In honour of the Super Bowl commercial that recently aired, #LikeaGirl, I found this piece I was asked to write about my volleyball career (in Oct 2011) when I was trying to be a part of the Canadian National team that attempted to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.  I love that it's titled "Fight Like a Girl", because that's the only way I've ever known how to fight, and it seems to be working!

Draft of my “Fight Like a Girl” Story

October 10, 2011

Volleyball is a unique sport. You can argue that in any sport, you need to have a certain build, a certain physique, be able to lift a certain amount or run a certain speed, to be successful.  Volleyball is no exception to this rule. If you can’t jump a certain height, react at a certain speed or hit a ball accurately or hard enough, your success within this sport is limited.

Many of my teammates on Team Canada have been playing since middle school. They worked hard to distinguish themselves among the many club and provincial athletes they competed with and against.  Some of the girls only started playing in university because they physically matured later or had a certain degree of potential coaches saw in them.  Some girls played different sports but were recruited to play volleyball because of the raw talent and potential they displayed that was transferable to volleyball.  But one thing we all have in common is that we have all worked extremely hard to get to where we are today.

In competition and life, success is not necessarily measured by how many games you win or lose, or how many trophies or medals you put up on your bedroom wall.  I like to think of success in terms of how hard you worked on your way to the competition, how much you persevered through bumps you came across along the road and how many times you thought about quitting but didn’t.  All of these factors contribute to the overall title of success.

When I first started playing volleyball at the age of 15, outcome based success came more easily to me than others. I was tall compared to the other girls in highschool.  I had just finished playing almost 10 years of competitive badminton, which taught me about hard work, mental toughness and had given me some degree of arm swing strength. However, I soon learned that my natural success with volleyball would come to an end if I didn’t put in the extra effort off the court.

Like most other successful university volleyball players, I played on several provincial teams, did well at club nationals, and won a couple All-star awards. My next big goal in the volleyball world was to play for a strong University team that also had a high standard of academics. The University of British Columbia’s women’s volleyball team had just come 4th in the CIS championships in 2004, and considering the high academic standards that UBC also set, I knew I wanted to compete for that school.  To me UBC, seemed to be the best option.

After tons of emails, phone calls, and even a trip out to the Vancouver campus on my own dime, the head coach of the UBC volleyball team finally gave in and told me I could come to UBC, but he only guaranteed me a red shirt position. I came in as a middle, but was told I was too short and didn’t jump high enough, so I would have to play power. I was willing to take my chances on this even if it meant I wouldn’t dress for a year, and set my mind to proving to my coach and teammates that he had made a big mistake in making me a redshirt and that I deserved a spot on the team and on the court. 

Right away when I arrived at UBC, things got tough.  Even though I was a redshirt, I had asked the coach if I could travel down to California for some pre-season games. My coach told me to bring my jerseys because I would be able to warm up and maybe even get into a game for a couple of points.  You can imagine how excited I was at this potential opportunity right away!  We were playing USC and Pepperdine, and USC had just won back to back NCAA Div 1 championships.  Unfortunately for me, in some mix up or lack of communication, our captain ended up forgetting her jersey back in Vancouver and guess who had to give up their jersey…Me.  She got to use my jersey because I was only a “redshirt” and I probably wouldn’t see the court anyways. So there was one of my only chances snatched up because our captain forgot her jersey. You can only imagine my disappointment. So for the rest of the tournament, I just warmed up, and usually after a few spikes in the hitting warm up, my coach would tell me that was enough and to go shag balls.

As my rookie season progressed, the few chances I did receive in practice decreased as the year went on.  Being a redshirt, I got pushed to the side in important drills so that the starters could get in more repetitions and practice.  Sometimes I would go through an entire practice without getting into one single drill.  I would serve balls against the wall over 100 times to myself and then pass them up to myself.  If there was another player sitting on the side waiting to get into a drill, I’d always ask them to play pepper to stay warm or just to play with them so I didn’t have to play with myself against the wall.

As a redshirt, I learned not to expect too much and realized that what I was really out to do was prove my abilities for the following year, when I’d have a shot at being on the roster.  My coach and I had a couple of meetings during the year, and he always told me that I had to work on my physical strength.  I worked harder in the gym than anybody else on my team.  I was in the gym up to 6 times a week and always left in pain because I had broken my muscles down so much.  At one point I was lifting more weight on the Olympic lifts than some guys on the men’s baseball team. They even came up to me and asked me for some pointers for their technique.  These guys weighed over 200 pounds, and I was lifting more than they were. I worked so hard in hopes that the following year I would get my chance to suit up for a match and play.

