It’s 4:00 am and this 7 hour bus trip through the night is coming to an end. I’m curled up in a ball in my jacket freezing because it’s my first road trip with the team and nobody told me what to bring.
It’s 4:00 am and I haven’t slept a wink because I’m the new girl on the team so I get 2 seats to myself when everyone else gets a row of 4 on the bus.
It’s 4:00 am, I’m cross-eyed and have to figure out how to get to my apartment on a street that I can’t pronounce, in my standard car that I’m still figuring out how to drive.
It’s 4:00 am and I have to wake up in 5 hours for a team practice because we just lost a match on the road that we shouldn't have.
When I was a little girl I always dreamed of being a great athlete. Standing on top of the podium with a gold medal shining brightly around my neck. A bonafide athletic superstar. (For the record I wanted to be just like Marion Jones when she won 3 Olympic gold medals, pre doping scandal).
I still dream that way, but if you’ve learnt anything from me it’s that professional sport isn’t quite like the professionals you see on T.V. That’s the highlight reel of a professional lifestyle. But the levels go deep, and the lifestyle at it’s core isn’t always as glamorous.
When I first knew I wanted to be a professional athlete it seemed like the natural course of events after graduating from UBC in order to continue playing, because who really wants to face the adult world of work 9-5? Not I.
What I dreamed of was the glitz and glamour, like my life would be an episode of cribs, but what I experienced was early mornings, little sleep, crazy travel, and bags under my eyes.
I got the brand new car, my own apartment, a monthly pay check (though I’m still waiting on my multi millions so I can fulfill my cribs dream) and technically the “superstar status”, but professional sport, like many things, is a real grind at the best of times.
I asked a lot of questions, was genuinely excited, but nothing really prepared me for that first year heading overseas. So I’m here to share a few funny stories, give a few tips for those looking into playing overseas, provide insight for those who think I just went on an extended holiday, and hopefully an open your eyes to what really happened during my experience in Europe as a professional.
I could write about many things, but just so I don't lose you I'm going to keep it to a list of 10.
1. Driving standard.
- This one really got me. I was well aware of the driving situation in Europe beforehand, but driving gives me anxiety, so I avoided it like the plague somehow thinking I was going to magically receive an automatic car once I arrived. Wrong. So, so wrong. I was given a 30 minute lesson on how to drive my car in a small parking lot and a side street. Well, when the lesson was over I was left to find my own way home…. I made 3 wrong turns, and stalled more than 10 times (I lived 6 minutes from the gym). My stats were even worse the next day, as I had the pleasure of receiving a screaming reprimand from a German lady to add to my tally of things going wrong. For those who have never heard what German sounds like take a listen to this video. Then picture that language being yelled at you. Yeah, I was terrified. And my driving anxiety was on high alert for a week.
2. Packing for 8 months
- How do you bring your life with you to Europe? Again big error my first year bringing 2 oversized suitcases completely filled with nothing but clothing. I barely wore anything I brought and ended up going shopping on free days when I was feeling down. Retail therapy surprisingly doesn’t cure everything, and though I arrived in Germany with just 2 bags, I went back to Canada with 4. That was some expensive luggage of things I already own. I was smarter the second time around and filled my bags with my favourite foods from home.
Food = life.
3. Find a hobby. Or 12.
- This was something I was good at. I like doing things on my own, so naturally I was happy to spend my free time painting, knitting, and trying/failing at pinterest crafts and recipes. There’s a lot of down time. A lot. Once you’ve seen the city, and gone out to eat a few too many times there’s a lot of time spent at home. Which can turn into a lot of Netflix until you’ve finished every season of every show, so do yourself a favour and find something to entertain you before the Netflix is no longer chill.
