While following the live action of the European Qualifier in Berlin, played in the venue of his club, Team USA libero Erik Shoji talked to Volleyverse about life overseas and his family’s influence on his volleyball career.
Erik Shoji made his way from Hawaii through ‘promising star’ status in the NCAA with team Stanford to a leading role in USA senior team’s defence. Surrounded by volleyball from his early years, Erik dreamed of no other career than professional volleyball athlete. He achieved his goals, playing in one of the top European clubs and preparing himself for his first Olympics in Rio.
These words of Stanford’s John Kosty are not something a coach says about his player every day. But Shoji earned it without a doubt, setting up records since his freshman year. Together with setter Kawika they became the first brothers ever to earn AVCA All-America first-team honours in the same year. Erik made the honours three more times… setting a record as the first ever player in history to have a four-time score. Scoring 447 digs in his first year was another, yet unofficial record (NCAA began to keep official record in 2009).
Playing with the big guys
Shoji debuted in the senior national team in 2013, starting all 39 sets played by USA during the World League. Over two years later Erik is in charge of USA’s defence play and was named the Best Libero of the 2015 FIVB World Cup, where USA won the title for the first time in 30 years and claimed an Olympic berth.
“Growing up you never know if you can get this far but it was always my dream. Now that the team has qualified, I need keep working to make the roster. There’s always competition and young guys coming up, so you always have to be ready to work hard. You always have to be prepared because there’s always someone who wants to come and take your job”
Shoji seems down to earth about his position in USA and he stays optimistic regarding team’s future.
“We’re a pretty young team, we have four guys that are just starting their professional leagues. Three are in their first season, Taylor Sander is in his second. I’m in my fourth but still feel relatively young. From that we can only move forward, I think you get better later in your 20s and with more professional years we’re going to be a good team in the future.”
Making the roster in clubs overseas is much more competitive. The transition from NCAA level in to pro leagues all over the world challenges players’ ability to adapt to an entirely new environment. Erik picks up on the differences between both leagues right away – the speed of the game, the pace in which hitters are serving and hitting. This is all played a lot faster and higher. Combination of that makes it so much more difficult putting player back in its freshman shoes all over again.
It is not just sport itself that makes it different, but a lifestyle that goes on with it. One does not need to go to school anymore and have good grades to win its right to play in professional league. But the player is tested in every practice session to make it to the main squad, while facing challenges of living in a foreign country. Shoji admits that even though there is more time to relax, it has to be managed well with the schedule of the top European clubs.
Beginnings in Germany
His professional league career began in Germany in CV Mitteldeutschland, where he spent one season to move to Austrian Hypo Tirol Innsbruck. After a year there, he moved to Berlin to play alongside his brother for Berlin Recycling Volleys. But it is not easy to find a good club if you are a foreign libero. When there is a limit of foreigners allowed in the roster, the ‘scorers’ are priority for the clubs.
“They don’t tend to hire foreign libero unless it’s something special”, explains Erik. “It was a little bit tough finding job especially in my first year after I graduated. But in Germany my brother had a really good reputation, he knew some of the coaches and helped me kind to move forward.”
But it wasn’t just for his brother’s good word whispered around, that Erik was hired in Berlin. He earned it himself and his former coach Mark Lebedew describes Shoji as the best he worked with.
“He is a really easy guy to work with. He has a very high level in all of the technical skills of the libero: reception, defence, setting. Maybe his ‘speciality’ is in defence. He is especially good defending in position where he can really show how well he reads the game. But maybe his biggest strength is how he plays the whole game and how he works with his teammates. I can say that he is the best libero I have worked with”, Mark said nothing but praises towards young libero.
Erik’s first year in Berlin club brought him title in the CEV Champions League. The team hosted Final Four of the men’s competition and Berlin claimed bronze after winning a thrilling tie-break against polish Skra Belchatow. Their semi-final rival Zenit Kazan won gold medal. While Kawika moved to Turkish Arkas Izmir in the recent season, Erik stayed in Berlin for another year. The chances to go and play in Turkey together were rather low.
