“…it came at the right moment for me, in the right manner, and I’m very excited to test myself in an important and beautiful league…”
The above was a recent quote from England goalkeeper Joe Hart, after he completed a season-long loan move from Manchester City to Serie A side Torino in Italy. The protracted transfer of an international footballer from one club to another may, at first thought, have very little to do with a young athlete going on a sports gap year abroad. However the words of Hart, and the attitude that motivated him to move abroad once it was clear his Manchester City career was over, are telling. They underline the main reasons for why so many young sportsmen and women decide to take time out playing the sport they love abroad.
He may be 30 next year, have years of Premier League experience, over 50 England caps and played in 3 international tournaments, yet Hart still believes that he needs to learn. That he owes it to his career to keep on improving, to test himself and make the most of the situation he found himself in when it was clear his new manager, the famous Pep Guardiola, did not intend to keep him. In short, Hart believed that the best way he could continue to develop was by playing and living abroad in a completely new environment.
It may not seem as obvious for a goalkeeper but Hart will be tested technically at his new club. He has gone from one of the biggest teams in Europe, where his workload domestically was generally limited, to a side where he is going to find himself being worked a lot harder to keep the ball out of the back of the net. With all due respect to Torino, they are hardly a giant of the Italian game. There is also a greater emphasis in Italy on goalkeepers being good with their feet and their distribution, a weakness of Hart’s that was believed to have been the nail in his Manchester City coffin. Throwing himself in at the deep end will ultimately enhance his technical skills. Another quote sums up his admirable attitude, “I'm really excited to be here and play football in a different league. This new experience excites me and I'm going to work hard every day to improve myself as a person and as a player.” Indeed, wanting to improve technically is what motivates many to play sport in foreign countries, such as rugby players heading to Australia where the emphasis is on great handling, speed and avoiding contact as much as possible.
Part of the allure of doing a sports gap year in another country is the chance to immerse yourself in a new culture. The fact that so many return home vastly improved at their sport is partly due to them becoming far more well-rounded individuals. It is an educational experience as well as a sporting one. By moving to Italy, Hart is having to embrace a new city and language as well as new team mates, something he has cited as being a major reason for choosing Torino ahead of a more domestic option in Sunderland. As a goalkeeper, communication with your teammates is essential, hence why Hart has already been undertaking Italian lessons. He even opened his first press conference at the club in Italian. Whether he remains in Italy after this season or goes on to pastures new, Hart will have become a more confident and balanced individual for getting to grips with the kinds of challenges players just would not get at home. While there may not be language barriers to overcome, the reason many young athletes head to play in cities like Melbourne, Cape Town and Dunedin is to experience the cities themselves and cultures, as well as the sport.
It was well publicised that Hart made a mistake in his first game for Torino that cost his side a goal. That is part and parcel of exposing yourself to a completely novel sporting environment. Playing any sport abroad is a challenging experience – Hart knows that coming through any tests or mistakes will certainly strengthen him as a character and player. Indeed, since then he has kept two clean sheet, showing the assurance that had seemed to go missing at Manchester City and being praised by manager Sinisa Mihajlovic for his "enthusiasm, spirit and experience". He has also bravely taken on a leadership within his new squad, being described by his coach as giving more confidence to the side. Hart isn’t easing himself into his new life but tackling it head on. What is there to stop you from doing the same at your new club during your sports gap year?
It is remarkable that Joe Hart has just become the first ever English goalkeeper in history to play in Italy. People may doubt whether he still has what it takes to play for one of the world’s biggest clubs on the grandest of stages. What cannot be doubted is his desire to improve himself as a footballer – both on and off the pitch. If you’re thinking of furthering your own sporting career, taking a leaf out of Hart’s book would not be a bad idea at all.