Things weren’t going so great when I came back to the team in September of my second year.  I was being left to the side again in drills even though they were tryouts.  When I did get in I was playing great.  Some of the trainers even told me that they could see major improvements in my play and that it was obvious I had worked hard on building my physical strength throughout the summer.  I wanted to know why my coach wasn’t seeing these things. 

After about a month of getting the same treatment as my Rookie year, I approached my coach one day after practice and said, “Hey, Coach, can we make a meeting?  I want to discuss some personal goals for this season”.  He said,  “Sure, how’s right now?”  We sat down in the gym and I started talking about all the skills I felt I had improved and what skills I wanted to work on technically that season. He gave me a kind of awkward look that said, “I’m not sure what to tell you”.  I kept on blabbering about how I was a good fit with the team, and how I needed to get more chances, and I said “Can we talk about some goals” then he interrupted me. He said, “No…we can’t.”  I didn’t understand…why couldn’t we work on my goals?  He said, “There are too many people on the team and I just don’t think it’s going to work out this season.  I want you to be here but I can’t try and juggle you into all the drills when we have so many players. I’m sorry, but we can’t even have you as a red shirt this year”.

I was crushed. I had worked so hard, dedicated so much of my time and efforts, and not reached my goals. I kept remembering back to the meeting I had had with my coach in my first year, where he had told me to get stronger. Hadn’t I done what he wanted?  I had come back in better shape and with such a strong determination to be a part of that team, didn’t this equate to getting a chance on the squad?

My coach made me an offer.  I could be a team manager and “practice” twice a week (ie show up to practice and shag balls). He also told me that if I wanted to play for fun, I could join the Junior Varsity (JV) team at UBC.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It wasn’t fair, I had worked so hard and nothing had paid off!!! 

As I walked back to the team room, I tried to hold back tears.  I didn’t tell anybody what had just happened because I was so ashamed of being cut.  That next week, I kept going to the practices on Mondays and Wednesdays (the practices I was invited to attend). On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I still came to the gym, but I just sat on the side and watched the girls practice.  I think for my Coach this was a little embarrassing but I didn’t know what else to do. This wasn’t a dream I was willing to give up yet, and I knew deep down in my heart that I had it in me to be a great volleyball player.  One of my “team manager duties” was to write up a weekly team newsletter that was distributed to UBC Volleyball alumni and parents. My teammates started asking why I wasn’t practicing and I just shrugged.  I was still to embarrassed to let the words come out of my mouth that I was a manager who only practiced twice a week.  This may seem strange that I never outwardly admitted I was cut.  My teammates probably figured it out themselves, but for me I couldn’t admit it, because admitting it to others would be like admitting it to myself, which was accepting defeat.

Those next months were some of the worst and scariest in my life. This became a very dark period.   The same week that I had gotten cut, a guy I’d been dating since my first year also broke up with me. It seemed like everything in my life was crashing down. For the next two months, I felt like I was in a zombie depressed coma state.  I would wake up, have no motivation to get out of bed, and just stare out of my UBC apartment window wondering what the point of anything was.  I also drank excessively (even for a 19-year-old University student) and I would often black out and not be able to remember what I’d done the night before. It was a coping mechanism of taking my mind off of the failing reality of my life, and just losing myself in the partying.

The thoughts in my head were so negative.  I kept telling myself I was a failure.  I had been a great player in highschool competing for provincial teams, winning provincials, getting all-stars and what had I turned into? A team manager.  All I could think of were my faults, I couldn’t think of any of my qualities. I started playing worse and worse and other parts of my life also started to take downturns like my relationships with my friends and school. This just made things worse because what you focus your mind on is what your body then creates as a response. I was focusing on the negative and that’s what was showing up on my body language.

Let’s do a little exercise here. I want you to look around the room your sitting in for a moment and make a note of everything that is the color white.  Okay, now I’d like you to close your eyes, and recall everything that you saw that was blue.  What happened? There might have been blue, but you didn’t see it because you were focusing on white.

