“Head Down, Eyes Up”
I’d be lying if I told you that my dream since the beginning was to become a professional volleyball player. I don’t think I dreamt much as a kid (apart from the unrealistic ones, such as wanting to be a dinosaur), but I can tell you for certain that playing volleyball overseas wasn’t one of them, for a couple of reasons:
- I had no idea professional Volleyball was a reality, as I grew up watching NHL and NBA on TV
- I didn’t think I could ever play a sport as a profession, since I sucked at Hockey and Basketball
- The concept of being a professional athlete isn’t widely available as a pursuable option in Canada, or at least it isn’t a common pathway. I believe that more Canadian athletes are given the opportunity to pursue a professional career in sports now, but the concept back when I first started was uncommon.
The beginning of Volleyball as a serious part of my life began in my grade 11/U17 year, which is usually when you start to decide if you want to pursue an opportunity to play at the post-secondary level. I decided I did. The following year and half turned out to be the beginning of a common theme that would follow me for the rest of my career. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that one of my greatest fears and challenges is the uncertainty of the future. As a Libero, one of the ways we gain edges on the opposition is by pulling patterns from statistics. It’s the same concept as a hitter in Baseball or a goaltender in Hockey. Since we’re a reactional position, if we’re able to deduce the likelihood of an opponent’s action to just a few outcomes (ideally 1 or 2), our job becomes much easier. Take that information away, and our job becomes a nightmare. As a human being, not being able to plan for the future is a scary concept. A lot of us fear change, but the possibility of being forced into change is even scarier.
I went through the summer of Grade 11 and my Grade 12 season watching and hearing about my friends and teammates getting recruited and committing to various University and College programs. Needless to say, this was both frustrating and discouraging. The feeling of not being wanted or even acknowledged by post-secondary programs hurt, and I faced this concept for the first time: This is the end of Volleyball for me.
“Head Down, Eyes Up”
Let’s quickly paint the image of my Grade 12 self:
- Undersized setter
- Maybe 5’9, with a smaller wingspan
- Not the highest jumper, and not exceptionally fast
- Average arm
With those physical attributes in mind, it’s no surprise that essentially every program passed on giving me a chance. On paper, I was a relatively high risk/low reward recruit. Come Christmas time, I had no idea what my options were (I had none available), and I was starting to consider moving on in life without Volleyball. Eventually, I was offered a spot on one college team in BC, but at that point, I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge of playing volleyball past high school and club. Being told by multiple coaches that I couldn’t contribute to their program, or that they essentially weren’t willing to take a risk on me took a toll on my passion for the game. Maybe this was really it…maybe I was only meant to play this sport through high school and hang up the court shoes after that.
One day, I got a phone call from Brad Hudson, the head coach of Douglas College (now the HC for UBCO, and someone I consider a HUGE mentor and friend but more on that in a later post) saying he wanted to chat about playing for him the following year. Over the following weeks, Brad did an incredible job making me feel valued as both an athlete and human. Even though the college was local and I was familiar with some of the guys on the team, I still wasn’t sure that I was up to committing myself to at least another year or two of volleyball.
What would you rather be doing?
“Head down, Eyes Up”
I played three great years at Douglas College, and legitimately loved every single moment of my time there. I met all of my closest friends there and most importantly my incredible fiancee as well! Brad did an incredible job of recruiting guys into a giant family, and created the perfect atmosphere to improve as volleyball players and human beings. Now, remember when I was a setter? That changed 20 minutes into my very first College practice. The first thing we did after 2 v 2 (world’s greatest warm up game) and stretching was split into positions. I took 4 steps towards the other setters and heard:
“Hey Jordo, you’re going to be a Libero”
Inner narrative: “Slight curveball but no big deal. You just have to learn a completely different skill, one you haven’t used your entire career” (I’m talking about Passing, and in case you don’t know, this is a GIANT curveball)
This is when I first became self-aware (not fully, but at least a little bit) as an athlete. Before this moment, the game and the skills I needed came naturally. I’m not saying they were razor sharp and refined but I was able to go through training and competition without thinking about every movement and action, it was more instinct than anything. Since I had to learn and refine a new skill rather quickly, I had no choice but to pay attention to every detail in my movement and approach to execution. This involved a TON of struggle, but also a fair amount of growth.
