CHICAGO, Ill. — It’s August 31. Two days before the AVP Chicago qualifier. Adam Roberts and I are getting dinner at Doc B’s, the most popular dinner spot for beach volleyball players in Chicago, both for its location and its cuisine. Per usual, our discussion turns to movies.
We’re movie guys, Adam and I. Our language is in movie quotes — Happy Gilmore quotes, Tommy Boy quotes, Dumb and Dumber quotes. He drops a line from Rounders, a 1998 film starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton.
“You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle,” Adam says. “But you can’t win much either.”
It’s a good line — but I’ve never heard it. Never seen Rounders, I tell him. Adam finds this unacceptable.
When we get back to The Drake hotel, he pulls up Rounders on his tablet, plugs in his headphones, and hands it to me. This is not an optional assignment.
I’m hooked within five minutes. Matt Damon plays a hot shot young poker player. He’s worked his way up the minor league tables. Cleaned up all the smaller players. He’s made a decent living for himself doing it, taking $500 to the tables, coming away with thousands. He’s good. A rising star on the underground New York City poker circuit.
But in this scene, he’s going for the big dog. He’s going for Teddy KGB, the Russian mobster who owns the joint. He takes $30,000 in chips. It’s everything he has. He heads to the top table, where Teddy KGB sits. Where Teddy KGB never loses. He does this in spite of his mentor, Joey Knish, telling him not to. He isn’t ready, Knish tells him. Keep working the smaller tables. The tables where you can win.
You can’t beat Teddy KGB.
Damon doesn’t care.
He doesn’t care because he’s outplaying Teddy. Has a nice stack of chips. A great hand. He’s got a top pair on the flop, and he’s going for the kill shot. He wants to drag Teddy through the hand, take him all the way home. He doesn’t want to win the hand too early — he wants to win the hand big. So he plays his man perfect. He drags Teddy onward, and Teddy’s falling headfirst into his trap, betting and raising and betting and raising.
Damon goes all in. Teddy calls.
“I know before the cards are even turned over,” Damon says, knowing he played this hand all wrong. Knowing Teddy was the one playing him.
Teddy didn’t have the flush Damon thought he did. He had trip aces. He has the hand. And then Damon watches as Teddy happily, greedily rakes every last chip he has, every last dollar to his name.
Damon went all in, and he lost. He went all in on a good hand, a hand he played well. He wasn’t unlucky. He didn’t lose on a bad beat.
He just lost.
The movie is just five minutes in, and yet I feel a palpable empathy towards Damon.
That opening scene feels an awful lot like my 2021 beach volleyball season.
Going all in
I went all in this season.
For the first time in my “beach volleyball career” I treated this sport like a professional player should. I worked with coaches. If I wasn’t with Evie Matthews then I was with Mike Campbell. If I was in Florida, I worked with LT Treumann. If Adam and I were in Myrtle Beach, we worked with Adam’s local coach there.
In past seasons, I cobbled together my own weight training program, just sort of guessing my way through exercises and reps and sets and routines.
Not in 2021.
In December, I began working with USA Volleyball trainer Christian Hartford. He put together an off-season program, a pre-season program, and various in-season programs for me. When I was on the road, which was almost always, I’d send him pictures of the gym and he’d scramble something together for me to do.
I had a partner. A real partner. Not just a guy I’d play a one-off with, but a guy with whom we agreed to run the whole season together. We’d win and lose and learn and get pissed and celebrate and explore and travel and grow close together. We were a team.
Beginning in early January, as we prepped for the Doha one-star, Adam and I went all in, and before I go any further, I must say: I could not have gone all in without Adam Roberts. Adam’s sponsors covered our travel — hotels, flights, meals, the whole bit. There is no Earthly possibility I could play in eight FIVBs and nine other tournaments around the world without Adam Roberts. He made this season possible.
He made going all in possible.
And it worked.
