For months I had been contemplating whether or not I should write about the struggles and life lessons that came along with being an athlete. After some indecisiveness, I decided I’d go for it and see where I ended up. So, ladies and gents, I hope you enjoy!
Since seventh grade, one of the major “loves” in my life has been volleyball. I still remember the first time I hit an overpass kill. I was hooked. After the first couple weeks of practice, my coach pulled me aside and told me I should seriously consider pursuing volleyball beyond middle school.
It sounds a little ridiculous now, but trust me. It was a huge deal to be told you eventually have a chance of making varsity as a kid. Between knowing I had talent and the possibility of wearing ribbons in my hair for games, this was a sport I wanted to pursue at the varsity level. I was ready to keep my nose to the grindstone to get there.
After making varsity my sophomore year, I continued to work hard. I spent a whopping four days a week getting extra reps in (thanks to my coaches who also loved the game – you spent the better part of Friday evenings in a gym hitting and serving balls at me #gymrats).
When I committed to Binghamton University my junior year of high school, I was beyond stoked. I had dreamt of becoming a four-year starter, joining the 1,000 kill club, making the NCAA tournament, and maybe getting a few All-Conference honors here and there for my efforts. It was time to make my dreams a reality.
After my freshman year, I was on track with my goals. I worked hard. I received conference honors. I was more than a quarter of the way to collect the coveted 1,000 kills and digs. Better yet, I still loved almost everything about the game!
My sophomore year brought more conference awards and an MVP plaque that still hangs in my room. Furthermore, I was on track to achieve my statistical goals and was also picked a team captain. I devoted my life to being the best athlete I could be. Finally it felt like everything was falling into place.
But let’s fast forward to the spring of 2015, my junior year.
I had some lingering back pain from the previous year, but I chose to ignore it and continue balling out…until I couldn’t bend over to brush my teeth or wash my face without tearing up from the pain in my lower back. After multiple MRIs, three cortisone shots (it’s worth Googling), and countless doctor visits, I now walked into the gym knowing I had degenerative disc disease and bulging L4 and L5s. My volleyball career had come to a screeching halt.
Hold up. Remember when I mentioned I was halfway to my statistical goals by the end of my sophomore year? Get ready for a change of pace. Here are my stats from my junior year: in the two sets I played in, I had one kill, four errors on nine attempts (-.333 hitting percentage, yes that is very bad), two serve receiving errors out of two attempts (I shanked the only two balls that were served to me) and one blocking error. Though my stats were certainly subpar, I like to entertain the fact that I took great stats from the bench for the rest of the season.
All hope was not lost. During the spring season of my junior year, I was eager to return to the gym pain-free. I did everything in my power to help speed up the healing process. I was ready to put the emotional and physical pain behind me. I did physical therapy three times a week, worked out, and did everything to make a comeback (#comebackszn). I dreaded the thought of repeating the “flop” of my junior year.
Once senior year rolled around, I basically felt like Lizzie McGuire was chilling in the background of my life singing,“This is What Dreams Are Made Of”. I felt great physically and mentally. My pain no longer held me back on the sideline and I was able to join my teammates on the court. That August, I played in preseason games and finally felt like myself again. But less than one month later, the pain began creeping back. This time, it had spread down into my leg and hindered my ability to jump or dive – two crucial skills in volleyball. When I finally admitted it was time to go back to the doctor, I sat on the exam room chair and was told my volleyball career had to come to an end. Dread began welling up in my stomach. I realized I would be finishing my ten-year volleyball career taking stats on the bench. Everything I had worked for was now out of reach.
I’m going to be candid with you. I was not okay after seeing the doctor that day. I was not “fine” with the scenario I found myself in. Sidelined, I slowly started to hate everything about the sport I once loved. I hated that I was sitting on the bench watching my teammates have a great time without me. I hated the way my body was starting to look because I was unable workout. I hated that I couldn’t travel with my team to their conference games that fall. I had never felt so distant from the game and people I loved the most.
Within a matter of weeks, I hit rock bottom. It’s not an everyday occurrence that an athlete has to make an unplanned exit from something they’ve known for a most of their life. Each day I experienced so much physical and emotional pain that I began distancing myself from my teammates. No one seemed to understand what I was going through, save for a friend whose athletic career also ended from a back injury (shoutout to Laura for helping me all the times I came to you in tears, you helped me more than you will ever know). I thought I did everything right – practice, physical therapy, you name it. I never wanted something so badly that I knew I could no longer achieve. I felt completely disillusioned.