I’d like to think that I had a good run with Douglas College, as in my 3 years, we won a Provincial Bronze medal, 1 Provincial Gold, and a National Silver. At the end of my 2nd year, I faced the reality of having to plan for the future of my career as an athlete and student, should I/ would I be able to transfer to a University to continue playing volleyball? It turned out that no university was looking to add a libero, or wasn’t interested in having me fill that position.
“Head down, Eyes Up”
My third year at Douglas was another incredible ride, at times our team held the #1 rank in the country but we ended up losing the provincial semi final which meant our hopes of playing at nationals stopped there. After the season, I was contacted by Shawn Sky, the HC at Mount Royal University who’s team was looking for a Libero for the following season. This time, deciding to commit to a new challenge wasn’t as tough as before. I knew how fortunate I was to have been given the opportunity to play at the University level. Being in a new situation with an older team came with new and different challenges, as I was faced with the expectation to lead in certain aspects while adapting to a new situation (something that pops up when you get the opportunity to play overseas).
Competing for 2 years with MRU was an incredible experience, as I continued to grow as an athlete and a human being under Sky’s program. Come Christmas time in my final year of post-secondary volleyball, I had to make a decision as to what I wanted to do in the following year. Since my 5 years of University/College volleyball we’re used up, I had to decide whether I would want to continue playing the sport, or walk away and move on to other things.
Our national team has a program called the Full Time Training Centre (FTC for short) in Quebec which is where athletes go to train for a year, in preparation for national team and professional opportunities. I decided that I would pursue this program in hopes of continuing my volleyball career just a little bit longer. In order to be considered for the program, I had to try out for the Senior B team at the end of the season, which was something I had done the year before (I got cut). Post tryout, I found out I had gotten cut once again, but would be extended the opportunity to join the FTC program come fall time.
My summer was designed to prepare me for the year at the FTC, as the majority of my time was spent in the gym, either lifting or working on court. My fiancee (girlfriend back then) and I looked around for places to live as our plan was to move out to Quebec together. We were told to expect an email with more information early August.
That email never came.
I remember when August came around and talking to the other athletes who were planning to join the centre and finding out that they were getting emails with information. That was one of the toughest months of my entire career.
“Head down, Eyes Down”
That was my demeanor for a couple weeks. I struggled looking my friends and family in the eye as I felt completely lost, not knowing what to do. I had planned to be training at the centre for the upcoming season, and suddenly I was left with just the shadow of a plan for the future.
It turns out that a few of the Senior A team athletes were having trouble securing professional contracts for the upcoming season, and so slots at the training centre were reserved for them until they could find teams to sign with. I remember refreshing the email app on my phone for weeks straight, to the point of insanity. Nothing came. A few other athletes got their emails, and the situation was completely out of my control.
By the time mid September came around, I had begun to accept the fact that my time playing Volleyball was over. It stung that I’d be walking away due to factors out of my control, but I was eager to plan my new path.
I woke up one night at around 3 AM, and refreshed my email…
There it was. The opportunity to train at the FTC.
In a week.
Within a week’s notice, I had to grab a flight, look for a place for Vanessa and I to live and quit my job. Once again, that didn’t matter, I knew how fortunate I was to have been given this opportunity, and I wasn’t going to waste any more energy dwelling on the negative.
I showed up to training, grateful to be there but with a chip on my shoulder. I felt as though the onus was on me to prove I belonged in that environment.