We played great in Doha. Because of Christian’s program, I was heavier than I had ever competed since moving to California, tipping the scales at 207 yet jumping higher and moving better than I had in my life. My knees didn’t hurt. I no longer popped four Ibuprofen before every practice. I didn’t even take it for matches.
Because of Evie’s coaching, my blocking was extraordinarily improved. I was making dynamic moves, both with my feet and my hands. We won our opening match over Poland largely because of that blocking.
Because of Mike Campbell’s rep-intensive practices, my passing was crisp. On offense, I was siding out at a 70-percent clip, a world-class threshold to hit.
We take fifth in Doha, losing a good match to a good Russian team. A month later, I win Fuds with Cody Caldwell, Evan Cory and JD Hamilton. After Fuds, Adam and I win a small tournament in Myrtle Beach. I’ve never felt as confident on a beach volleyball court as I do mid-May, when we head to Sofia, Bulgaria, for a long stretch of tournaments overseas.
We open our first with a win over a French team that has won two gold medals. We smoke them, control the entire match.
We head to Sochi to play a country-quota match that nobody thinks we can win.
And then we win, hanging on to beat Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, 20-18 in the third set. That win has all the power of a religious conversion: Maybe I can do this. Maybe I’m not just a gimmick in this sport, a writer and podcaster who tags along as a player. Maybe I’m pretty dang good. Maybe if I treated this sport like Tri Bourne does, like Taylor Crabb does, like Jake Gibb does, maybe if I act like a professional, I can be a professional.
You can’t win what you don’t put in the middle.
I’m putting it all in the middle, and I’m raking a bit back.
I’m hanging with Teddy KGB.
We lose a close one to an Argentinian team who will become Olympians. Our tournament in Sochi is over, but a statement — internally, anyway — has been made: I’m here. I’m a beach volleyball player. And I’m a good one.
And then we go on an epic losing streak.
We lose the next week in the finals of a Bulgarian National Tour event.
Four days later, we lose in the final round of the qualifier to a mediocre Hungarian team.
We lose in the quarterfinals of Waupaca, then the quarterfinals again in Belgium.
We melt down in Atlantic City, taking a 10-5 third set lead over Lev Priima and Jake Landel only to lose, 16-14, finishing with a 13th.
We go to Myrtle. We fix our problems. Or think we do.
We lose again, in Bulgaria, dropping our first match of pool to a young, raw French team we shouldn’t lose to. For ninth, we’re shellacked by a Dutch team who is good but not great. We are hardly competitive.
We spend a night in Paris, hit AVP Atlanta, where we lose again, in the second round, to Jon Ferrari and Brian Miller. We head to Seaside and lose in the finals, whiffing on a main-draw bid to Chicago.
Four days later, we push on. We win our first two matches in Manhattan then blow another to Landel and Priima in the third set of the final round.
The season begins to have a Sisyphean feel to it: We are forever rolling that boulder up the mountain, perpetually on the cusp of breakthrough — only to have that boulder begin rolling back down, flattening us, over and over and over again. Scores blend together like jumbled phone numbers. The world smears into one forgettable hotel room.
All this losing, of the big win and medals and main draws being dangled like a carrot, begins to take an unexpected toll.
I always thought the most difficult task of competing full-time as a professional, of traveling the world, of training and competing and abusing your body to no end, would be physical, maintaining strength, keeping my knees and shoulder healthy. But my body’s fine. Knees are good — good enough, anyway. Save for one tournament where I could hardly throw a ball, my shoulder’s right as rain.
But my mind is not.
My spirit is not.
Mentally, I’m tapped.
SOMEWHERE OVER EUROPE — It’s 2 a.m. in Istanbul. I’m not there, just on my way. Always on my way.
To somewhere that isn’t home.
Currently, I’m on a flight from Chicago to Istanbul for a brief layover before I reach my final destination, my European home: Sofia, Bulgaria. In an attempt to stave off jet lag, I’m pounding coffee after coffee.
