In light of watching the Olympics and in awe over the athletes’ athletic prowess, I became nostalgic over my past career in volleyball. As most athletes are addicted to, I missed the rush of winning a long rally, the camaraderie when playing on a competitive team, the lifelong memories made traveling with my teammates, the sweetness of placing first in the state and winning gold and bronze national medals or consistently placing top 10.
I missed the feeling of winning and being able to attribute the blood, sweat and tears to success. What I’ve experienced in volleyball, whether the instant gratification of a save, a satisfying kill, or the overview of a perfect season, has given me the confidence to wholeheartedly pursue areas I’m passionate about. We are usually dazzled by the glory athletes receive when they succeed, like conquering the highest peak of the Alps. Or we might be misconceived that the gold medals and fame will satisfy them for life. But what about the strenuous days trekking up the mountain? The unbearable frost bite, clinging to the scarce bits of oxygen? Will the shiny medals and fancy articles pay their bills and sustain their future? They might. But the truth is what athletes have cultivated in their duller moments are the life-long fruits of labor that will strengthen them forever. Looking back on what I was able to achieve during my seven years in competitive volleyball, I wanted to reflect on those moments and write a thank you to the sport and its people for making me the athlete I am today – an athlete in life.
My favorite source, Wikipedia, defines an athlete as a person who competes in one or more sports that involve endurance and strength. Wouldn’t you say that life is sport too? And competing in life involves more than just endurance and strength.
1. Thank you for endurance and balance
I left competitive volleyball wanting to wholeheartedly pursue academics in college. Some people tell me that if I hadn’t wasted 12+ hours a week for seven years playing a sport, I could have done something far greater with academics. But in my experience, gaining the capacity for my academic career probably started with the 12+ hours a week for seven years playing volleyball.
Thank you volleyball for unveiling grit. Grit, the passion and perseverance towards long-term goals, is a quality that was cultivated after being crippled many times, getting cut from a team or club, but wanting to get back on the court and play. In life, it’s continuing to prepare for a school presentation at 4am, applying again for a job after missing it the first time, and ending the semester with an A- after the first-ever D on a midterm. Grit ignites and reignites the passion you have inside for the things you do and allows you to persevere.
As all athletes know, playing serious ball means juggling academics, the sport, and maybe a social life. Most people would say you could only have one or two of the three, not all.
Thank you volleyball for really teaching me balance, for showing me that homework can still be done after hours of practice and that friendships can still thrive despite missing parties for tournaments. By sacrificing leisure to study, you can get an A on the final. By spending time at meaningful events, you can have more friends. But remembering that without good health, you can’t physically do either. There’s a fine balance among the three and volleyball has shown me how important finding that is.
2. Thank you for drama queens and injuries
One of my Wharton professors once said something along the lines of, “life is a box, work with the space between.” Not everything in a team sport is within your control or pans out to what you want it to be. Drama queens and injuries are two examples of that.
Who would have ever guessed that spending 12+ hours with 15 girls every week would lead to drama? Most athletes can attest to the frustration and division drama stirs up on every team. The truth is that there will always be someone you don’t enjoy working with.
Thank you volleyball for showing me how to work together with those that make me want to walk out the gym. When I came across my first season playing alongside a teammate who was full of too much attitude, I was still a feisty child and told my mom that I wanted to punch her face. Looking back, I’m glad I had the opportunity to play with her as I’d lose so many life opportunities punching every person I didn’t like in the face. We will face teammates, professors, bosses, and clients who will treat us like trash, knock us down, and make us frustrated, but thank you volleyball for showing me how to set feelings aside and learn to love drama queens and contribute to a constructive dynamic.
One torn ligament one week before tryouts, one season off the court. The MRI results shattered my heart. I had devoted my entire summer, 4+ hours every evening to train and prepare myself to compete on the varsity 1 team in my senior year. My doctor said with intensive physical therapy, I might be able to play later in the season (which I was more than grateful to receive the opportunity to do so on the second team), but I had to miss tryouts and give up my original goal.
Thank you volleyball for showing me that there are circumstances beyond my control and that I am only in control of what I can do. Injured athletes can attest to spending countless hours in PT hoping to get better, working with coaches to develop techniques in order to avoid using the injured part, and overcoming the mental and emotional frustration that you will never be as good as you were. But athletes, especially those who have been injured, have learned how to focus on what can be done in the present, leaving what could’ve or should’ve been behind. This is also common as life is not entirely in your control. Opportunities will come and go, people will too, but volleyball has shown me the ability to focus on my box and what I make of the space between.
3. Thank you for the left bench
Most of us have been there, wanting to make the A team or get the starting position. But to be quite honest, I’ve been a pretty average athlete and maybe slightly above average on a good day in a school who has been named #1 by Sports Illustrated and a club with lots of national recognition. Given where my abilities stand, I’ve spent a lot of time on the bench and have been cut from many teams I’ve set my life’s goal towards making. No, I didn’t end up making the school’s varsity team nor did I spend my entire career as a starter. But in retrospect, I’m grateful for these experiences.
