Q&A: Haleigh Washington's Inspiring Use of Patience

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | Dec. 29, 2019, 2:22 p.m. (ET)

Haleigh Washington
Haleigh Washington earned Best Blocker at the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League, yet has had to overcome many obstacles to reach that level and be in the running for a 2020 Olympic Games roster spot.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Dec. 29, 2019) – Haleigh Washington (Colorado Springs, Instagram, Twitter) completed her second year with the U.S. Women’s National Team and is in her second pro season playing in Italy. She is on the cusp of possibly earning an Olympic Games roster spot this summer in Tokyo.

Haleigh Washington

Washington helped the U.S. Women earn gold at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League where she was named to the Dream Team as Best Blocker. She sparked the Americans to the silver medal at the FIVB World Cup in 2019. She played a key role for Team USA in securing its 2020 Olympic Games berth by winning its Tokyo Qualification Tournament pool in Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana, in August 2019.

Washington averaged 2.44 points per set in 2019 with 22 match starts and 84 sets played. She converted 51.4 percent of her attacks into points with a .412 hitting efficiency (126-25-245). Washington had 0.71 blocks per set, an area that she continues to improve on.

Currenty, Washington is in her second pro season in Italy where she has helped Unet E-Work Busto Arsizio to a second-place standings in the prestigious Italian Serie A1 pro league.

However, Washington has not always been at the top of her game. She has had to overcome huge obstacles at each stage of her career, from the club level, playing for one of the top collegiate programs, making rosters for the U.S. Women’s National Team in her first year with the team in 2018 and in her professional career.

How did she learn from these setbacks and situations to become one of the top middles in the United States? Earlier this summer she opened up in a Q&A about how she has bounced back from each situation and make them a positive experience.

USA Volleyball: You were a top player in club and college. How was your experience when you came into USA gym and you were not initially in the top players at that point but now you are making rosters at major international events?

Haleigh Washington: For starters it's really easy to assume that, yes, I was a top player. Colorado's volleyball isn't as strong as other states like Texas or California.To be a top player in Colorado, while very flattering isn't too impressive since there's not as much volleyball competition. There's some good schools and really good players still come out of Colorado. I mean, look at Jordyn Poulter. II liked to remind myself that there were always people who were better than me in both the state and in the country.. I had the same thought process when I went to Penn State. There was so much ttalent both within and outside of my position at Penn State. In general Penn State recruits are all great athletes. I had to recognize that I was not the best of the best. I wanted to keep that same humble perspective when I got to the USA gym – it was that idea that there's no way I'm going to be the best of the best. For me, it's always been a mentality of being at peace with where I'm at but never being satisfied with where I'm at. When I first started club in Colorado, I wasn’t on a very good team. I was at peace with where I was at, but I was never satisfied. I worked to go to a better club and I worked to go to a better college. It has always been this never satisfied attitude of wanting to get better.

USAV: Your first pro season in 2018-19 was playing for Brescia in the Italian A1 league. How was it like taking some lumps on the court but also having some upsets along the way with such a young team. What was it like playing for a team which was not in the top half of that professional league, but also playing well and making the team better?

HW: I think playing for Brescia was an incredible experience for a first year in any professional setting. I think a lot of girls maybe jump into professional volleyball and they have these high hopes and really high expectations and they are anticipating a lot. But the nice thing about being on a team that was coming into A1 (the top level of the Italian league) was they were in the same place that I was at perspective wise. They had no idea what to expect, and so because of that, they were very low expectations for us. For that team and for me, it was a lot of learning. It’s about getting to know the League and figuring out how we can play and how to play in the League where it was always pretty competitive. The Italian League is pretty competitive top to bottom to bottom and I think it was just a great learning experience. You just figure out how to kind of go with the flow and adapt. When teams are really, really good, there's nothing you can do except try to bring your best game. When teams are as strong as you and you can compete against them, sometimes you just got to go tit-for-tat. Overall it was a really great experience.

USAV: At the end of your first pro season, you were injured. How did you deal with not being able to compete on the court?

