Our next guest of ‘Get to know me’ is American libero, Dustin Watten. He won the hearts of volleyball fans not only in Poland. In this interview we talk about the first steps in volleyball, being the mental coach and… starting a disco polo band.
Aneta Horbowicz: You’re not getting bored during this quarantine.
Dustin Watten: No, this time right now there’s so much work to be done. I’ve been creating different products that I can give to athletes, speaking to athletes about mindset.
How did you get the idea of helping those young athelets with dealing with their own negative feelings on the court?
This is the question I get everyday. So many people ask me how to get better, how they can play with more love instead of fear. During the quarantine, I’ve been making this passing series of talking about reception and I start speaking to kids and clubs. And from there some colleges started writing me. They wanted me to speak to athletes about mindset during this time.
You have a great feedback from those athletes. And it has to be a great feeling to be such an inspiration for them.
This is the least I can do. As an athlete I want to be able to give back, if people are gonna look up to me. I want to shine a bright light and not just as an athlete, but as someone who maybe can be a mentor to help them with their grow.
You give suport to people and you also get support. Like then with situation with your contract in Katowice.
I’ve been really lucky to have so much support and so much love. Especially during this time, it doesn’t surprise me because of Polish people. Polish people, I believe, fight for what’s right. They are very kind, but when something is happening that isn’t correct, they will stand up for justice, to fight. So I’m very happy and honored to have so many people in Poland speak up on behalf of my situation in Katowice.
And you fight not only for you but also for your teammates.
Exactly. I mean this type of behaviour in our experience and before I came here and now during the COVID – all my teammates expierenced it and it’s gonna continue. All of my teammates have spoken to me in private and they want to support me, but they are also afraid that at any moment they can have their contracts cut too. Because of what happened to myself, Kohut and Buchowski… We had a contract for next year and the decision was made to cut it. There’s no really backing behind it. It’s just a decision of one man. So all of my teammates now during this season played free and played with joy. Now everyone is just afraid to even speak.
All I know is that I will fight. I’m putting myself and my career at a risk, because now the market for liberos is closed or it’s closing. So the longer I wait, the less chance I have to have even job next year. It’s really unfortune, because I think I had a pretty high level. But it’s more important for me to fight for my teammates, for my fans, because it seems that it’s gonna continue like this, there won’t be a team In Katowice in a year or two. Fight for the city of Katowice and also fight for younger Polish players, that will evetually find themselves in such situation and hopefully as a country, as a league we stand up and say this action isn’t correct, this action won’t be allowed in the league rather than just let it continue.
It seems like your teammates are more like family.
For me they are. When I arrived in Katowice I didn’t have any family, I didn’t have a girlfriend but going to Katowice, it became a family to me. Because they’re all of people I see and also I think the best way to work as a team is to have a deeper trust than just friends, than just teammates. To really support, to love one another. When you have this feeling, you see what we did this year. We didn’t really have the biggest names in comparison to other teams. Still a lot of great players, we were able to achieve a lot because of this type of bond. This family that we’ve built this year so quickly.
And you can see also that teams that failed this year but also there were a lot of teams that had a lot of big big big big players and big budgets and you didn’t see the results. There are always different ways of doing it. It’s not so easy but luckily we had really great vision from our coach. He did a great job giving us a foundation. He let us play free rather restricting us. He has a really great mind for the game.
Speaking of your teammates. Who is the craziest guy in the group?
I think Janek Nowakowski and me (laugh). We just view life a little differently. When some people want to sleep in the morning on Sunday, we decided that we want to jump into a frozen water Lake (laugh). We’ve got really good conversations about philosophy, about quantum physics, about just different ways of life and pursuing it. You know we’ve made life much bigger than volleyball. We should spend a lot of our time also learning more about life as well.
So let’s talk about philosophy. How did stoic philosopfy become a part of your life?
It began the year before I came Radom. I was in France and my team was one and nineteen. And I didn’t know what to do, I wanted to quit. Everything was so hard, so difficult, I had a long-term girlfriend and I broke up. The team I was in, was losing and I didn’t realy get along with players, coach and I just couldn’t be happy. Because everything outside of my control wasn’t working out with my personal preference. And I remember thinking like ‘How can I be happy? Can I be happy?’ And then I called my agent and I was like ‘I want to leave, I wanna get out, I can’t be here any more, I can’t be happy’. And I started reading this book about Stoism, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. And I just realized that reality shouldn’t dictate how happy I am or the confidence I have in each day. It’s up to me to preceive the reality in whichever way I choose . Before that, I was choosing a life as a victim. It’s changed everything for me and after that the season was great. We still didn’t win a lot of games, but every day for me was best day ever as I realised it was my choice.
