The U.S. Men's Volleyball Team Has a Coach for the Mind

To keep their minds healthy, the U.S. men's volleyball team relies on Andrea Becker, a sports psychologist and former standout softball player.

Aug 16 2016, 1:45pm

Photo courtesy of USA Volleyball

On Wednesday, the U.S. will play Poland in the quarterfinals of the men's Olympic volleyball tournament. Andrea Becker will be on the bench, too. She isn't a former volleyball player; in fact, she was a shortstop and second baseman for Sacramento State's softball team, and yet she's been on the coaching staff of the U.S. men's volleyball team since 2013.

"Sometimes she'll get stares," said libero Erik Shoji, describing Andrea Becker as a "peppy blonde lady. I think it is a shock to some people."

Becker, in her first Olympics, is the team's sports psychologist, and it's rare to see one at courtside at every game. USA Basketball doesn't have one on the bench for its men's or women's team, nor does women's soccer or water polo. U.S. field hockey has a psychologist, but not in Rio.

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But the U.S. volleyball team is progressive that way, and particularly in their sport. Many teams aren't as open and receptive to coaching the mental side of the game, according to Becker. "People think that a sports psychologist would make the players think more. But I'm actually trying to get them to play in the absence of thought—analytical thought. I don't want them analyzing why the pass went well or didn't go well. Or why that swing went well or didn't go well. When a player isn't doing well, they tend to go internal. I'm trying to help them be external."

That means watching their behavior closely during a game.

U.S. coach John Speraw and Andrea Becker celebrate after a match in Rio. Courtesy FIVB

Ideally, players will be extremely consistent in their habits—in repeatable actions like a service routine, in how they communicate with teammates, in where they focus their eyes, even in the way they celebrate a point.

If Becker sees any inconsistencies, she may convey a cue to the player through the U.S. head coach, John Speraw, or she may do it directly—a simple reminder to keep them on track.

"Against Brazil, we lost a little bit of focus, me included," Shoji recalled. "Becks could tell what I was thinking. She made a little gesture that told me to move my feet and keep my eye on the ball. Little things like that really help me."

In the same match, Becker also noticed that an American who had been serving well decided to change his serve in the middle of the game.

Becker's role extends beyond the court, too. She meets with players one-on-one—and invites the head coach—to help them understand why they played well. Or why they felt off. "I try to make sense of what their experience was so we can either try to replicate it or make it better next time," she said.

Not every team would include the head coach in a private meeting with a player, but Becker and Speraw have been well integrated for years, ever since Speraw's mother, a professor at the University of Tennessee, heard about Becker's academic research on the psychology of coaching and mentioned that her son was a coach.

One day, Speraw called Becker and said, "I'm pretty good at the X's and O's and the systems of volleyball, but I've always wanted to improve on the mental side of the game. Would you want to be my assistant coach at U.C. Irvine?"

"I just laughed," Becker said. She had just taken a teaching position at Cal State Fullerton. "I was like, 'Oh man, I have a job and 360 students.'" He talked her into it and U.C. Irvine won a national title that season, in 2012. When Speraw moved to UCLA, Becker followed, and included him in her one-on-ones with players.

"I'll never forget some of our initial meetings when I sat down with him and an athlete," Becker said. "He was so amazed at all the things they would tell us! Yeah, they'll tell you anything. They really want to be great. That's why they come in. And we want to do whatever it takes to help them be great."

Like any sport, though, volleyball is idiosyncratic.

"It's such a highly interactive sport that it really requires all athletes on the court to be in the right mental place because the game shifts so quickly," Becker said. "The score is fickle, and you're never safe. Especially at this level, with the caliber of teams at the Olympics, the margins are very slim. You have to focus your attention point by point by point by point regardless of score, regardless of crowd, regardless of where you are in your pool at a given time. The teams that perform well are able to do that the best. Every team talks about it, but it is a challenge to actually play that way.

"You can't just have two or three people focused on the court and one person not, or you'll lose the point. It's about collective focus—point after point after point," she said.

Becker has been with USA Volleyball since 2013. Courtesy USA Volleyball

So, again, Becker looks for visible signs of internal lapses. Do players keep their head up, chest out, and make contact with teammates? Are expectations becoming a distraction?

Creating that collective focus is tough, though, since many top players spend six, seven, or eight months competing on professional teams overseas.

"Playing professionally is very individual," Becker explained. "It's about playing well so you can get another contract or a better contract or move to a different country. Also, at the international level, if you don't play well, there's a lot of blame or disgust on teammates' faces."

So every spring, when U.S. players return to the national team training center in Anaheim, Becker and Speraw have about three or four months to redevelop that sense of team.

"That is really difficult for us," she said, "but it's really important because volleyball requires such a tight-knit focus and trust in order to be successful."

To that end, Becker said, she and Speraw "really emphasize the culture of the team, and how the culture is the foundation for how we interact, how we behave on the court, how we treat people, and how we ultimately perform."

They have team talks about managing expectations and about improving verbal and nonverbal communication.

"Coaches tend to focus on techniques, tactics, and systems of play," Becker said. "During practices, we're also coaching behaviors. I think that's what makes John and our staff unique."

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