I spent this past summer playing volleyball until midnight and then going straight to Denny’s with my friends until two in the morning. It was the most fun I’d had in a while. It’s a beautiful thing to connect with strangers over a sport you all love. By the end of the summer, I had a group of friends I adored and trusted. The volleyball community in South Florida is composed of quality people — exceptional players but, above all else, incredible, good-hearted individuals. I felt blessed to be a part of it again finally. After not playing for years, it was good to be back.
I started playing volleyball for two reasons. Primarily, my parents wanted me to try out a sport that could make me enjoy exercising. I also knew that my mom loved playing it in Venezuela back when she was younger. I thought maybe I could feel the same. I was right — I fell in love with it after just a couple of practices without even being on a team yet. There was something special about how alive I felt on the court.
In between practices, I would stretch my arms out, hold them together and push my wrists down to try to create muscle memory of the perfect platform. I would catch the ball, focused on creating a triangle each time, with my right hand guiding the movement. Each time I’d release the ball upwards, I knew I was one try closer to getting it right. I would go to my local park and use the wall tennis players use to practice. With beads of sweat falling down my forehead, I concentrated on getting the ball to hit the wall on the same spot every time I passed it. I worked tirelessly because I wanted to get better. I wanted to be great one day.
I was missing the head start most girls had, though. I started playing years after many other girls had (since they grew up with volleyball). I was thrown into the deep end when the club I was practicing at placed me on their most competitive team for my age group mid-season. As you can imagine, most of the girls did not welcome me with open arms as their newest teammate. I wanted to keep falling in love with the sport and have as much fun as I had been, but I was so intimidated. I’d barely just learned how to serve and played with girls who already knew this was their passion. At the age of 12, they were already certain that they wanted to play in college. I learned very early on how competitive it got. The players, parents, and coaches — everyone took volleyball extremely seriously.
While this competition within and between teams was productive to an extent, it proved to be unhealthy. The competition kept me focused and intensified my drive. On the other hand, it was dangerous when it reached toxic levels. According to the 2018 US News and World Report article “How Toxic Competition Is Ruining Our Kids – and What to Do About It,” “high-stress levels are associated with impaired behavioral, emotional and academic development and numerous health consequences.” By the same token, the 2017 New York Times article “Competition Is Ruining Childhood. The Kids Should Fight Back[…]” affirms that “constant competition has affected how young Americans see themselves in relation to the world.”
It was only a matter of time before the hypercompetitive nature of the sport affected my mental health to an extreme I could no longer tolerate. The sport I had loved so much that had connected me to so many incredible experiences and people became a source of anxiety and fear. It broke me down. I contemplated quitting countless times before I actually ripped the band-aid off. According to the same 2017 New York Times article, “Many of today’s kids have lived their entire lives, from sunup until midnight, in a fierce tournament with their peers” where “youth has become a debilitating endurance test.” It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore — an experience not singular to me. According to the 2018 US News and World Report article mentioned previously, “Survey data shows 70 percent of youth drop out of organized sports by age 13.”
By the end of my freshman year of high school, I’d reached my breaking point. The stress and negativity that came with being part of a club team had eventually stripped every last bit of fun from volleyball. In anguish, knowing I would miss out on experiences with teammates and that I would long to play, I had to remove myself from the toxicity of the environment. I had to protect my peace.
Over maybe four years, I only touched a volleyball a couple of times and only in casual settings. That’s why when the opportunity came to play with one of my best friends in a series of friendly scrimmages; I was hesitant to dip my toe in again. However, saying yes was one of the best decisions I have made. By reframing the way I approached volleyball and making it a point not to be so hard on myself, I was able to take the pressure off. Volleyball finally brought the same enjoyment that made me fall in love with it. I look forward to every opportunity I have to play now. I’m excited for next summer and have a feeling there are many midnight volleyball sessions followed by 2 AM Denny’s smoothies in store for me.