The learning curve when moving abroad to play sports is very steep in all the ways – culture, language, food, communication, time management, and even in your sport. I am so grateful that my first season abroad as a professional volleyball player was only a half season from January to April and I could mentally handle the variety of new situations because I could honestly say I was just trying it out. I was able to preview it in a way that wasn’t overwhelming like the idea of nine to ten months without the chance of returning home. I have recently compiled a full calendar for pro athletes to help adapt to moving overseas, called The Pro Player Timeline.
Of course, since falling in love with my first half season abroad in 2011, I have now completed eight of those super long nine-month seasons and am still loving it and know this is absolutely what I am supposed to be doing.
But let’s rewind nearly a decade and get into these 9 Things I Learned in My First Season Abroad!
1. The Yes Mentality
I always had preferred erring on the side of caution, and I had become comfortable with saying, “No,” and enjoying the experiences I deemed necessary. When I got to Prague for my tryout, and then Belgium with my new team, all of that changed! Most of the time, “No,” was not even an option, and I had to quickly adjust to being very flexible with my time, energy, and taste buds… because most of these new experiences involved a lot of food I had never tried or liked. In general, when traveling or living overseas, the “Yes Mentality” is going to take you totally out of your comfort zone in the best ways and into the wild and incredible stories that you will cherish forever.
2. Strangers are Pre-Friends
I grew up with a deep fear of strangers and mistrust of anyone I didn’t know. Well, when you leave your home country, EVERYONE is a stranger (and technically, you are the strangest stranger to everyone else!), so it’s either be a terrified loner or make strangers into friends. Yes, there are bad people everywhere in the world, but there are actually mostly friendly and happy people anywhere you go if we are simply willing to share a smile and a fun conversation. And speaking of “fun conversation,” that leads to the next thing I learned…
3. Charades & Sound Effects
Most of the world may learn English, but that doesn’t mean they like speaking it, or that they’re comprehensible. In addition, my California English with its spattering of “like, like, like,” at breakneck speeds was not about to be understood easily. Reverting to basic communication with hand motions and a whole slew of sound effects created open communication between me, my coaches, my teammates, and my new stranger-friends. Maybe my charades skills are impressive, but more likely this opened communication because the people around me could see that I was doing whatever it took to communicate. Putting effort into learning the local language obviously goes a long way, too, but you’ll find that as you’re learning, there is still so much that you don’t know. If your sentences are going something like this, “Thank you so much for dinner, it was [kiss fingers, start cheering],” you’re on the right track.
4. Winter is Real
Californians are missing serious life experience when it comes to winter. I had played in snow on various occasions but had never lived in it. I legitimately did not understand that a sidewalk or road could be covered in ice I couldn’t see and why couldn’t I grip the ground?! I had novelty coats and boots that completely did not work in real winter temperatures (definition: below freezing). I bought a real coat that was too small for me, then layered all the rest of my clothes under and over during the freezing months. I only slipped and fell twice, and I have since learned how to survive basic winters.
5. Ride or Die
My first club very generously gave me a car, and after seven weeks, I very generously returned it to them. Why? It was a stick-shift, and no matter how well my brain processed the actions of how to make it work, my left foot would not cooperate with the clutch. It didn’t help we were in the middle of an icy winter (see above), and when I turned the steering wheel to the left, and the car slid helplessly the opposite direction into the curb, I decided this [stress] was not for me. I was convinced I could say, “yes,” to everything, but this manual driving thing, while I did try it, was not an experience for me to continue. If you don’t feel like you can control the machine, is it really worth putting yourself in this machine and everyone else around you in danger? The drivers that passed me while I stalled three green lights in a row on a hill waiting to turn left would say, “No.”
6. No Phone, No Problems
There were ways to get local cell phones, and I just wasn’t interested. I lived with a teammate, and anywhere she was told she needed to be, I just went with her. Anyone I wanted to talk to was back in the USA and accessible with an internet connection and Skype. I ended up living without a cell phone plan for seven years. The only reason I have one now is because my club pays for it! But I already miss the days where I could only be reached while at home with internet and the ease in which I could 100% focus on being present in the moments I was with other people. I learned not to check my phone every five minutes and that I am not required to answer every call in text within thirty seconds. The cell phone I have now is permanently on silent, and I decide when to communicate on my terms.
7. Something About Volleyball
Yes, I did learn one thing from my first coach abroad. In the last eight years, I cannot tell you how many ridiculous points I have made as a setter by simply pretending to go for a ball that is definitely already going over the net, and the other team just freezes or reacts to me and the ball just falls to the ground on the other side. So. Many. Points. The other thing I learned right away about volleyball abroad was the coaching was much different and I would need to be able to handle many strange-to-me techniques, strategies, and attitudes to survive on the volleyball court overseas.
8. Chef Swag
This may seem basic to many, but I had avoided cooking successfully for most of my life. I was a professional Kraft mac n’ cheese and microwave baked potato maker. Then I got to Belgium, and there were no Kraft products in the stores, and we only had a stovetop. I still didn’t progress in cooking very much during these first few months, but what I began to learn was that with time and planning, I could start cooking before I got hungry and spend the necessary time preparing for a meal. Today I love cooking, and it all began in half-equipped European kitchens.
9. Solo Travel Pro
Not only did I learn how to travel alone, but I also learned that I love it! Solo travel is not for everyone, but I learned that I loved the freedom of making my own decisions, wandering aimlessly, and being okay with the mistakes I made. I take trips with my husband, family, and friends, but I still take at least two or three solo trips every year. Life is too short to not go where you want to go just because you’re waiting for someone else to want to do it as much as you do!
The Learning Curve
The learning curve of living overseas only continues. It comes in the forms of new languages, foods, travel routes, currencies, and hobbies. I am now a volleyball player, volleyball coach, volleyball agent, eBook writer, travel blogger, French and German speaker, English teacher, and Christmas market aficionado. My basketball-coaching-husband and I have had unbelievable experiences and have made countless amazing friends in different languages and countries. Sports mastery may grant you the chance to play professionally abroad, but being open to lifelong learning will win you the adventure to transform your entire world.