I still vividly remember sitting in the bleachers of Heritage Christian Academy as a little 6th grader. I had just started playing for the middle school B-squad volleyball team– literally the worst team you could make– and I had decided it was a good idea to watch the high school varsity team play. Backtrack about 3 years and a 9-year-old Annika had written in her journal that she wanted to “not just be good, but like, REALLY good” at one sport someday. For some crazy reason, I had decided that volleyball was going to be that sport (apparently, I had no idea that I have zero fast twitch muscle or jumping abilities). Sitting in the bleachers, starry-eyed 12-year-old Annika told herself that she was going to be an NCAA Division II volleyball player.
Yeah, that’s right, not Division I– Division II. And I even knew right then I wanted to be a libero.
I played my first year of club volleyball that winter. My coach had me as an outside hitter, and I would not stop begging her to put me at libero. She finally relented during one match (apparently my hitting abilities were actually crucial to a team’s success at one point– that sadly fills me with pride to this day).
And I couldn’t get enough. I may not have had natural fast-twitch athleticism, but I made it for it in my focus and hard work. I would do every ball control drill I could find and feasibly do by myself. I measured out the length of a net in chalk on the driveway and practiced placing my sets in the right spot for different types of hits. I would do ab circuits while watching TV, kettle bell swings before bed, and go to every U of M game that my parents would take me to.
I made the high school JV team and a good club team my 7th grade year (my teammates from that year now play at places like Purdue and Kansas State). I kept working hard and ended up on high school varsity as an 8th grader. I wanted to be just like Christine Tan, the U of M All-American libero– except I still wanted to play D2.
That starry-eyed drive never went away. Throughout high school, I kept working my butt off. I set a more short-term goal of our team making it to the state tournament (which was very difficult, as we were in the hardest section in the state). My freshman year, we were one of the best teams in the state and the #1 seed in the section, and we ended up losing in the section semifinals. I still remember every moment of that final game. It ended with a shanked pass– a pass that I threw myself into the bench trying to save. The final point wasn’t my fault by any means, but I always wondered if I could have done something more to save it. This disappointment led me to work even harder, adding running work outs and taking every opportunity I could to get passing and digging reps.
Then, sophomore club season rolled around– when recruiting really starts happening. My club team did really well at nationals, and I started getting some attention. I still remember turning around at one tournament and seeing a line of college coaches at the end of the court. That little 6th grader was still alive in me– I was about to get everything she ever dreamed of, and I was so excited.
I quit softball after my sophomore year so that I could focus even more on volleyball. West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy started talking to me, and I realized that if I wanted to go to either of those schools, I had to pass a serious physical test, so I sat down with my club volleyball trainer and made a plan for how I was going to get my mile time down and be able to crank out pull-ups. I started playing for Vital Volleyball Club, and the club director was a Mens D1 All-American libero. He started working with me individually any chance we got, and he completely transformed my game. More than that, he believed in me and what I could become. To this day, I credit him as the reason for much of my volleyball success.
I was late to commit to play college volleyball, largely because I had some weird, weighty decisions to make that most potential NCAA athletes don’t have to make, like whether I wanted to be a naval officer after I was done. Then, right as my senior year was beginning, I got a call from Northern State’s assistant volleyball coach, who was Emily Foster at the time (still freaking love her– she is the head coach at St. Olaf now). She had seen me play at a tournament, and they needed a 2014 libero. I wasn’t even planning on looking into it (where is Aberdeen, anyways?) until I saw they were in the NSIC. I grew up watching Concordia-St. Paul play, so I figured I would check out a team in their conference, especially since NSU was paying for my whole visit.
And I loved it. I prayed heavily about my decision and made the seemingly crazy decision to commit to play volleyball for Northern State. The night I committed was so amazing– I went to watch them play at #2 UMD, and they upset UMD. The senior libero who I was replacing came up to me after the game, gave me a huge hug, and told me she wanted me to have her number, #2. I was on Cloud Nine.
I walked into pre-season of my freshman season with one goal– to play as a freshman. And it became clear very fast that I would at least be a DS (defensive specialist) on the court– if not the freaking starting libero.
I loved every freaking moment of that. I was playing well, finding my groove, and it felt like every dream I had as a 6th grade girl was going to come true– except 10,000 times better than I imagined.
