This morning Ryan and I went to a funeral for the brother of one of our former athletes who was also the cousin of another one of our athletes. My heart broke as I listened to his family talk about him. It ached for them to hear how amazing and outgoing and friendly he was and how much he meant in their lives and while I did not personally know him, my heart shattered to hear that he ultimately took his own life. It brought to the forefront of my mind just how important our mental health is.
As athletes we are compared to others every single day of our careers. From the time we first pick up a ball, we are compared to others. For kids, growing up being constantly compared to others can often form our identity not just as athletes, but also as humans.
I grew up in the small town of Flagstaff, Az. When it came to soccer in my town, I always considered myself one of the best players my age. I was the prototypical “big fish in a small pond”. Many of us who grow up playing sports, if we are being honest with ourselves, fall into that category. While my confidence as an athlete soared, my confidence as a young person absolutely did not. I found myself drawn to sports because it was the place where I felt like I most shined. Where people thought I was “good enough”. I came from a home where my parents supported every single thing we did and got behind us 100% every time and in every way. I remember vividly the car rides home sometimes being story time to talk about some big win we had just had. They weren’t all that way, but many of them were. My parents also made sure to let me know how important being kind was, and how important being respectful and genuine was, but to a kid who only ever got praise from the outside world for what I could do on a soccer field, it became who I was in my own mind. I was Nick, the soccer player. Since it was a common name, people even referred to me that way when trying to differentiate between me and the other Nick’s I grew up with My point is that being the big fish can often give us a little bit of a false sense of where we actually stand. I played for a brand new club that was definitely not a serious contender even with the top clubs in the state of Arizona, much less with the top clubs in the country. Sure, I was the leading scorer on my team most years, but how did that truly compare to kids nationally? I never really knew, especially in the day and age pre internet.
Currently we have an alum who transferred schools to play her 5th year in college. She went from playing on the 2’s pair in the NCAA tournament last year with the 5th ranked team in the nation to transferring to the preseason #1 school in the country. Every athlete’s dream is to see just how far they can take their sport. My soccer career was cut short by a nasty tib/fib break that ended me. I never got the opportunity to see how far my dream could go, so to see this young lady having the courage to get outside her comfort zone and challenge herself makes me so proud of her! Since transferring she has been fighting every day for a spot in the lineup. She is in for some matches and out for others as the battle through the season has continued. She could have stayed with the school she was at for another year and probably played every single match, but she wanted to see just how far she could go in the game.
The club I coach for selects a National Team every year. These players are selected to go and compete at the national level against the best of the best the country has to offer. Our club is perennially one of the top 10 clubs in the nation and players come to us from all over the country to train. We are fortunate enough to have been able to place 93 players into colleges in the last decade. When you set foot in the sand at one of our practices, chances are there is a future D1 commit for a top 10 school either on your court, or on the court next to you if not multiple. We put our players into the best and most competitive events that we can find so that they can always continue to be challenged and grow.
While it is amazing to have so much success, it also brings some very difficult situations for young people and helping them to navigate them the right way is so key! We have had so many players along the way tell us that they were afraid to come try our club because they have heard that the players are so good. Some players come to us having never played the sport before. Others come in with some skill and are ready to take their game to the next level. Some start in our regional program and work their way up to national. Others come in and hit the ground running with our national team. Each one has their own path. Regardless of where they start with us, once they hit the sand with us, they become family. When we showed up at the funeral this morning, we didn’t show up because those two athletes we coached were amazing volleyball players. We showed up because they are amazing humans. While so many people, myself included, can lose themselves in their sport and have their identity feel so tied to their success within that sport, in the end, what they are truly remembered for by EVERYONE around them is who they are, not what they could do on the court.
Each player that comes to our program is tested every single day! The kids in our program don’t get to be the “big fish” because on the court with them there are other fish that are just as big. As they go out and compete with each other, often times those that aren’t having success may feel like they aren’t good enough or that they will never be good enough. For many of them, their only perspective is the way they keep testing themselves against national competition and against players even on their own team that are potential All-Americans. It’s really hard to help them to gain the perspective they truly need in order to walk away from the sport somewhere down the road and be confident in who they are. Perspective is everything and to survive an incredibly competitive environment you have to have the right mindset. If they walked outside our program and went to high school matches all over the country, they might realize that while they may feel like they aren’t getting better within our program because everyone else around them is getting better with them so it is hard to notice, they are so incredibly talented compared to the 99% of players their own age. Truly accepting that and knowing that even when they don't feel it, they are growing is huge! Without that understanding and perspective, it's easy to feel like a failure.