“I had existing contract and enjoy it here. It wasn’t too much to make want to go anywhere else”, says Erik, but leaves the opportunity open. “I’m here for the year and then we’ll see what happens.”
It is too early to say whether Erik will stay in Berlin and Bundesliga, but other European leagues are definitely on his list. Having Berlin fans in mind – “probably the best or second in Europe!”, Polish league comes up in the conversation.
“I think Poland is probably a place to try. I love playing there with USA team, I think the fans like us too, they’re great. No matter whether we win or lose against their team, they’re really friendly and appreciative of volleyball. I’d love to play there one day.”
But only the fans got his appreciation. Shoji hasn’t forgotten his Champions League rivals from Poland, Asseco Resovia Rzeszow and PGE Skra Belchatow – “Those two clubs are great!”, says the libero about his former opponents.
Both Kawika and Erik grew up in Hawaii where their father, Dave Shoji, is coaching Rainbow Wahine team at University of Hawaii at Mānoa. Volleyball was always part of their lives and for their dad long before they were born.
“He just finished his 41st season, this is the longest coach career in USA for women and men”, Erik points out at his dad’s incredible career. Dave Shoji has been named winningest coach in Division I of women’s volleyball in history, recording 1107 wins, which comes as over 87% of all games he coached. The Shojis witnessed a big part of it. “We grew up watching his teams, we went to all of the games and were big fans. It’s a big part of our life. We really liked seeing him coaching and winning.”
Bringing up his children around the sport, Dave coached them in other disciplines too. But as successful in winning he was also as hard on his sons when coaching.
“I think he was hard on us, but father needs to be harder on his kids than others, so it doesn’t look like favouritism. He expected a lot and challenged us, but that is why we also grew as players that we are now”, admitted Erik. Now, as he and his brother are part of the USA national team, the fatherly coaching has stopped and changed into volleyball discussions.
“We discuss the games, but he knows we know what to do. He likes to talk about it and learn, because he’s trying to take something to his team and the men’s game is obviously very different than women’s. He doesn’t give us too much advise anymore”, he explains. Did following women’s volleyball helped Erik in his own play? He loves to watch it, but understands the difference in the pace, the serving and the reception that both disciplines have. “I wish I could pass float service like the girls, because it’s just so tough”, Erik laughs.
American in Berlin
Being away from his family, while playing in Berlin, puts Erik to find things to fill the time when the ‘playing’ part of his life is over for a day. He laughs that sleeping is a big part of his lifestyle now. But a city like Berlin has a lot to offer and one of them is multicultural cuisine.
“I like to explore new restaurants, Berlin has great food to offer! You can find all types of good food here. It’s fun to explore new places. I also like shopping or go to the movies, any normal things”, he lists his interests and stresses he doesn’t do anything that will make him too tired, putting his profession in priority.
While in the team the use of English language isn’t a problem, Erik is working on the German outside the gym, even though it is difficult. The help usually comes right back.
“You can find people speaking English in the most parts of the city”, he mentions multicultural advantages of Berlin. “People get that I don’t understand much of German or I’m not saying something right or have an accent and they speak English right back which is okay with me!”
Social media fan and volleyball ‘nerd’
As his German skills still need some upswing, technology seems to be top notch. Erik is active on social media, using Twitter and Instagram channels to stay in touch with family and fans. But the two brothers use it to stay connected with fans and contribute in the promotion of volleyball. Taking over Asics Instagram channel for a week was one of them.
“Social media is a huge part of sport right now. Kawika and I wanted to do something for our sponsor Asics volleyball. It’s fun to take over that and have fun with it. Volleyball is not the biggest sport for Asics, they’re growing, so we’re trying to help with that.”
Their blog about living in Berlin had its ups and downs, but it received positive response from the audience. Different ideas are put on hold, but Shoji definitely leaves the door open for new opportunities.
“I know people liked it so maybe we can try something else. I think people like to hear what we want to say or what we’re doing.”
Himself, he also likes to stay in touch with the volleyball world. He’s a volleyball nerd, as he calls himself and follows other leagues whenever possible. His focus stays around his teammates from USA team to be up to date with how are they doing.