I open my Bible to 2 Peter. And there, in that uncanny way that seems to happen quite frequently when I open the Bible in times of mental distress, are the words I’ve needed for months: “For a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.”
Those 11 words were the wakeup call I didn’t know I’d needed since Sochi.
So focused was I on my physical health, on beach volleyball, on eating right, on lifting and exercising and anything else that could possibly aid me — me me me — in winning just one more beach volleyball match that all else around me became disregarded, unimportant. My life’s priorities were juggled and rearranged without me really realizing it.
Since when was winning beach volleyball matches more important than, say, being a good husband to the wife I love so much but so rarely see? When did winning become higher on the life hierarchy than simply being a good human? Or doing the thing I love most: Telling the rich and wonderful stories of the players around me? Or training and learning and growing and evolving?
When did my mindset flip from that of growth to fixed?
Results over process?
For years now, winning beach volleyball matches has just been a bonus. A lovely bonus. Suddenly it was central to my existence: Win and be happy, lose and be miserable.
How long had I been paying the mental toll for that?
Mental health among athletes fortunate enough to do what we do for a living is a strange topic to discuss. But our mental health is really no different than that of the physical. Just as we exercise and watch what we put into our bodies in order to stay physically healthy, we must exercise our minds and ensure that what we’re putting into our minds is healthy, too. For me, the healthiest inputs are journaling, reading, meditating, praying, sleeping, spending time in nature and with Delaney — preferably both — taking Sundays totally off from volleyball.
On the road, however, this proves difficult. Six straight weeks of traveling and competing takes dynamite to any routine you have, blows it to bits. I read less and scroll Instagram more. I walk less and sit more. My precious mind-wandering time, the time where most of my best writing and clearest thinking is done, is reduced to nil. I see Delaney for no more than two weeks in a few months.
And on the rare occasion I am home, I’m disoriented, jet-lagged, run down. I’m not jumping awake in the mornings, as I usually do, excited to start the day, but pounding the snooze button. I struggle to focus in practice, which makes me frustrated and angry, which in turn causes me to play worse. This, of course, only adds to the frustration, and so the cycle perpetuates itself. The worse I play, the more I push; the more I push, the worse I play. Instead of reading, I’m watching more film. Instead of resting, I’m practicing again, pushing, pushing, pushing.
In Zen, there is a concept of a problem derived from “too much willful will.” In essence: Trying too hard. Real breakthroughs come when you’re not so controlling, when you let go.
I wasn’t letting go. Gone, then, is the ineffable joy every time I step on the sand, replaced instead by the dull monotony of work work work.
Since when did beach volleyball become work?
Since when did I ever struggle with the mental side of life?
Somewhere along the lines, beach volleyball, a source of constant fulfillment, happiness, joy, became a job, a mission, a task to be achieved, a box to check.
This happened slowly, surreptitiously, without my realizing it. Snuck up on me. Now here I am, measuring my life’s value out of the results of these beach volleyball matches, and not the growth I have come to prize.
It is no way to view life.
This is not uncommon among athletes. Twice this season, I’ve read Wright Thompson’s The Cost of These Dreams, a book chronicling the stories of athletic icons who pursue greatness — greatness that comes, as the title suggests, with a cost. I read Thompson’s profiles on Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Pat Riley and Lionel Messi, all men I look to as fulcrums of athletic success, all men who were deeply flawed.
The need to win consumed them.
“His whole life,” Thompson writes about Jordan, “has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy… It is this appetite to prove — to attack and to dominate and to win — that killed him.”
Reading this sentence is perhaps the only time I will relate to Michael Jordan.
I re-read Andre Agassi’s phenomenal memoir, Open, and see the same theme arise again: An all-consuming longing to prove, to win, a force so powerful he retired once, in the strangest of ceremonies. He lost, and simply gave away his rackets to a homeless man in New York City.
I can’t say I haven’t debated giving all my volleyballs to Katie Spieler’s club in Santa Barbara.
Haven’t we all?
