RIO DE JANEIRO – Matt Anderson walked away from the sport he loved in 2014.
Walked away from Zenit Kazan, his team in the Russian Volleyball Super League, which he led to the league championship and earned MVP honors earlier that year. From a celebrity status that earned him fan pages and labels like “American hottie.” From his career as a 27-year-old professional indoor volleyball player, a path only the elite of the elite in the U.S. can travel on.
But Anderson was also walking away from his burgeoning depression, fueled by homesickness and grief for his late father. From a person he didn’t want to become, and from a life that had left him feeling isolated.
He was his job.
He hated this.
“I thought that I lost my individually. I wouldn’t say that I was depressed, but I would say I was on my way,” he said on Monday. “I lost my identity as a person. I knew who the athlete was, and what people want that athlete to be like. But it became more of a grind than a joy.”
So he walked away, breaking his contract in an arrangement with Zenit Kazan and stepping away from volleyball.
His U.S. national team coach was worried.
“When I first heard about it, my concern was for him as a person. ‘Are you OK?’” John Speraw, the U.S. national team volleyball coach, recalled. “But the more I heard about it, I knew it was something he needed to do.”
And so he did. Matt Anderson didn’t like the person he was becoming, and so he quit before it happened. And he went home.
“He needed a break,” his mother, Nancy, told the Buffalo News. “He didn’t lose his desire. He needed to work through a few things, and he did. He got to see his nieces and nephews and family and do a little rehabbing of his mind and body.
“I love what he does, but it’s a grind.”
Matt Anderson wears dedication to his family not on his sleeve, but on his skin.
His wrist has a jigsaw puzzle tattoo in honor of Tristan, a nephew with autism. A large oaken tree covers his left shoulder, signifying the deep roots of his family. A family crest adorns his right rib cage with the birthday of his father, Mike, followed by the date that he died in 2010.
That was two years before the London Olympics, where Anderson was the youngest member of Team USA’s men’s indoor team. It was a moment that no doubt would have filled Mike Anderson with parental pride, but that was never the motivation he sought for his son as an athlete.
“My dad said, ‘You don’t have to do this to make us proud,'” Anderson recalled in 2012. “‘You being happy makes us happy. If you wanted to quit tomorrow you could – if you quit for the right reason.”
And so he did.
“I still had the drive to win. I wanted to compete. But when I was in that moment, I didn’t want it. When I was away from that moment, I wanted it. It was a constant pull in the opposite direction from where I was,” he said.
Heeding his father’s words, he wanted to be in a place where his happiness wasn’t contingent on playing volleyball professionally. Which led, somewhat predictably, to a place where he wasn’t sure if he’d play again.
“I was at a point where if I didn’t come back, I would have been happy. That’s ultimately what I wanted, and it’s ultimately what I want now. If the unspoken happened. If, knock on wood, I was injured, or just decided I was done, I wanted to be able to look back and say that I had put everything I had into it,” he said.
After leaving Russia, Anderson spent the next two months reconnecting with family and friends, while also seeking the help of a sports psychologist. “In that time, I strengthened personal relationships. You surround yourself with your family, your friends. That’s what I did. I went home and I hung out with my family and it was great,” he said.
“Family is huge for me. Just being around family helped. Getting the constant grounding from them. We have all this wonderful technology to keep in touch, but it doesn’t replace being there. Being on the couch, nobody saying anything, but you’re just there.”
Proximity, it appears, was Anderson’s panacea. He announced his return to Russia to play volleyball near the end of 2014, having cleared his mind and mended his soul.
“I think people see [a professional athlete] and they think about how much attention they get or money they earn, and not about the challenges. Especially in volleyball – living overseas makes it harder. If you’re playing in the NBA or NFL, you’re still eating home cooking,” said Speraw, his coach.
“I’m happy he was open with that. And honest. It made him a better person.”
Anderson is now 29. An outside hitter, his performance in the Rio Olympics tournament could mean the difference between the U.S. hitting or missing the podium. The U.S. has failed to medal in four of the last five Olympics, having won gold in Beijing.
“It’s the thrill of competition. It’s something that’s inside of every athlete here. And the fact is that we’re here for a greater purpose than just ourselves. It’s not about us individually. It’s about our country,” Anderson said.
“It puts a little fire in your mind. You want to grow and you want it to grow and you want it to grow. You need that competition to continue you. It’s your life in general,” he said. “That’s why a lot of athletes have a hard time transitioning to ‘normal life.’ You still feel it. Everything turns into a competition. And it’s not necessarily the most flattering aspect of a human being.”
Two years ago, Anderson needed to hit pause and figure out the human he wanted to be.
“We put a lot of our life on hold just to compete day in, day out. There’s a lot of things that, as humans, we want to do. We want to go out. We want to go on lavish vacations. Go and party and do everything. But the fact that we have training the next morning deters a lot of that,” he said.
“Athletes aren’t separated from the general public in that aspect. How many businessmen in the world work from 4 a.m. to midnight and then sleep a few hours and go right back out into the world?”
What Anderson hopes, then, is that it’s not just professional volleyball players that who consider stepping away to find themselves if they feel lost.
“I hope people can use it as a lesson that you can step back. I’m not saying everyone should take some time off and address their struggles, but it’s an option. They should be addressed,” he said.
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