I had a clear vision about what the first line of this post would be.
“I came, I conquered… and I still got it!”
Beneath the caption would be a photo of my partner and I holding a bronzed trophy. We’d have tired grins, sandy bodies, and luminous, accomplished expressions of having battled, and won the Dakine Women’s AA Volleyball Tournament.
Instead of that photo, I only have one of my wrecked 43-year-old self, trying to calmly exhale while inside the -250 degree Fahrenheit Cryotherapy unit. It was the only immediate solution to accelerate muscle recovery and provide pain relief after the tournament. Every single cell in my body seemed to be shouting, “What were you thinking?” Even the skin on the bottom of my feet was screaming. I was back to Mom mode and a 180-second remedy was about all I could pull together with a three-year-old in tow.
“Mommy’s a popsicle,” he pointed out.
Back to reality.
Idealistic and hopeful was my mindset going into the weekend. I had even allowed my inner champion to rise and gain momentum. She visualized making spectacular points, acing opponents, succeeding at crafty shots, making athletic digs, celebrating with my partner, and then writing the inspiring follow-up blog about winning the tournament. The perfect plan from the perspective of an aging, yet optimistic former pro volleyball player.
I forgot about...
The Dark Warrior
She is disguised as my inner champion.
She dwells in the shallow waters of my being.
She rides on the back of my righteous ego.
She breathes fire.
She rages war.
She feeds on the idea that I deserve more, better, different.
She lurks in the thoughts and emotions that keep me small.
She shouts into my soul that I have something to fight for.
WE. WILL. WIN! She demands.
She used to define me. Even though we had a dark and dirty relationship, we achieved a lot of triumphant glory. I sacrificed a lot to let her lead. Connection. Intimacy. Friendships, and most importantly- Inner Peace. But she no longer held the steering wheel of my existence so I didn’t pay her much attention. I have enough practice with mindfulness, meditation, positive affirmations, mantras, breathing techniques and everything else I teach athletes to help break their mental barriers.
After all, I am a mindset coach.
I’ve got plenty of tools in my kit.
But I had not put myself in real competition in over 13 years. Once my Achilles snapped, it was almost as if I could hear the Dark Warrior imploding, melting, disintegrating...whatever it is that inner demons do when they are spontaneously crippled. She withered away and tucked herself deep beneath the surface. Regrouping.
Making a plan for a comeback. Someday.
But in the past decade, I have developed and nurtured another side.
She is the soft one.
She is fluid.
She is tender.
She comes when I ask for help.
She is reliable and always loving.
She stands with me with both hands open.
She is wise.
She is my greatest ally.
She is my source of LIGHT.
As I flew to Seattle for the tournament I was full of athletic anticipation. I’d be playing with a partner that I didn’t really know, in a place I have never been, with zero knowledge of the competition.
My preparation was legit. I had re-started physical therapy on my repaired Achilles. My jumping ability was severely limited but I was positive that now being in my fourth decade of life would qualify me as a masterful old school player.
I prepared by dong intense workouts with my “Stroller Mafia” mom group. I suffered through weekly hot yoga to try and stretch out my eternally tight hamstrings. Twice I had the chance to bump the ball to myself in the four-foot-deep snow meadow in my front yard.
I even went so far as to shave my legs in the dead of winter, paint my toes victory purple, and even plucked my dark chin hairs. I was determined to be on-point for this competition. I did a 3-day juice cleanse the week before and then tightened up my diet for optimal performance. A chart on the refrigerator kept track of a weekly set of challenges with my husband so to sharpen my competitive psyche. I bought a new red Nike long-sleeve for game day that exemplified the color of a champion. I packed my favorite underwear and tightest rubber bands.
I thought of everything.
Except how important it would be to actually practice beach volleyball in the sand.
Or to be aware that she was lurking.
The Dark Warrior.
