Show the worst of you
BY MARKETA SLUKOVA
In partnership with The Owl Post
One of the most important things ever about the nature of my sport, I learned it right in the most difficult moment. Because, between the ups and downs of beach volleyball, they are often the latter that bring out the most honest reactions.
The ones that allow you to understand some truth about yourself.
In our discipline you can never leave the field.
It doesn't matter how bad you are playing.
It doesn't matter how much you want to let the game go.
To give up, like a knocked-down boxer that never gets back up.
The sweet KO, so to run to the shower.
It is a mental game, in which the team's balances intersect with those of the individual, which are equally sensitive and complex.
Knowing your limits is an actual need because there isn't the safety net usually guaranteed by a large team.
No one can bench you to clear up your mind.
So sometimes it's more important trying to not completely suck on bad days, rather than playing divinely on good days.
You learn to accept yourself, with your limits, and to grasp everyone's trigger points. Trigger points are those small signs of growing discomfort that arise in our behavior just before we reach a breaking point.
We all have them, not just in sports.
They are often just insignificant, involuntary reactions to something that doesn't go as we wanted. They pile up on top of each other until the moment when everything explodes, for no apparent reason.
In beach volleyball you can never reach that level because otherwise your tournament, and that of your partner, ends there.
Victories arrive not so much because you played well, but because you managed to contain the lows without ever crossing that invisible border beyond which there is no way back.
I had a breakthrough in the relationship with Bara when I realized that she would take care of my bad runs, just as I would have done with hers.
Admitting mistakes, a bad performance, difficulties.
Recognizing that you have lost your rhythm is an extremely powerful gesture because it takes the scraps of your pride and throws them away, allowing you to show your vulnerability to others. It's liberating.
I remember when, during the timeout of a game in which I was playing poorly, I told Bara:
"Today I suck."
And behind that sentence, so simple and straightforward, there was an enormous train of thoughts.
A great mental construct, filled with strength, resilience, and hardness, which is an integral part of being a high-level athlete: the winner does not complain.
The winner does not give up.
This is what the narrative wants.
And, instead, it was precisely that despair, that desire to give up, that allowed me to tell my partner that I am not invincible.
That I was in trouble.
That I needed her.
That's why we're a great team.
Not because we are both capable of getting the best out from each other, but because we always take care of each other's difficulties.
Without pride, and therefore also without fear.
Learning to let your guard down, to allow those who share joys and sorrows with you to get in, it’s just one of the many lessons you need to learn to achieve great results.
The period we are experiencing, for example, accelerates some reflections, highlighting the luck that we, beach players, have to be able to do what we do.
When the lockdown started, I found myself stuck in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, because we were preparing for a tournament in Mexico.
It was a particular time for me, as I felt severely tired of our routine.
A sportsman's agenda is repetitive by definition.
Each season follows the previous one, retracing the same pattern, excluding some small variations on the theme. Travels, tournaments, qualifications, physical pains, everything slips into a cauldron that never stops being stirred and from which it becomes increasingly difficult to get out.
At the beginning it is pure fun, mixed with the desire to emerge.
When I definitely went from volleyball to beach volleyball, many were skeptical.
Few thought that I could live on that only, in my country.
We don't even have beaches.
The fifth place at the Olympics in London 2012 has changed the perception of our sport in public opinion. We were good even before then, but it was that showcase that triggered a chain reaction that hit the Czech Republic.
They started stopping us in the streets.
Little girls said that when they'd grew up, they wanted to become like Maki.
Today, only in Prague, there are 80 playgrounds and beach volleyball has become my job 365 days a year.
Sport, however, demands a lot.
It wants your struggle, your time, your ambitions.
During your years of career at the highest levels, you can find time to study, but you can't become a doctor.
You can learn another language but you can't go on holiday whenever you want.
You can meet someone special, but you can't become a mother without putting your job at risk.
Whether you want it or not, whether you understand it or not, only with total dedication you can truly excel in something.
And this closes the horizons.
I was a bit tired of it and I had put a big red circle on the Tokyo Olympics. After that, I would take a break, to devote my time to create a family, to take care of my beaten-up shoulder, to do everything I left scattered here and there in the passing of the seasons.
Then, out of the blue, finding myself locked in the house and away from the sand, everything changed.
I immediately began to miss the competition.
The adrenaline of the court, the thrill of the challenge, even the travels.
Giving the right dimension and proper breath to my beautiful job once again.
When the news of the postponement of the Games broke out, the first person to come to me was Bara. She was perfectly aware of my doubts, my tiredness, and my desire for motherhood.
So, as soon as the whole calendar got 12 months longer, which is a big deal for a sport that reasons over a four-year schedule, she came to see how I was reacting, how my spirit was dealing with the news.
A sweet gesture that I appreciated.
The relationship between two teammates is not governed by a contract, or mediated by a judge, but it is something deeper and more sacred: a real gentleman's agreement.
And when something gets in the way, messing up the plans that were made at the beginning, two proper gentlewomen discuss everything from scratch.
This extreme openness is crucial for building something solid, which can last over time, and must be established regardless of how difficult the first approaches may be.
I apply very high standards to everything I do.
I force extremely strict routines on myself, and I can't bear to stay too long in the place where I am. I must always improve.
Get stronger, to get more.
If I see that I am not moving forward, I get nervous and change my path.
I am not an easy teammate, definitely, and I always demand that those who work with me have the strength and the desire to conform to my own value system because it is the only one I know that is capable of taking you beyond your limits every single time.
Then, obviously, nobody is like the others and even the relationship between me and my partner becomes a combination of elements that fit together, and not a simple mirroring of each other.
Bara is instinctive, she follows her feelings and the flow of the game, while I am analytical and schematic.
Each fills the voids of the other, creating a micro-system in which we are both necessary for our partner's best performance in the game.
These are subtle dynamics, which can determine the success of a team as much as, if not more than game tactics and individual techniques.
Behind any great pair there is a parallel universe, where the worlds of the two athletes interact nonstop, in search of an ever new, yet always real, balance.
Most of it is invisible to the eye.
Often, the athlete who screams the most on the sand is not the team leader, but it is the one who needs the most of the public's energy to play better.
Every team has its own logic. Nothing like beach volleyball can teach you that you must always give your best and not be afraid to show your worst, because if the others do the same, together you will be better.