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Q&A: Kristen Vacca

Share Your Story Series - Mini: taking action

My name is Kristen vacca & this is my story.

Volleyball Player McKendree Universit

1: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into playing volleyball.

I grew up in a very active family. My brother played hockey growing up, and my sister and I tried out a bunch of different sports like soccer and figure skating. I started getting into volleyball at the age of 12, but first started playing when I was 10. One of the teachers at my elementary school who I had a previous year told me about a summer volleyball camp that her daughter was volunteering at and had asked if my sister and I wanted to go. Despite volleyball being super uncommon at the time in my city, we agreed and had an absolute blast, so we decided to go the following year. After our second year at this camp, I started playing in recreational leagues during the school year and enjoyed playing so much. It just felt like a good fit, and I also picked up on the skills very quickly. When I was twelve, heading into the 7th grade, I started playing club volleyball at a brand-new club. I played there for three seasons and grew a lot as a player.

During my last year at that club, I had coaches and parents telling me I was good at the sport and could really go far with it, so I decided to switch over to a club that would give me a high level of training and more opportunities to showcase my abilities.

2: How did you manage the recruiting process during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what were some of the obstacles you faced at that time?

COVID-19 hit during my junior year of high school in the middle of our volleyball season. School went online and I was limited to what I could do physically, so I started my recruiting process. It took me around ten months before I decided on a school. It was difficult and stressful, mainly because a lot of teams were not looking for new players since they had girls taking their 5th year or their COVID year. This left me with very limited options, and although I kept an open mind to both schools in Canada and the US, none of them seemed like a perfect fit. I almost settled in on one school out east but decided to resend emails to coaches one last time. I got extremely lucky and received an email from Coach Nickie Sanlin from McKendree University. After our first phone call, it felt like a great fit. We connected immediately and she was very personable and honest, and everything about her coaching philosophy fit my needs. One thing that really drew my attention is the fact that around 80% of students at McKendree are student-athletes, so it would be easier to find similarities among the people. After a few more phone calls and

more chatting, I received an offer and accepted it shortly after.

3: Moving to a new country for volleyball must have been both exciting and challenging. Can you share some of your experiences during that transition and how it impacted your game and personal life?

I would say I was more excited than nervous to make the move to America for school. Since we started

preseason for volleyball right away, I felt like the transition was somewhat smooth since I was so focused and consumed with volleyball. However, I was a bit behind skill-wise. Ontario was very strict with COVID restrictions, so prior to starting our season in August, the last time I played was in March. Even though I made big improvements, I felt as though I was always a step behind. Once I started getting into a routine with school and volleyball, I started to get hit with being homesick. Especially at times when I got sick or just needed help with something, I struggled with the fact that my parents couldn’t just come see me. I was fortunate enough to have a strong support system and great friendships with my roommates and teammates. They all made me feel very welcome which was very reassuring.

4: What is something you wish you would have known before your freshman year of college?

I never realized how demanding being a student-athlete is until I got to college. It feels as though playing

collegiate volleyball has become a job or profession, whereas when I played club, it was just an extracurricular. This is something I wish I had known before going to college because I think it would have allowed me to set more attainable goals for myself. When I don’t accomplish my goals or have difficulty achieving them, it affects me mentally and that effect translates into different aspects of my life.

5: It's common for athletes to face mental challenges during such significant changes. Can you share

some of the mental struggles you encountered and how they affected your performance on and off the court?

I had a bit of a rough sophomore year, to say the least. The second week into the season, I dove for a ball

and hit my head on the ground which resulted in a mild concussion. This put me out for almost two weeks, which isn’t that long, but when you are in season, every practice matters. I was a bit behind but was working my way back up to speed. Until one practice, where I started to feel very sick, I had low energy, and I felt very faint. My coaches suggested I go to health services, and they did some tests and found out I was anemic (iron deficient). They had me on iron supplements and suggested I got on a certain diet where I eliminate certain foods that are causing me to become iron deficient. I did follow the diet, but the removal of certain foods I was eating caused me to have a weight loss of around 15-20 pounds.