Our first preseason tournament was at Nebraska Kearney. The night before we played, I almost didn’t sleep. I had no idea what my role would be the following day, but I knew I was going to be on the court. So when Coach read off the starting line-up and I heard “and #2 is our lib,” I internally freaked out. I was the starting libero for the first match of my collegiate career. We played at #1 Concordia-St. Paul, the team I grew up watching win 7 consecutive national championships, and I started at libero then, too. I played the best match of that season against the team I grew up watching, and Christine Tan, the old U of M libero who I had always idolized came to the game to watch ME play (she now coached at Vital). She came up to me at the match and said, “Hey, I came just to watch you play.” I was literally in tears– every dream I had was coming true.
I could go into all that happened that season, but it’s easier to just summarize it by saying college sports don’t stay a dream– it’s just reality. Every athlete gets sick of waking up at the crack of dawn to lift. Every athlete fails and has a bad game. Every athlete wonders why the heck they ever thought they were good enough to play their sport at the collegiate level. But sometimes, the people around that athlete worsen the situation. By the end of the season, the shiny newness of playing collegiate volleyball had worn off. I still was grateful for the opportunity to play D2 volleyball, but I needed a break. And I got one– Christmas break is conveniently right in between post-season and off-season for volleyball– and I came back recharged and ready to go.
Sophomore season was literally the most amazing experience I have been a part of. We started off the year ranked #24 nationally (which, believe it or not, is not that great compared to the rest of the NSIC), and it was like something clicked with our team that year. From the first match in Florida, we all knew that something was unique about that team. Our offense was literally unstoppable. We ended up blowing away the previous win streak record of 9 and went 21-0. We didn’t even lose a set until the 12th match. We were the only undefeated volleyball team in the entirety of the NCAA (all divisions), and the NCAA did a story on us. We beat two #1 teams in 3 sets– first UMD for Gypsy Days and then Concordia-St. Paul. Beating Concordia was something I never, ever thought I could do. If any of you have seen the huge volleyball pic outside of the NSU weight room, that was the Concordia match (fun fact: I had the flu and was puking between sets that match). We ended up kind of falling apart at the end of the season and ending 26-4, but to this day, I still believe we got royally screwed over in not making it to the NCAA tournament (don’t get me started on that– I could rant for hours on how messed up the selection process is at the D2 level).
So I’m leaving out the elephant in the room– I quit collegiate volleyball after my junior season.
I still remember hearing that Brooke Dieter, an All-American outside hitter for Minnesota, had quit before her senior season back in 2009. “Why?!” I wondered. “She’s living the dream!”
To this day, I still get asked “why?” Just like I’m sure she did.
Why would you ever end your dream early? Why would you not take advantage of every moment of that opportunity?
But now I understand why she did.
Those of you who responded in utter dismay when I said I quit collegiate volleyball have no idea that there is a very dark side to collegiate sports, especially at the D2 level.
I have thought about writing about this for literally over a year now, and I finally decided that I need to speak out about it. Light needs to be shed on this problem. Just about every collegiate athlete plays in college because they freaking love the game. That’s how they got good at the game, and that’s why they are willing to devote half their lives to the continued pursuit of excellence in the game.
Then why do SO MANY walk away?
Some might say that athletes just don’t know how demanding collegiate athletics actually are– and I would agree with that. That explains the number of freshmen who quit.
But that doesn’t explain the number of upper classmen who quit.
And for every upper classmen who quits, you have no clue how many upper classmen almost quit. I know way too many people at Northern alone who have almost, ALMOST pulled the trigger on their athletic careers. The general public has no idea about this because athletes are too ashamed to even admit that they want out. So many people would kill for the opportunity to do what they’re doing, and they realize that. They don’t want to seem weak and ungrateful.
So what’s the problem?
Well, here’s a fair disclosure: this is my opinion, this is my story– and a VERY abridged version, at that. Maybe this isn’t the universal problem, but based on my relationships with a whole slew of female D2 athletes at various schools in various sports, I think I can make a few good points:
- Coaches dehumanize their players. What I mean by this is that a coach turns a player into money in his mind. That player is simply a chunk of scholarship money that either is or isn’t performing the way he expects them to in order to win. Because it’s ALL about winning. Now, I’m DEFINITELY not one of those people who is like, “It’s about developing as a person and winning doesn’t matter.” People like that nauseate me. I played D2 college athletics in the toughest volleyball conference in the nation because I’m ultra competitive. But when you treat your individual players as only mattering to you if they are making you win, that is just not OK. Not paying attention to redshirts isn’t OK. Treating a player who just had major surgery differently isn’t OK. Your players will start realizing that all they are to you is a chunk of money, and this puts immense pressure on them to live up to their monetary worth– and that’s not pressure that makes girls better players. Trust me on that. They end up falling apart because they want to matter, not to be just a ticket to success. And when they fail to be the ticket to success (mostly because they are focusing so much on being that ticket), they realize that they no longer matter to the coach as a human being.