These stories, though, leave me with a question: How do I change the narrative? How do I reverse this little funk?
Woods didn’t. Jordan didn’t. Riley didn’t.
“You know the greatest lie in the world?” Thompson finishes his story on Riley. “Pat’s retiring to Malibu.”
Winning consumed them, controlled them, broke them.
Winning was their master, and they were slaves to it.
I wasn’t winning but I needed to. I needed it so bad I was ignoring everything else around me, and my foundation was crumbling because of it. I was self-aware enough to feel it, to know something was off. I’d practically flog myself in my journals, reminding myself to be grateful, to enjoy it, to love it.
I knew what a blessed life I was living: Traveling the world, playing beach volleyball, forging wonderful relationships all over the globe, piling up unbelievable experiences. The problems I had were not anything close to resembling a real problem.
I wasn’t a heart surgeon. I was a beach volleyball player, for crying out loud.
So what was the problem?
I understand the value of the process, of enjoying the process, of loving the process. It’s even been studied, by behavioral psychologist Katy Milkman, who tracked endurance athletes, seeking the common traits that enabled them to finish their races: “We actually do much better in terms of creating long-term behavior change if we find ways to make the thing that’s good for you more fun and inherently enjoyable,” she found in a study. “That’s a major lesson for me.”
Milkman doesn’t mean fun in the Little League baseball kind of way, where no matter what happens, we’re getting ice cream and pizza afterwards. Matt Fuerbringer described the type of fun she referenced when we had him on the podcast: “You gotta make it fun. There’s a grind to it, always a grind to it, but if you can make it fun to learn that skill, it makes it a little better to do. That’s the fun shit, when you’re in it. I tell my kids all the time that when you go home, and you tell your parents that practice was OK, then you didn’t have a good practice.
“But if you went home, and you tell a story about something you did at practice because you were so locked in, and you’re on that, when I say have fun, I’m not saying laugh. I’m not telling you smile after you get blocked. What I’m telling you is respect that guy that blocked you, and be so focused and so locked in that you go back at it, and you’re not beating yourself up. Focus would be more fun to me than laughing. Respect that focus. Respect all that work that it takes to be great, and enjoy that.”
Yet so discouraged had I become throughout all this losing that I also lost focus. I was no longer locked in and dialed in practice; I was zombie-walking through the motions. It’s not just that we were losing, but we were losing without value. We weren’t growing from losses, extracting lessons to be implemented in the next practice, the next match. We were regressing. Tournaments had become a sinister groundhog’s day, us losing in the same manner, over and over and over again.
No longer did I walk onto the court brimming with confidence, as I did in Doha, in Bulgaria, in Sochi, but instead with an impending sense of dread: How were we going to lose this time?
I don’t have much fun in Chicago, when Adam and I lose in the first round to Jeff Samuels and Dillon Cox. We loosely debate pulling out of the final two FIVBs of the season, in Italy and the Netherlands.
Why go when we won’t win?
But we do go, even if it might be against our better judgement. And there, on that flight to Bulgaria, I open 2 Peter and find that rather than be a malleable, learning, evolving passenger on this journey, I’d become a slave to it.
How had I not noticed that before?
NIJMEGEN, Netherlands — It is too late, this realization. For this season, anyway. It’s a pristine Sunday morning in the Netherlands, and my season is over. Adam and I lost both matches in Italy. Tim Brewster — a saint of a human being who subbed in for Adam on a day’s notice after Adam tweaked his knee in Italy — and I lost our only match in the Netherlands.
There wasn’t much of the process left to enjoy. But still: I enjoyed it. I enjoyed getting extra passing reps after our first loss in Italy to Austrians Mortiz Kindl and Mathias Seiser. Adam and I did this at sunset, and I felt almost giddy about this sport again: Here I was, improving, growing, learning, fixing something in the midst of a stunning sunset next to the Adriatic Sea.
