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The Club to University Transition

My name is Averie Allard and I am a proud University of Saskatchewan alum, a member of the women’s NextGen national team and I’m currently playing professionally in Switzerland but before all of this, I was a kid who fell in love with volleyball. I wanted nothing more than to get a scholarship to play at the university level. When that dream came true, I was not prepared for how different my life would be. When it came to moving away from home and starting my life in another city, it was really difficult for me to adjust. There are many things that are different when it comes to volleyball at the university level compared to club level… Some, more obvious than others. All of these things at some level played a part in my struggle to adjust to this new chapter I had started and I hope by sharing my experiences I can help prepare younger athletes to feel confident in their transition into the university athletic world. 

Things I wasn’t prepared for when I started my academic and athletic career at the University of Saskatchewan: 

1. Not playing as often as I was used to 

As a competitive athlete who was typically in a leadership role on my previous teams, I came into university setting incredibly high expectations for myself. I had my eyes set on two specific goals- making the women’s national team and bringing a banner home to our gym. Being the young and naive athlete I was, I couldn’t see past my first year. I was so focused on improving and becoming a starter, that perfectionism began hindering me skillswise. During preseason I was unsatisfied with the level I was at when I compared myself to other players across our league. After preseason in my first year, my coach and I decided that it was best for me to redshirt for a few different reasons. Was I happy about this decision? Absolutely not. Being the youngest of three setters, it made sense for the team but that didn’t stop me from getting in my own head. Losing my confidence and worrying that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish my goals if I didn’t compete for my first season. 

As the athlete I was and still am, it was hard to sit on the bench and take stats during home games in the good moments and the bad. During good games, I wanted to be a part of our success and during tough games I wanted to be a difference maker… but I had a different role, one that was difficult for me to accept. I eventually got used to the home games but it was when the team traveled that I became the most discouraged. Road trips with the team are an experience all on their own. The bonding that happens, the inside jokes and lessons learned after 3 days together are priceless. When the girls returned I’d often feel like an outsider. I couldn’t see it then, with the IPad in my hand, wearing my team tracksuit and sitting next to the coaches on the bench but it’s clear as day looking back, that I needed this season to prepare myself for the rest of my career. I am extremely thankful for the people who supported me through this year and I can say with certainty that the first year is the most challenging but the growth and life experiences you gain is unmatched. Persevering through this transition can be overwhelming for young athletes, as I talk to and learn from other rookies across the athletic programs but not a single one has ever regretted sticking it out. We can all agree that the years following are worth every obstacle that first year brought.

One of the areas that this season off allowed me to grow in, was my physical strength. 

  1. The Physical Demand 

I was nowhere near as strong as I needed to be to perform at my peak at the university level for long periods of time. My knees were taking on too much because of my lack of muscle and strength in my legs and the only way for me to fix this problem was to get in the weight room and make some serious improvements- which would take time, time I wouldn’t have if I were preparing to play every weekend for 6 months straight. It took me 3 years, gaining 35 pounds and learning the importance of recovery to be able to last a whole season without injury. 

Being able to practice twice a day and then adding weights on top of that is an adjustment for sure and being able to take care of your body becomes critical, especially when you start traveling and playing. As much as I didn’t want to spend the little free time I had stretching, ice tubing and going to physio to last the whole five years of eligibility (or in my case 6), it is necessary and becomes more and more important every year. By my last year I had a recovery routine that really worked for me and the demands my role had. This routine really allowed me to show up to practices, games and weights being healthy and physically able to push myself. If I could go back to grade 12 I would definitely focus more on prioritizing my strength and recovery so that when I got to university, I would have one less thing to be stressed about. Along with this, as much as it is taught in the younger level elite sports environment, nutrition is also on the list of things that I didn’t take seriously until it became a problem. A large part of me not being physically prepared to be at the university level was my lack of protein and not eating enough to gain muscle. Once I learned more about nutrition and how to gain weight in a healthy way, I was not only able to gain muscle but also noticed overall differences in my performance and the lack of physical problems and my minor nagging injuries had disappeared. 

