Serving up Wisdom: Dallas Soonias Volleys Words of Advice for a New Generation
"I chose volleyball because it's such a communal game. Baseball or basketball, one player can dominate that game, even though they’re team sports. But in volleyball, the whole team is involved in every single play. I think that's why I liked it so much and I think that's why it's so popular in our communities all over… because everybody's always involved," reflects Dallas Soonias. He is a Cree and Ojibwe athlete who played on the national volleyball team and professionally for over a decade. These days he coaches volleyball at a college in Calgary and is a color commentary personality for International volleyball games on tv.
Raised in an urban centre, he got to play many different sports. He played volleyball in high school, then he played club and provincial volleyball, playing year round in ninth grade and progressing to the junior national team. He went on to play at Red Deer college for a couple years.
Soonias tried to go to Brigham Young University, a Mormon University in Utah, on a scholarship but only lasted a month. He returned to Canada to the University of Alberta where he did well. He became a professional volleyball player but retired two months before the Olympics in 2016 when his knee blew out. He finished his university education in psychology and got a graduate certificate in high performance coaching. It’s his fourth year of coaching and his first year of colour commentary.
“The ability to be adaptable, when others can't, this puts you in a huge advantage. Finding ways to find success is enormous,” he coaches his team. At first, he was terrible at the highly technical sport of volleyball and didn’t know the rules. “The whole point is to learn and enjoy it and get better and accept the failure…Understand you're gonna fail, do a bunch of failing, and then feel good when you start to get those little wins,” he advises. The fun and the challenge of volleyball inspires him to coach and the novelty of the experience got him pumped to do commentary.
Being terrible can be a terrifying experience but he learned to push through that, something he says successful people do constantly. Even as he’s perfecting his ability to provide commentary, he hopes others see him and think of him for other projects. Soonias also sees the opportunity to recommend and change the lives of others as he grows in his career and pay it forward with opportunities.
“When I left school, when I was 22… I realized my body can only last so long, and it will explode, which it did. I was right. Time is undefeated. But schools, they would be there when I was done…I kept that promise to myself. ‘I'm going to get this education,’” he recounts. He offered to help his old coach at University of Calgary and worked as an assistant coach, which led to an opportunity to be a head coach at the college. His journey of adaptability is taking everything he learned as a player and applying it to coaching.
After his own experiences, his advice to youth considering leaving their home community in search of work or school is “the most important thing to understand and accept is it's going to be very, very hard. But it's worth it in the long run. You become an expert on a different way of life and you become educated and you make money. Then you can bring that all home and strengthen your own community, or not."
He didn’t always stick with things in his career. Playing volleyball in Russia in the top league in the world, he was playing the worst volleyball of his life. He lasted about three months before moving onto a team in France, feeling like a failure. His new team finished the best it had in the club’s history and his career started to grow.
When he shares his story, he uses a metaphor of the iceberg where 90% of the story isn’t visible, with all the trials and tribulations of life as an athlete, but people only see the Instagram posts in Team Canada Jerseys. When he was injured in Puerto Rico, he lost money, had to get surgery and rehabilitation on a torn rotator cuff while his friends and coworkers were making money and living their dreams.
Fortunately, he recovered and got back into the national team program. His team made the final round of the world league, the last six teams after ranking 20th in the world. They beat the Olympic champions on the biggest stage there was that year. He advises injured players to seek mental health support for the trauma, but to stick with it because you often come out the other side stronger and better able to help people.
If he could give his younger self a message it would be to play baseball, he laughs, thinking of the financial and career longevity advantages he would have had. He would also want to tell himself about working so hard for fifteen years to get to the Olympics then getting sidelined two months before the games to see if he still would have chosen this path. "You have to dedicate so much to it. You're away from your family. You're always in a country where no one speaks your language. It's your job to adapt them," he confides.
What he’s learned along the way is that twenty minutes a day of regular physical activity is beneficial for your health and that the medicine wheel concept of balance is a helpful way to look at holistic wellness and to seek out that balance. Inspired by good music and the good work of others, he has learned to find his own way. “You'll never be able to mimic a master's work because they've worked so long and hard to get to that point. But that's completely fine. Because doing something slightly adjacent to a master's work is just your own spin on something,” he urges.
He chose a communal sport where everyone works together and one player doesn’t outshine the others and in doing so, Dallas Soonias found his own way to shine. Playing a game where everyone is always involved, he learned to be adaptable and work together, sharing opportunities for success. He brought that spirit into his new role as a coach and now serves up volleyball wisdom with a new generation of players.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.