Thinking like an Olympian

Jan. 20, 2017, 10:33 a.m. (ET)

Originally published in VolleyballUSA, Summer 2016 issue.
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by Don Patterson

When the official paperwork was being filled out for this summer’s Rio Olympic Games, Andrea Becker had to list her title. Since her role is somewhat of a hybrid between volleyball and psychology, it was more difficult for her than you might think. While trying to figure it out, she sought the opinion of U.S. Men’s Head Coach John Speraw. His suggestion: “Just write ‘guru.’”

She laughed and told him she didn’t think that would work. But she was reluctant to put “sport psychologist” because of the strict federal regulations on the use of that term, so she asked if she should just write “assistant coach.”

“No, your flavor is different,” Speraw responded. “I want people to know what we’re doing here.”

Eventually, they settled on “sport psychology coach,” a simple compromise that hits the mark on both the training and braining fronts.

The story of how she landed this role goes like this: Following a successful youth softball career, she walked on at Sacramento State, then earned a full-ride with scrappy play and a positive attitude that made her a popular teammate. She graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in kinesiology and thought for sure she’d end up as a coach. But on the advice of a mentor, who pointed out that she could impact more people by becoming a professor of sport psychology, she earned her doctorate’s degree from the University of Tennessee. It was there that she met Susan Speraw (aka John’s mom), who was a professor of nursing. When Susan learned of Becker’s coaching research, she knew her son would be interested. She set up a meeting for the pair to talk coaching. They’ve been colleagues and friends ever since.

After graduating from Tennessee, Becker landed a teaching job in the Department of Kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton. Four years later, she was walking to class one evening when Speraw called and asked if she’d be one of his assistant coaches at UC Irvine. At first, she laughed, but he told her he was completely serious, and she ended up modifying her teaching schedule to make it happen.

When Becker started at Irvine, she didn’t know much about volleyball. The rotations and systems of play seemed like a foreign language, and the game moved too quickly for her eyes to follow. So she put in long hours studying the game, observing Speraw’s coaching style, watching loads of film (oftentimes in slow motion). Eventually, she learned – and learned well. Speraw now says she could probably be a head coach at the college level.

Becker’s primary focus on the U.S. staff, Speraw says, is impacting player performance through methods other than technical advice and drills.

“She dives into the emotional stuff that guys don’t talk to guys about as readily,” Speraw says. “She brings that conversation out of them and guides them in how to manage things – maybe with me or their teammates or anybody they might need to have discussions with. She also lends insight to the players about how I make decisions, so that helps the relationship between me and the players. And her discussions with them increase the amount of communication that they have with one another and they have with me, so that makes our team chemistry better.”

That said, she has always viewed herself more as a coach than a psychologist.

“I never planned on being a sport psychologist, and I still would say that what I am is just a coach. I just coach different aspects of the game. I coach your routine. I coach your behavior. I coach your effort. I coach your attitude. But I’m still just a coach. I’m not going to lay you down on the couch and ask you about your deepest, darkest secrets. I want to know how I can help you become a better player.”

So on to the good stuff. Here’s her advice for you:

Welcome the unexpected. Research shows that athletes who are used to adjusting to environmental changes – for instance, distance runners or open-water swimmers who encounter varying weather conditions – tend to take them in stride and even embrace the challenge. This should be your goal too! But too often, players go in the other direction. I’ve seen a lot of volleyball teams respond to an opponent’s point-run by trying to do too much or by communicating with their teammates in a tense way. Or both. A better option is to respond by just continuing to play the game your way and forging ahead.

Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of you. One thing I tell athletes all the time is, ‘It’s none of your business what anybody else thinks about you.’ The point: Don’t ruminate on thoughts about what your teammates, coaches, friends, parents might be thinking. It’s just a distraction. Focus instead on your performance and what you are doing to get better.

Understand that you don’t necessarily need confidence to perform well. Don’t get me wrong. Confidence is a good thing; it facilitates focus, and focus helps you perform well. But focus in the absence of confidence can be achieved through toughness. Let me give you an example. If the score is 24-19 in the other team’s favor, you may not believe that you can come back and win the game. But rather than get distracted by focusing on the big picture or that lack of belief that you can make a comeback, you should continue to focus in the present moment – this serve, this pass, this set. Your only thought should be: ‘This play is the only play.’ If you and your teammates can maintain this type of mindset, don’t be surprised if the score does end up 24-24. Because when you’re focused exclusively on the task at hand, you maximize your chances to perform at your highest level.

‘See one thing, hear one thing, say one thing.’ I say this phrase frequently when trying to help players stay in the moment. Most people spend the majority of their lives in a place other than where they really are. We’re either in the past, which is simply our memory, or we’re in the future, which is our imagination. If you make a mistake in a game and you’re stuck in your memory, ‘See one thing, hear one thing, say one thing’ can bring you back. Maybe you’ll say something strategic to a teammate like: ‘You take one step to the right, and I’ll take the seam.’ By using your senses to redirect your attention from internal thoughts to something external, you maintain your focus in the present, which increases your chances of success on the next play.

Don’t confuse mistakes with failure. Too often at the youth sports level, we train athletes to fear mistakes by doing things like focusing too heavily on what went wrong when analyzing a match or making the team do push-ups if they miss a serve. The mindset players and coaches should cultivate is that mistakes are a natural part of learning; it’s OK to make them as long as you try again. Remember, failure is not the mistake itself; failure is making a mistake and not trying again, quitting, or never trying in the first place.

Learn to love the game. Sure, it’s fun to win, but keep in mind that the real fun is playing the game and working with your teammates to get better. If you enjoy the process rather than focusing on the outcome, you’ll find that those skills that once seemed next to impossible will eventually become doable, and as you get good at things you weren’t able to do initially, the game becomes that much more fun and you’ll feel good about your progress. And there’s no better confidence builder than mastering something that was once very difficult for you.

When it gets tough, stick with it. How often have you seen players searching for another club if they aren’t starting? Seems to happen a lot. Instead of figuring out how they can win a spot on the court by putting in extra practice, they bail out and go to another team. But running away from a challenge isn’t a solution. Talk to your coach. Ask him or her what you need to improve on and how you can earn more playing time. Then, go to work.

Avoid equating outcome with self-worth. Missing a pass or losing a match doesn’t make you a bad person. You might be thinking, ‘Of course it doesn’t.’ But you’d be surprised how often I see this mindset in athletes. ‘If I get the outcome I’m looking for, I’m a good person and I feel good about myself. If I don’t, I’m depressed and I don’t want to play anymore.’ When outcome dictates your self-worth, you ride an emotional roller coaster that can eventually break your spirit. Instead of judging yourself by the end result, judge your effort and attitude. At the end of every day or even every play, ask yourself if you gave 100 percent in attitude, effort and toward being a great teammate. If you do those three things every day, you should always feel good about yourself.

Concentrate on focal points. Let’s say you’re serving at a key point in the final set of a match. Rather than thinking, ‘I gotta make this serve,’ narrow your focus to small tasks that are part of your serving routine. Am I connected to my target? Am I going through my pre-serve routine the same way I always do in practice? Is my hand positioned well so I have the best chance to make a good toss? Focusing on those types of things keep you in the moment and help minimize the pressure. That allows you to do your job.