With power braids woven in, my new top and yoga pants- I took in the scene. Three indoor “beach” courts surrounded by ceiling to floor nets making the competition area look like a spider had spun a huge web around it. The “sand” was like grainy parmesan cheese with fluorescent lights hanging overhead. The air was stagnant. There were no weather factors like I was accustomed to and skilled in how to use to my advantage. The walls were covered with training equipment like weighted balls, sleds for sand pulling, boxes for jumping, large screens for playback of skills, and framed photos of the girls already committed to colleges like Stanford and Arizona for beach volleyball. A whole gaggle of teenage girls stretched and chatted while looking at their phones.
It was then that I realized that this...was the new generation of beach volleyball.
With the sport rising at the collegiate level, girls across the country are committing themselves to the sport like never before. This tournament was flooded with high school players testing their skills after practicing day in and day out in facilities like this one. The parents settled into the leather couches that lined the outside of the courts to watch their daughters compete...against the old pro.
I felt my eyes dart and my heart raced as the Dark Warrior slithered out of her lair
and unfurled her wings.
This is not beach volleyball.
Beach volleyball is played at...the...beach.
This is a joke.
And these are just teenagers.
Let’s show them what’s up.
Take no prisoners. Let’s go for the gold.
You are so much better than this.
Shaking my head to try and rid her voice from my head, I took a seat on one of the sandy couches. Taking a deep soul breath, I called on my Light Warrior. I trusted that with conscious breaths inward that the Dark Warrior could not survive.
I had a choice.
Dark or Light.
Part of me enjoys the fighting.
The war. The intensity of emotion.
It is powerful.
Weak at its root, but so seductive in force.
To soften into this experience would require me to consciously let go of my inner champion,
and compete simply for the joy of playing the sport I love.
There was a higher calling on this day.
It needed me to create space for my partner to find her flow and help her rise.
It needed me to honor the commitment and growth of these young girls.
It needed me to connect and share my experience and strength with them.
It needed me to celebrate my own willingness to show up and compete.
It was not about me. It was not about winning.
It was about working toward a personal goal and testing my physical and mental training.
It was about gathering data about the rising of the Dark Warrior so I could more effectively help other the athletes. Because everyone has one.
So I witnessed her shadowy rise and I made a choice.
I said confidently yet gently,
“I see you. Oh how I have loved you. You and I achieved a lot together, but you no longer serve my greater good. You are not welcome here.”
We ended up losing to a team made up of a 15 and 17 year old. Ultimately, we placed 5th in a tournament of 16, but I sure made a lot of fantastic individual points. Simple, beautiful points. And I set my partner up to be successful too. We played well, but there were teams that simply were better. (Not to mention these girls had cardio for days!) The Dark Warrior tried her very best to overtake me especially when I was weak and fatigued. She was relentless and came disguised in many ways trying to distract me and pull me in. Soon I realized the tournament became more about the opportunity to recognize the Dark and to choose the Light instead.
Over and over and over again.
I am all for working hard for goals, and digging deep, and pushing myself to the limit, but I am choosing to do that in different ways. I don't need to suffer on the volleyball court to prove I am important or respected. That part of my ego got fed for years and it was deeply dissatisfying. I have other talents and skills that fill my bucket which impact the greater good of the people around me. These are the kind of goals I want to push myself toward. This drive toward victory felt old, like a favorite jacket in the far corner of my closet that I suddenly realize doesn't really fit me anymore...nor is it my style.
So I congratulated the up and coming superstars for their well-earned wins and I thanked my body temple for holding up for an all-day tournament, and bid my lovely partner farewell. It was time to head back to my life as Super Mom, Queen of the Household, Inspirational Coach and Author of Awesomeness. This is where I thrive. This is where I rise.
This is where I WIN.
Over the next days following the tournament, she kept on knocking. I quickly discovered it was really easy for her to snuff out my light when my body was depleted and I was physically in pain. We had played in ten games, which was probably 5 more than I was physically capable of competing in. My 43-year-old body had dived in the sand dozens of time. I had contorted my body in unnatural positions to pursue balls. I had arched my back to serve and hit hundreds of times more than I am used to. The bottom layer of skin on my feet had tenderly exfoliated from the grainy sand, and my hips and lower back were destroyed like after childbirth. The Dark Warrior cackled and tiptoed in. For nearly 24 hours she reigned supreme actually convincing me that I should no longer play, or coach or have anything to do with volleyball. It was real. It was convincing. It was powerful. It reminded me that it is not an easy path to navigate alone.