- Coaches play mind games with their players. By the time you’re a collegiate athlete, you can handle getting yelled at. Geez, at age 15, I had my coach yank me by the jersey to the sideline and scream in my face and that actually motivated me to play better. I can handle criticism. I can’t handle mind games, and neither can any girl athlete I have ever met. Guess what mind games are? They’re called mental abuse. Yes, I went so far as to call them that because they chip away at the girl’s self confidence until the girl can barely function on the court or field anymore. In the back of their mind, every time they touch the ball, they are simultaneously thinking about what coach said or what coach said to so-and-so behind their back or what coach meant when he had them play out of position last practice. Knock off the mind games, coaches. You’re killing your players.
- Coaches seem to think adding extra pressure is going to help their players. Yeah, because statting practices helps your players get better? Really? Because now they have literally NOWHERE where they can make mistakes. They can’t get better because to get better, you have to first make mistakes. Is telling a team right before the first post-season match, “Hey, if we lose tonight we are done because the regional rankings just came out and we are somehow only #7” really going to help matters? No, everyone is going to play scared. Is saying, “To be an outside hitter in my gym, you HAVE to hit .300” really going to help? No, because you just reduced the worth of that athlete to their hitting percentage, completing neglecting that a team needs an outside hitter with a certain demeanor on the court to succeed.
- THE PEOPLE IN AUTHORITY ARE DOING NOTHING. Athletic administrators consistently ask their athletes how they feel about their coaches. They conduct exit interviews for senior and transfers. Yet, they won’t do anything more about the issues than “have a little talk with the coach.” ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING. Give the coaches an ultimatum. If every single player that plays for them hates playing for them and cannot name one redeeming value of them as a coach, what does that tell you? Who cares that they run a successful program– so could 80 other people. With the talent that that coach has in this successful program, I guarantee you a coach that treated their players well would have even more success because female athletes play their best when they are treated well.
So why did I quit college volleyball? Ultimately, it came down to the fact that I hated every moment of it by the end. I hated practice, I hated matches, and I hated how many opportunities I was saying “no” to because of volleyball. When you first start playing a college sport, it’s worth it to say “no” to stuff because your sport is opening up so many doors that you never could have opened if you hadn’t been a student-athlete. I used to have written by my bed a quote that I actually came up with that helped me through the tough times: “If you every wonder why you’re doing this, remember you were once a little girl with a big dream– and today, YOU’RE LIVING THAT DREAM.” But when I started viewing volleyball as a chore that I dreaded– not just not enjoying lifting and fundraising, but dreading every single moment of the sport– I started resenting it for taking away opportunities. Because I quit, I got to intern at Sanford Research and do actual pediatric leukemia research. Because I quit, I got to work at the Sanford hospital and become a better future doctor. Because I quit, I got to do mission work in Peru. Because I quit, I got to go present my embryology honors thesis research at the National Honors Conference in Atlanta.
But why did I start hating it? Why did volleyball stop being “worth it”? Every reason I listed above– but especially the mind games. I got to the point where I hated everything involved with volleyball because of the severe anxiety it caused me. Volleyball was no longer my escape– it was my #1 source of fear and shame.
So all those times you saw me play from about halfway through my freshman year on? Yeah, I was fighting a mental battle I shouldn’t have had to. I had demons I never knew existed breathing down my neck every serve received I passed, every ball I dove for. After matches, I would literally feel the muscles in my back relax a little as I would start to breathe normally again. Saturday nights after the final match of the weekend were my favorite part of the week– it was a whole week before I had to feel that tension again. My passing average was who I was, my entire identity on the team. If I failed at this, I failed at being a human. One time, I actually got reprimanded for saying, “How I do in volleyball doesn’t define who I am.” I got SCOLDED for literally saying exactly at that. So I don’t think I am over exaggerating in my previous statement.
I still suffer from the mind games that got played with me. I still can’t touch a freaking volleyball without feeling anxious. It took me a whole year to play 6-on-6 competitively again– and I was shaky the whole time (and it was city league!!). It makes me mad to think about because I know for a fact that I am not alone. And the funny thing to me is, most of what these coaches are doing is counterproductive. They aren’t helping their players reach their max athletic potential because to do that, players have to be in a prime mental state. What’s the point of D2 college athletics at the end of the day if your players walk out hating the game?
So why am I speaking out about all this? Because it’s about time someone called a spade a spade. It’s time that someone did something about this epidemic problem in D2 women’s athletics. I can’t do anything now but tell an abridged version of my story, of a little girl with a big dream who lived it– and then ended it early.