Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Volleyball player Matt Anderson won Male Athlete of the Month for September 2018 after helping lead the U.S. men to a bronze medal at the FIVB World Championship. In Anderson’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, the 31-year-old shares how he continues going strong, both mentally and physically.
Matt Anderson needed an escape.
He didn’t fully understand why. It was 2015, and on the surface, everything was fine. Established with the VC Zenit-Kazan volleyball club in Russia, the 6-foot-8 outside hitter, the U.S. men’s leading scorer every season since 2011, was in the midst of another successful pro season in 2015.
Physically, he was at the apex of his career. It was his mental game that was going over a cliff.
“I was just drained,” Anderson, 31, recalls. Since leaving Penn State following his junior year to play professional volleyball in South Korea, Italy and finally Russia, he’d been sleeping, breathing, eating volleyball 48 to 50 weeks a year. Top volleyball players don’t really have an offseason. Winters are spent playing abroad. Summers were spent in California training for the U.S. national team.
Somewhere along the line, it had all gotten overwhelming.
“I’d go to the gym thinking about everything outside the court, and I’d go home and just think about the gym,” he said. “So my mind was kind of flipped, and I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing.”
You couldn’t call it a full on burnout — yet. But the early symptoms were there, and Anderson recognized he had to do something about them.
“Most people aren’t necessarily in a foreign country by themselves and have nothing to go home to but the four walls around them and their thoughts,” he said. “Physiologically, it will have an effect. You won’t be able to recover as well, you won’t be able to perform as well day in and day out. I don’t think it was to that point yet, but I was lucky I was in a position where I could just stop working for a couple of months.”
So, to preserve himself for what he hoped were the years to come, Anderson did what he felt he had to do: he shut everything down. In the middle of the season, he informed his coach that he needed time off, and boarded a flight from Kazan to New York. Home — his family and their open arms, his buddies from outside the sport — that was what he needed right then.
“We just kind of hung out, and the best thing is we didn’t talk about volleyball,” he recalled. “We talked about personal stuff, which is what I needed. Everyone in my family more or less knows that I’m a good volleyball player. Volleyball is going to be there for me and if I needed to start working again, I could always go back, but it was a personal thing that took me away from the sport, so we just paid attention to the personal and moved on.”
Matt Anderson looks on during warm-ups at the FIVB Men's World Championship on Sept. 12, 2018 in Bari, Italy.
The importance of self-care and trusting one’s instincts are two things Anderson has learned as he’s moved from being a budding young star to the centrifugal force of the U.S. volleyball team. Preparation, both mental and physical, is key to maintaining his game.
Practices in California, where he trains when he’s not in Kazan, begin at 9 a.m. That means Anderson’s at the gym at 7:15 to get changed and in the weight room at 8 sharp to roll out, ride the bike and lift weights, “to open up my body and get ready for a day on the court,” he said. An hour of cool-down stretching caps his day, and in the evenings he makes sure to let his legs recover.
“That’s what gets beat up the most,” he said, “so when I get home I still want to be active and moving, but nothing weight-bearing, nothing load-bearing, so I’m not going for walks.”
Stretching is also key: “Stretching for me is huge. It’s crucial for me to be fresh for the next day,” he said. “Being older, my joints don’t activate, don’t open up as easily as one would hope, so being able to keep my muscles loose so it doesn’t create extra pressure in my joints, that’s huge for me. Cold tubs, proteins, eating, and just rest.”
It’s a change from 10 years ago, when he’d show up 20 minutes before training, just enough time to put on his court shoes and get out there.
“I miss those days,” he says ruefully. “Before it was just a protein shake and I could go off and do anything I wanted to do. Now it’s really managing your time away from the gym.”
It took Anderson two months to reset and reignite back in 2015. Then he was back in Kazan, finishing up the pro season with his team. At the FIVB Men’s World Cup that September, he led the U.S. charge for 2016 Olympic qualification and was named MVP of the tournament. Come his second Olympics in Rio, he helped Team USA win bronze.
Those eight weeks at home taught him the importance of self care and trusting one’s instincts, one of the keys to his impressive longevity in the sport.
“It’s a daily thing, and I have to pay attention to the thoughts in my head and why I’m feeling that way and trust them,” he said. “It’s not easy to do self-reflection and look inward. It’s uncomfortable because it’s all about you, and if something’s wrong you take the blame for it. You have to because there’s nobody else putting that stress on you but yourself."