You also meditate. So what would you tell anyone who wants to start the adventure with this? Because I believe it’s not that easy to start.
This is another thing that me and Janek have in common. For me, if you want to live life, do things that you love with more confidence, more love, more insight – then meditate. If you don’t want to take the edge , you don’t have to do it. Because when you have meditated, you’re able to grow more space between stimulus and response. The stimulus can be in volleyball after getting ace four times a in row. And you’re reacting, you’re yelling, throwing a ball or you come back to the breath and be as present as possibile. Because when you’re present you have as much confidence and focus as possibile. When you have that confidence and focus, you’re much more likely be able to be great on that play. So often in life we’re just reacting rather than responding. When you’re able to respond, you’re able take an actual second or two and ask yourself how do I want to act in this situation. With my situation in Katowice it would be very easy for me to yell and shout, be angry, call this president names. But with meditation I want to have that space and to not be angry, to not attack from as a person. I just want to find out what my rights are, what Polish law says,. And from there just try to figure out I can go back to do what I signed to do and earn my money. Because again, I want to earn my money, I want to come back and play. It’s just seems to be clear.
So it helps you also on the court.
Exactly. The more I meditate, the better I play. At the begining I was a little nervous, because it took me so long to get the pull-up. Because there was some threats being made. But once I got there, it was a while since I played volleyball, maybe a month, so I was a bit nervous. I started meditating an hour each day. I wanted to feel strong so I started to pursuing upon, picking up, meditating more than hour. And I felt so much more focused and free. Getting ace, not digging the ball… I just let it pass and I realized that the most important ball for me is the next ball. To be great in the next ball, I had to let go the last ball or to forgive myself for not making the best touch of the ball.
Speaking of life style. You also became a vegan few years ago after reading the book Finding Ultra.
This is kind of a beggining of my curiosity. I’ve always been curious of a better day. That year I was curious for learning more and getting different edges. So at first it was about reading more about sport psychology, about mindset. Then I picked up a book that I thought was about mindset and it turned out to be a memour about this man and his journey of going from sick and overweight to healthy and becoming one of the best triathletes in the world. He put the praise on switching into plant based diet. This story made so much sense, there’s so many similarities to my story. Then I decided that I will try it. If it didn’t work then I could go back to eating meat. But I felt good, I felt that I had more energy. It seemed like I was recovering quicker, I was less tired, I didn’t had to take naps. And it also seemed I was still able to lift same matter weight in the fitness room.
I’ve never once thought about being vegan or vegetarian. Before then when I thought about a vegeterian, I thought about a hippie in Woodstock – very skinny, very woody, very loving person but mabye not a sports person. It changed for me when I’ve read this book and that was very odd that someone would have so much success. I believed it could be the edge. And I knew for sure no one in volleyball is doing this, so if it does work I’m gonna have much bigger edge. And I tried it. You just have to have that curiosity, that open mind that maybe there is a better way. I try to keep that curiosity. Even right know I don’t know everything, there’s still a lot of ways, I could do things in a different way. That’s why I’m always trying to read and test it out on myself.
Let’s go back to Poland. You talk a lot about ‘polish character’.
Poland is my second home but maybe one day will be my first home. When I travel I get to see a lot of people and how they act, how they speak, how they spend their time, how much time they spend with their family or alone and I get to learn from that. And from the very first day in Poland with Żaliński, you know, he had a big, goofy smile and I just felt so at home. Every Polish player I worked with, Polish fan even all the Polish coaches – they want the best for other people. In California people want the best for other people where they can also benefit. I’ve learnt this year so much about different wars. I think a lot of characters come from these difficult momets. We realize most important things to love and support one another. When you have work to do, you do it the best you can. And that’s always been my expierence in Poland. Really good, strong characters. People that are really loving, very trusting… And I’ve been so fortune to be able to spend 3 years in Poland. When I realized that I was going back to Katowice, I was so happy that I can live in Poland and be around the Polish character.
That’s really amazing. But what’s annoys you here, in Poland?
When I ask people if they like disco polo and they say no (laugh). Because I know it’s a lie. Everyone loves disco polo, maybe it’s only at weddings after a couple drinks (laugh). I think it’s very funny when people say ‘no’, because deep down they love it. But it’s really hard for me to find bad things about Poland. When I played in other countries it was very tough, but in Poland the only surprise in character that I expierenced is that some people say bad things on Radom, but Radom is the place where I felt the most loved. The situation where I was really confused it was situation in Katowice, when I woke up and my contract was cut.
