Jamestown Alumnus Overcomes Mental Hurdles to Compete in Brazil

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Briana Sutton competed with the USA Division III All-Stars for 10 days in June. (photo courtesy of CNUSports.com)
Briana Sutton competed with the USA Division III All-Stars for 10 days in June. (Photo courtesy of CNUSports.com)

Briana Sutton, a 2012 Jamestown High alumnus and rising junior volleyball player at Christopher Newport University, had five motivations that led her to travel to Brazil this summer: networking, competition, working through insecurities, knowledge and passion.

Sutton spent 10 days earlier this month as a member of the USA Division III All-Star Volleyball Team traveling from Orlando, Fla., to Brazil for an international showcase tournament after being selected for the team a few days earlier.

For a girl who has never left the country for more than seven days at a time, the trip proved a unique opportunity to push Sutton out of her comfort zone.

Christopher Newport University’s assistant sports information director Kenny Kline encouraged her to chronicle the journey to Brazil via an online blog on the official CNU athletics website.

“It wasn’t an obligation, but I wanted to do it. It helped my coaches get into my head a little bit better,” Sutton said.

Sutton is a self-described sufferer of social anxiety and hypersomnia, a condition in which a person is excessively tired during daytime hours. Traveling abroad can be stressful enough, and Sutton worried her social anxiety would make the trip additionally taxing.

“Originally when I agreed to do this [tournament], I was really nervous about the trip there,” Sutton said. “I don’t like airplanes in general and also because I had to meet new people. That was the one thing I was nervous about. Playing-wise I don’t have any anxieties. But yeah, outside of volleyball I have a lot.”

A common theme in Sutton’s travel blogs was pushing herself out of her comfort zone, a phrase she used multiple times in her writing. Whether going through a “sketchy” first USA Division III All-Stars team practice in Orlando, Fla., or riding up the side of a steep mountain on a seemingly flimsy cable car, Sutton found herself in new, anxiety-inducing experiences.

Some of her experiences, such as being frisked while going through airport security before leaving the United States, registered as more stressful than some of the more comical experiences, such as the incident referred to in the title of her third blog: “She Kissed Me, and I Panicked.”

The title refers to a Jacarei – a team the USA Divison III All-Stars played against – volleyball player giving Sutton a customary kiss on the cheek after a match, an interaction that caught Sutton off guard.

Whether it was the kiss or other interactions, such as trading jerseys, shirts and even game-worn socks, Sutton found the trip helped push her out of what she described as a “bubble.”

While Sutton combated her anxiety every step of the way, she still manged to thrive on the volleyball courts of Brazil. Competing in a tournament known in Brazil simply as the Volleyball Challenge, Sutton and the USA Division III All-Stars took on some of the top volleyball clubs in Brazil.

A quickly thrown together team, the USA Division III All-Stars struggled early against veteran Brazilian club teams. As the team had more time to practice, play and bond together, the quality of play began to improve, ultimately resulting in the team’s only win during the Volleyball Challenge on the final day of competition.

“By the end of the trip we ended up looking really good,” Sutton said of her team.

To Sutton’s surprise, she was voted the Most Valuable Player – an award she did not know existed – for the USA Division III All-Stars by the opposing coaches at the end of the tournament.

Receiving an individual honor for her performance in the tournament was a rewarding experience for Sutton, who overcame psychological barriers to achieve top-flight performances while in games.

“Most people think it’s all physical work, but its also mental things you go through” she said. “Not everybody has to really think about how they’re acting because they’re nervous. I have to think about everything I do instead of how I play. When I’m not focused on playing and I still manage to get an individual award, it speaks to the work put in physically, but also socially and mentally.”

While her anxieties and insecurities still present day-to-day struggles, the 10 days Sutton spent with the USA Division III All-Stars exceeded all of her expectations and justified her decision to expand her horizons as both an individual and a player.

“It was more than I asked for,” she said. “I was a little bit nervous going into it, just you never know who you’ll be playing with. I’ve had experiences before, like when I played on my first USA team, where it’s kind of clashing and people want to have positions and whatnot. This team wasn’t like that. We all just worked together and played together.”

To relive Sutton’s trip in her own words, read her blog posts by clicking here.