“Head down, Eyes up”
The season at FTC is gruelling, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. You’re made aware of that fact before you get there, and it’s important that you understand that the struggles and obstacles are there by design to prepare you for what you might face in a season overseas. The most important thing I learned at the centre was how to fight/compete. As athletes we always hear coaches tell us we’re not competing when we’re not playing well, but rarely ever do we fully understand what that means. Simply telling someone they’re not competing is hollow feedback, getting an athlete to understand what fighting and competing means is making them better. At some point, you have to realize that at the end of the day, it’s you vs. The opponent across the net. It could be you vs. The server, or you vs. The blocker, but you better understand that the person going against you has something to lose, and the current point could be the difference between someone getting a performance bonus or not, which could mean a whole lot more to them than it means to you. If you get beaten, you don’t shrink down…
“Head down, Eyes up”
Round 3 of Senior B team tryouts came around rather quick, and almost felt like routine this time. This didn’t help the nerves of the post-camp meeting though, as I still stumbled through the door when my turn was up.
Good news this time.
I’d be kept with the program for the summer.
I had a ton of fun with the Senior B team program that summer. I got to travel and compete in the Pan-American Cup in Mexico City, got sick as everybody does, and we came home with a Bronze medal. The tournament felt like a blur to me, as I had a lot of trouble processing representing Canada and playing vs. other countries. I think that ended up helping me since I couldn’t get caught up in the moment, I just played volleyball.
Now I had signed with an agent/agency a while back, with the hopes of finding a contract to play overseas for the following year. The recent dialogue for foreign (non-European) Libero’s is that it’s extremely hard (someone told me next to impossible) to find a team that will sign you. Simply put, most teams look for Opposites and Outsides first, since they’re the major point scorers. Liberos do not score points at all, so you can imagine where that puts us on the priority chart. In my head, I wasn’t expecting to hear anything from clubs until later on in the summer. I had some good game footage from our tours in France and the PanAm Cup in the summer so I figured there had to be at least one club willing to give me a shot in Europe. I’d just wait patiently for an email telling about a club that wants to sign me.
That email also never came.
“This club is interested” never really panned out, and I faced the possibility that I had reached another fork in my journey as an athlete. Fortunately, I was offered the option to return to FTC to train while remaining active on the contract market. I figured this was the best option for myself as an athlete. I could give progressing in my career one more chance, empty what’s left in the tank and re-evaluate where I stand after it ends. Once again, I understood how fortunate I was to have been given the chance to return to FTC.
Back to the grind. Going for a second round came easier in regards to managing your body and attitude, since you understood the effect of the training loads and knew what to expect mentally. Keeping my patience was the toughest part of that cycle, as there were numerous stages of frustration when I would question my reasons for sticking with Volleyball.
“Head down, Eyes up”
What would you rather be doing?
About a week before we left for our December tour of France, Chris Voth (another athlete who trained at FTC for a bit before he signed a contract with a team in Finland), got in touch with me telling me his team was looking to sign a libero for the rest of the season. The following 48 hours felt like a complete blur as I ended up signing a contract to play for Team Lakkapaa, and the plan quickly changed from going to France with FTC and then home for the holidays, to flying to France with FTC and then to Finland to join the team for the rest of the season.
I understand how lucky I was for all of this to come together, and I’m incredibly grateful to have been given the chance to play out here in Europe.
I’m writing most of this 2 and half months into my season out here in Finland, and it’s always a great perspective check to think back on my journey to get to this moment, right now. There have been numerous challenges out here both physically and mentally, but none were insurmountable. If it gets tough, I’ll ask myself
What would I rather be doing?
“Head down, Eyes up”
Originally, it wasn’t my dream to become a professional volleyball player, but that doesn’t make this experience any less incredible. I’m thankful for what I have.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for your time!
I’ve found a ton of positives through the process of reflection, and it’s an exercise that I plan on revisiting for the rest of my journey with Volleyball.
So with that…I hope you have a great day.