service-learning based summer programs for high school athletes. I wish Strive had been around when I graduated from high school, as my own volunteer program simply placed me into a homestay family and left me to run by myself at 6:00am every day before work. I had to rely entirely on my own motivation, whereas Strive’s programs are built around having time for training each day.
Even without a program like Strive, the important thing is recognizing that, if you have the discipline and resources to stay motivated, an extra year of growth will almost always make you a stronger college athlete. Look at your gap year not as a year off from your sport, but an extra year where you get to train which will give you a leg up on the other freshman the following year.
But, be honest with yourself. If you’re the kind of athlete that needs the regimented practice schedule of a school team, find a club team or find an individual coach who’s willing to work with you as often as you need. Hold yourself accountable or find someone else who will.
There probably won’t be many times in your life where you’re able to take an entire year to pursue your own personal development. Taking a gap year is an opportunity to arrive at college with a better understanding of yourself and what you want out of life — and as a stronger athlete.
Of course, none of that will just come to you. You have to put in the work; but if you can do that — and, of course, you can — you’ll be just another person thankful for having made the choice.