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In preparation for coaching the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team for the upcoming quadrennial, one of my early tasks was making an adversity list. My goal was to create an easy-to-follow guide of things that can go wrong for a volleyball player during a typical day.
In 15 minutes, I had about 30 examples, and many of them had nothing to do with volleyball. Here are a few that I came up with:
• My iPod battery runs out so I can’t play my normal prematch music mix.
• Flat tire on the way to the match or practice.
• A key player on the team gets injured.
• The ref makes a bad call.
One of my goals is to prepare the team for as many speed bumps as possible, both in volleyball and in life. I’m going to call it “Adversity School.” Its mission will be to condition ourselves – players and coaches alike – to handle adversity so it doesn’t detract from what we’re trying to accomplish on the court.
The first thing that I’d like everybody to realize, to accept, and, even better, to embrace is that there will be adversity. It’s part of sports – and part of life. No situation is ever perfect. And just as you and your teammates are facing adversity, so too is the other team, so you’re not alone. The trick is to handle it better than they do.
Once you accept the inevitability of less-than-ideal surroundings, the next step is figuring out how to deal with them. My plan for the U.S. Women is to help athletes go beyond just dealing with it. I’d like us to embrace adversity so we view it as a welcome challenge rather than a burden, and also as a chance to learn and get better. If we can develop a mindset where we enjoy headwinds, we’re likely to have more success.
A key strategy for dealing with adversity is focusing on controlling what you can control and not worrying about what you can’t control. One of my favorite memories from my playing career was when our U.S. Men won the gold medal at the 1985 FIVB World Cup, a tournament that no U.S. team had ever won. It was a year after we won the gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but since those Games were boycotted, we very much wanted to compete in - and maybe win - a full-field tournament. But to get to that tournament, we had to beat Cuba in the finals of our NORCECA zone qualifier. Our starting setter, Dusty Dvorak, wasn’t at that tournament because of a death in his family, and our second setter, Jeff Stork, got severely dehydrated during the final against Cuba and had to take himself out and receive IV fluids.
At that point, we were up 2-1 in games, but it was early in the fourth, and we had no setter. Our coach, Marv Dunphy, said, “Karch, you’re setting.” I hadn’t set since my college days at UCLA, and we were in a completely screwed up rotation because our setter (me) was in an outside hitter position. It would have been easy for us to fall apart, or at least to panic. But we didn’t. In fact, we relished the challenge and figured out a way to make it work. We went on to beat Cuba 15-10 in that game and book ourselves a ticket to the World Cup, where we won.
Had we not faced down adversity, we wouldn’t even have gotten an opportunity to play in that World Cup, and that would have been a bitter disappointment for a team intent on proving to everybody that we were indeed the world’s best.
Another key to battling adversity is simply breaking down each challenge into tiny segments. If your team is behind in a match, that’s in the past. There’s nothing you can do about the score, so there’s no point in worrying about it. If negative thoughts begin to creep in, redirect them and focus on what’s next. Simple stuff. “See the server’s hand.” “Great first step.” Zeroing in on what you will need to do to perform well on the next play is a great way to stay positive and deflect adversity.
The final point I’d like to make is that there are no guarantees. You might be a great player who handles adversity well, and your team might be great, and your teammates might be good at handling adversity, and you might be extremely well prepared – and you still might lose. It happens. But by focusing on what’s most important and welcoming each challenge, you’ll increase the odds that things will go right. And doing that will put you in a position to win a lot of points, a lot of sets and a lot of matches.