With the support of my friends, family and a serendipitous crossing with another mindset coach in town, I regained my footing and pulled the switch to the floodlights into my Soul.
I defined a vision for myself in the world of volleyball. It must involve feeling vibrant, authentic, balanced and playful. When I make choices around the sport they must align with these core desired feelings. I no longer lead with ego, pride and fear which define the seductively deceptive Dark Warrior.
And if I play in a "beach" tournament again it needs to be by an ocean with sunshine and real sand between my toes. It's a non-negotiable.
So now I am clear.
And slowly but surely the darkness retreated.
Every day I have a choice.
On and off the court.
Light or Dark.
What do you choose?
“I will never play volleyball again.”
This raw certainty was clear after snapping my Achilles tendon in a volleyball match in 2006. I had already competed professionally for nearly 10 years in four countries on the beach and indoor, and honestly... I had plateaued. The pinnacle of personal potential had been reached and I had already sacrificed a good majority of my soul joy. I had become drunk on my own ego’s unattainable vision of success, which was always just out of reach.
It was a ruthless hunt for victory.
An insatiable thirst for recognition.
An illusory fantasy of grandeur became my prison.
I wasn’t willing to admit it, but deep down I knew I was ready to stop competing professionally, but I didn’t know how to stop. Not only had I invested the majority of my life to the sport, but I had allowed it to define who I was as a human being.
I was Ann the professional volleyball player. Period.
This title was lauded, celebrated and made me feel important. I was addicted to the pursuit of greatness and the attention that came with it. This relentless craving for athletic success had taken my true life’s potential hostage and left me pulsating with a ruthless ego that rejoiced in even the slightest external adulation.
During the last year of my time competing on the tour, I had been working regularly with the great Dr.Mike Gervais, a renowned sports psychologist. The pressure to win at such a high level had begun eating away at my mental fortitude, and my ability to enjoy playing the sport I used to love. He provided me with tools to take care of my mindset and taught me how to set reasonable and attainable goals for each match. My expectations were far too high and unrealistic and always left me feeling like a failure.
At the time Misty May and Kerri Walsh were supremely dominant in the world of volleyball, eventually winning three Olympic gold medals in a row. During this era they won every single game, set, match and tournament they competed in. In total, they won 112 matches in a row and were crowned supreme for 19 sequential tournaments. My partner, Saralyn Smith and I faced them 7 times during their streak, and help contribute to 7 of their wins. We did get to challenge ourselves against the best of all time, but this did mean the idea of actually winning a tournament was far from realistic.
With Dr. Gervais, I had made steady progress and under his tutelage, I had gained inner strength and belief in myself that was unparalleled to any other volley chapter of my career. I started enjoying the sport again and had some of the most phenomenal performances of my career alongside my partner. We had some battle-royals against our biggest rivals and on some of the biggest stages of the sport under a lot of pressure- but we rose to the occasion with our matching bathing suits and bad-ass braids. It felt profoundly rewarding to set attainable goals and take each game one point at a time instead of pursuing the highest rank on the tour. It was all about What’s Important Now. WIN. Mini goals. What do I need to do right now in this very moment to earn the next point? I started to win at my own game and the reward was freedom from mental bondage. I was filled with a renewed sense of competitive vibrancy that was rooted in my own self-worth and the authentic pleasure in playing volleyball.
It was as if the Universe was satisfied that I had finally learned how to play with clear intentions infused with authentic confidence... so she did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.
The Universe said to my Soul,
“Lesson learned darling...you are now done with this life chapter. Let’s move on shall we?”
And so it was.
The fateful day arrived at the alumni game at Pepperdine University where I had been given a full-ride scholarship ten years before, but due to my rebelliousness and naughty attitude, I rarely saw court time my senior year. I left the University full of entitled venom that- someday I shall return and show you all! So on the day of the “Snapping”, I stepped back on the hard court as a successful professional beach player to compete in the alumni game against the current team.
