By: Justin Lui
Beep! Beep! Beep!
Amidst a spirited dream, I am awoken by the incessant sound of my alarm blaring next to my ear. It is 6:30am and yet again, I am feeling both tired and unenthused, wishing for a few extra minutes of rest. Contrary to my desire for sleep, I decide to click my alarm off and thereby commit to my day as a NCAA volleyball player. I saunter out of bed, ensuring that I do not awaken my two roommates sleeping a few feet away from me. I change my clothes, brush my teeth and head out the door towards my first task of the day. Unlike most university students, I have to wake up at 6:30am, rather than go to sleep at this time. As one can imagine, my morning walk by the lounge features the sight of my friends face-planted in their caffeinated energy drinks or passed out on the keyboards of their laptops. A simple reminder of a Stanford students’ arduous lifestyle.
Due to this ungodly hour of awakening, breakfast is not yet open, so I consume the only available nourishment around – a cup of coffee and a lone banana. By 7am, I head to my bike to begin my trek towards the locker room. The bike ride takes about 10-12 minutes but is endured shortly as I am accompanied by the rising sun and Californian palm trees, which together, help cure my prolonged lassitude. By the time I enter the locker room, it is around 7:20am. I quickly change into my volleyball attire and walk over to the weight room. Inside this clinically bare room lies an amalgam of football players, wrestlers and swimmers who have already begun their morning workouts at 6:45am. I instead head to the corner to begin foam roll-out and activation warmup with my team. By 7:50am, we begin our weights workout. We complete the workout as a team and head back to the locker room by 9am. At this time, I quickly shower, grab a protein shake from the food stand and head to my first class. On a typical day, I have class beginning at 9:30am and ending at 3:20pm with a brief, hour long lunch break at 11:30am.
Once my last class is completed, I bike over to the locker room to prepare for practice. Often joined by a few teammates, I get changed into my volleyball gear and walk over to the practice gym to help set up the nets. Practice begins around 4:30pm and runs non-stop until 7:30pm. This may seem quite lofty, practicing 3 hours a day (especially to younger athletes), but trust me, once you get into the rhythm of it, the time seems to fly. After the nets are torn down, the team discussion is complete and the roll-out is finished, I walk back to the locker room to shower. Quickly after, I head back to my residence to eat dinner. I eat around 8pm alongside a few of my friends, or if I am alone, I skim through a few news articles to occupy the apparent loneliness.
Once my appetite is filled, I commence the student grind. If I have a lot of work, I will go to the campus library to ensure peace and quiet for my focused efforts. Otherwise, I will begin work in the residence lounge, taking infrequent breaks to talk to friends who are studying with me. I normally finish all the work I had planned to do by 1am – 1:30am. By now, I am completely exhausted and I immediately crash into my room to get as much sleep as possible. I fall asleep finally, only to be awaken by the sound of my alarm. Beep! Beep! Beep! And thus, the day is anew.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A NCAA STUDENT-ATHLETE
As one can imagine from my day-in-the-life, being a student-athlete is as it says: A student and an athlete. Although I heard this ubiquitous phrase before, I had never quite grasped what it truly meant. Upon my arrival to university, I thought that I would have time to balance volleyball, school and social life fairly evenly. However, if you are like me, striving to conquer the athletic and academic fields alike, then the time devoted to volleyball and schoolwork increases while the time allocated for social experiences significantly decreases. My coach likes to say that “volleyball and schoolwork should occupy 80% of your time here. The other 20% is up to you”. This lack of social activity was a manageable concession for me, as I was willing to forfeit some social time in order to maintain my desired grades and volleyball quality. But I know for many of my teammates, this was a necessary sacrifice, despite the fact that many of them enjoy the social aspect of university.
Playing at Stanford has also exposed a new meaning on the title of ‘student-athlete’. Through my time here, I have learned that being a student-athlete for such a reputable school is not just a name afforded to those playing a sport while fulfilling an education. It instead represents a responsibility. It is a responsibility bestowed upon a small, but highly influential portion of the university community that emulate the best standards a university has to offer. This means that they are expected to strive in the classroom while on the court; they are expected to be active members of the community by helping and supporting all who seek it; and most importantly, student-athletes are expected to display qualities of respect, humility and kindness to ensure that the university is well-represented. Thus, being a student-athlete is not only a privilege that affects oneself, but it is an honor that reflects the university as a whole.
ONE PIECE OF ADVICE (FOR YOUNGER ATHLETES SPECFICALLY):
KNOW YOUR COACH
Prior to my arrival at Stanford, I was frightened by the profound rumor about how NCAA coaches treat their athletes. I heard that coaches saw players as an athlete first and a student second, implying that coaches did not care about a student’s academic aspirations at all. With this, I believed that my coach would prevent me from enrolling in specific courses as the work load may not be compatible with his volleyball schedule. However, in these past months, I have seen that this is not true. My coach, in particular, encourages me in my academic ambitions as well as my athletic ones. He often asks how school is, what classes I am taking and what engineering discipline I am interested pursuing. He shows an immense amount of care in how I am doing academically and pushes me to take classes that I find intriguing. He not only is content with my academic schedule but is an advocate for the belief that the student comes first and the athlete second.