With everything going on, it was hard to stay energized and motivated. It really took a toll on my mental health because my body just couldn’t perform like it used to. I wasn’t making progress

and just felt like I was moving backward, and I wasn’t getting playing opportunities because I just couldn’t execute my skills well. It would get to the point where I would get extremely nervous and anxious to head into practice. I constantly was afraid that practice was going to end poorly. This continuous cycle of thoughts deteriorated my mental well-being and led me to be diagnosed with moderate anxiety and mild depression.

I was starting to fall out of love with the sport and was always super down. I felt as though I wasn’t good enough for my team and that I was letting my team down. Heading into the spring semester, I decided that I could either continue this cycle and just push through and try my best or make a change to better myself. That’s when I started picking up a new hobby, which was going to the gym. Besides team lifts and practice, going to the gym became my outlet. This is where I can spend some time to myself away from school and do something that is bettering myself. As I went more consistently, I started to gain my

confidence back. A lot of things I was doing at the gym were translating into volleyball. I was hitting harder and more consistently, and I was faster and jumping higher. Even though I was still a bit behind the others in my position, I was finally making the progress I wanted to make. Overall, sophomore year was a rollercoaster of emotions, but I ended it on a high note and my mental health has only been getting better since.

Once I started taking care of my mind just as much as my body, improvements were made.

6: What inspired you to share your story?

The main reason I have begun to share my story is that I started to realize and understand how many

student-athletes share the same or similar struggles as me. I have done a couple of assignments and projects in my classes about student-athlete mental health, and I realized that so many students at my school deal with mental health struggles but don’t speak up. Not only that, but many students at my school feel as though there is not enough support for student-athletes who deal with mental difficulties.

During my spring semester, I took a small group communications class. Our semester-end project, or final, consisted of us getting into groups, choosing a current issue/problem on campus, and coming up with solutions. I have a good relationship with the professor in this class, and she knew the mental struggles I was facing with volleyball, so she pushed my group and me to talk about student-athlete mental health. We came up with great solutions such as hiring a sports psychologist, creating a club, and

hosting mental health events or dedication games. Our athletic director and assistant athletic director were present for this presentation and were very moved by it. They loved the ideas that my group and I came up with and spoke to me afterward about how they wanted to try introducing some of the initiatives. One of my assistant coaches was also present during the presentation, and she told me about some student-athlete mental health organizations that I should follow and look into becoming ambassadors for, which I did. The following day, I was going to say goodbye to my coach for the summer, and she instantly gave me a hug and told me she heard all about my speech. She told me she was so proud of me for doing this, which really touched me. I will never forget that conversation. Seeing how much my coach supports me and how much she is willing to help me fight my mental battles sparked my interest to

start sharing my story.

Now, my team is hosting a mental health awareness game that I had organized, and I am working with some administrative staff to host a mental health event!

7: Going through these experiences must have provided opportunities for personal growth. Can you talk about some of the key lessons you've learned about yourself during this journey?

I mentioned it earlier, but treat your body like how you treat your mind. Your mental well-being is just as important as your physical well-being. You push your body past its limits sometimes to see how much your body can handle. When your body is sore, you do things to make it feel better, like stretching and treatment. If you break a bone, you let it heal. This applies to the mind too. When you are pushed outside your comfort zone, or you push yourself past your mental limits, it makes you more knowledgeable and mentally stronger, so you can handle adversity much better. If you feel mentally exhausted, you should do things to calm your mind, like reading, meditation, hanging out with friends and family, or watching a tv show. If you face any sort of trauma, you need to do things to heal yourself, such as going to therapy or reaching out to family or friends for support.

8: What advice would you give to someone who is pursuing their passion, dealing with change, and striving to overcome mental obstacles?

Do not be afraid to ask for help or support. After talking to many different athletes, many of them are

worried about speaking to their coach because they are worried their coach will view them as weak or as if they can’t handle high-pressure situations. However, when an athlete opens up to their coach about mental struggles, it makes the athlete stronger because they are willing to speak up. It is to make their coach aware of what they are dealing with behind the scenes. When I spoke to my coach about my feelings and what I was dealing with, she was extremely comforting, and reassuring, and provided me with great resources. It has even made my relationship with my coach ten times stronger, and I will forever be grateful for the choice I made to speak up.

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