My Battle with Shame (Part 1/3)
Transitioning into my 4th season as a professional in 2012 was without a doubt the most intense period of my career. There was so much drama and ambiguity as I lost the professional contract I signed to play in France, which branched out the possibility that I might also be done with Team USA - but this story is for another time.
Luckily for me, I have a great agent and he pulled off a move of a lifetime, Brazil as a foreign libero. I signed with a day notice to leave the Pan-Am Cup Team and I jumped on a plane to play in arguably one of the most competitive and historic leagues in the world, I couldn’t believe it.
Landing in Brazil, it was clear I had been teleported into a completely different world than I had left but I still had no idea what was waiting for me in Maringa, where I would spend the next 7 months. As soon as I touched down into the Maringa airport I was brought to a building where there were three TV cameras and a plethora of photographers and reporters waiting, “this couldn’t be for me” I thought, but they were - here we go.
This was how Brazilians consumed volleyball, it was and still is one of the biggest sports in the country, and the energy around the sport of volleyball was something I had never experienced before. With the spotlight on volleyball, I experienced many highs but my confidence and happiness slowly suffocated day by day due to my emotional and mental immaturity. My team I signed with was an expansion team and was built with the intention to be a top 5 team in the first season, but we finished in 8th position in the Super League table.
Looking back, I was totally unprepared mentally but there were also 4 major factors that led to my unraveling and a feeling I had never experienced before - volleyball wasn't fun. It had become a source of torment, sadness and a thick shadow of shame, that followed me onto the plane back home to the U.S.
1. Language barrier.
I spoke a little Spanish which laid an amazing foundation for being able to read and understand Portuguese, when spoken slowly. Besides myself, the team had 2 other foreigners, one was Argentinean and had already spent a year in Brazil and the other, was Japanese who had also spent the previous year in Brazil. All of my teammates understood and spoke Portuguese, I was the odd man out and I had an incredibly difficult time understanding the language, even the subtleties. Early on I couldn't differentiate between something as simple as boa (good) and porra (fuck) leaving me completely confused, vulnerable and insecure - not knowing if my teammates were mad at me.
I had two great friends on the team, two amazing guys who I still keep in contact with but like the rest of the team, they had wives and a family outside of volleyball. Unlike my previous seasons overseas, the team rarely spent time together outside of the court and I never spent time with any of the guys outside of a team setting.
This lack of time spent with the guys outside the court led to me feeling completely isolated as I didn’t know if guys liked me or not. I don't blame it on them (I admit, I was not prepared mentally or emotionally for this environment) I never had a feel of my worth on and off the court or how my teammates perceived me (I now know how someone perceives me or not is not within my control) I slowly distanced myself, convincing myself they didn’t like me as a teammate or as a person.
3. Brazilian sports culture.
American volleyball culture is a very unique, very supportive culture (whether this is the most productive and efficient style, I am not here to debate this) My experience in this culture led me to the perception that my teammates and coaches would support me, lend me a hand when things got tough and only when my character or attitude was really out of line, I could expect yelling, cursing and maybe punishment.
My experience in the Brazilian volleyball culture – was not even close to what I had experienced on the USA National Team or at Long Beach State in college. The environment was extremely tense, aggressive and the coaches and players were verbally malicious when errors were made in training and during games.
Once we started losing, it began to snowball out of control as there was no patience for shanks, attacking errors or serving errors without some sort of yelling, cursing or extreme body language attempting to shame you from ever making the same mistake again. It wasn’t until the end of the season, where my coach started yelling at a teammate of mine, a Brazilian (the nicest and greatest guy on the team) I finally made the realization that the yelling and verbal abuse was for correction and not because they didn’t like the character of the player. Again, I was not prepared for this environment and a lot of this was because of my deep insecurity as an athlete and as a person.
4. My feelings of lack.
It would be foolish to put everything on the environment I experienced in Maringa especially because I am a firm believer that I have complete control with how I perceive my environment and the external stimuli however I want. But during my season in Brazil, I was far from this revelation, as I was extremely insecure and vulnerable at the will of those around me and how I assumed they perceived me.
This is where things got out of control for me mentally. If I error in a certain category in life, it’s to please other people – I strive to make people around me happy, I do my best to perform well and to lend a helpful hand whenever I can.
It’s something that probably stems from my experience in High School, where I didn’t have many friends – and during those times, I was reminded of it, which imprinted these feelings of lack and that I wasn't enough. Those dark, deep feelings of unworthiness that I repressed and suppressed were activated during my time in Brazil and I wasn't able to cope with this overwhelming feeling of not being enough.
"Was my level good enough? Did they like me as a person?"
My deep feelings of insecurity (just wanting to fit in and be loved) combined with a language I really didn’t understand led me to assume the worst - that no one liked me, or wanted me on the team. By not spending any time outside the court with my teammates (once again, I assumed they just didn’t like me) and a very drastic change in sports culture, where corrections where made from yelling and cursing maliciously (I assumed they took this approach because they didn’t like me as their teammate and as a person).
It was the perfect storm, one that I can look back and be grateful for now but the culminated efforts of these 4 factors during my time in Brazil led to one major emotion - shame. An emotion that continue to haunt me and my performance as I left Brazil for my 5th season in France.