The Price to Play: What No One Told Me About Becoming a Professional Athlete by Stephanie Lojen
Like many of you, sports have been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. For the past twelve years, my identity had been centered around volleyball and school. I was a student and an athlete, and balancing this dual identity was part of who I was.
Practicing my sport at a high level while studying at University in a field that I was passionate about was what I wanted to do. In a way, I had had the luxury of choosing the downsides of my everyday life: rushing from trainings to classes, sore muscles and fatigue, busy weekends from the end of August to the beginning of March and, of course, the constant pressure to perform on the court and in school were a pervasive part of my life. As hard as it was to be a collegiate athlete, I never felt like I was sacrificing anything. Nobody was forcing me to keep up with this lifestyle, and I never felt like I was giving up anything in order to play my sport at a high level.
Transition to Professional Life
Throughout my collegiate career, I had this dream in the back of my mind of playing professionally after university. Five years of eligibility simply didn’t seem enough to satisfy my desire to play and the prospect of having the chance to live abroad and play volleyball for a living seemed all too good to be true.
In August 2018, after completing five years with the Carabins of the Université of Montréal in the Spring, I accomplished that long-time dream of becoming a professional volleyball player. To me, signing that first contract meant that I had beaten the odds that were set up against me through a mix of hard work, resilience, luck, and dedication to pushing myself to reach my full potential. It meant that I had earned the chance to continue my journey as an athlete and I was ready to make the most of it.
Striving to become the best you can be is about seizing opportunities that come your way, and those opportunities will often involve stepping out of your comfort zone. This time opportunity took me to Hungary for eight months. Despite my craving for adventure, moving 6,500 kilometers away from everything and everyone I had ever known for the better part of the year was daunting.
For the first time in years of pushing my body to its limits, stress, self-doubt and all the downsides that come with competing at a high level, I actually felt like I was making a sacrifice for my sport.
My Sport Is My Job
Being so far away from my support system while adjusting to an entirely new environment brought out a different perspective on what it means to be self-reliant. More than ever, I was confronted with the fact that nobody is going to be more invested than I am in my own success. Transitioning from being a student-athlete to a professional athlete has taught me that I have to form a vision of what I want my professional volleyball career to be like and I have to be proactive in taking the necessary steps to make it happen. It’s no longer my coach’s job to give me direction as to what my goals could be or to shift my focus when things get tough. It’s up to me to figure out what it’s going to take to become a better player in the long run, what kind of teammate I want to be and how I want to approach upcoming challenges. Whenever I feel disappointed with my performance, doubt my abilities or question choices that I’ve made, the answers and motivation can only come from me.
As a professional athlete, my sport is my job. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to live this adventure, but it doesn’t leave much room for overall balance. When you’re not performing the way you should, or you’re going through a losing streak on top of feeling homesick, you don’t have much to fall back on to feel good about yourself again. The only solution is to work harder and to better.
As great as this experience has been so far, there were times when I felt the whole weight of all the sacrifices I had made throughout the years and wondered if it was all worth it.
The Good News
However, the beauty of this unconventional path is, what you sacrifice you get back ten times over in life experience and growth. For every moment that I missed my family, friends, and boyfriend, there were countless times when I connected with teammates from a completely different culture. Every time I felt out of place as a foreign athlete in a small city of Hungary, I was reminded of the value of staying open to every new experience. Every moment where I doubted my talent and my ability to make it any further as an athlete, there were too many moments to count where I found myself in awe of everything that I’ve achieved so far and everything that I have yet to accomplish. Once you realize that first step, once you get a taste of what it’s like to fulfill a dream, you can’t help but want more.
Being a professional athlete is anything but easy. It will demand more of you than you thought you ever had. There is a price to play. But the good news is that the more you give to your sport, the more you will get in return.