Exchange Students and High School Sports: Adjusting to the Reality 

 May 12, 2015

By  Laura Kosloff

Those of us who work with high school exchange students generally encourage our students to sign up for a sport of some kind. It’s a great way to find some like-minded classmates especially at the beginning of the school year when the exchange students are feeling isolated, lonely, and wondering how they will make friends in a strange land. It’s also a good way to ensure a teenager will get regular exercise and get out of the house and into the community on a regular basis.

Of course, the students want the sport they play to be on a team at their host high school. They have heard all about “school spirit” at American high schools, and how athletics play a key community role. They want to be part of that spirit and participate in that excitement. Coordinators for the exchange programs talk it up before students arrive (“you play soccer? Join your school team!”) and we talk it up when they arrive in August (“Sports practices start next week – what sport are you trying out for?”). We remind them how it will help them be a part of American high school spirit, make it easier to become part of high school life in America, and will help them make friends at the beginning of the school year.

But participating in school sports is not automatic. High school athletics in the U.S. can be extremely competitive; it is not unusual for students to move from one school to another to get access to a better team that might give them a better chance at a college scholarship. State associations oversee sports and impose rules to limit such efforts.  Unfortunately, these rules can impose limitations for exchange students. And it’s not just football: the same rules often cover other activities that are either “sports-like” or which just have regional and state competitions, such as cheerleading, choir and band, and more.

We’ve had a number of these situations come up during our eight years as local coordinators:

* Direct placements: If an exchange student has requested a specific host family the exchange student may not be allowed to compete in high school sports at his or her U.S. high school, although in some states, the student might still be allowed to train with the school team even if he/she cannot compete.

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Direct placement students (defined as placements in which the student has chosen this particular host family rather than being “matched” by the exchange organization) might be able to get a waiver from the rules through a defined appeals process. In Oregon, as in many U.S. states, exchange students on a direct placement cannot play on any school team governed by the state athletic association unless they get a waiver. Generally, of course, exchange students coming on a direct placement are not coming to a particular school primarily to play a sport; rather, they are coming to be with a particular family.  As a result it often may not be difficult to get a waiver. But each case is treated on its own merits, and for each case, the host family has to convince the school’s athletic director and coach to apply for the waiver and go through an appeals process. If the direct placement student were to play on a school sports team without such a waiver (even out of ignorance of the rules), the team could be punished and be prohibited from competition.

* Out of district students: Students who are attending a school outside the boundaries of their family’s neighborhood school may be prohibited from playing on teams at their new school, due to concerns that students may be moving specifically for athletic reasons.

Three years ago, we had that situation. A potential host family learned that their neighborhood high school – barely a mile away – had no more exchange student slots. They asked the school district if they could still host a student and have their student attend one of the other district high schools. The district agreed.

Unfortunately, under the state athletic association rules, the student could not play on a sports team at her high school, since she was now at that school on a transfer request. Once this was communicated, the host family and student proceeded to have the student join the cheerleading squad at her “home” high school; they felt it was more convenient for after-school activities. Additional misunderstandings resulted in the “home” school administration not realizing the student had joined the team and the coach not understanding that the student was not actually attending that high school. When the state athletic association learned of this arrangement, the student was removed from the team and the state athletic association imposed a competition ban on the school’s cheerleading squad for a period of time.

These rules do not just apply to exchange students. In our own school district this year, a student from one high school was a member of the orchestra at the other high school due to schedule conflicts at his home school. The orchestra was banned from the state competition because it had a student from another school as a member.

* Transfer students: In some states, there may be limits for certain periods of time on students who transfer to another school during the school year as to their ability to play on a school team at their new school. This can affect exchange students, if a student moves out of one host family and into a new host home in another town. As with other examples, there may be a process in place for an appeal of the rule.

* Students who have graduated: If the student has graduated from high school in his or her home country, there may be limits on his or her participation in high school sports here in the U.S.

* Varsity limitations: Exchange students may be prohibited from playing at the varsity level in high school. On the other hand, sometimes exchange students can only play on a varsity team if they are considered seniors at their U.S. school, regardless of their athletic skill.

Many of these rules were established to keep a few high school sports from turning into a business enterprise where coaches might be tempted to recruit students specifically for their teams. The rules may seem totally out of place when it comes to exchange students. But regardless — the rules are there, and they have to be addressed.  Students and host families need to understand so that they can have realistic expectations for the exchange year.

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So what can you do if you are a student or host family in one of these categories? One option, certainly, is to see if there is an appeals process and if so, whether an appeal is possible in your situation. But also consider other sports activities. There may be sports-related classes that are outside the state athletic association’s governing range such as martial arts, ballet, or fencing.  These can be fun choices for a student interested in the opportunity to try new things while here in the U.S. Also, think about other kinds of sports teams. If a student can’t play on their school’s official team, city or other regional recreational teams may be available in your area. Those city or community leagues can be good choices; given the competitive nature of U.S. high school sports as noted above, joining a recreational city league can give a student the opportunity for exercise and meeting people without the pressure of high-level competition. As a student, think about these options; as a host parent, try to get your student to look beyond the narrow traditional scope just of school sports. There are always choices!