When I was focusing on all my negative qualities, all I focused on were things that would not get me back on my track to success. At some points when I thought of volleyball or my coach, my body would literally start shaking, twitching and my heart rate would go up. 

This was one of the hardest things I had to do, but I had to start altering what I was thinking about and really visualize myself succeeding. Not just in volleyball, but in life.  I re-evaluated why I was here in the world, and what I was doing specifically at UBC.

I remembered something! Back in highschool, I had chosen UBC based on its incredible volleyball program but also because it had an extremely well recognized academic reputation. I took it upon myself to really get my school back in order. I never skipped class, but I worked hard on doing all my readings, saw teaching assistants to perfect my essays, and talked to Professors when I didn’t understand a subject or wanted extra insight on a topic. I became a bit of a nerd :)

This shifted focus helped me forget about my failures on the volleyball court. An interesting thing started to happen, my volleyball game started to improve. When I did practice, I stopped caring if I didn’t get into a drill and just enjoyed every moment when I was in. There was no pressure, and I started loving my life again. I remember being out one night, and one of my new teammates on the JV team asked me “Why do you keep going to the Varsity practices if you're never going to play?”  It had been a couple months since I’d been officially cut, and it made me wonder, why did I keep going to practices? Two things pop into my head 1) I didn’t believe my volleyball career with the UBC Varsity team was over, I still believed I could do it! And 2) Even if I wasn’t getting into many drills, I still got to see my best friends (the girls on the volleyball team) every day of the week by showing up to practice. 

My perception of volleyball also started to change. I was gaining confidence in life again. I started visualizing myself making the perfect passes, hitting the perfect balls and serving perfect serves.  I think that focusing your thoughts on positive events is key to all aspects in life, whether its imagining passing a major test, nailing an interview for a job, or performing a flawless motion in a sport. It’s not easy, but focusing on the positives rather than the negatives will end up bringing you more positive results for anything.

Now altering my thinking was by no means an easy feat. I worked a lot with the team’s sports psychologist and even did counseling.  After learning to key my thoughts into the positive sides of even the most negative of situations, I started to see my skills improve.  I literally convinced myself that no matter what happened that upcoming fall of my 3rd year, there would be a positive side no matter what. If at the tryouts I was demoted to team manager again, then I’d still get to spend plenty of time with my best friends who were all girls on the team. If I made the team then great, I could fulfill my ultimate goal of playing on the varsity volleyball team.

So September of my 3rd year comes around and I’m again in great physical shape. I had a great tryout and guess what!  I made the team. But here’s the catch; my coach told me that I could practice all the time, was part of the team, but that I was a redshirt for now. I was thinking, okay at least I didn’t get cut! But I wasn’t fully on the team. At least this time I felt like I had the chance of proving my abilities and not just proving how well I could write a weekly newsletter.

A bit of luck came my way.  One of the players on the team sprained her ankle. Now I would never wish a teammate could get injured so I could benefit, but sometimes these are the opportunities life throws you and you have to take full advantage. Then another teammate started playing inconsistently and losing her groove.  With two players having difficulties, my coach called me in for a meeting.

He sat me down and he told me that I had been playing great. We also talked about the minor injuries and I told him “I think I can do better than them so why don’t you try dressing me for some matches? “ He nodded his head and said...“Okay, I’m going to start doing the paper work. The League needs at least a weeks notice before you can start dressing a redshirt, but I’ll put in the phone calls and after the Christmas break we’ll see what happens”.  This was the longest Christmas break ever and I just wanted to get back to UBC and keep proving myself!  

I got back to UBC and another player ended up spraining her ankle.  This meant that 3 players were now out of the picture.  I talked to my coach and there was some good and bad news.  For the upcoming games again SFU, he wanted to dress me, but that since two of our middles had gone down, I’d have to be prepared to play middle, a position I hadn’t played for almost 3 years.

Finally I was getting my chance! The whole day leading up to the game, I’d get a huge rush of adrenaline every time I thought of the game.  My heart would pound and my breath would get caught a bit. I was terrified. Nothing I could have done in those 2 and half years prepared me for that day.  This was one of those days that you have to push through your fears and anticipation, and let your body do the work. My mind was so distracted with the thought of just getting my chance! I had to focus on what I wanted to do, play well.