For me, I knew before attending Stanford that my coach held this position about athletics and academics. I was glad that this held true when I arrived here. However, for many other athletes that I have attended U.S. schools in the past, I know that they have not had the same experience. Thus, a simple reminder for younger athletes interested in playing volleyball in college, specifically in the states, is that I encourage you to get to know your potential coaches before deciding on a university. It may seem superfluous, but I can attest that it is highly necessary, given that you want to enjoy volleyball along while pursuing an education. Having a coach that shares similar ideals about school and volleyball not only makes the university experience more enjoyable, but it also sets up the trajectory for your future volleyball/academic goals.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED WHILE ATTENDING UNIVERSITY:
On a typical university team, there are approximately 18-20 players. And yet, only 7 get to play. Unlike what most people experience on club teams where they immediately start, the university landscape is much different. One day you may find yourself playing on the starting lineup, when the next day you may not. This is the reality of a university team. Each player is desperately fighting for playing time and only those who can keep consistent play throughout the season are considered for a starting position.
What I have learned in my first quarter at Stanford is that no matter how I perform in a given practice, drill or game, I always have to come back the next day focused and prepared. The best thing one can do for themselves is to forget the past and prepare for the future. Believe me, there have been times where I have performed incredibly poorly. But at the same time, there are some instances where I have performed well, proving myself to be a formidable competitor at the collegiate level. Ultimately, I try to remember those better performances – remember how I felt and how others felt when they were playing with me. By focusing on these better performances, I approach practice with the mindset that I belong on the starting lineup. And during practice, I play as hard as I can to prove that I deserve to be there.
2. THE RIGOROUS ACADEMIC TRANSITION
Looking at my day-in-the-life, one can assume that the transition from high school to college is an enormous jump. And to be quite honest, it is. This transition not only marks the change from adolescence to adulthood, but it also marks the change from high school academics to university academics.
One adjustment that I quickly had to get used to, was the intensity of academics. The major difference I have found in continuing my education at Stanford versus that of my high school, is that university academics requires numerous amounts of time. In high school, it may be very easy to study the for a test the morning of or complete a paper the night before and still end up with a desirable grade. I can assure you, however, this is not the case for university. Early on, I learned that assignments, papers and study materials must be started early in order to finish in time, let alone get a solid grade. Thankfully, I found myself to be ahead of the game for most of my course work to ensure that completion was followed. However, I know that many of my friends made this illuminating discovery much later, thereby costing themselves their lower-than-preferred final grade. Ultimately, the best advice I can give to ensure that work is completed on time, all the while balancing volleyball and school, is to do as much as you can in as little time as possible. It is easy to look at a massive paper, project and test, and think that you can start it when you have enough time to complete it, but this is not the case. With all the volleyball practices, games and weight training going on, it is tough to ever find time to thoroughly complete something so difficult. So instead, complete a little each day, and when the due date is near, then devote more time into finishing the project/paper and the final product will be of much higher quality. In doing this, school will not only feel less stressful, but volleyball will as well. It will be much easier to focus in practice and games when the worries of school are kept to a minimum.
3. TO ENDURE THE CHALLENGE IS TO REFRAME IT
There is always that time when the combination of school, volleyball and so many other things begins to pile up causing anxiety and stress to rise. Classes can often be very demanding, taxing, and at times, suffocating. Volleyball can seem like a mindless pursuit, lifting weights and competing against teammates on less than 6 hours of sleep. Not to mention the other stresses that circulate one’s mind, whether it be homesickness, mental health, or several others. It is easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the world, and to say, “I give up”, when everything seems so bleak. Believe me, there has been many a day where I have felt this. But rather than wallowing in the difficultly of it all, I constantly remind myself to embrace the challenge.
In fact, we have a word on our team that reflects the embracing of challenges and allows us to look at these challenges in a constructive light. That word is ‘reframe’. The word ‘reframe’ reminds us to look at a situation that seems utterly dire and force ourselves to look at the positives. For example, and I don’t admit this easily, but on the first day of weights workout, we had to test our distance on this machine called VERSA. I won’t get into the details of operation, but after being tested on this machine, I immediately ran outside and vomited, all while my team and strength coaches were watching. It could have been easy for me to give up shamefully and make excuses for the rest of the workout, explaining that I felt sick and tired. But instead, guided by the ‘reframe’ method, I decided to walk back into that weight room, head held high and say “well, I guess it can only go up from here”. My team warmly embraced my optimistic attitude and I completed the workout dutifully. During my time here, there has been many times where I have struggled to tread, while others effortlessly float on by. And although giving up seems like a much simpler option, I choose to reframe. Rather than looking at challenges as shortcomings in one’s ability to excel, I instead embrace these challenges for what they offer – lessons. Lessons that have been products of the reframe method, have allowed me to develop as an athlete through physical and mental improvement. They have allowed me to grow as a person, by overcoming my discomforts and dealing with my adversities. And most importantly, these lessons have reminded me to be grateful for this unique opportunity I have been given and to never forget how lucky I am to be a Stanford student-athlete.