You mentioned disco-polo (laugh). Is it on the playlist in your locker room? (laugh)
In Radom we played it a lot, Bartek Bołądź was Disco polo DJ (laugh). Here in Katowice Buchowski was the DJ and there’s a lot of house music which I still love. But there was always very funny before the games in Radom, because we played disco polo and I had no idea what it was about (laugh).
Let’s talk more about volleyball. Your career took off quite late. But what is your very first memory of volleyball?
I remember I played in my school season and after that in summer, everyday I went to the beach with my dad and we just lost time and time again with a bunch of old guys. Just going to the beach and loosing and getting mad and slowly realizing that I didn’t have a better attitude. Just loosing and getting mad. And I think that’s been my career so far, just finding a way to get up and every time get up, get up… And that’s kinda laid a foundation for me because I still fail, but I know that I have that power to get up rather than just to quit.
So being in so many leagues like Finnish, Brazilian, French, German and Polish league taught you how to loose and how to get up?
It’s the most important to learn how to respond to loses because we’re always going to loose. I think the best players respond and are much more creative and intentional . Finding the truth in the loses where they need to improve as individuals or as a team.
And when you realized that volleyball is the thing that you want to do for your life?
For Americans it’s very interesting, because in Poland you don’t realize that you can be a professional. When you play when you’re younger , you just play because it’s fun. You don’t understand that here is a proffesional possibility. The first time I kind of thought this was possibile when I was in the U.S. stage in and I realized that all the teammates around me were playing proffesional. Every year I went on contracts, just signing the first contract that was offered to me. I was always very nervous, that I didn’t get a contract, so what I signed in Brasil made me realize, that maybe this could be a career for me.
So which game during your whole carrer will you keep in your heart forever?
Maybe the game that Polish fans don’t want to remember (laugh). For me it was World League 2015, bronze medal match. It was the first time I ever travelled with the one team. I didn’t even practise with the one team before. But then William Priddy was so hurt that they decided they didn’t want him to travel. There was two, me and another libero left at the gym. They ended up choosing me. I was just there to cheer the team. I was so happy to be back in Brasil and then Erik went to the bleachers and he couldn’t go back to the court and I had to play. And I played really well, and against Poland I played really well. It was such a fun, opportunity to be on the court, to help the team. Because before that I had been training 6 years in USA team and I never made a trip with them.
We’re going close to the end of our talk, so let me ask you one more question. Totally different than previous ones. If you could go back in time to change or repeat anything, what would you choose?
You know, I don’t think Polish people know a lot of my younger life. ‘Cause now I’m very clean, I don’t drink, I don’t eat meat and I’m kinda funny guy. But when I was younger, I was the opposite. I was really agressive and drinking, and partying. I still don’t want to change it because having that experience I am what I am today. If I can make a suggestion to anyone , especially to my younger self – to meditate a little bit more.
Questions from fans:
In which book or movie would you like to live?
I like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. He was the last out of five good Roman Emperors. He ruled Rome with philosophy more than will. This book was never meant to be a book. It was a journal for himself to make sure he always stand in line with his philosophy towards life. He always put the community, his family in front of his own desires. I would love to be there with them and to understand his thoughts because as a Roman emperor he had access to everything, but more than often he would give everything, all the things and give away all the desires for the benefit of people around him.
Is there any American thing that you miss in Poland?
There always gonna be things I miss but I never try focus on it. When we focus on a lack, we feel like we’re loosing something. So I always try to focus on the good things. I get to meet amazing friends, great guys that will be my friends for life. I get to live in different countries with different values, different climate, different food like pierogi. And I’ve also learn about different music like disco-polo (laugh).
I would have Mariusz Wlazły as opposite, Micah Christenson as a setter, Karol Kłos and Max Holt on the Middle, Ebadipour and Żaliński on the left. I couldn’t decide for libero so Zatorski and Wojtaszek. They play rock-paper-scissors to see who plays.
My perfect holiday right now would be somewhere in nature.
What would you do if you weren’t a volleyball player?
(laugh) Maybe be a Monk. I’ve always thought of just going and living in Asia and living with the least amount and see what life would be like. Because I’m used to this western way of life and that’s to make money and acquire things. And this monk life is you give away things you have and you go with it. I think it would be really interesting.
Cat or dog? Dog
Movie or book? Book