  1. The reality of how much age influences your play 

When it comes to university teams, the age gap was something I had never experienced before. I hadn’t previously played with or against girls who were 5, 6, sometimes 7 years older than I was. At the time I was 18 and didn’t have nearly as much experience on the court as many other players and it took me almost until the end of my 6 years to realize that experience is something you can’t replace with reps. Playing in live games and competing at that level for multiple years was something I would have to earn over time. Before I really internalized this later in my career, I was easily frustrated with where I felt like my level was at as a player. It was easy to look across the conference and see that the other setters were clearly a lot better than I was and chalk this up to how hard they try and how much extra work they’ve put in. With this mindset, it was at the forefront of my mind to be getting as many reps as possible whether it was one on one or group skills sessions, coming in early to practices, I was under the impression that this alone would allow me to accel to where I wanted to be by the end of my first season. But in reality this caused me more problems than benefits. It was a fast track to burning out and forgetting that I had more things I should’ve also been focusing on outside of volleyball. 

  1. The mental demand 

Being in your late teens/early twenties is hard enough as it is with all of life’s transitions in general but adding in university sports and moving away from home brings it to a whole new level. I cannot stress this point enough that taking care of your mental health is just as important as weight lifting and showing up to practices. I would heavily recommend to any athlete, no matter the level and age, to find a routine or a way to take care of your mental health even if it feels like you don’t currently need it. Whether it’s going to therapy, journaling, going for walks outside etc. It is so important to have a plan while you’re in a good mind space so that when things get difficult, you know what you can find comfort in and who you can rely on to get through hard times. Listening to the stories of other rookies across our athletics it was very apparent that the skills needed to remain mentally healthy were something almost all of us were missing. After bringing our concern about this specific gap, our athletic department started a specific program, as well as adding a counselor for athletes that which I would recommend every athlete to use as a resource, again, even if you feel as though you don’t need it. Just like doing pre-hab to prevent injuries, taking care of your mental health before you’re struggling is key to a successful season, career and life outside of sport… because we are also humans, not only athletes. 

  1. The academic stress

Academics is probably the most obvious yet overlooked area when it comes to transitioning from high school to university. If you’re anything like me, then your focus of going to university revolves solely around athletics and academics just happens to be part of the package. I was an average high school student on my best days and I was under the assumption that once I got into university, just like volleyball, if I put in the time that the success would eventually naturally follow. I thought If I could pass my high school classes (while I’ll admit, mostly by slacking off), I could definitely pass my university courses if I put in time. But the one key component I was missing was how I used my study time. I struggled academically, even when I was putting in hours of work outside the classroom because I had never learnt how to study or how to complete high quality assignments with efficiency. I never knew what I personally needed as a student. It wasn’t until the end of my second year that I figured out how to study and manage time in a way that worked for me and my learning style. I started waking up earlier to do my studying and school work in the mornings and giving myself ample time to get assignments done. I used ‘tricks’ such as setting a timer for 30-45 minutes and fully focusing for that period, followed by a break of 20-30 minutes doing something completely different when I was up and moving around. Study sessions that lasted 2-3 hours like most of my teammates were doing did not work for me and I needed to learn and accept that that is perfectly fine. Another important part of getting through my degree was scheduling my time and having a calendar/planner where I kept all of my assignments and exams written out so I could see them. I needed (and still need) to have a physical planner because having a digital one was far too easy to forget about and quite often I would avoid looking at it because I was worried I would become overwhelmed. After I figured out the study habits and environment that worked best for me, my classes became much less daunting and I honestly began to enjoy the academic side instead of dreading it. 

 As young athletes it’s easy to forget that playing at the next level has many more components of life that don’t have anything to do with your talent. These are all lessons I learned the hard way and I hope you can take something away from my experiences to help you be more prepared and successful wherever your volleyball career takes you. Although first year can be a mess, it is still an amazing experience and you will learn so much about yourself in such a small period of time. It’s just another step in becoming the athlete and person you want to be and I urge you to keep pushing through and leaning on support systems because what comes after is nothing short of amazing.

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