I enjoyed fine-tuning my blocking against Italians Andrea Abbiati and Tiziano Andreatta, making better moves, stronger moves, more dynamic moves that built us a few leads. I enjoyed switching to left side to play with Brewster in Nijmegen, even if it did mean an awfully rusty match in which I was our lone Achille’s Heel.
And because I enjoyed the growth, the focus, the crystal clear lens through which I viewed this journey again, I found myself enjoying everything that came with it, too.
I even enjoyed missing our flight, the first flight I’ve ever missed in my life, from Bulgaria to Italy.
I enjoyed the few days in Italy after Abbiati and Andreatta knocked us out, helping fellow Americans and friends Troy Field and Miles Evans and Molly Turner and Terese Cannon however I could. I enjoyed the fun little King of the Beach I played with Jake MacNeil, Logan Webber, and Mike Boag. I enjoyed the gelato, the pizza, the piadinas. I enjoyed reuniting with an old friend, Luca Antoni, a buddy from Florida I hadn’t seen in six years. He happened to be back in Remini, his hometown, when he saw my name on the entry list.
The bludgeon of losing is salved quickly by all of these precious moments.
Alas, there was more happening than winning beach volleyball matches.
I love it.
I love the long walk down the river with Molly and Terese, getting to know them on a deeper level. I love road dogging with Will and Jake, splitting a single full bed with Will, a 7-foot bear of a man, and waking up a few hours later. I love the mad dash to the airport, barely making our flight while our cab driver stopped by a gas station that also, somehow, doubled as a strip club called, perfectly, Sexy Jimmy’s.
I love exploring Amsterdam with my Canadian buds, walking through the Red Light District, taking a canal ride, being tourists. I love the train we take, the card games we play. I love the lighthearted and goofy practice Tim and I have with Argentina and France.
I love switching sides. I love the difficulty of it.
I do not love losing, no. Nor will I, or should I, ever. And I especially do not love losing my final match of the year, in the final round of the qualifier, for the fifth time in a single season. I do not love being the sole reason for this loss, and I am, absolutely, unequivocally, the sole reason for it.
Yet the sting fades. It fades because I have new things to work on, new aspects to improve. And it fades because losing is what it is: An inevitability. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be much of a task worth pursuing, would it?
“Do expect defeat,” Bill Walsh, the legendary NFL coach, once said. “It’s a given when the stakes are high and the competition is working ferociously to beat you. If you’re surprised when it happens, you’re dreaming; dreamers don’t last long.
“Do force yourself to stop looking backward and dwelling on the professional train wreck you have just been in. It’s mental quicksand. Do allow yourself appropriate recovery — grieving — time. You’ve been knocked senseless; give yourself a little time to recuperate. A keyword here is little. Don’t let it drag on.
“Do tell yourself, ‘I am going to stand and fight again’ with the knowledge that often when things are at their worst you’re closer than you can imagine to success. Our Super Bowl victory arrived less than sixteen months after my train wreck in Miami. Do begin planning for your next serious encounter. The smallest steps — plans — move you forward on the road to recovery. Focus on the fix.”
I’ve learned at least one fix: Stay focused on the growth. Don’t laugh at being blocked. Don’t sink into self-pity after losses. Don’t allow the results to master you.
Go right back at it. Dive into the growth.
That’s the fun of this journey.
Evie Matthews, my beloved coach, texts me: “It’s been a long ride for you this summer. You held on longer than eight seconds, I give you credit for that.”
A long ride, indeed. Seventeen tournaments. Thirty-seven flights, eight countries, including six weeks in Bulgaria, 82,155 miles in the air and two journals worth of stories and friendships and beautiful relationships forged and deepened.
Seven months of unforgettable experiences, experiences that are not over just yet. In a few hours, I’ll walk the two miles down to the water to watch Delaney and Terese win a gold medal here in Nijmegen. I will not be playing any volleyball.
But I will again soon. I’ll sit back down at the table with Teddy KGB. I’ll put my chips back in the middle.
And, win or lose, I’m going to enjoy it.