Sondra Parys & Kassie Kadera: Welcome to the Unspoken Arena

Welcome to The Unspoken Arena; a judgment free, open podcast for athletes, coaches and anyone desiring to converse, educate, inspire, and understand one another as we hear real stories around the unspoken topics in sport.  Hosted by yours truly, collegiate coaches Sondra Parys and Kassie Kadera. We are here to spread advocacy and discuss athletic pressures, mental health, body image, sexuality, and the importance of self discovery . Be ready for real conversation, real coaching, and to fill your unspoken arena with real love.

The Unspoken Arena, now streaming wherever you listen to your podcasts

Part 1: More Than A Coach

By Sondra Parys

I always get asked… Why do you coach? Did you always know you were going to be a coach? The short answer is no, but now that I am here today writing this story, my “WHY” couldn’t be more clear. 

At the end of my playing career, I hung up my jersey with pride, but also with disappointment. I truly loved my time as a Division 1 athlete, but I would be lying to say it was all that I had dreamed of. Like most athletes at the end of their career, I needed a break. But as time passed, I realized there was so much left in my heart to give back to the game.  I slowly began to see that the adversity I faced was propelling my purpose to coach.

It all started on a high note,  my first year as a college athlete exceeded all expectations.  Filled with new exciting friendships, adventure, and an impactful starting position on the court… you could say things were going well.  What I didn’t know was that the feeling of accomplishment would soon be challenged with not only  a chronic injury, but also a chronic disease.  Before entering my sophomore season, I spent the summer recovering from a fractured foot, though I was also battling flu-like symptoms.  What I thought was minor became a lot more serious when our team doctor did not clear me to play. That was one of the first times in my career that I had been told “NO,” and it was even more mentally tasking because I did not have a clear answer as to why. It wasn’t a fast or easy process, so to keep a long story short, I ended up being diagnosed with Lyme Disease: a unique disease from tick bites that often include fever, headache, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and more. What I didn’t know at that time was that this would be a chronic illness I would battle not just the rest of my playing career, but life. 

That being said,  I am so grateful to have been able to persevere through many of the Lyme symptoms to compete at the D1 level.  One of the hardest parts was that I wasn’t able to have full control of how I felt each day. I wish I could say playing through Lyme Disease and a fractured foot was all that impacted my health. But at this time, I also struggled with anxiety around  my body image and weight.  Whether it was to please my coaches, look more like my teammates, or just be a better volleyball player, my mental health was being taxed way more than I realized. At that time, I quite frankly did what most college kids do. I brushed most of it off and did my best to balance the overwhelming lifestyle that  athletes live. 

In the midst of balancing my mental and physical health, all I wanted to do was be a “normal” college student and have fun with my teammates. But, I often felt alone, like no one quite understood what I was going through.  In the midst of this confusion, I had an incredibly supportive group of friends and family who helped get me through those dark spells. This would be a great time to introduce my dear friend and former teammate, Kassie Kadera, who will be co-hosting The Unspoken Arena podcast with me!  Kassie was the friend, teammate, and  leader that I needed,  and I couldn’t be more grateful to still have her in my life a decade later. It’s even more exciting to see how our careers have gone “full circle” with us both now coaching at the collegiate level. Kassie is one of the most real, raw, and loving friends that I have, and her vulnerability to unapologetically be herself and help others is why she is the perfect co-host for this podcast. Our playing careers may have been tough, but they were also filled with  incredible memories, real friendships, and life lessons –all of which ultimately led us to our calling of becoming coaches. 

So the question now is… Why now start a podcast around mental health and unspoken topics in sport? Why share my story with The Hidden Opponent?  It wasn’t until after college that I really began to struggle with mental health. It was almost like those four years of “managing”  it all by staying busy as a college athlete eventually caught up to me.  Life changes quickly after college, and it’s even harder when you feel unsure of what’s next in life. I am now eight years out of college and can say that that time has been filled with some of the highest and  lowest moments of my life. What many people don’t know is that I have struggled more than I was often open to admitting.  Social media is often just a highlight reel. What people haven’t seen is that I have overcome and  battled disordered eating and body image issues. I have felt anxiety in many situations around my job, my health, my body, my relationships, where I will or will not be in five years, and much more. I have been to therapy. I have hired a mindset coach. I have hired a health coach. I have tried countless diets and weight loss programs. I have felt homesick, and I have felt sick of being at home. I am not always okay and that is okay.

For so long, I have felt the weight of the world on my shoulders, all the while still showing up to be the best version of myself in order to put a smile on the faces of  the student athletes I now coach.  I am sharing my story now not as a way to free myself of the past, but because I wish I could have known what I do now about mental health when I was a college athlete. I coach to give athletes the best experience possible and with that, I know we are  a huge part of making or breaking that experience. Athletes need a role model, a supporter, a mentor, someone they can trust. I’m here because I want all athletes and coaches to value their mental strength and performance just as much as the physical. I want more people to know it’s okay to not be okay. I want more people to feel heard. To feel loved. To feel prepared for all life has to offer after sport.  It may not always be easy, but it sure is beautiful. 

Part 2: More Than A Coach

By Kassie Kadera

Hi everyone! My name is Kassie Kadera! I am a former Division 1 athlete and current Division 1 college volleyball coach. I am from the suburbs of Chicago, and have lived in the midwest my entire 30 years of existence. A little bit about me; although I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up on a bit of it throughout our podcast –I am a very passionate human being who is driven by human connection and love. I love, love. In all forms, between all people. And I love being able to connect with people on a deeper level. Whether it be just listening to someone spill their guts, or conversing about a topic that may not be so easy to discuss, I am all about relating to one another and helping as many people as I can as we all navigate our way through life. 

