If you have ever played a sport, you know that it teaches you valuable life lessons outside of the ability to perform well at that sport. You learn life skills like teamwork, communication, time management, and working hard. No doubt, those things help athletes excel in many areas of life including school, business, and relationships. In this post I specifically want to talk about five things that I learned while playing volleyball that helped save my life when I was battling severe UC.
If you don’t know about Ulcerative Colitis (UC), you can check out my post about my journey. It is a digestive disease which is often accompanied by exhaustion, depression, weakness, pain, and other inflammation issues (like arthritis and skin problems). The medication can cause a whole host of other physical and mental side-effects. And in cases like mine, UC can occasionally be life-threatening. It is so much more than just a “pooping disease”. Dealing with it is not easy. But I was lucky enough to be equipped with the hard-earned skills taught by many years of volleyball commitments.
#5: You don’t have the choice to show up to practice. Just like you don’t have the choice to show up to your life today.
In college, I was dealing with some depression. Depression sucks. “Just show up” might sound relatively simple to many people… but if you’ve ever suffered from depression, you know that showing up seems downright impossible sometimes. I was also trying to balance volleyball, an engineering degree, friends and family; so I was only getting about four hours of sleep each night. (I do not suggest this as it is not healthy… but that’s what I chose to do.) As a result, I was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. I did not perform my best in my sport and classes; sometimes it was overwhelmingly difficult to deal with even minor additional stress. But I can honestly say that I was doing my best to make it all work. I remember so many mornings lying in bed as my alarm went off for 6:50AM workouts, thinking “It would be so great if they just didn’t notice if I didn’t go today”. But no, that was not an option. Practice, lifting, conditioning, team meetings, recruits, team meals, team bonding time…. None of it was optional. It forced me to show up even when everything in my being was saying “I don’t want to go”. And once you’re there, you had to do your best because people were counting on you.
Having that kind of volleyball commitment from the time I was about 12 until I was 22 taught me how to show up every single day for teammates, no matter what. So when I got sick at 23, I learned (relatively) quickly how to show up for MYSELF day in and day out, no matter what.
My desire for anyone who is having a hard time (or even if you’re not) is to ALWAYS show up for yourself and do your best.
#4: “Your best” might be different from day to day
Not every practice has to be the best practice you’ve ever had. But you have to show up and you have to do your best.
If your knee is hurt, you go to practice and sit in a chair and practice passing or setting against the wall. If your hand is hurt, you can still do conditioning and practice court movement. At least you can be actively engaged in watching practice and learning by visualizing, listening to feedback from coaches, getting to know your teammates and encouraging them, and adding energy.
Yeah, there are some things you’re not going to be able to do sometimes… especially if you’re sick. But don’t let that stop your forward progress. You can always contribute in SOME way. You can always improve at SOMETHING. Don’t focus on what you can’t do. Focus on what you CAN do.
#3: Your body can take a lot more than you think it can
I remember a practice when I was playing club volleyball in high school. I did not feel well and was extremely tired. I would learn later that I had mono. But during that practice, our coach was not in a patient mood; and at the end of practice, the captains had to run 8-court sprints. It was the dreaded “until I say stop” kind of sprints. If you weren’t running as fast as you possibly could, you were in more trouble, a bad leader, and had to do more sprints. But sprinting 100% meant that you were exhausted after just one. I remember doing three times down and back; but I know that we did more. But after three, I can only remember putting one foot in front of the other.
Even when you think “I can’t do this anymore”, put trust in your body and just keep going. Literally one day at a time, one hour at a time, or even just one step at a time. History is full of examples of people achieving physical feats that were previously thought to be “humanly impossible”. Whenever you feel like giving up because you think you can’t anymore, just go one more step. You’ll be surprised how strong you really are.
#2: Your mind is an incredibly powerful tool
Although I had been introduced to visualization and meditation before, the first time that I remember being profoundly influenced by it was when I was seventeen. We were playing in the semifinals of nationals against one of our biggest rivals. We had never beaten them before; but we were out for revenge. Before the match, our coach told us to visualize ourselves doing each skill perfectly and winning the match. To this day, that is one of my favorite matches of my entire volleyball career. We all played our best volleyball and really flowed together as a team.
At Ohio State, we took a moment to visualize before every single match; and over the past couple years playing professionally, I have realized the HUGE impact that meditation and visualization make on my performance. It is part of my game-day routine to meditate for at least 15 minutes. It lets me practice doing skills correctly for the game, it builds my confidence, it helps me to relax and trust my abilities, and it warms up my mind to get into flow state more easily. By seeing myself doing things correctly, my mind and body can work together to make it happen in real life.
When my illness was at its worst and couldn’t even sit, I meditated. There are guided meditations for pretty much anything you want to improve (I usually search on YouTube). At that time, I used ones for pain reduction, healing, and ones specifically developed for people going through chemotherapy. At the very least, focusing on a part of my body that didn’t hurt was a temporary distraction. But more often, I was transporting myself into a situation where I was relaxed and pain-free. It might sound a little cheesy; but I was mentally putting myself places like running through the woods or laying on a sunny beach listening to the birds and the ocean. Before you discount it though, there is a plethora of research about the benefits of meditation and visualization – just search Google or PubMed. Like any skill, meditation takes practice. But because I had already worked on it, I was really able to escape to those places in my mind and find relief, which kept me from giving up.
What you focus on expands. So if you can practice controlling your mind and building your mental strength, it will bring your life to a whole new level.
#1: HOW you show up makes all the difference in the world
This is probably the most impactful lesson that I learned from volleyball. When I was 15, my coach pulled me aside and asked me to describe a champion. Not like “they win championship games”; but things like “they stand up straight, they walk with confidence, they arrive early and leave late, they work hard and never get discouraged, they speak with authority but also listen, they pay attention to details…”. After I listed everything I could think of, she said one thing. She said, “Ok. Be that.”
Those words were, and continue to be, life-changing. I realized that as an athlete, being a champion isn’t some magical thing that happens when you win a game. Being a champion is doing the little things that you can control every single day. If you show up like a champion, you will be one.
But more importantly, I realized that this doesn’t just apply to volleyball: it translates to the rest of life as well. Imagine your idea of a perfect person. Not the external circumstances; but how they live their life – How they act, who they spend time with, how they respond to setbacks or challenges, what they make time for, how they interact with others. And then, BE that. Show up as that ideal self in every situation of every day. And the rest will come.
When I was sick, I knew there were a lot of things that I couldn’t do; and I felt pretty lost and discouraged about it at first. But I realized that those external things were out of my control and that I could still control the energy that I gave off and my attitude about life. I decided not to let my current circumstances define me. I was still ornery sometimes; but my goal was to show up with more positivity. And with a positive attitude comes positive results. I have no doubt that that vibe kept me alive.
So my challenge to you is to BE the person you want to be. Consistently show up FOR YOU, with purpose. Trust your body, train your mind, and always do YOUR best. These lessons helped literally save my life; and if you’re suffering from UC or any other disease threatening your survival or quality of existence, I really hope that they can help. Even if you’re not affected by one of these situations, dare to transform your life!