By Mark Colley
Shaïnah Joseph is no stranger to elite volleyball. She’s played at the national level with Team Canada for the better part of a decade and played professionally since graduating from the University of Florida in 2018.
But the constant drumbeat of training, practice, games and travel, which Joseph has become intimately familiar with since high school, has taken its toll. This summer, she’s taking a break from the national team to catch up physically and mentally.
After all, volleyball is a 365-day pursuit for someone playing professionally and for their country. The pro season ramps up at the end of August, when preseason starts, and ends in the spring — sometimes as late as May, depending on the team.
The national team picks up in May and runs through October. That schedule is grueling and Joseph is looking for time off for one of the first times in her career.
“You never really get an offseason where you can completely relax and rebuild your body,” Joseph said. “It’s very important to have that healthy balance between being an athlete and being a human and I felt like sometimes you just really don’t have the time to decompress.”
Joseph got her first taste of an offseason over the past few years, with COVID-19 derailing the sports world. It offered a respite from the constant physical and mental grind of the volleyball season.
Physically, Joseph said she was “starting to feel a few persistent injuries and a few aches.” During the season, she said she loses 10 pounds due to cardio and not lifting as much and wants time to rebuild her body.
The mental burnout was the biggest factor in Joseph’s decision. She said you have to be “on all the time,” visualizing and getting ready for practice, even outside of game days. You’re also in an ultra-competitive environment with family often halfway around the world.
“On top of all of that, you have expectations from yourself, from your teammates, from your coaches, and you’re always constantly having to connect with your team and have to bond,” Joseph said.
All of this resulted in a lack of passion for the national team, she said.
“A part of me just didn’t want to be there anymore,” Joseph said. “The fire and the energy and feeling proud to represent Canada, it wasn’t there anymore. It felt like a chore and a duty and a have-to.”
Instead, Joseph is spending the summer in Gainesville, Florida, where she went to school. She’s training with the University of Florida volleyball team every day, with 7 a.m. workouts and two to three hours in the gym.
But she’s still getting lots of time to herself. She said she’s spending time with friends, getting some sun and taking road trips.
Earlier this summer, Joseph travelled around Europe for a month, visiting Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Germany. This is something she has never been able to do, despite travelling for competition — Joseph said she sees the gym, hotel and little else while she’s playing.
Soon, Joseph will be spending a few weeks in Ottawa.
“It’s really just re-energizing myself,” Joseph said. “At first, I was kind of like, this is so weird that I have so much time.”
Joseph’s journey as a volleyball player has also included personal growth. She came out as lesbian in her second year of university. Her teammates were “super happy” when she told them, Joseph described.
The same went for her coach.
“[She said,] ‘So? Can you hit a volleyball?’” Joseph said. “I’m like, yeah. She’s like, ‘Okay, are you happy?’ I’m like, yeah. She’s like, ‘Okay, I don’t care who you like, what you like, as long as you’re a good athlete, we don’t care.’”
Joseph said the volleyball community is very accepting of the LGBTQ2+ community, although leagues in certain countries — like Turkey, Israel and Russia — still have lots of room to grow. Governments’ lack of acceptance impacts her decisions about where she plays, she said.
“We don’t really look at, oh, what’s your sexuality? We look at, hey, are you skilled? Are you technically good? Are you physical? Are you a good teammate?” Joseph said. “Those are things that we focus more on because whether you’re gay or not, it’s not gonna make you a better player.”
Joseph said it’s fun to share with others about her identity, especially teammates from eastern Europe, who aren’t as exposed to it and ask her lots of questions.
“I hope that I can just keep taking my place in the community and interacting,” Joseph said. “I love when people reach out and ask me about it and want me to be a part of the community.”
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