One of the biggest drawbacks to going to the high school that was state champions at your sport, or to the club that has won multiple national championships is that you don’t get the opportunity to see what the rest of the people your age are doing. If you are constantly playing against the best national competition, you’re only able to compare yourself to that competition. Without the contrast of the other side, you may think you are the other side. So just like the player we have who transferred to the #1 college in the nation to truly see where she stood, you have to bring the right mindset to what you are doing. If you expect to just go, put in the work, and have the outcome you want happen, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. I bet there is a large percentage of people out there who thought that if they put in the work, they could be Michael Jordan. Guess what, there is only one Michael Jordan. There are also a lot of players that made it to the NBA that aren’t Michael Jordan. There are still more that went on to play in college and never went pro who also put in the work. There are even more than that who put in the work and didn’t make it to college at all for various reasons… injuries, finances, family obligations, or even that after all the work, they still just didn’t have what it takes. While that last part is the scary part, putting in the work and not finding the success hurts, but I have to imagine that not putting in the work and always wondering would have to hurt a whole lot more and for a whole lot longer.
Tying my self worth to my sport was so incredibly wrong that it nearly broke me. When I broke my shin, I lost my way. All of a sudden the one thing that I felt defined me was gone in a heartbeat and what was I if I wasn’t a great soccer player? For years I floundered trying to find myself and figure out who I was meant to be. It would take me YEARS to be able to answer that question. Now I know! I know that I am the person that will send you a message just to check in on you and let you know I’m thinking about you. I am a brother, I’m an uncle, I’m a son, I am a grandson. I am a passionate coach who tries as hard as I can each day to help to not only teach kids the game, but to show them that they are understood, valued, and cared for. A coach who tries to help each kid find their own identity in who they are outside of the sport because I know how important that is to all of the years after you can no longer do what you once could.
I admire the big fish. I admire the kid who, while it comes easy to them, can still continue to grind to see how far the game can take them. I admire the little fish too. The underdog. The one who wakes up every day knowing there is a mountain in front of them to climb to get to where they want to go. The one who takes two steps forward and one step back. The one who constantly compares herself to her peers and questions her self worth because she may not feel good enough. That kid that in the face of it all still wakes up every morning knowing the hard is coming and shows up anyway. While not every big fish loses themselves into the identity of who they are in the sport they play, many do. While not every kid who struggles has self doubt, many do. I admire them both because they both keep showing up for themselves.
I could tell you a million reasons why kids truly impact my life and none of them are volleyball skill related. I’ll always show up for the kid who baked pies and sold them to pay for her training. I’ll always show up for the kid who took others under her wing as the big fish to help them to grow. I’ll always show up for the kid who waits around after practice every single day without fail to give a high five to each of her coaches, look them in the eyes and say thank you before she leaves. I’ll always show up for the kid who comes to practice every single day, puts on a smile, and gives me everything she has even when sometimes she feels like giving up. I’ll always show up for the kid who takes the high road when everyone else is joining in on spreading the rumors about someone. In my nearly 20 years coaching I have seen so much. If I could tell each and every kid one thing, it would be that who they are in all of their actions will always mean more in life than what they can do on a volleyball court.
So to ALL the fish out there, big and small. You are so much more than the team you made or didn’t make. You are so much more than the last point you played. You are so much more than the medal you won or didn’t win. You are so much more than the playing time you got or didn’t get. You are so much more than the court you train on or didn’t get to train on. You are so much more than the match point swing you made or missed. You are so much more than the partner who chooses you or doesn’t choose you. You are so much more than the win or loss. You are so much more than your ability to play the sport you love! In fact, it is your ability to continue to show up every single day overwhelms me. It is your ability to find that glimmer of belief in yourself and continue to help it grow that impresses me. It is your ability to dig deep when things are hard and you want to give up that inspires me, and it is THAT ability that means that every single day you continue to show up, I will show up for you too, not just on the court, but also in life! I’ll be there to celebrate you in the moments when your light shines the brightest, and I will be there to remind you of that light in the times when it is most dim. Because JUST… LIKE… YOU… , to those in my life that matter, I am so much more than just an athlete.