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From Player to Spectator: My Journey in Sports as a Tall Woman

I come from a very athletic and sports enthusiastic family, so I tried many sports during the course of my childhood (swimming, basketball, softball, even gymnastics – HA!), but I absolutely LOVED playing volleyball. It’s safe to say that my older sister Amy had a huge influence on me and the love for the game. I grew up watching her play and I was in awe of her talent and wanted to be just as good as she was. Amy was a great athlete and went on to play at the Division I level (beyond that, made Olympic try-outs), and I spent the next four years soaking it all in because I felt so strongly that I wanted to follow that path as well.

Our traveling team, in our middle school years, visiting Amy @ Wisconsin. (I’m #17 on the end).

I started traveling and playing in tournaments as early as sixth grade. Aside from regular season, I was apart of a traveling team every year of my life up until I graduated from high school. The older I got, the more intense the traveling schedule became and the more tournaments we played in, but I couldn’t get enough of it! I loved competing and it brought me so much joy. At that point in my life, I could have slept on the court and lived in spandex and knee pads indefinitely. Even as I reflect back on those days now, I always smile and think about all the good memories made in the gym with my teammates and my parents.

Competing in high school.

I’ve written about this before, but because I was SO into volleyball and was so determined to become a college athlete, I was totally ok with my height in high school. I even wanted to be taller than I am now (yes, it’s true). To be fair, I didn’t get much grief about my height, because everyone knew my sister and totally admired her journey – and I think everyone, including myself, expected my journey to be much the same. Regardless, I know that sports helped give me a healthy sense of confidence and self-esteem when I was younger, by giving me a sense of belonging, an identity (athlete) and so much more than I could ever explain in a blog post. If you’ve ever loved a game like me, I’m sure you know this feeling well. On the contrary, if you hate sports, stick with me, I promise I have a point for you, too.

Fast forward to my senior year of high school –  I signed to play at the Division II level and I was SO excited to start my college career! I had toured the campus and I had met my future coaches and teammates and I felt beyond good about my choice. My dreams of becoming a college athlete were fulfilled, and I couldn’t wait to start competing!

My freshman year picture (college).

Sadly, almost immediately things took a downturn for me. It did not take long for me to fall out of love with the game. I would be lying if I said that I was totally prepared to play at this level – I felt like I was in over my head and I was a little overwhelmed. My original attitude to these feelings was one of a true champion: I was going to work really hard, train like a beast, go into practice early and get better. I had no doubt that this was still my path and it was going to all work out. But my coach and I did not have a good relationship, and I found myself walking into practice daily feeling inferior and insecure. These feelings reflected in how I played (like total garbage). When I started playing crappy, I started to get really stressed out and super mad at myself and all worked up into a million emotions I couldn’t get a handle on. I wasn’t used to being in a position where I felt like I wasn’t a good player. The stress started to snowball, and by the middle of the first season I was a HOT mess.

The stress took a major toll on me mentally, but even more so physically. I was sick ALL.OF.THE.TIME. that first semester. In the spirit of trying not to overshare, I’ll just tell you that my digestive system  was in complete shambles. I was in so much pain. I was seeing multiple GI specialists and having x-rays done every other week.  I developed mono for the second time in my life. I had strep throat, tonsillitis, sinus infections. The list goes on and on. When I think back to that first semester, I’m not even sure how I passed any of my classes, or how I am even living to share this story. Finally, I had enough. I knew I was miserable. I literally started to DREAD having to go to practice, and even the mere thought of practice stressed me out and had my stomach turning. But at the same time, I had so much anxiety about the thought of walking away. After all, isn’t this what I was MADE for? Why else would God give me a tall frame and an athletic body? I had spent so many years as an athlete and a volleyball player – this was my main form of identity. This is who I was. As much as I had started to hate it, I also started to panic about what I was going to do next and who I was going to associate with. I felt so comfortable in my sports bubble, surrounded by my other tall sisters.

Regardless, it was inevitable. I had to quit. I had to move on so that I could begin to love and enjoy life again. I remember being really nervous to tell my parents, because I thought they were going to be so disappointed and upset with me after they watched my sister have a super successful 4 year career. Thankfully, they were the most encouraging and supportive parents on the planet. With their blessing, I walked into my coach’s office and gave him the news – I would not be returning for season #2.

This decision changed my life. I was so much happier and healthier outside of the program; working, studying and living life as a regular college student. What amazed me is that even though I was removed from the gym, it didn’t seem like that much changed as I still stayed friends with and socialized with most of my teammates and other athletes I had met through volleyball. But I also ended up meeting so many more amazing people who I may not have had the chance to meet had I not quit. For having such a shaky beginning, college ended up being the best time of my life.

College graduation day, no longer an athlete – but extremely happy.

What I learned through my experience is that it’s ok to be a tall girl and not identify as an athlete. I’ll be honest, this was a super tough thing for me to come to terms with given my family history and their absolute love of sports. But I realized that playing sports or my athletic abilities do not define me as a person. It’s ok to have other interests, hobbies, and passions that have nothing to do with your height or your body. It’s ok because you have so much more to offer the world beyond a killer jump serve. I know because I’ve lived it.

Hopefully in sharing my experience, I am not taking away from those girls who are amazing athletes and have had successful college careers and maybe even professional ones, too. I know some of those girls in real life and I admire you greatly, especially because of who you are as people on the inside. But even those girls will, at some point, have a moment like mine. The reality is that collegiate or professional sports careers come with an expiration date (usually defined by age), and this can be scary for those people who have always identified with the title of athlete.  I want you to know I’m here for you. It’s ok to move on – maybe there are some really freaking cool titles waiting on the other side for you – wife, mom, aunt, teacher, doctor, CEO……

And for those of you who have never had any interest in sports, I’m here for you, too. It’s a horrible thing to feel like your body is a waste of space because you didn’t dribble a ball. But it’s not. Don’t let people convince you that this is true, and definitely do NOT spend time doing things that don’t bring you joy. If you hate sports but love to play the guitar – girl, slay that guitar. Life is too short, and you never know if you’ll have the gift of tomorrow or not. Don’t stress about fitting into a box that the world thinks you should be in. It’s NOT worth it. Do not sacrifice your happiness or your well-being for these people.

Regardless if you are an athlete or not, you’re important and you matter. Here’s the ultimate tall girl life goal: BE HAPPY. Be healthy. Live your life how YOU want to live it.

Thanks for reading! – Alli

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