The game started and I was on the bench.  I wasn’t sure if I’d even get into the game because some players dress for an entire year and get into a game for only 5 points.  Suddenly, my coach called my name from down the bench and told me to go in and block right side. My heart was thumping so hard and I felt like I was going to throw up. I never thought this moment would ever come. I went in and one of my teammates could see how nervous I was and she just told me to breath.  I only stayed in for one point, got set and hit a ball so far out it almost hit the other teams bench. I got subbed out.  We ended up losing this set against SFU. 

The next set, for some miraculous reason, my coach subbed me in again. This time it was because one of our middles wasn’t playing well.  We were down by about 6 points and my coach needed to make some changes. This time when my coach subbed me in I wasn’t as nervous.  I got in there and for every set the setter fed me, I pounded each ball to the ground. As my confidence grew, so did the confidence my teammates and my coach had in me.  We won that set.  The next set, I didn’t start but the other middle started playing crummy. Again, my coach subbed me in and again, I played well and we won that set.  We were up 2-1 and wining the next set would mean winning the match.  My coach decided to start me that set. We won that set handily 25 to 17! 

After the game, I couldn’t stop shaking. For 2 and a ½ years I had been working to prove myself. I had proved myself in that game getting a total of 6 kills.  The fulfillment and satisfaction that filled me is indescribable.  My coach had told me I’d never be a player on that team.  He said he didn’t think I had what it takes to compete at the University volleyball level.  I had been degraded to team manager. Many of my friends had questioned why I kept dedicating so much time to training and volleyball when I’d probably never see the court. I had proved them all wrong and it felt great!

I refused to give up.  I kept going when quitting was by far the easiest option.  At some points, I knew that no one except myself and my parents believed in me. But just knowing that one person in the world believes in you, even if that’s just yourself, gave me enough motivation to keep striving for my dreams.

Unfortunately, that year was a rebuilding year for my university team, and we didn’t make playoffs. However, the next year (my 4th year), when all the “injured” middles of my third year had recovered, the libero position was up for grabs. Libero is a backcourt specialist who receives the serves from the other team, and is responsible for digging up the spikes from the other team as well. This was a completely different position from middle or power. I’ve never really cared what position I played, as long as I was contributing out on the court. I told my coach that I wanted to train as a libero and start at that position in my fourth year.  He told me I’d have to work hard. Well, what had I been doing the past three years!?

When I came into my 4th year, I became the starting libero.  Luckily, all those years as a redshirt and sometimes only getting into passing and defense drills had really paid off. I could play another position and make a fairly smooth transition. That’s not to say it was easy, I had a lot of hard work and mental strength to build up, but I made myself fairly entrenched in that position.

That year, against all odds, we won our first National Championship (NC) in 30 years. We were the last team to qualify for the NC tournament out of our conference, but we came into the tournament as underdogs and beat teams we hadn’t beaten all year.  In the final game, I had what might have been my best volleyball game ever to that point, and I was named the National Championship Final “Player of the Game”.  After that tournament, I shook the same way I had after the first time I’d ever gotten into a UBC game. It was a feeling of incredible satisfaction for a lot of hardwork, with a little bit of amazement as well (had I really accomplished that goal I had set for myself!?) 

We won the NC again in my 5th year at UBC, and then again in my 6th year at UBC (remember that I had redshirted 2 years, no need to start calling the CIS eligibility board to protest our national championship legitimacy last year!)

Two years ago, after our 2nd national championship, I was invited to try out for Team Canada.  The Team Canada coach saw some hope in this power turned middle turned libero and took me on the team!  Looking back at my whole volleyball career, this was definitely one of the biggest honours and highlites. At some points, I never thought I would even touch the floor of a university game, let alone represent my country in the sport.

I feel like right now leading up to the London 2012 Olympics, a lot of people don’t believe in us.  But when I talk with other girls on the team about qualifying and making some of our dreams come true, I can tell that we all share this same goal so passionately, that with enough hard work, determination, and most importantly, BELIEF, we too will do what many think is a long shot. What’s important is that we keep believing in ourselves, work hard, and never ever give up.  

This experience taught me that the journey to success is by far the hardest part but also the sweetest.  Without going through those hard and dark times, the success at the end wouldn’t feel so amazing. If you give up halfway down that journey, you miss out on all the fulfillment and satisfaction that comes with completing it, and eventually succeeding!

AuthorClaire Hanna