It all began during one cold professional season in Finland.
Former Long Beach State libero Dustin Watten was frustrated. He was playing for Raision Loimu in the city of Raisio in southwestern Finland and working hard to land a contract in one of the bigger leagues in Europe.
But his team wasn’t playing well, therefore, he wasn’t getting noticed.
“I’d just come home and play video games, so at the end of the night, I was just like super frustrated and just like, I didn’t grow at all today as a person, and that just happened over and over and over again,” Watten said.
So he made a change. He came up with a list of four simple micro-habits he could do everyday to get better—at volleyball and at life:
- Work out.
- Do some core exercises.
It’s been more than six years since that day and the list has grown to include 22 items. Some of the tasks deal with nutrition, others with mindset or studying the game of volleyball. Most recently, Watten added the requirement to write 20 minutes a day.
In high school, college and in his early days on the national team, Watten says, he was never the most talented player. But he believed that if he worked hard, he could do whatever he wanted.
“As I’ve gone up the levels, it was like, 'OK, I’m going to work hard,' and now it’s like, 'OK, everyone is working hard and everyone is good,'” Watten said. “Now I’ve got to work with purpose.”
With the discipline created by the list, Watten has turned his efforts to the weight room, watching more video, doing extra reps, juicing to eliminate all inflammation from his body. Then outside of volleyball reading, learning and writing to stimulate his mind and, conversely, teach it to be calm and quiet when need be.
The 32-year-old has become an avid consumer of philosophy texts and has even begun sharing some of his personal philosophies on Instagram.
“How many different edges can I not only find but dedicate and commit myself to knowing that it will bring me growth in and outside the court and making sure I can be the best possible version I can be,” he said. “Maybe I won’t be Erik [Shoji] or [Paweł] Zatorski, but I can be the absolute best version of myself and at the end of the day, that’s all I should worry about.”
Watten committed to a vegan diet in 2012. He’d rather go home, cook dinner and journal than go out partying.
“When I was younger I thought there was a strict correlation of my happiness and like chasing girls, partying, drinking and just being as strong as possible,” Watten said. “[I realized] that a lot of these priorities are very self-serving, very fleeting, very dangerous, so it was just finding different priorities.”
To say the least, Watten’s lifestyle is atypical for a young, male professional athlete and he admits it can be difficult to connect with teammates and peers. Even fantasy sports fell victim to Watten’s priority reorganization last year while he was playing in Poland. Although at one time Watten was someone who could tell you how many blocks the 10th guy on the Knicks bench had that season, he realized that spending up to two hours a day looking at stats wasn’t serving his highest self.
So he eliminated fantasy sports from his life, and in the process, cut one of the few things he and his teammates, who spoke very little English, could bond over.
“In Poland, it’s hard to connect with guys. It’s like a really low level of English, which isn’t their fault, it’s their second language, but that was like the only way to connect, to talk about sports,” Watten said. “And so, kind of a reason why I left Poland, I just wanted to be in an environment where I can connect deeper with people. I’ve been lucky here in being able to find some really cool people in the vegan community that also share some of my values and priorities in terms of mindfulness and health and purpose.”
Friendships outside of the volleyball community for American players competing abroad are extremely rare, but Watten was lucky to come across the radar of a German woman whose passion is connecting vegan athletes.
“When she heard I was coming to Berlin, she just started connecting me with all these people,” Watten said. “I met this one guy and we’re just like soul brothers. We agree on everything, it’s so easy to talk with him, so from there I’ve been able to meet some people through him. I think I'm pretty lucky in that regard, but it’s really rare.”
If you’re looking for a little dose of mindfulness and positivity, do yourself a favor and follow @dustinwatten on Instagram.
You’ll be just in time to welcome him back to the platform after his most recent social media blackout and follow his first season with the Berlin Recycling Volleys as they compete in the Bundesliga and CEV Champions League.