by Paige Cunningham
Sports has comprised a significant part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started soccer at the age of five, then basketball at seven, softball at nine and volleyball at eleven. I didn’t drop any; I just kept adding. In addition to these club sports, all of which I played at a competitive level, I played three varsity sports in high school — volleyball, basketball and soccer.
I was the volleyball and basketball team captain my junior and senior years of high school, and was selected to the All-City, All-League and All-State first teams. I was even the City Player of the Year in basketball my senior year. Yeah…I was maybe a little bit of a big deal.
Not quite ready to hang up my cleats, knee pads and high tops, I decided to play a sport in college. I selected volleyball because basketball is a long season and soccer requires too much running. I thought volleyball would be less work. Because I wanted to attend a small, private liberal arts college, a volleyball scholarship made it affordable.
While I knew intellectually playing a college sport would be different and more competitive than high school, I was, nonetheless, unprepared for the reality.
First of all, playing a college sport is not always fun. In fact, it’s hard work.
My parents kept reminding me that volleyball is my job in college. If I heard once, I heard a hundred times, “Volleyball is allowing you to get an education we otherwise could not afford to provide you.”
Between early morning work outs, practice, the travel schedule and, oh yeah, classes, I was busy. All. The. Time.
I’m used to working hard. Growing up playing four sports, many of which overlapped during the year, I have never had a lot of down time, but when you add in the rigors of freshman year college classes (excuse me, did you say there are no retakes?), missing home and sleep deprivation, it is a recipe for disaster.
Well, maybe not a disaster, but definitely hard. And not always fun. In addition to adjusting to the rhythm of college life generally, I had to adapt to new teammates and coaches.
Remember how I thought I was a big deal? I was…in high school. So were all the other student-athletes. Each of us on the volleyball team has some sort of award or distinction that got us recruited, all 18 of us. That was another rude awakening.
In high school, only 12 girls make the team, and all 12 play, even if only in a limited capacity. In college, 18 girls are on the team, but only eight to ten play. The rest are considered “practice players.”
Another parentism I got heartily sick of hearing: “your scholarship applies whether you’re a starter or practice player.” Cold comfort if you are one of the girls standing on the sideline keeping stats and secretly thinking you are better than everyone else on the court. Yes, being a student-athlete is not always fun, it’s hard work and it feels an awful lot like a job…but not always.
When I reflect back on my freshman year of college, I do not automatically think of 4 a.m. wakeup calls, surprise timed 200s or intersquad competition.
Rather, I think about how my teammates have become my best friends. I think about how volleyball has provided me a physical outlet when school and life is hard. I also remember I am fortunate enough to continue playing a sport I love.
No, it’s not high school any more, but I wouldn’t want it to be.