But want me to let you in on a not-so-secret secret? When you hit rock bottom, there is only one way to go: up (insert Miley Cyrus song “It’s the Climb”). I decided to end my pity party. I knew I needed to move forward and move on. I also knew there were aspects I could take from this experience that could make me a better person, I just had to work hard to find them.
Up until a few months ago, I associated volleyball with physical and emotional pain. The more time I spent trying to make my return to the court only seemed to bring more heartbreak and visits to the doctor. To be completely honest, there was a part of me that wanted to hang up my jersey for good after my junior year.
But I’m not one to give up so easily.
So enough with the sadness, Al. You’re a happy person! What did you take away from your trials and tribulations?
Long story short, I realized that I am defined by more than just the athletic awards and honors given to me over the past years. Though I’m proud of my achievements in volleyball, it took a back injury to remind me I have many other skills and talents I’m also incredibly proud of. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, good or bad. Maybe I needed to go through the heartbreak, pain, frustration, and sadness to become a better person.
I was sidelined, but it didn’t mean I did not face adversity like my teammates. It was just a different kind of adversity. To sum up some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my athletic experience, I’ve made a list below:
Lesson #1: Even when life shuts doors in your face, you just gotta keep moving forward until you find a new door. I think back to all the time I wasted sulking around about not being able to practice and wonder what I could’ve done during those days instead. Be a better teammate? Be a better friend? I wasted so much time feeling sorry for myself when I could have been using the other gifts and talents I was given. I’m not saying I’m Mother Theresa or anything, but I find so much joy in helping others and I found this brought me joy even in the darkest of times.
Lesson #2: No matter what your role is on a team, you still can contribute just as much as the next person. I was fortunate enough to experience it all – being a starter my freshman and sophomore years to being a reserve player to just taking stats. My roles may have changed year to year, but I was able to contribute just as much in my junior and senior season as I did during my freshman and sophomore seasons. Life tip: the secretary is just as important as the CEO in a company.
Lesson #3: Not quitting was the best choice I made and the pain was worth it in the end. If you would’ve asked me a year ago, I would not have said the same thing. It wasn’t until my last home game that I realized how much of an impact I made on others. The crowd surprised me and gave me a standing ovation while I walked off the court for the last time. It was a pretty awesome way to make my exit after giving 110% effort all four years, regardless of where I stood or sat in the gym.
Lesson #4: Life isn’t fair and that’s okay. I could probably write a novel about this, but instead I’ll just leave it at the fact that we all live different lives with different experiences. You can compare yourself to others and see your given situation as unfair. But I guarantee someone has done the same with your life.
Lesson #5: I found my faith. I found out what I stand for, what I believe in, who I am and who I want to be. Throughout the past two years, I have found the “ride or die” people who stayed by my side through every trial and tribulation. They listened to me cry and gave me tough love when I needed it. These are the people I want in my life (thank you to you all who helped me in so many ways, I wouldn’t have the same mentality that I have now without you beautiful souls). Faith is refined through trials.
Lesson #6: Savor what you have now. You don’t know when your last game will be, when the last time you will give someone a hug or even when your last day will be. Life is precious.
Lesson #7-#9: Embrace every positive and negative situation, spread kindness and be the best human you can possibly be.
You can definitely tell who the most optimistic Hovie child is, right?
In all seriousness, it broke my heart reading what Alli had written. Though my entire family knew the extent of her injuries, we can’t fully comprehend what it felt like to be told you’ll never return to the court again.
I was in the crowd for Alli and her fellow teammates’ Senior Night. My mom, dad, brother, and grandma all flew into New York from Wisconsin and Minnesota to honor Alli’s achievements even though we hadn’t seen her play in over a year. That’s how much we love her!
That night, Alli wore her jersey one last time and was a part of the starting lineup before she was ceremoniously subbed out. She received a standing ovation from the crowd. I started tearing up as I held her flowers and cards. As I looked over to my brother, dad, and mom, they also had tears streaming down their faces. Though we will never know the extent of Alli’s pain, we all love her so much and regret she wasn’t able to return to the court during her collegiate experience. As the youngest child, Alli was the last of all three Hovie children to finish a athletic career that spanned over a decade.
This is her first guest appearance on my blog.