As for this beautiful human that I’m doing this podcast with: I have known Sondra since my sophomore year of college, since I was 19, when we became teammates. And we have been stupid close ever since. If at any point you hear me say “Sonder” or “Sondy,” just know I am talking about Sondra –I hardly ever call her by her actual name.

Sondy approached me a few weeks ago with this podcast idea and I’m not sure if she even finished her train of thought before I was like “HELL YES LET’S. GO.” Mental health has been a part of our stories, especially relating to body image and sexuality. These topics are not talked about enough, especially in the world of athletics. Once we started talking about all of the ways we could discuss these difficult, heavy topics with the world, I was SO fired up and in the best way possible. This podcast resonates so deeply within me because I am a gay female coach in an industry and world where being gay is still considered a minority. It is still considered “other.” It is still considered “not normal.” But it is normal for me.

I came out when I was in college to both of my parents at separate times, and I was fortunate that they were both supportive of me from the day I told them. However, as we know, our parents don’t go to college with us. It was almost more of a struggle for me to come out to my teammates, for my coaches to find out, and for my childhood friends to find out. I actually only REALLY came out to one of my close childhood friends –my best friend, Bryna. And just like every other good, bad, and ugly aspect of my life, she came back with “okay, so for real what else do you have to tell me because I love you.” She’s always been my real MVP.

Needless to say, I never ACTUALLY came out to my teammates. I treated it as more like “if they find out they find out, if they don’t, they don’t,” kind of thing. I didn’t want to tell them because I was afraid of what they would think, what they would say, if they would feel uncomfortable around me. I mean, this was a whole new world that I was trying to emotionally and mentally navigate through for the first time. I really didn’t know the right way to even approach the topic with them. So, I just stayed quiet about it. But, just when I thought I was being the MOST private and that I was doing such a good job of keeping my secret… one of my teammates outed me to myself –and God bless her for it. Shout out to Sarah Wilson.

Wilson came up behind me in our locker room, wrapped her arms around me and said, “Hey love. We know. It’s okay. We love you.”

And in that moment, my freshman year got THAT much easier. It was like the jumbo elephant that had found a seat on my chest, finally decided to get up and find another seat. And the rest of college was going to be magically that much easier right? I wish!

As you all know, teams change every year. Seniors leave, freshmen come in. Which means I had to come out THREE MORE TIMES, if not more. And you’d think it would get easier right? Not so much.

Every new class was different, with different personalities and different views and different ways of being raised. So what did I do? Don’t ask, don’t tell. If they didn’t ask, I didn’t speak up. Because that was easier for me. Eventually, they all found out, because teammates talk and that’s fine –it didn’t bother me. I’d rather them know versus having them ask me, “Do you have a boyfriend?!, what kind of guys are you into??” No thank you.

There is really no short way to summarize my four years as a student athlete and a kid who was truly figuring out who she was and who she wanted to be. There was confusion, there was happiness, there was the absolute highest of highs, there were tears –lots and lots of tears –there was fear, there were the lowest of lows. But after my teammates knew and after I knew they were supportive of me and still loved me for who I was, it made coming into the locker room easier. It made hanging out with them outside of volleyball easier. I didn’t feel like I needed to hide my true self, as I did at first because I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. There were of course some I felt much more comfortable around than others. But they all accepted me for me, and I could not have asked for more.

Aside from my team, there were a  few coaches I had along the way throughout my four years that made living my truest life difficult. And while my teammates were the thankful offset to that lack of support that I received from coaches, it still stung knowing that the humans who were responsible for “watching over me” while I was away from home at college, didn’t love the real me, and didn’t support me when I struggled. 

Looking back on those four years now, one aspect I really lacked and a resource I didn’t exactly have, was an example. And not a famous, iconic, example that was out of reach –one that I could only follow on social media or read about on the internet. An example that I could call, text, email, for advice. For guidance. Just as a safe space to go where I could talk through my tough days or rattle on about a girl that I had a crush on. That was an empty space that I realized I was desperate to fill. So when I left college volleyball, and knew immediately that I wanted to coach the college game. One of my goals was not only to give athletes the best experience possible in every way that I could, but also to show them what someone who is unapologetically themself, looks like. I wanted to be the example and resource to them that I never had.  And WOW was that tough. I still don’t have it all figured out, and I’ve been coaching since 2012.

I want my athletes to know that they are FAR MORE than just athletes. They are humans that deserve to be known and acknowledged and celebrated. I didn’t have it all figured out back then, and I still don’t, but what I will say is I have made HUGE strides in becoming more authentic and unapologetically me. I’ve become more fearless in celebrating who I am and not paying as much attention to the negativity or “haters,” as they say. My life as a gay female coach can be EXHAUSTING, both mentally and emotionally. I don’t always know how players will react to me when they do find out I’m gay. I don’t always know how their parents will react. I can’t always apply for every kind of job. I know that my uphill battle is steep, but if I can do anything at this point in my life right now –it’s to make SURE that athletes I have the pleasure of coaching, (or any individual that crosses my path,) knows that she has a safe space, a resource, a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board.

I hope that my players know that there isn’t a struggle they will face that I won’t endure with them. I’m in their corner every step of the way. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to not be ready. It’s okay. And most importantly, that they are not alone. The world is so heavy as it is with the pressures to perform, the pressures of life after college, to find your life partner, get married, land the dream job, have kids, and everything in between. The last thing we need is to feel like we have to fight our internal battles on our own.