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The Love of the Game

I thought volleyball would take me here, to be honest. I spoke it and visualized it into existence. Did I necessarily visualize it happening the way it did? Absolutely not. But I’m here because of my will to see those goals and dreams from when I was a middle schooler and high schooler play out, regardless of how many times I’d have to get up off the mat, get over the next hurdle, and find my way around or through the most prominent obstacles in front of me. I start out wanting to be a member of the US National Team. I still have yet to get to my goal of being an Olympian. But I achieved that goal of being on the national team, in part through my willingness to go for the normal route of heading overseas to play professionally, make a living, and be able to support the dream for a number of years until it came true. That process is still ongoing. But I’ve seen the overseas life as a means to the end of earning that Olympic roster spot, and I knew it would be the case from the moment I made it my goal long ago. Sure, there have been unexpected perks and downfalls to come from living in Europe for seven months a year, but they are merely an aside to the one-track-mindedness I’ve had since I started going after that goal. I started playing volleyball when I was 6, competitively, but one could say I began from birth. My father, Don, is a legend in the game of volleyball, having coached at Stanford for 26 years as the women’s (and men’s, for short bouts) head coach. I grew up in his practice gym, around high-level student-athletes, and dreaming of one day being among the likes of them at The Farm. But I wasn’t set on volleyball. I was much more focused on basketball and baseball as my ways of achieving athletic success which could lead me to Stanford. It was only when I became 12 or 13, and my sister was in full swing with her new youth volleyball club and its numerous tournaments, that I began to come around to the idea that I, too, should give volleyball a try. I’d put it aside long enough. Soon thereafter, I came to love everything about it. The volleyball world is a small world and I thrived within it, then and ever since. I found all of my closest friends within the club and high school team communities, as well as later on with the U-19 and U-21 national team communities. I came for the love of the game, and have stayed with it because of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way.

I fully realized that I could have a chance to play professionally when I was a sophomore at Stanford, though I had an inkling once I made my first U-19 team with USA Volleyball. Slowly and surely, as I became more of a well-known name in college volleyball in our run to the NCAA championship match in 2014, I began to draw attention from agents, the national team head coach, and professional coaches and GMs in Europe. The attention was there throughout the rest of my career, but I wasn’t able to respond to any of these people who’d reached out until the end of my senior season in 2016. I quickly signed with the top agent in Italy, one of the well-known, strongest leagues in the world, and from there the process was very rapid. I signed with a club in Padova, Italy, and left for my first pro year only a couple of short months later. If you’d followed my career from the inception until now, you’d know me for one or two things - a pattern of seemingly unlucky injuries. I could go into each specific one, but it’s easier not to list them all and, instead, focus on the mentality I began to learn I needed of myself to overcome the injury recovery process. My first major recovery was a major knee surgery after a successful 2014 season. I missed almost the entirety of my first summer opportunity with the national team because of this surgery and recovery, and it brought me down quite a few pegs on the humility ladder. The main thing that kept me going through this recovery, and everyone that has come since, was the immediate prognosis by my doctors of six months, and not accepting it at all. Ever. I used every bit of scientific research on the healing process without cutting any corners or leaving a stone unturned and utilized the Mamba Mentality I’d cultivated through my idolization of Kobe through my childhood and adolescence, to cut the recovery down to four and a half months. Knowing that my body was capable of this set me up to overcome any and every hurdle that would come my way to follow. And come, they have. Even now, I’m currently nursing a shoulder injury with the prognosis of a month, “more or less”. You better believe all I heard was the word “less”.

My life overseas has been a difficult one, to say the least. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed every single second of it. I have had a really difficult time being away from everyone and everything I love and am used to. The growing process, the process of adaptation, has not been a quick and easy one for me on this path, but I know for certain that I have become a much better and stronger person having had to fend for myself. Being single and alone for the entire five seasons thus far has made things quite a bit more difficult, especially seeing friends and teammates with loved ones and families joining them through their eight months over here. But there have been some amazing benefits to the playing life here! I love to explore and adventure in unseen territories and lands. And this passion has only grown since I came to Europe. There is so much yet seen and I couldn’t be more grateful to be by myself, with only myself to answer for, and the world around me as my oyster. Exploring only my free days, of course. What I’m looking forward to next, pretty simply, is getting back on to the court. It’s difficult for anybody competitive like myself to see a bunch of your brothers training for battle (and going into battle) every day while you’re relegated to the sidelines, to wait until your body allows you back in on the action. I’m doing everything I can to make that wait as short as possible. It’s been a fun and challenging season thus far for my club team in Piacenza, Italy and I’m hungry to add to it.

My message to the next James Shaw would be to do it for the love of the game, how you loved it when you weren’t playing for your living. Once I was able to tap back into the desire and passion that got me to this level, surprisingly enough from my days of contemplation in the Great Quarantine of Summer, 2020, I was able to find the joy for playing volleyball again. I forgot about the money part of things. And I realized that all of the homesickness and aloneness are all worth it, in the end. In order to make your life a gratifying one, in your twenties at least, you have to love what you’re getting up to do every day. Especially if you’re sacrificing as much as I have. Regardless, my message would hold that the lessons learned in this process will be worth their weight in more than gold by the time you’re my age and older. Thank you for keeping with me through this little life story of an athlete, and remember ALWAYS that the two most important parts of the makeup of you, a successful athlete, are your ability to adapt and your ability to get back up after being knocked down.

Adapt. Get back up again.

Until next time,

James Shaw


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