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Concocting Team Chemistry

By Amy Rosewater | Dec. 05, 2014, 10:21 a.m. (ET)

Team USA celebrates its victory over China at the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Championship final match on Oct. 12, 2014 in Milan, Italy.

Back in the spring, the entire U.S. women’s volleyball team hunkered down in a meeting room in the team’s home gym in Anaheim, California. For several hours, they discussed all sorts of topics, brainstorming goals and talking about each player’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Team captain Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen laughed when asked if it felt like a retreat. 

“Not so much,” she said with a chuckle. “We were pretty much locked in a room for about five hours.”

But the meeting, led by well-known high-performance psychologist Michael Gervais (who also has worked with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks), proved to be a key cornerstone for the women’s volleyball team that won its first world championship title last month in Italy. 

“We had to write a lot about what we felt this team was about, what our goals were, and we heard from everybody, which was so important,” Dietzen said. “We didn’t just hear from the veterans. We heard from Kim Hill and Kelly Murphy, some of our younger players, and it was so important to include them and hear their thoughts.

“When push comes to shove, the Xs and Os are important, but it’s the mentality … what is going on in between the ears … that becomes so important. We found that out in Italy.”

For the first time in U.S. volleyball history, the women’s team claimed a gold medal at a major tournament when it won the FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships crown in Milan. Dating back to 1952, when the women’s world championship tournament began, Team USA was runners-up twice, in 1967 and 2002, but never won. Three times in the Olympic Games, Team USA had to settle for silver medals (1984, 2008, 2012).

So what makes a team gel like this one did? How does team chemistry come together? Certainly if one could enter a chemistry lab and concoct the right measurements of physical ability, coaching and mental toughness, you could produce a winner every time, but when working with the volatile world of human beings, diverse personalities, injuries and a host of potential outside obstacles, there is no such lab that can create this type of sports perfection. 

Somehow, the U.S. women’s volleyball team was able to capture that magic in a bottle, even when it appeared at times in the tournament that the genie not only left the bottle but the building altogether. 

Certainly part of the U.S. women’s volleyball team’s success can be attributed to its coach, Karch Kiraly, himself one of the greatest volleyball players in history having won two Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA’s indoor volleyball teams and another as a beach volleyball player. Like Dietzen, Kiraly also looked back at the meeting with Gervais as a key piece of the puzzle. 

“The players had to write things like, for example, ‘To help (blank player) be at her best, I need to (blank),’” Kiraly said. “Some people were dead on great about reading their teammates and some were dead wrong. Language-wise, it was confirming or it was learning. This was a simple, little exercise but we took far more time with it than the time we had allotted for it. I think in the end everyone was connecting. It was good for conversations that might not have taken place before.”

Given Kiraly’s success as a player, it might seem as if he would be an instant success as a coach, but he said one key in coaching is understanding that there is always something else to learn. Kiraly said he likes to quote longtime UCLA basketball coach John Wooden who once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

One big piece of advice that Kiraly passed along to this team was about how to handle adversity, which he said is a given for any team that reaches the top. 

“I have never seen a team win a big title without facing some massive adversity,” Kiraly said. “We, as a team, expect them. We know they are going to come and we have learned to lean into, and embrace, those moments.” 

One hurdle this team had to overcome is that its captain, Dietzen underwent knee surgery in December. Other obstacles came during the tournament. Team USA had to play the home team in front of a boisterous crowd in Milan and the U.S. women lost. They also had to face the two-time defending world champion team, Russia, twice, in the tournament. And in the semifinals, Team USA went up against two-time defending Olympic gold medalists Brazil. 

Of all the challenges, perhaps the most difficult was rebounding after the drubbing to Italy. 

“We had our hearts ripped out in that one,” Kiraly said. “But when we looked back at the film, it turns out it wasn’t as bad as we thought, and Italy wasn’t as good as we thought they were.”

“We really had to set the reset button after that,” Dietzen said. “There was no specific pep talk but I think the beauty of international volleyball is that every team has a different style, and after playing Italy, we had to play Russia and they play a very different style. We knew if we wanted to move on that we had to win and the opportunity was still there for us to make the final. We refocused and got going.”

Even when Team USA rebounded and beat Russia, it won in four sets. Had Team USA won in three, it would have guaranteed the Americans a spot in the medal round. They had to hold their breath for other factors to fall into place for them to advance, and fortunately for Team USA, things fell its way. 

As a philosophy, Kiraly said he likes to focus on the positives ahead and not the problems behind. He noted that his assistant coach, Jamie Morrison, does a great job of keeping the team forward-thinking during matches, constantly looking ahead instead of back on mistakes. 

Often, Kiraly said, he will watch how other sports teams handle adversity to see how that might play in his own coaching. During the recent baseball playoffs, he took note of how the Kansas City Royals pulled together and celebrated the successes of each teammate. Although the Royals wound up losing the World Series to the San Francisco Giants, they did much better than most experts predicted. 

With less than two years to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, Kiraly and his players are focusing on striking gold again. Now that the team has dealt with playing in a difficult environment in Italy, it has some experience as it prepares to play in Brazil, where fans no doubt will be excited to watch the home team play.

At the moment, the players are spread out around the globe as many Team USA players are playing in various professional leagues. It is difficult to maintain close connections when players are separated by oceans and multiple-hour time differences. Even in the age of Skype and texting, it is not always easy to stay in touch. The team won’t reconvene at its fullest until this spring. 

“I can’t wait to see my USA teammates after the professional season,” Dietzen said. “Karch and (trainer) Jill (Wosmek) do a great job in the meantime keeping up with everyone. I think it’s a nice balance. We will see each other and then leave and see each other again.”

In professional leagues, often players’ main motivation is the dollar signs, but Dietzen said the feeling is so different when they put on the Team USA uniforms. She said the players noticed that especially during the world championship. 

“We want to reach all those girls who have similar dreams that we have,” Dietzen said. “When we are out there fighting, we are fighting for something bigger than ourselves.”

And when they see each other again they will use the lessons they learned in Italy in their push toward Rio. 

“We’ve taken home silver medals one too many times in the Olympics,” Dietzen said. “Now our program has built a lot of confidence by winning a major world tournament. We’re ready.”

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.

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