Thank you volleyball for showing me that success is not a zero-sum game. No matter how hard you train, or how much protein you drink, there will always be someone better, stronger, and more fit for a job than you are. That doesn’t mean you’re not good enough; that just means that this position on this team at this moment might not be your niche. Despite the frustration athletes feel when sidelined or cut, team success is called “team success” for a reason–it requires every person, starter or not, to give 100%. If that means pointing out open spots to tip to, calling out plays, or cheering for the person who’s starting in your position, you fill a special niche and give a unique perspective those on the court don’t have. These athletes provide unique support and their efforts contribute entirely to the team’s success. Good karma comes full-circle too as whether on the court or off the court, people recognize good character. People want to work with supportive people who contribute to the success of the whole and others, not only themselves. As Adam Grant calls it in Givers and Takers, these are the givers. Though I might not have held a prestigious position on the left bench, I’ve been able to build lasting relationships with teammates that have gone beyond my time as an athlete. Now working on teams in business school, I can wholeheartedly champion the success of others as it means the success of the team.
4. Thank you for running suicides
“Get on the line!” That phrase still triggers fear when I hear it, even out of context. Not very many athletes enjoy hearing the cue for running suicides. My flashback dates back to my 14’s season when my coach really hit it home that we were going to have to work very hard for any win this season. Most practices consisted of suicides starting with 4 and running them repeatedly, each time with a multiplicative factor of 2, or going back to the basics of passing free-balls back and forth for two hours. No, we weren’t in the military nor did my coach hate us; he wanted us to succeed. My team wasn’t the most talented, tall, or experienced in the league, but we represented a club that had an incomparable reputation of many national titles and all-American players.
Thank you volleyball and coach for showing us that success is not based off the soil we’re planted in, but on how we choose to grow and work to take in the nutrients around us. Athletes are often commended for their resilient and hardworking mentality. That can be attributed to the firm understanding that winning is a mixture of training and opportunities, but also the will to work hard as an individual. Success is not given. As for myself, attending an Ivy League institution does not guarantee me a successful career nor does graduating from a prestigious high school, but it provides me a great environment to thrive. It's mostly up to myself. Everyone is at equal contention for the gold medal. In life, we may start off unqualified for a job, but knowing that we can get it, sets us on the right foot to work hard. We may argue that life is not a leveled playing field. Yes, external factors like privilege and opportunity do skew this. But my claim here is solely discussing the extent of what we can do within our control.
Fun fact: that season we placed 9th out of 300 at nationals after losing many local games in the beginning of the season, and if you’d seen where we were before, you’d be very surprised.
5. Thank you for believing in a diamond in the rough
As Adam Grant writes in his book Give and Take, one of the biggest attributes to shaping a person’s success is by treating someone as if they’re blooming into their potential. It’s holding a higher standard for the person and creating an environment for them to achieve it.
When I started playing volleyball, I sucked. And not just the type of sucking that beginners generally are, but real sucking as in I was physically too weak and uncoordinated. Overtime I had developed a love for the sport but still did not perform quite as well as the other players, and managed to join a highly competitive club. So, how did I get in? I believe it was my coaches’ optimistic belief in potential beyond raw talent, recognizing a player’s grit, and the success-driving vision of the club. I had a long way to go to be on par with the rest of the club (as in, a lot of national titles and all-American players), but was able to be in a constructive environment where I was treated based off my potential, not imminent skill.
Thank you to the coaches and teammates who saw my potential and held me to the higher standard, and to the driving vision behind the club that kept all of our chins up, instilling in us the belief that we all had the potential for high achievement. Not all great athletes were born prodigies, but they’ve probably had a coach who believed, supported and invested in their potential. And though I might’ve only come marginally close to the level of success those around me have achieved, I’ve certainly exceeded any idea of what I was capable of. This has allowed me to hold myself to higher standards and believe that I have the potential to achieve, which has led to success in other facets of my life. I’ve learned to treat others the same way, recognizing them for their potential. Whether collaborating on business projects or building a team for a startup, I’ve been able to practice cultivating success amongst others as I’ve learned that success goes beyond talent.
So what am I doing now?
Watching my extraordinary teammates excel in volleyball at the next level and cheering them on as they go. I’m at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School studying Finance and Operations and Information Decisions (OID) with a minor in Digital Media Design (DMD) at the engineering school. On my spare time, I play with potential startup ideas and see how tech can be used for social impact. It still shocks me when I say this because who would’ve ever thought the girl once needing special education attention could do this? But as I’ve learned on and off the court, I should not limit my potential. And yes, I play club volleyball with people just like me!
One of the most touching moments was seeing my volleyball coach at the soft-opening of a startup I co-founded. It made me aware of how grateful I should be to have coaches who not only champion my success on the court, but also off the court. The person I am off the court has been shaped by moments on the court, and I thank my coaches for believing in skill but also character, in the development of not only an athlete but a person. I thank my teammates for fostering the environment to grow. We’ll always be hustlers.
And yes, I was reading Give and Take by Adam Grant as I wrote this. It's a great book. Definitely recommend to read it.
My gratitude goes to Ka Ulukoa (Coach Lee, Coach Jeff, Coach Larry, Coach Dionne) for not giving up on me for four years, Coach Kevin Wong for one successful year, and all my coaches at Punahou for six privileged seasons representing a great school.