  • Hello I don’t know if you still respond to these comments but I’ll be an exchange student soon and I’m really interested in playing highschool sports but I’m not sure if I’m good enough for the team.

    • Hello Mats,
      Yes, I do respond to comments! Glad to hear you are interested in doing an exchange — I think it’s a great opportunity. About sports — the answer can really be different depending on where you end up. I’ll assume you are coming to the U.S.; if you are going somewhere else, it could be different. In the U.S., many schools have more than one team for different sports, and so you could possible be on one of the less experienced teams. For example, I have two girls in different schools this year who both wanted to play basketball and both really didn’t have much experience at all. They were lucky, their schools actually have 3 girls basketball teams this year. So, both are on the least experienced team. They’re juniors, and most of the other girls are in 9th grade — but that’s OK. They’re having fun and learning. In some places, though, an exchange student might not be able to play — maybe there is only one team, and there are too many people at the school want to play. So you can see, it will depend on where you end up.

  • Hello I’m not sure if your still responding to these comments but my exchange sister wants to play a fall sport but try outs were months ago and most of the team has all their uniforms and stuff ready. I feel like she’s my responsibility at school since we go to the same school. I’ve been loving having her but it’s been so sad seeing her so depressed because Volleyball was the only sport that we offered that she also played in Italy. The coach and some of my friends say that all she had to wait for is her jersey and team gear but we don’t know how long that’s gonna take. I know it’s the second day of school but their games are already starting without her. Help!

    • Hello Luiza — Sometimes the exchange students have to wait, sometimes they just can’t play on their school team. Her program should have told her there was no guarantee. It sounds like the coach has said she can play, she just can’t play until she gets her team uniform. That’s not too unusual. As her host sister, maybe you can help her think positively — remind her she will be able to play soon, and help her think about other things right now. Encourage her to talk to people in her classes at school to make some friends. Maybe she can get together with people from the team so she can get to know everyone — she can go to their games I would think, and she can cheer loudly for her team, right?

  • We are hosting a 15 year old sophomore girl from Spain this Missouri high school year. She wants to play girls soccer in the spring. All her friends that she’s met so far will play on the girls varsity team. Is she eligible to tryout to play on the varsity team?

    • Theodore,
      Every state is different in terms of the rules for sports eligibility and even more so when it comes to exchange students. Some states don’t allow exchange students to be on varsity at all. Some schools require exchange students to be on varsity if the school is allowing them to be a senior even if the student has no experience in that sport. My suggestion is that you contact the soccer coach and talk to him or her about it — see what the coach thinks.

      Good luck!

  • Can the exchange students that come back for the second year play sport on the varsity again? If not, can they come to the practice?

    • Ming,
      I’m going to assume you are talking about exchange students in the United States — I don’t have any information about the rules in other countries. In the U.S., if a student comes back for a second year that tells me he or she is on an F-1 visa, and those students generally cannot play a school sport. The specific rule will depend on the state in which you live — I recommend contacting the state athletic association and asking them what the rules are for your state.

  • Hello there my name is Taiatini. I have been searching online as I am in need of help for my son to play sport while attending a high school in the USA. My son’s name is Rua and he is attending high school in Hawaii. The athletic director for the school is saying that because of the fact that in New Zealand that the students attend high school for 5 years but in the USA students attend high school for only 4 years there making my son is ineligible to play sport there. Can you please help me in any way about what I can do to find a way for my son to play sport?

    • Hello Taiatini,
      The restriction is a common one, from what I know. Schools and the state athletic associations that oversee sports in each U.S. state are concerned about fairness — they’re concerned that fifth-year seniors could replace students on teams or significantly reduce their playing time, since a 5th year senior would likely be more experienced and better at the sport. You might be able to appeal the school’s decision to the Hawaii state athletic association — they might be willing to grant a waiver for a foreign student. Ask your school’s athletic director if the school might be willing to support you in that request, perhaps?

  • Do you have any info on students who are coming from overseas and wants to play a sport particularly basketball?

    Our organization is a federal regulated 501c3 non-profit organization since 2001(EIN 33-0918441. visit http://www.irs.gov for validity). The mission of Kids WORLDWYD is to enhance higher education for all youth through the usage of sports particularly basketball.

    Participants enrolled in our program will experience high levels of basketball training to compete in selected venues where college coaches/recruiters will be present for the purpose of scouting perspective student/athletes for their institution.

    All those enrolled will be mentored on the importance of obtaining the highest gpa possible, SAT and ACT college entrance exam scores along with Peer Support regarding life experiences; i.e.: deterrence of controlled substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, mental health challenges, bullying and proper usage of social media.

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