A never expected career status
ITALY – My “CareerLess” story is quite fresh. From the age of sixteen – for fifteen years – I’ve had both a career and, what was even more important, an identity: I was a professional volleyball player.
I always thought that defining myself just as a sports woman was an easy, but a totally inadequate way to describe the complex person I was. I’ve learnt some primary lessons very soon: everybody who dedicates his or her best years to a sport, sooner or later, painfully or peacefully, understands: sport career is brief (women’s even briefer). “Real life” out there is harsh, and you need to get properly prepared to face the challenges of the end of your career. And, the most important is that you have to do it by yourself.
Would it be so evident? I can assure you that it isn’t.
A predestined career
My father was one of the best Polish volleyball players in the seventies and early eighties. He played in the national team for several years and played at the Munich Olympic games in 1972. Because of the political and economic situation in Poland in these years, he took the unique opportunity to leave the country and move to an Italian club in search of a better life and a better future for his beloved family. That’s how, at the age of one, my Italian life story began.
I lived with my family until I was 18. I enjoyed my parents’ greatest goal: to give me an education and a kind of stability that a kid deserves to grow up in. Meanwhile, we changed two cities, my father stopped playing and began to coach; and I discovered a talent in the only sport I was able to perceive: volleyball. My mother was my first trainer, and since my brother was also playing, our family’s bread was volleyball! At the age of sixteen I was selected by one of the most prestigious first league clubs and, this time, my parents moved with me allowing me to take advantage of such an amazing chance. Once I finished high school, they decided it was the right time to return to our homeland. And then they asked me the simplest and toughest question ever: “What do you want to do?” I really didn’t know.
On the one hand, I truly wanted to follow them; keep being a family, having a safe port in case of a storm, and not being alone. On the other, I was afraid to waste my successful studies and my first volleyball awards. I chose the Italian way. I signed my first professional contract and left my parents with the promise to take good care of myself, study and get by.
What a woman’s sport career really means
During the years spent on the playground, the most ‘driving me crazy’ questions I faced were: “So, are you really playing volleyball for job?” or even worse: “Do they pay you for playing with a ball?” Such a mix of contempt, ignorance and envy is typical for people who aren’t aware of what professional sport really means. But, somehow, it also strengthened my desire of taking distance from the stereotypes of sports woman and wired my sincere aspiration to be someone different.
Indeed, they paid me for playing volleyball. They paid me for having fun, for visiting numerous places, for getting to know a lot of interesting people, for fitting an athletic body in a genuine environment.
So why is my indignation? I will try to answer briefly.
On having fun – Passion is evidently the most extraordinary feature of a sport, of every sport. You can’t be a sports person if you don’t have passion in what you are doing and if don’t have fun while you are doing it. But reducing professional sport only to passion and fun is quite naïve. Professionalism means psychological and physical pressure, resistance to stress, compromise, sacrifice, loyalty, altruism, ambition, tenacity and many further skills you improve years after years in order to make yourself better than your competitors, to make you fitting in the best club or to comply with the expectations of sponsors, managers, trainers and teammates.
On visiting many places and knowing lots of interesting people – Because of volleyball I’ve lived in fourteen cities in four different EU countries; I’ve never lived in Poland, what is supposed to be my own country, for a significant time period and I’ve never settled for permanent in any Italian city. No doubt, travelling is a great mind opening and challenging experience but… there is always a but! Changing places in a continuous way causes unexpected side effects, and I don’t mean the incredible skill-set you acquire by packing your entire life into a car in no time! But rather, I am referring to the emotional aspects of change, in general, and of the repeated ones, in particular. It causes fear, insecurity, loss of roots and identity and brings the risk of superficial and fragile relationships. I don’t mean that change is negative. I actually believe in C. Darwin’s verdict: “Is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. Yet, when mobility and change become a lifestyle, wearing a ‘resistant armour’ becomes compulsory…to handle the related challenges. Showing my best side in a tiny little time, earning the support of no-matter-who-on-your-way, adapting to any kinds of situations were both a must and a goal for my shy and introvert personality. I did it. I changed.
On fitting to an athletic body – Indeed, training twice a day everyday for years make your body shaped and enviable. Enviable as far as the lifelong consequences of injuries on the court, the early arthrosis, the chronic tendinitis, the deformed fingers and scars can be. These are the inevitable companions of the ex-athletes.