I was ready to show my former coach what a mistake it was to keep me on the bench (10 years before). So all my mental tools and budding humility went out the window as my ego ballooned up so big that all it could do was literally….POP. Irrational resentment caused my blood pressure to increase and my heart to race. Drunk on a cocktail of adrenaline, revenge, and ego I smacked balls with a vengeance. After a particularly impressive kill, I’d look at her with imperious immaturity,
“Bet you regret not playing me now don’t ya?!”
The Universe shook her head and clucked her tongue. “No, no Ann. Time’s up.”
Then I took one step back on a defensive play and heard a deafening c..r..a..c..k. like a large branch breaking off from the trunk. The tendon had completely detached and curled up like a caterpillar taking refuge in my calf. Time slowed. My brain shut down to the pain centers of my body. I could no longer hear or feel. Balanced on one leg I looked down at my dangling left foot.
As I lay flat on my back in my little apartment with my repaired Achilles in a large black boot elevated up on a chair I thought to myself, “This is it. I will never play volleyball again.” I was a mere 5’9 and had just turned 30. I was no longer going to be a viable competitor on the tour, especially without my hops. A primal wail released from my soul at the dramatic loss of my dream, and from an even deeper place within escaped a howl rooted in fear that I was absolutely nothing without volleyball. I was no longer important. I was no longer going to be respected nor admired. Who the Hell was I without volleyball? The pain was too raw, too vulnerable too humbling for me to hold on my own.
Dr.Gervais to the rescue. He pointed out that all of those feelings I was seeking were outside of myself. I had no control over whether other people thought I was great, or important.
And being admired? That was just ME trying to define my self-worth through someone else's eyes. He reminded me that I had a new lease on life. A blank page to define who I wanted to be in this world.
Dr.G challenged me,
“What kind of person do you want to be?”
“What kind of impact do you want to make on the world?”
“How can you use your experience to help others?”
I had only been in the business of helping myself so I had no frame of reference for what it might mean to genuinely impact others. I surrendered to the idea that Dr.G had guided me to a healthy state of mind before and so I trusted the process and let go of the outcome.
Fast forward 13 years…
After a whirlwind journey of self-discovery, extensive service to others, a belief in something greater than myself, and the understanding that when I give away my knowledge, spirit, fire, experience, and wisdom that the return is tenfold.
It was like a magical formula that was really quite simple.
My need for importance and notoriety and admiration faded, and instead I was lit up from within. It became second nature to help others, not just serve my own ascent to greatness but instead help lift others to rise to find their own golden treasure trove within.
Now my passion is to help young athletes find their inner strength and unlock their potential with a balanced and healthy mindset. If I had learned the tools of the mental game early on in my career I feel like my potential could have been far greater and I would have suffered far less. Many athletes not only need a basic set of tools for their mental game but also support in how to unravel some of their false beliefs about their abilities, their self-worth and their expectations of themselves.
We are a product of our inner beliefs
The greatest satisfaction comes from helping an athlete find her fire and her genuine motivation to wade through the challenges and adversity of her sport.
So in the meantime, I felt a stirring.
Two years ago I declared that YES, I AM READY TO PLAY AGAIN! After birthing two humans and helping countless athletes with their mental game I am balanced, yet softer, and in a less competitive space in my life.
But that pilot light was just waiting to be lit.
I played a few pick-up games for fun.
I was lit.
The time has come to play volleyball again. 13 years after The Snapping.
But the Universe had a funny way of telling me that it was not me time quite yet.
After months of snow and no access to “beach volleyball” I invented my own training regime:
FIERCE visualization, AGGRESSIVE snow shoveling, and HOT yoga
And so I bring my ever-expanding toolbox of mental skills to the tournament along with my bum Achilles, my 43-year-old Mom body, and a stronger than ever belief in myself and my abilities.
No expectations. One point at a time. Let’s do this.