By Nate Dougherty
Are your basketball coaches planning to take their teams abroad? Chances are the thought has at least crossed their minds. This travel primer discusses scheduling and logistical considerations that administrators should be aware of when helping coaches plan trips abroad.
When players from the Augustana College men’s team donned their blue and gold jerseys for a game last summer, they may as well have been wearing red, white, and blue. Playing in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, they faced off against a Chinese professional team before a crowd of 6,000 under a banner that read “USA vs. China.” As they walked off the court following a hard-fought victory, the Augustana players were mobbed by fans seeking photos and autographs.
For a group of NCAA Division III student-athletes accustomed to playing before much smaller and less demonstrative crowds, it was the kind of attention they had only dreamed of. And for Head Men's Basketball Coach Grey Giovanine, it was an experience that helped forge a sense of team unity.
“The atmosphere surrounding that event is something those players will remember for the rest of their lives,” Giovanine says. “During the pregame meal, which featured a traditionally prepared ram, the lights were dimmed and we were surrounded by small fires. While we ate, there were singers, dancers, and musicians playing traditional Mongolian songs. It was priceless.”
Giovanine is no stranger to international experience. In 2001, he took the Augustana team on a tour of Holland, Belgium, and France, and traveled again in 2004 to Ireland. “The entire experience lends itself to creating team cohesion and chemistry,” Giovanine says. “You’re going to face some challenges along the way, but any time a group does something that unique, it’s a huge benefit.”
Whether visiting exotic locations or simply crossing the border, international travel can come in many forms for both college and high school teams. It can be a long weekend in Canada facing new opponents, or 10 days spent playing exhibitions and hosting clinics in Africa.
Scheduling The Trip
To start the process, you may want to find a basketball-specific travel agency to assist you. These agencies will schedule games and tournaments, make flight and hotel arrangements, and sometimes even send a tour guide to help players enjoy the local culture.
For coaches traveling for the first time, it’s important to research different agencies to see what kind of trips they offer and what opponents they can line up. “If you haven’t traveled before, it’s good to talk to other teams about their experiences with travel agents,” says Lafayette College Head Men’s Basketball Coach Fran O’Hanlon, who took his team to Italy last summer. “You want an agent who has good relationships with teams in the region where you’re going to travel. When a coach meets with a prospective agent, he or she needs to find out if the agent will travel with you or if you’ll have a guide.”
It’s also important for coaches to identify what kind of experience they want before sitting down with an agent to plan the trip. “When you talk to an agent, you’ll need to identify the level of competition you want to face and how many places you’d like to visit during the trip,” says Clemson University Head Men’s Basketball Coach Oliver Purnell, whose team spent the 2007 Labor Day weekend in the Bahamas. “They should go over everything with you, from the flight information to what hotels you’ll be staying at along the way. Make sure to be very thorough in the planning stages, because once you’re on the trip it becomes much harder to change something.”
Chad Wilkinson, President of American International Sports Tours, Inc., says there are many points for coaches to consider when arranging a tour. For instance, they should ask where the hotel is in relation to the team’s competition sites, whether there are any safety concerns in the area, if bilingual assistance will be available, and how meals will be arranged.
Coaches should also remember that some countries have laws that can restrict how far and often a team can travel once at the destination. “There are many different laws and regulations regarding tour buses and drivers,” Wilkinson says. “You have to understand the amount of hours your drivers are allowed to drive and the distances and time it takes to get from one destination to another--this can be the most difficult part of organizing a tour.”
There are also competition considerations. Having spent more than 12 years in European pro leagues as a player and coach, O’Hanlon knows foreign teams come in a wide range of talent levels, so it pays to inquire about the type of teams that are available to play. Coming off a 9-21 season, it was important for O’Hanlon to schedule opponents that would be playing at a similar level as the Crusaders.
“We didn’t want to go over there and get blown out by teams that were much better than us,” O’Hanlon says. “They have some good pro teams we could have played, but losing badly would have taken away from the team building we were trying to accomplish. So through our travel agent we targeted teams that would be competitive, and as a result we had some close games that really benefited our team.”
Sometimes, however, playing superior pro or semi-pro competition can be helpful for a team. When Augustana went 1-4 against stiff competition during its 2001 trip, Giovanine used it as a learning experience. “Those games give you a chance to try some things you wouldn’t normally do, like pressing more or playing different zone defenses,” he says.
For college teams, deciding when to travel is determined largely by the NCAA. Rules specify that trips must be taken during summer vacation or one of the school’s other vacation periods. Division I and II teams may travel once every four years, while Division III teams can go once every three years.
Nate Dougherty is a former Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.