Originally published in VolleyballUSA, winter 2017-18
Frequently hailed as the greatest volleyball player in the history of the sport, three-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Karch Kiraly loves to win.
Kiraly is very familiar with success, but he’s also no stranger to failure. It’s impossible to reach the top without facing losses along the way.
In his years as a player and a coach, Kiraly says losing has shaped him – even more than winning. He knows as well as anyone that while no one is ever happy after a devastating loss, it’s what a player chooses to do with that loss that separates the good ones from the great ones.
“People are going to feel what they’re going to feel, and we’ve got to use that and harness it,” he says. “We need to learn from what happened. Failure is only feedback, and we use that pain or anger to better ourselves the next chance we get.”
Kiraly vividly remembers the “soul crushing” loss his team faced in the 2016 Olympics. The U.S. Women had been in a great position but ended up losing in the semifinal match against Serbia.
What do you do when you get back in the locker room after a loss like that? For Kiraly, the only thing there is to do is move forward.
“Our approach was, first of all, to acknowledge how painful it was,” he says. “Everyone was in deep pain, whether it was one of our 12 players or our staff. We gave people time to process on their own, and then we came back together. When we came back together, we thought about all of the bitter and angry places that we could go but wouldn’t go because that’s not us. We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves or get angry and let that anger cloud us for our next chance. All of those poor responses are things we would have done if we were weaker.”
Don’t play the blame game
Sports are as much a mental battle as a physical one. In our outcome-oriented culture, we often ask why we lost but not why we won, says Andrea Becker, a sport psychologist who has worked with the U.S. Men’s National Team. The difference in a match might only be a couple of points, but if those points go our way, we are celebrating. If not, we feel we have come up short and begin seeking answers.
“One of the toughest things about losing is that you’re not meeting an expectation,” Becker says. “And when you’re not meeting an expectation, you typically search for reasons why that is. A lot of athletes blame themselves, and blame is a tough emotion to work with.”
Becker notes that there is a fine line between blame and accountability. Even statements laced with negative connotations are often labeled as “accountability.”
“If you tell a teammate, ‘You should have gotten that ball; I’m holding you accountable,’ what you’re really saying is, ‘We lost that point and it’s your fault.’ When the teammate who misses the ball feels guilty and then the teammate reinforces the guilt, they don’t let go of the mistake. But if they make a mistake and feel guilty and a teammate comes over and says, ‘Hey, next point! We got you! We need you! Dial up your focus!’ – that helps them move forward beyond what happened in the past.”
Which direction it goes – guilt or ‘We got your back’ – often comes down to the leadership that’s in place on the team, whether it’s the coach, a team captain or a leadership committee. Those leaders determine how players react to mistakes as well as determining how a team responds to a loss.
“When a leader is supportive rather than blame-driven, they allow for mistakes, they allow their teammates to play freely and not be intimidated by them,” Becker says. “I think that’s a big part of dealing with losses.”
Kiraly recalls the speech his team captain, Christa Dietzen, gave after the loss to Serbia in the Rio Olympics. He explains that it was her positive leadership and determination to move forward that motivated his team.
“She said ‘This one loss doesn’t define us. We are bigger than one loss or one win. We are fortunate to have another chance,’” Kiraly says. “That’s exactly what we needed to hear.”
Distance yourself from defeat
U.S. opposite Annie Drews knows that with a loss can come a severe blow to your confidence. This may skew your perception of how the match actually went. Drews advises stepping away from the loss altogether to clear your mind.
“Losing is difficult,” she says. “Teams put in time and invest physically and emotionally toward each match. Whether you enter a match as the top dog or underdog, there’s a sting that you inevitably feel when you don’t succeed. Try to step away from it completely. If you don't have a ton of time, then do something small – take a walk, call a friend, or listen to some music while trying to keep your mind on other things. For me, this signifies the end of the loss and the transition into focusing on the next match.”
As Drews points out, many things in volleyball are outside of your control. Rather than lingering on these moments, she says it’s important to focus on what you can control.
“Effort, being coachable, and being a good teammate don’t need to fluctuate when you win or lose,” Drews says.
Reset your goals
Of course, these things are easier in theory than in practice (and certainly easier in practice than in matches). One loss isn’t so difficult to recover from, but what happens when a team faces consistent losses?
Becker says that one way players can stay focused during losing streaks and losing seasons is to zero in on smaller goals than winning so you still have something to play for. Those might include goals within a match. For example, the team can focus on staying in system five times out of 10 in each game. If that is achieved, it’s a reason for optimism even if your team ultimately loses the game or match.