4. Occupational status
- Volleyball is your job. This was a big lesson for a few reasons. As a foreigner you are on a team for one reason and one reason only. To perform every single day. Every practice, and more importantly for every match. It's normal to be threatened by your coach or management to not get paid your salary for the month if the team is underperforming, and that's even a reality in some leagues. (I believe there was a women's team in Russia that didn't see their paycheques for a long while). Your stats ultimately define you, and if you’re not up to par you’re going to hear about it. It wasn’t pretty sitting on a bus being put on blast by my fuming coach in front of the team for a poor showing, but heck that's essentially what I signed my life away for.
5. Partying? Think again.
- I could probably count on my hands the number of times I went out during my seasons abroad. Ok, yes I am a homebody so; priorities. But, as an athlete on a professional team people can easily recognize you, and if it gets back to your coach, or management? Well now it just looks really bad on you as a professional…........... Or your teammates car gets broken into when you’re DD for some friends the weekend before important cup matches, and you have to tell the manager the car needs to be fixed. Can't say I enjoyed having a ‘talking to’ by the president of the club like I was some sort of child who didn't know how to be responsible for my own actions. That’s just another ordeal you don’t want to experience.
- I was on club teams where we had the privilege of competing in our national league, national cup, and Champions league. Which meant we got to travel outside of our country for matches in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, France etc. But, we got to see the gym, the hotel, and there was too much time spent in airports, and buses scrambling for sleep. We also played every weekend, and multiple times during a week which made it hard to get away to explore. So though I got to experience Europe and the city I lived in, I didn’t necessarily get to see Europe - at least not how some of you would picture it.
Though I did get vacation time in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, and Berlin during the few breaks we had in the season!
7. Work, work, work, work, work
- Holidays hardly exist during the sporting season. Nobody cares about thanksgiving in Europe. Halloween isn’t really celebrated. There’s no family day. Christmas is the big one, and you’re lucky to get a few days off before it’s right back to two practices in a day, strength training, individual training etc. Free days become your holidays, and those are far and few between. No days off.
8. Language Barrier
- I’ve been lucky to be on teams where English is the first language. But, I've also had teammates that I have had little to no communication with because we don't speak the same language and can hardly understand the others. You find ways to get around it, but it can be challenging to live in another country where it's a struggle to speak with teammates, coaches, management, and fans. You'll learn to just smile and nod and pretend you know it all when you really have no idea what they are saying to you..... I will say that it has been so rewarding to see the courage of fans who don't speak english but do their best to communicate, show their appreciation for what I've done on the court, and their love for the game!
9. Post Season Blues
- I can’t speak for everyone here, but this was something that I truly experienced. I was so into counting the days until I got home that when the time came for me to actually go home I didn’t know how to interact with my family, friends, even my boyfriend. I was an alien. It was like reverse culture shock. I would go through a weird period where I genuinely missed Europe, the high of competing, and everything about my "new" life. It took me a while to adapt back to life in Canada, and it was strange to see how much things changed in my absence. It seemed for me that time was standing still, yet life back home for everyone was moving at a rate that I wasn't on course with. It's hard to describe, and I've felt it after every season, but the feelings always pass and once I remember that my life is just unconventional I begin to feel a little more like myself at home.
- The biggest challenge for me in being a professional athlete has been trying to navigate the other parts of me, as you all know. When you're so consumed by your sport it’s like every other thing in your life is put on hold. Time passes by for most people with a normal course of events like finishing school, getting a job, getting engaged, marriage, having children, yet for me I’ve made it through one stage while the others have appeared to be quite distant. It's tough to balance those things anyways, but when you put them on hold, then come back home it's a scramble to try and figure out the 'real world' things. Having small projects, researching opportunities and gaining knowledge in any way that I can has been a big help in the process of finding a greater purpose than sport.
I feel like I talk about a lot of the challenges that have accompanied my lifestyle. But, I'm just trying to shed some light on what it really means to be an athlete overseas, how I know it. It is HARD, but it has also been an amazing experience of learning, and growth. Failure and success. Passion and joy. Man this lifestyle can be tough, but the experiences are priceless.
It’s 4:00 am, I’m on a bus in the middle of nowhere and I can’t believe I’m living out my dreams.