Growing up Catholic, I thought I knew God. I thought I knew Him while, at the same time, I tried to find my worth in volleyball. For the majority of my life before college, that was the extent of my faith. I believed in God, yet I was the God of my life. And, I didn’t realize how spiritually broken I was. It took some serious growth and reflection, and a few major breakdowns, for me to truly let go and surrender my life to Christ, which was something so foreign to me until just last year.
As a kid, I loved to learn, and the same could be said when it came to learning about God. My family went to church nearly every Sunday and I loved learning more about my faith and how to pray. Everything was so new and exciting, and I enthusiastically followed along with what I was being taught. I remember I would pray every morning, every night, and before every meal using the prayers I learned in school. At the time, I didn’t think much of it because I thought it was what everyone did.
As I grew older, volleyball became a major aspect of my life. By the time my freshman year of high school rolled around, I knew that I wanted to play in college so, naturally, volleyball became a huge focus for me. I played on varsity all four years of high school and, after the high school season ended, club volleyball season began. If you combine both seasons, I was basically playing nonstop from August to June.
Volleyball consumed so much of my time and, since I was playing or traveling almost every weekend, church started to become less of a priority. Although I didn’t notice it was happening, as I began to attend church less and less, I started talking to God less and less. By my senior year of high school, I can definitely say that I had completely stopped talking to God. I hadn’t purposely cut God off, but my life became so busy with volleyball that I subconsciously pushed Him to the back of my mind without even realizing it.
I still believed, but the relationship wasn’t there.
Despite that, I thought I was excelling in life. I had built up so much confidence and excitement over the summer heading into my freshman year of college that I was ready to take on the new challenge. That was until my parents made a decision that, while foreseen, still jolted me.
Two months before I left for Northwestern, my parents separated. I felt so uncomfortable – and frankly, a little guilty – leaving my family in a situation like that. As the oldest of three, I wanted to be there for my younger siblings. And I wanted to be there for my mom, who was going through a lot emotionally.
Leaving was so hard, but I kept telling myself that I was mentally tough enough to push through it on my own. Honestly, it didn’t even occur to me to turn to God for strength. It never crossed my mind. It was also something that I’d never done.
Meanwhile, I experienced a different kind of shock with Northwestern volleyball: I wasn’t playing as much as I thought I would. In all my years of volleyball, I had never sat on the bench. I was always on the court, the one the team could look to under pressure. It was really hard to adjust and, perhaps for the first time, I started to experience negative thoughts. Thoughts like I wasn’t good enough. Thoughts like I don’t belong here. Or, I’m not cut out for this. I felt this constant and immense pressure to be perfect and, through my performance, prove myself to my coaches and teammates.
My identity was in volleyball, and I was experiencing an identity crisis.
Around November 2017, things back home were getting ugly. I had completely cut off communication with my dad, and my mom was regularly calling me with new stories and updates on the situation. The situation back home added to my negative thoughts and constant need to prove myself, resulted in an unbearable amount of stress that started to affect my play.
After putting together a string of really bad practices, I couldn’t keep it all together anymore. I hate crying in front of people but, after one particular practice, I completely broke down in front of my team. That day, I told my coaches and teammates everything that was happening back home. Of course, they were all supportive. They let me know that they loved me, that they had my back, and that I shouldn’t hesitate to come to them if I ever needed anything.
God was literally speaking to me through my teammates, but I didn’t make the connection at that moment. I still wasn’t talking to Him. I was still completely unaware of this gaping hole in my life.
It wasn’t until last summer that I discovered what I didn’t know I was missing. I attended the Ultimate Training Camp (UTC) with one of my teammates. One of those spur-of-the-moment decisions, I went into the week not really knowing what to expect or how I would come out of it. As it turns out, I completely underestimated how much God would change my heart over the course of that week.
The Ultimate Training Camp broke me down physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, but in the best way possible. That breakdown was needed so that God could build me back up with His strength and love. It was the first time that I was taught to give your whole life to Christ, including all your pain, all your suffering, and all your burdens.
If you would have told me to surrender my life to Christ while I was still in high school, I would have had no clue what that meant. In fact, I probably would’ve said no because it would’ve seemed to me like I would be losing control. But actually, I feel more secure now than ever before. I now know my life is in the hands of the God who created me, who knows me perfectly and loves me an incomprehensible amount.
Since attending UTC, I feel the same love for learning about Him as I felt as a little kid. I’ve learned so much since then, including the true meaning of the gospel. I have been saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. That realization was monumental in my life.
Today, I no longer feel the need to prove myself based on my athletic performance because I know I am already worthy in the eyes of my Savior. My life feels complete with God at the center, which has allowed me to play volleyball so much more freely. I know I have so much more to learn and a ton of room for growth, but I couldn’t be more excited about it.
To this day, God is still at work in my heart and I’m at peace knowing that I will be walking hand-in-hand with Him for the rest of my days.
Ivey Whalen is a junior on the Northwestern University Women’s Volleyball team.