As a coach or leader of a team, it’s important to keep reminding everyone that if you continue working hard, it will come around in the long run, Becker says. Meantime, you have to enjoy the process.
“You want to (send a message) that, win or lose, we’re going to have fun playing volleyball and we’re going to get better,” she says. “We’re going to put our most effortful performance on the court so we can feel good about it at the end of the day. We’re going to have great attitudes. Best attitude, best teammates, every single time. We’re going to be known for something so that when our skill eventually matches our attitude, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
By all accounts, this relentlessly positive attitude is the key to creating champions. Without it, players very well may give up along the way. As anybody who has been successful over a long period of time will tell you, it’s not enough to be able to bounce back from one loss — you must be able to bounce back from them all.
Remember, ‘worst to first’ is possible
U.S. libero Erik Shoji and his brother, Kawika, who is a setter for the U.S., know a bit about bouncing back. In 2007, Kawika played for a Stanford team that finished 3-25. Two years later, Erik joined the team. A year after that, in 2010, the brothers led the Cardinal to the NCAA championship. Both Erik and Kawika were AVCA All-American First-Teamers, and Kawika was the AVCA Player of the Year.
Being part of such a dramatic turnaround was validation for Erik that huge strides are within reach if you focus on getting better rather than on your win-loss record.
“My brother went through a really difficult season his freshman year,” Erik says. “It was super challenging for him because he is so competitive and driven and focused. For him, it was just about trying to improve one day at a time with the guys on the team and trying to get better step by step. It’s really important to keep striving forward, keep your competitiveness up and work hard in and out of the gym.”
The Cardinal adopted the motto “Worst to First,” then made it happen.
“I think that was a testament to my brother’s class and their leadership,” Erik says. “They kept us focused throughout the journey on improving day by day.”
Since then, Erik has applied what he learned in college to his pro career. At the Rio Olympics, the U.S. Men’s Team lost the first two matches in pool play, then rebounded to beat eventual gold medalist Brazil, qualify for the medal round and take home the bronze.
For Erik, 28, the process of turning losses into a positive and moving forward has become easier over time.
“I think it’s definitely a learned skill,” he says. “When you’re younger, losses can really, really upset you. And they can carry over to the next match or outside of the court. But as you grow older, you learn that you really need to take away some lessons from every game. Give credit where it’s due, move on and take that lesson to the next match.”
Learn and progress
For Drews, Becker, Kiraly and Shoji, overcoming losses is largely a matter of perspective. It’s about looking at a loss not as a strike against you but as a piece of information that can be used to better yourself.
“The older I get, the more I try to view losing as a process as opposed to a result,” Drews says. “I have big goals with volleyball, and inevitably not every day will be great or easy. But the sooner I can recover from a loss, the faster I can get grinding again and refocus on how to reach those goals.”
Becker has always maintained that the process is more important than the result. Even at the professional level on Team USA, the focus is on the details of how skills are performed rather than the outcome.
“An example would be when you go back to serve, you focus on your target and then you miss the serve,” Becker says. “Rather than looking at the outcome of the serve, the question you should be asking yourself is, ‘Did I follow my process? Was I completely connected with the target? Did I do my routine? Was I thinking the thoughts I wanted to be thinking rather than thoughts I didn’t want to be thinking?’ You evaluate the process of what you did over and over again rather than the outcome. It’s really difficult to do, but we have drills in our practices that (reinforce it).”
For instance, the U.S. does a drill that encourages hitters to be patient on their approach.
“We want players to hit the ball on their way up,” Becker says. “When they’re not patient, they run in and jump early and then the set is coming down when they’re contacting the ball. So they’re not hitting it at their peak. We have a drill where the goal is to hit the ball on your way up. Every time a coach sees that a player isn’t doing that, then maybe we do two or three burpees as a team and then we continue the drill. It’s short, fragmented punishment based on lack of mindfulness.”
Training exercises like these highlight a key point of Kiraly’s: wins and losses are just an end result; the real focus for players and coaches has to be on the long hours of learning and bettering your game.
“Ultimately, winning and losing is the way of measuring results – the most visible, most tangible,” Kiraly says. “We can win a match and play quite poorly and be upset with ourselves because we weren’t doing our job, but we can be heartened if we lose but we did something better than we have. We’re about improving and learning. There’s always a chance to work on something and get better.”