Written by: Michael Amoroso
It was a few days after New Years in 2015, at the start of practice in Athens, with Panathinaikos Volleyball Club. Sport in Greece involves a ton of passion and usually an incredibly wild fan base. Panathinaikos had several elite sports and is still one of the largest sport clubs in Greece with over 1 million supporters. I had just returned from a fantastic trip north to Bulgaria, to visit the Queen’s University Men’s Volleyball Team – they were there training before a Bulgarian tournament. I returned ‘home’ to Athens on January 2nd to rejoin my club for practice the next day.
We were rested and ready to fight through the second half of the season. We had an exciting grudge match coming up on home court, against rival club Panachaiki. At the time, Panachaiki was the home of Canadians Steve Gotch and Steve Brinkman, and matches with them were always exciting (for a variety of reasons – the last match broke out into a fistfight between our supporters and theirs, a common practice in the Greek Volley League). Our new coach, Coach K, was just about to start his pre-practice meeting in Greek, which would be translated by a teammate for myself, Jared Moore (American roommate, fellow Middle Blocker), and Danijel Galic (Croatian international Outside Hitter). Just as coach was about to begin, members of our fan club arrived for an unannounced visit.
They came about 40 strong, many holding their motorcycle helmets, and walked right across our court to join our pre-practice meeting. Their ‘leader’ spoke to us as a group for about 3 minutes in Greek, and to this day I have not gotten a full translation of what he said. However, it was very serious, and all the Greek players and staff listened intently. When he was finished, the fan club departed, Coach K finished his meeting and we began practice. I asked our team captain “What was that all about?”, to which he said their message was simple: “We’ll be at this next game – Win… Or else.”
Strong words! However, with such a passionate club we had become used to a love/hate relationship from the fans. You see… we were 0-11. 11 straight losses to start the season, far and away the worst start for the club in it’s 105-year history. Our first coach had already resigned, one of our American teammates was let go to bring in Danny, our athletic therapist was let go and replaced, and an avalanche of negativity was crushing the athletes from all sides. Matches would finish with fans screaming and cursing us, and through the losing streak, our coach (before resignation) felt as though the only response was to push for longer, harder practices. We would practice from 9am-12pm, and then again from 4pm-7pm, every day. Two of those days per week, we also had workouts, and with an older team (I was one of the four youngest at 24 years old), we were breaking down on all fronts. After one poor morning serve/receive practice, our coach stormed out, calling us an “embarrassment to the sport”, and recommended we “try chess instead”.
An article was released in the Greek media that Panathinaikos was aggressively pursuing a Greek middle blocker, in order to free up a foreigner spot. Only 3 non-Greek players were allowed on the floor at a time, and with both Jared and I as internationals, the only way to add muscle with a high-scoring Opposite was to cut one of us and replace us with a Greek player. I had started the season well, however while fighting back from an ankle injury, I was under-performing and was certainly the one on the chopping block.
Then, the most peculiar thing happened: We started winning. It started with a convincing 3-1 victory over Panachaiki, followed by a win on the road against Canadian setter Jared Krause’s Pamvochaikos, and by March, we were on a six-game winning streak, and a team that nobody wanted to play. Personally, I was rounded well into form, picking up a few match MVPs along the way, and long-forgotten were the dark days of our losing streak. We finished the season going 8-3 in the second half, achieved the team’s goal of staying in the A1 top league, and I departed Greece with amazing memories and invaluable lessons learned about myself as an athlete and as a person.
So many incredible anecdotes, stories and experiences have come from this season, but rather than turn this tale into a pure walk down memory lane, I’d like to focus on the depth of depths, in the deepest of athletic slumps. I look back on this time and grin, enjoying the resiliency and perseverance its lessons have taught me. Every day I knew that our morning practice might be my last. Every fibre in my body was screaming for a day of rest, but the last thing I could do was ease up and relax. At 24, I was seven time zones away from family and friends, and far removed from the last good performance. The media and many fans believed my release might be the solution – how does one possibly walk into practice and matches and stay professional? The answer is, because it’s your job, and this pressure is exactly what you signed up for.
Once you cross the threshold into the professional world for anything, you sign many contracts. Some are on paper, with legally-binding terms and constructs in place to protect and indemnify both sides. Some are verbal, with all those that have interests in your success (family, friends, past/present coaches). And some are without stamps or seals and are not legally binding, but commit you to living, giving and doing whatever will leave you proud when the job is done. I would say to myself “If you are going to fire me tomorrow, then today is still a day where I wake up a professional athlete. I owe it to myself above all to hold up my end of the bargain.” Pay for play, pay for performance – sometimes it’s a fun job, but professional volleyball is a job. Every job has its down days.
This list includes some of my tips to follow when trying to break out of a slump (many apply to other sports, school and the working world too!) :
- Be patient – if you are doing everything you possibly can and still are not getting the results, relax. Slumps are impossible to completely avoid, you just want to break out of them as quickly as possible.
- If you don’t like the result you are getting, change something. Sometimes it’s small, like shaving your beard or going to bed earlier. Remember what got you to where you are, and try the small shifts before re-inventing the wheel
- Outside of practice/work/whatever is slumping, develop the other parts of your life. Go out with your friends, read books, write journals and do all the other things that you love to do. The better you are developed as a person (outside of sport), the less that slump will weigh you down!
- Speak to your teammates. Sometimes, we’re so caught up in our own slump, that we fail to recognize that others are slumping too – sometimes, the whole team is down. If the team is down, then the team needs to be brought back up, and you are all stronger together.
- Talk to your coaches. They might have insight that will help. They also might have nothing that will help, but by speaking to them, they’ll know that you are working through things and committed to breaking out!
- Remind yourself why you play and what you love about the game. If all the areas you love is the area that is slumping, then it’s a good time to figure out what else you love – do you really ‘love’ your float serve and its technical execution? Or do you love the chaos your float serve can cause, and your ability to contribute to a team using that weapon to achieve an advantage?
Neither our highs nor lows in sport define who we are as people, athletes, friends & family members. Slumps are great opportunities to solve problems and learn new things about how you respond to adversity. Embrace it, welcome it, and look forward to that amazing feeling of breaking out. You’ll get there – until then, try chess instead.
Michael Amoroso played three seasons professionally from 2012 to 2015, in Sweden, Greece and Germany. Since retiring, he has coached with Region 5 and Team Ontario, the Volleyball Canada Regional Excellence Program, and continues to mentor athletes at all levels through their athletic journeys around the world. By day, Michael works in medical sales and is the founder of Momentum Pro Sports.