On the genuine environment – Volleyball is undoubtedly a sane, valuable, non-discriminatory and non-violent, wonderful sport. However, I need to specify how professional volleyball in Italy has an amateur legal framework. A volleyball player dedicates the best years of her life working hard with no contributions to social security, no proper legal guarantees, no right to maternity cover, no insurance for diseases, no institutions aim to help at the work placement once one is retired. Once you decide to quit, only then you realize how important it is to get prepared to the real life and how old you really are for the ‘normal’ job market. You realize that you are alone, that you have to re-invent yourself quickly and, even if you earned some money, it’s not enough to allow yourself to make a possible wrong investment or mistake.
A predestined “CareerLess-ness”?
I owe a lot to volleyball. I became the person I am because of the fights, the challenges, the falls and rises I experienced throughout my career; and I would repeat every single choice I made if I would be asked to. Volleyball helped me when my mother died, when my life lost senses. The required discipline prevented me from falling down; I learnt to fight, and to never give up. Also, volleyball made me meet a wonderful man, who became my husband (of course a volleyball player – could it be different?) and the few real friends I have. At last, it gave me the opportunity to get to know myself deeply, to work on my weaknesses and to become aware of my skills. I am grateful for all this.
However, when I decided to quit, the harshness of reality made me forget about all this gratefulness. I started to look around asking myself ‘who am I?’ and ‘what can I offer on the job market?’ – didn’t got any concrete answers. In spite of my efforts to make some experience during my sport career – writing sport articles, promoting the club’s image, summer stages – my CV was terribly empty. My knowledge of five languages was not proven by any official institutes and the only certain point was my university degree in Science of Communication; the leader of the Humanities degrees in Italy. (And here we go, MissCareerLess Hanna, you have a advocate!) “Graduating in Humanities is like being rich in Monopoly – you have an illusion that you have to offer so much but in reality your chances in the labour market are nothing to be excited of.” And so was for me. I was truly convinced of such an illusion. I chose these studies because they were the few ones that allowed me to study without being present at the lessons, a prerequisite when merging studies and volleyball. But there was another deeper and painful reason: I chose it in order to not to choose.
Let me explain: I entered professional sport very soon. Exactly at the age when young people normally would begin to wonder who they want to become and which career they would like to undertake. (Similarity echoes from a life of a ballerina). I skipped that phase, all at once I found myself financially independent and with a career. I’ve never really stopped considering seriously all the interests I had. I’ve always had many ideas and many curiosities, but I never strived to invest in anyone of them to build a path for the future. The same rule applied for the selection of the university; unable to choose what I really wanted, I chose the one, which was leaving all the doors open… only to get a result that I’m still looking for my open door.
My first work experiences were in sales and marketing. Soon I understood the gravity of the gap between my peers, as my competitors, and me: all of them were younger, better qualified and more experienced than me. Saying to an entrepreneur “I will bring advantages to your activity” or “I am the right person for the position” was hard. Somehow, in spite of all, I had several job opportunities, and probably because of the skills I acquired during the years on the playground.
The challenge of a custom-made job
Today, in spite of the desire of stability and to settle down, I still live as a volleyball player. My younger husband (yes, I did it smart!) has still many years of career ahead of him and, currently, this brings the major challenge for me. We move every eight months. It means that even if I would pass through some (endless) job recruitment steps and get a job, I would have to quit it at the end of the season, or live in a distance relationship or what’s worse, to force him to retire prematurely. Surely, the first is the only option I can/want consider.
After two months spent in logistics, a short experience in an import export company and several absolutely meaningless job interviews in the last four months, I decided to finally take my time, stop the obsessive search and think what kind of job would really fit my lifestyle and my skills. A rewarding, international work-at-home job with no barriers of country and flexible hours allowing a CareerLess woman realize her aspirations and, why not, her desire of maternity.
It’s quite a mission impossible, I know, but if I’ve learnt something in all these years, is to never give up. The stories and personalities on MissCareerLess are certainly serving me with a great source of inspiration and solidarity in this challenge!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Guest Contributor at MissCareerLess
Anna was born in Poland but her family moved to Italy when she was only one. For fifteen years she was a professional volleyball player and today she’s aiming to reinvent herself and to build a meaningful career. The great delay accumulated on the job market and the forced, continuous mobility represent the biggest challenges in the search of a traditional employment.
Edited by Virag