Athletes Find Opportunities and Challenges Playing Overseas

     Men’s national team veteran Adam Simac added another championship to his record this spring, but this one didn’t come with Team Canada. Adam’s professional club, Arkas Izmir of the Turkish League 1, defeated Halk Bankasi 3-1 in a best of 5 series, winning 11 of 16 sets to take home the championship. This year, the Ottawa native is playing in Switzerland with Pallavolo Lugano and is off to a 5-0 start.

     Simac is one of 29 national team athletes and 63 total Canadian volleyball players playing on professional teams abroad this season; including Gavin Schmitt who has just arrived in Turkey after having surgery on his left tibia at the end of September. Schmitt reported to Simac’s former club, Arkas Izmir, with the hopes of repeating last year’s championship run along with Canadian teammate Gord Perrin and men’s national team head coach, Glenn Hoag.

     When the international tournament season ends for the Canadian team, players have the option of staying in Canada to train with teammates or look for jobs elsewhere. These jobs often come in the form of contracts in professional leagues. This gives athletes the opportunity to continue to play in competitive matches and stay in game shape year round.

     With so many leagues and divisions in so many countries, high-calibre players are faced with many options when it comes to deciding which team to sign with. Obvious factors such as location and salary come to mind first, but there is much more for the players to consider before putting pen to paper. The athletes take into account the stability of the country’s economy, the strength and professionalism of the club and the league, the opportunity for exposure, living conditions, participation in Euro tournaments, and benefits such as accommodation, transportation, and food.

     While playing professionally can be an excellent experience for these athletes, there are certain hurdles that they are faced with. The most obvious of which is being away from friends and family for an extended period of time. However, advances in technology are helping players feel closer to home. Programs such as Skype, Facebook, and FaceTime are being used by the athletes to connect with their family, friends and even teammates in real time. The women’s national team actually has a Facebook group where they can keep in touch while they’re spread out across the globe. Women’s national team athlete Jaimie Thibeault says: “I think this is great because it definitely can get lonely overseas, especially when you don't speak the language, so it’s comforting to know that all of us are going through similar situations.” Thibeault is in her second year of professional volleyball, and first with Urbino Volley of the Italian A1 Women’s league, one of the most competitive leagues for women.

     As Thibeault mentioned, there is always the possibility of a language barrier when playing in foreign countries. In Holland, male athlete TJ Sanders finds that most people can speak some level of English, and his teammates on Abiant Lycurgus all speak English rather well. However in Italy, Thibeault has a teammate who translates their coach’s Italian into English for her. “I feel like I am always missing parts or maybe sometimes it’s mistranslated,” said the middle from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. Sometimes it can be hard to communicate off the court, but most players say that once they step on the court, the international language of volleyball helps break that barrier.

     According to a number of Canadian players, there are other potential drawbacks of playing overseas. Depending on where you’re playing, these can include less than adequate facilities, non-optimal training times, decrease in level of play, and the increased risk of injury due to more frequent competition. “Since the season has started my team has been playing almost every 3 days, so it has been very difficult. Tournaments with the national team are difficult in a different sense because you have games every day for a week,” said Shanice Marcelle who is in her first professional season with Dresdner SC in Germany. “The downside to that is that there are minimal days off and the training and competition becomes very hard on the body.” Even with the physical strain this type of schedule can have on the players, these drawbacks are often offset by the experience the player gets of living in another country, embracing a new culture, meeting new people, strengthening their game, and playing in meaningful matches.

     In addition to the experience players are gaining by playing with other players and coaches, they are also gaining insight. “I feel like an athlete can only improve their game by surrounding themselves with the best players in the world. In addition, you also learn so much about them that you can take back and use as a tool when playing against them with the national team,” said Thibeault of the other players in Italy.

     A number of athletes on Team Canada have been playing together for years, have very distinct roles on the team, and have built a certain chemistry with their teammates. The players on professional teams change year after year and often have no playing history with their teammates.This forces them to come together as a team and find their game much quicker. The common goal of the team also differs from national teams to professional clubs. “Unlike playing professionally, when playing on the national team you know the guys are there to play for their country and for the guys beside them. We aren't playing for money, we are playing for national and personal pride each time we put on the maple leaf. No one has a hidden agenda with Team Canada - it's all about the team,” said Simac, who is currently in his 8th season of professional volleyball in Europe.

     For the most part, younger athletes in Canada are more focused on putting that maple leaf on one day and playing for Canada. A lot of them aren’t even aware of the possibility of playing professional volleyball in other countries. Sanders gives some advice for younger players interested in playing abroad. “Do your research on the organization and where you will be, then head over with an open mind. There will be many unexpected situations when you are over here and you will experience a change in culture. Enjoy the experience and challenges that come with it. Talk with other athletes that have done it before and coaches that may know how things work over here.”

     Adam Simac has a brief piece of advice for those kids who may play professionally one day, but the same can be said for family members, friends, and fans of the game – “expect the unexpected.”

For more information on the Canadian athletes playing abroad, click the links below.

Men / Women