An area of professional sports in Europe (specifically mid-level, semi-pro team sports like volleyball, handball, basketball, rugby, etc) that isn’t talked about much, if at all, is unemployment.
Now, you might think that’s a bit of a strange subject for a wealthy volleyball WAG to discuss, (please read my sarcasm here, “wealthy volleyball” is an oxymoron!!) but in order to understand our life, stresses, etc, you need to understand a little about this industry and how it works.
My examples will be using volleyball but with most sports mentioned above it’s a similar scenario…to give you an idea of mid-level sports, let’s say that overall, with some exceptions, volleyball is the middle/working class sport of all sports.
A player is employed by a club and usually signs a contract for 10 months, even if they sign with a club for more than one season. (Which was the case when we were in Lyon for 5 seasons.) Here in France the volleyball season runs from October through to April or May depending on how far your team go with play-offs, etc. Once the season is finished each player (for the most part) is then unemployed again until the next seasons’ pre-season starts in August. If a player is staying with the same club then they are in luck and can enjoy their summer off; maybe play National Team or some beach tournaments…if however they don’t find a team, either with an agent doing the legwork and finding them a new contract, or doing the work themselves, they are unemployed.
Being an unemployed athlete with no team is stressful to say the least, but when you add a family to the mix, it becomes much worse.
See, as an athlete you live by a code, your body is your collateral, so you need to keep it in shape and injury free.
Volleyball is tough sport on the body, you jump, spike and land a lot so there’s a lot of pressure on your back, hips, shoulders and knees. Keeping your body healthy for the next season is imperative, of course we’re not talking the shape you keep during the season but you can’t completely kick back, relax and eat and drink what you want. As with anyone in their 30’s, gaining 20kg isn’t as easy to come back from, and in volleyball thats a sure fire way to lose a contract quickly in the preseason. So you need to stay in shape, but that isn’t the worst of it when you also add being a parent to the mix.
You have to budget.
Now, this is easier for young players with no responsibilities, they go on holiday, travel, eat out frequently, party, live…but players who are parents need to be a little more careful with the pennies they make during the season, they have a different level of responsibility. We might go on holiday, travel a little, but our time is limited, especially if you have school age children….add a spouse to the mix and it gets a little more complicated. In our case, when we lived in Lyon (and I wasn’t pregnant) I worked, so we didn’t have too many stresses come the end of the season, for most foreign players though this isn’t an option. You have to make your 9/10 month salary last 12 months.
This year we are enjoying our summer but we’re certainly a little anxious about what the next stage is for our little family. The few opportunities we were holding out for have fallen through and at this stage here in France any other options have been exhausted. Put plainly, we’re unemployed with no prospects at the moment.
Now, I have no idea why Mark can’t find a team, it could be any number of reasons, but one thing is for sure, he is getting older, yeah 35 as a professional athlete is old, maybe he’s past his best? His numbers (statistics) over the past few seasons have been consistent though, so as bias as I am, I don’t think it’s that.
It could be that he has a family.
The volleyball world for the past few seasons has been tightening it’s belt, there’s less money from sponsorship and teams are suffering as a result, budgets get tighter and some hard decisions have to be made. If a team have the option to take a young cheap player with no family, it makes more sense than someone they need to accommodate with one or more children, it’s business after all.
It’s common within this world for foreign players to leave their partners/kids at “home” in their own country, whilst they spend the season playing wherever they have a contract. This life is a hard one for a lot of families with no solution being the perfect one; you have to do what is best for your family at the time, but as common as this situation is, it’s becoming apparent the reasoning behind it since Mark and I, unlike any time in the past, have discussed this as an option for us this year.
Since Mark started playing professional volleyball I have to be honest and say that the number of players, men and women I’ve met/know of with kids are few and far between. I’d say on average there’s been one or 2 players per team…and when you think of how many teams across Europe there are, that number is proportionately low, despite the players with kids being the type of people most organisations need on their teams. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence (read zero) out there on employability of athletes with families, but I’d imagine it’s as with most industry, employers are looking for employees who are resilient, who work well in a team, are stable, trustworthy and motivated with a positive attitude and who can communicate well with others…and let’s be honest as a parent we need all of these transferable skills just to get through the day!
Perhaps our problem is that my husband is an asshole…in which case…I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY ON THAT MATTER.
It’s been 11 years since Mark started playing professional volleyball as part of TEAM GB and he is the only male volleyball player from that original team who is still playing today.
Professional sports are often only talked about and seen in a positive light, and yes, whilst they bring athletes extreme pleasure and joy, they can also be brutal. Unemployment is tough for anyone in any industry but I think for athletes it’s something we need to talk more about. The expectations, mentally and physically, put on athletes are already high. Rates of depression and anxiety are increasing within professional sport, yet there’s not a lot of support out there for it. It’s so important to make sure we keep lines of communication open with the people we know who are going through this stage of their career because no-one wants to feel invisible, left behind and unwanted. Professional athletes experience the whole gamut of emotions throughout their career, they make solid friendships that last a lifetime, so why aren’t we talking more about the tough parts?
Here’s an idea, call an old team-mate, ask if they are ok, because the chances are if they don’t have a team, they’re struggling, often in silence. Smiling on the outside, maybe even telling you it’s fine, but stressed and anxious on the inside.
I know from experience that the support out there for me when I quit playing basketball just wasn’t there and as a result I went through some pretty dark times. You work to make a life for you and your family, then out-with your control, you’re faced with the possibility of that life being taken away; it’s terrifying. It’s why I try and be there for my husband and reassure him that whatever happens, we’ll be ok. We try to stay positive, even when we don’t really know how to, because it’s in our character, it’s how we’re programmed…it’s why we do what we do and succeed at it.
I’d hate for my husband to finish his career this way, involuntary, but as wonderful as this life has been, and as much joy as it has given us, maybe this is the part of we have to accept too. Knowing when to call it a day.