HW: At the end of my Italian season, I rolled my ankle and I was out for the rest of the season, which was nearly two months. I think anytime you're on a team, whether you're injured, on the bench or starting, it is about knowing what your role. When I was out with that ankle injury my role at that time was to bring as much energy and be good eyes for my teammates. Maybe I wasn't trying to get good block touches or have an aggressive serve but I still had value on that team. I feel that was something that I really tried to encapsulate - knowing my role. What can I bring to the team to make them better even though I wasn't on the court playing?

USAV: Do you have any tips for young players who are facing adversity on the court and trying to make that next step?

Haleigh WashingtonHW: I think if young players are facing adversity trying to improve their level, trying to get better at the skill, I think the best thing that they can remember is patience. It's not all going to happen overnight. People want to see improvement right away. I know I like the same improvement right away. I want to get better right then and there. But sometimes just being patient with a new skill and learning to be comfortable with discomfort is the most important. I think that was one of the best things, - especially being in the USA gym - that I ever learned. When you're learning a new skill like the two-step crossover – it is the most important blocking move that I have right now. It's the best skill especially in the USA gym and I was terrible at it and I still am pretty bad at it. But it's a skill that I'm learning to be uncomfortable in because it's so new to me. It's something that the crossover two as a blocker, the footwork is different and it's uncomfortable. But that's good because the more that I can be comfortable with that discomfort the more I know that I'm learning and I'm developing that skill. So for younger girls who are trying to improve their skillset, learn skills that are going to make you uncomfortable because when you can get comfortable being with discomfort it means that you're growing, you are learning and improving.

USAV: Who was an inspiring person for you growing up and why?

HW: I've always been a huge fan of Serena Williams, but I was never really into sports when I was a kid. I grew up in a very small town in Colorado and sports just really weren't a big thing. It was all about playing outside and being with family. Then when I got into the sports world I became really inspired by Serena Williams because she was an athlete who was unstoppable. Despite the fact that she was as talented and physical as she was, she never let that stop her work ethic. She was constantly grinding. She was constantly going for it. I admired that so much. Even when she was facing the adversity of coming back from her pregnancy, she was still grinding, still pushing. She's never satisfied.. She embodies that idea of being at peace with the process but never satisfied. I've been really inspired by her. And then of course, LeBron James. But I mean like what young kid isn't inspired by LeBron James.

USAV: Have you had any other issues or experiences where you have had to overcome and battle back?

HW: Absolutely. After my sophomore year at Penn State I had knee surgery and it was a whole reconstructive knee surgery that I had to get. I remember I was very under-weight and I wasn't as physical. I didn't have as much pop and power going into my junior year and it was incredibly frustrating. I remember spending that whole year trying and trying and trying to get back to this almost freshman-level physicality. My freshman year I felt really strong and physical. My sophomore year I was dealing with the pre-injury part of that surgery and then my sophomore summer I was going through the recovery process. So my junior year I was just struggling to feel like myself, to really feel like that explosive volleyball where I was physical, hitting shots and feeling my rhythm. It was frustrating and very few happy endings came from my junior year. I was really disappointed with my play for most of the year, but I remember being told that I had made first-team all-American and was shocked. I was like ‘How? I did not play good volleyball all year.’ I think it was a test in patience and knowing that maybe I wasn’t at my highest level, but I was still working hard, pushing and I still got something out of it. That injury also showed me that volleyball, for me, is amazing but it's also a beautiful way to connect with people. So maybe my junior year I wasn't popping off and making huge block moves or getting great swings, but I was still making these great connections with a lot of great girls at that time. By my senior year I was really feeling back in rhythm, back to playing my kind of volleyball. It was a test of patience.

I had one girl, who after my last match of my senior year (at Penn State), come over and tell me she just had knee surgery. She had head of my story and asked what advice I could give to her for her recovery process. She said ‘I just haven't been feeling like myself.' I remember getting teary eyed with her and she started crying. I told her she wouldn't feel like herself for a while but she had to trust that because it's her body was relearning these skills. By my senior year my body had re-learned that and I could trust my body again. I could trust that my soul knew the game. That sounds really cheesy, but I genuinely believe it. Your play comes back so it is just a matter of trust, patience and that kind of faith.

It’s hard. There is also a snag in the back of your mind, ‘will I ever get back.’ But if you stick with that ‘will I’ instead of striving to be better and not being satisfied. Strive to be better and don't hold on to that ‘will I ever get there,’ Trust you're going to end up being better.