I was troubled by a recent article that was passed around the volleyball world. It was an associated press article featured in several publications of note, including, the New York Times. Entitled, “Volleyball players can live well, at a distance, while pursuing olympic dreams”, it attempted to describe the professional volleyball experience abroad. Although it was cool to see an article about the professional volleyball life, it left me disappointed.
Nothing in the article was untrue or false, and I’ve heard many of its sentiments echoed by players and their families. Despite its upbeat title, it presents a rather bleak of the volleyball experience. It generalizes about the professional volleyball experience in a way that simplifies, and, at times, devalues the profession.
Before I begin, I have to acknowledge that the situation that PC and I are currently in-is AMAZING. We live in one of the best cities in the world TOGETHER, we have a wonderful group of teammates and significant others around us, and we do not worry about the club’s financial stability. This is not the case for many players. Many spend 8-9 months in an isolated city, dealing with missed payments, and steep language barriers. I want to acknowledge that their experience is very real, and can be very upsetting. However, my goal here is to simply enlarge the discussion, and present another perspective.
So, on to the article….
There seemed to be a couple of themes in the article, which can be summed up as
1) Can you BELIEVE that someone can make a living playing VOLLEYBALL?!
2) professional volleyball is unimportant, the olympics are the only worthy goal for a volleyball player
3) You are either the top three elite players, or you are a someone fresh out of college delaying your entrance into the “real world”
4) Playing volleyball overseas is terrifying and lonely
Let’s take a closer look:
“But for most, indoor pro leagues overseas allow players to continue doing what they love beyond college, make a little money and perhaps aim for a higher level with the ultimate goal of earning one of the 12 spots on the United States Olympic Team”
While it may not be the intention of the author, this sentence seems to demean professional volleyball abroad. Rather than treating it as an achievement to land a spot on a professional team in Europe, and compete at that level, the article suggests that players get to continue their beloved hobby, and utilize time in Europe as a means for achieving the far worthier goal of landing on the Olympic team. Competing at a top level in Europe is a worthy accomplishment. Just because it’s not football, or occurring on American soil doesn’t make it less impressive. Playing in a professional league, and achieving at the level can be an end in itself.
The article adds that it continues to shock people that players can make 6 figures or more playing volleyball. This is unfortunately true, but I hesitate to feed into the “Can you believe people get paid money to play volleyball?!!!! ZOINKS” thing. Volleyball is an immensely popular sport worldwide. In Poland, volleyballers are celebrities. Why are we treating the sport like bocce ball?
“Several popular and competitive pro leagues compete abroad…they provide opportunities for the elite pros and players out of college who are not quite ready for the 9-to-5 grind,” -Tim Kelly, agent.
This is true, some players don’t want to work a regular job straight away. But, again, I think the language devalues the skill set and prestige of acquiring a professional volleyball job. These players have a unique skill, and are able to find jobs that reward them for it. Do we speak in these same terms about other people who pursue careers that don’t attach them to a desk? Once again, we have the huge and false dichotomy between the handful of top players, and the rabble at the bottom. What of the vast swath of mid level players competing at top levels, and relishing the experience.
“That’s the scary thing about playing overseas, you have to negotiate these things, fight for what you want and know what you deserve”.
A couple things with this. First of all, As you would for ANY job in ANY profession, it’s vital to research the company and the market to understand what to expect, and how to negotiate properly. Players need to do their homework. No country, city or club are the same. Don’t come into a situation demanding the moon, when the club can only reasonably give you Arizona. Once you begin the negotiations, players ultimately have the final decision on accepting these deals, and that shouldn’t scare athletes, but embolden them.
Secondly, I would argue that the scariest part of contracts is not the initial negotiation for “what you deserve”, but actually receiving those things AFTER the fact. Nothing sours an experience, or frustrates a player more than dealing with a club that won’t pay your salary, or honor the conditions of the contract.
We’ve heard the stories of many players who have passed over smaller salaries for the promise of a flashier contract with big money. Unfortunately, they often wind up at a club that does everything in its power to avoid paying. In this profession, you may be better off getting a solid contract for less money with a club that will pay out every last cent. Players from North America and Australia may expect that a legally binding contract will guarantee you your money, however, a short time in Italy(sorry Italy, I still like you) will quickly punish you for such naiveté. Let’s also not forget that a losing streak, or perceived poor performance in a financially unstable place can result in a sharp loss in wages. Or, a sponsor can pull out at the drop of a hat, leaving a club in a financial hole unable to pay its players.
Of course, players should always negotiate practically for what they deserve. And, as the article DOES point out, even on small contracts, players are bringing back and saving thousands of dollars. I know very few friends who are are able to save almost $10k a year working regular jobs at home.
Lastly, the article addresses the quality of life, support systems and language issues of playing abroad. “Many teams are limited in the number of foreign players they can have , so companionship from others in the same situation is not an option. Communication can be difficult.”
Are there times that this experience will be incredibly lonely, and uncomfortable? YES. Is it always like this? Hell No.
In speaking with others in the same boat, there seem to be 2 common ways of viewing the volleyball abroad experience:
1) you are going on a 7-10 month holiday
2) you are trying to survive this 7-10 month trip counting down the days until you can return to the United States.
I think we need to change these attitudes, and the vocabulary we use to describe this professional experience. If you focus on your isolation, and devalue your profession it can only damage your mentality. Although, don’t get me wrong, if I was on a team in the middle of nowhere, not getting paid, and with few competent English speakers, I’d be counting the days too! However, more often than not, players are in less dire situations. Perhaps you don’t have a fellow countryman on the team, but you’ll probably have some teammates who are also struggling being away from home, and keen for companionship.
I also think that as long as you view the experience as a “trip”, you consciously separate yourself from the place you inhabit. You focus on what’s different or weird. You pine for “home”. If you can, it is soooo much more helpful to treat your foreign abode as “home”. You are spending the vast majority of your year there, and time at “home” might be spent living at mom and dad’s, and that’s not exactly your place anymore. Even though it’s difficult, carving out your little space in a new country, and a new city, and immersing yourself in the culture will make a world of difference. You’ll focus on how to make your life there better, and more fulfilling, rather than focusing on how to pass the time and distract yourself until you can leave.
I’ve found that reading the blogs of people who have moved abroad for professions like teaching, or free lance work have been far more helpful than athlete blogs in this respect. These teachers may only be in a place for a year or two, but they dive into the experience with an enthusiasm and optimism that is sometimes missing from the athlete experience.
In the end, I just want to encourage others players and their significant others/families to embrace this time with more hope than dread. To treat this time as real life. To be proud of their skills and accomplishments abroad. To explore and grow as a person. Let’s broaden our expectations, and perspective on what this experience is and can be.