October 12, 2014
Kelly Murphy's serve puts the Chinese way out of system. Their second contact gives them a decent swing, but Jordan Larson is positioned perfectly and sends a beautiful overhead pass right to Alisha Glass. Kim Hill has had the hot hand so Glass sends a nicely paced ball out to her pin hitter and Hill splits the block and sends the ball to the floor. The match is over. The US wins it's first World Championship in 62 years. The celebration is epic. It even "trended" as "Karching" became a thing. In small pockets across America, where volleyball is so important, people rejoiced. This was true of our living room in tiny Vandergrift, PA as well.
In the weeks that have followed that incredible Sunday morning I have thought a lot about what makes this team different, what makes them special. I set out to discover what it is we can learn from them. What can we use in our huddles, boardrooms and dinner tables that was successfully cultivated in the gym at the American Sports Center in Anaheim by this team and their coach.
I watch a lot of sports. Too much probably. I consider myself an observer. It has kind of been my job on every staff I've ever been on with Ellen Toy. I take the temperature, I watch the team, find out what the kids are thinking, who they are mad at, who they trust and who they don't. With High School kids it's a full time job.
I watch the pro's like this too. Last night Big Ben throws a Red Zone pick and immediately motions to Antonio Brown he was supposed to go the other way. Could have been handled in private, but there, for all the world to see, Ben blamed AB...
How many times have you seen a batter look at a called third strike, or get caught in a rundown, and come off the field and destroy the Gatorade cooler? Or a centerman make a last minute move at the blueline and cause his winger to go off-sides, then they shoot each other daggers for a minute. Its all there, plain to see.
It even happens in moments when they should be happy. I have never been more disappointed in Sidney Crosby than I was the night he came back from a long layoff due to concussion, scored on a ridiculous backhander, then screamed "F-ya" for every pre-teenage hockey player to see. A moment that should be worthy of SportsCenter, and it to me was embarrassing. What a shame. (and please note, I just love Sid.)
That brings me to my point. These sports, their players, and yes even their very BEST players can learn something from the environment cultivated in the gym at American Sports Center in Anaheim. Karch and his staff are on to something and it has so much to do with trust. Trust in the staff, in the players, in their play and in how the respond no matter the situation. TRUST.
I have watched these athletes closely, for probably two years now. Ever since a chance Twitter encounter with Alisha Glass set into motion a chance for Ellen to "CyberCoach" from our couch as the US took on Serbia in Belgrade. Then this past summer we journeyed out to Southern California to meet the team and watch the two matches played in LA versus Brazil in the USA Volleyball Cup. http://www.jamthegym.com/gracefaithcourage/2014/07/summerofus-whats-in-hashtag.html We're hooked big time.
We've watched high school, NAIA, and NCAA volleyball. I've seen players get emotional, I've seen them crack under the pressure of becoming a service target. I've watched coaches rant, at players and at officials. It's just not happening like that in the USA gym, and it's becoming one of their greatest strengths.
Ellen and I took a group of our High School players on an hour drive on November 18th to listen to the captain of Team USA speak. Christa Harmotto Deitzen hails from nearby Hopewell High School, and it wasn't long before we all realized it was well worth the trip. Christa had three columns marked off on a whiteboard.
She explained to those gathered in the gym that these were three things they must constantly ask themselves. What are my values? What do I hold dear? What are my goals? Am I ready to answer the call as a leader? She would explain to me later "I guess the question athletes constantly have to ask themselves is who is following me?" adding "You are always in a leadership position. Also knowing that athletes will make mistakes... in the spotlight, but how do they handle the mistake?" This helps me to understand the poise I see on the court from this team, a trust that under any circumstance they can overcome.
Tori Dixon, the youngest player on Team USA eluded to this as well. "When something doesn't go our way, we embrace it. Karch calls it 'embracing adversity'. This can come in small notions, such as not getting upset when a referee makes a bad call, or bigger things, like food poisoning" Karch explains it so well in his blog. "One of my goals is to prepare the team for as many speed bumps as possible, both in volleyball and in life. I’m going to call it “Adversity School.” Its mission will be to condition ourselves – players and coaches alike – to handle adversity so it doesn’t detract from what we’re trying to accomplish on the court." From the youngest to the guy in charge, this team gets it.
Nicole Davis, the American's longest tenured player explains that it wasn't always this way, and it it something they work on, very hard, every day. "Yes, complete trust is a learned skill, it is talked about, worked on, and revamped often. Our team has had a history of dysfunction, in such a way that has prevented us from reaching our true potential over the last decade(longer, realistically). We started with Karch and along down to the players, decided we were going to do things differently, and the right way this time around, and see if we can't achieve what we set out to accomplish. We are fully committed to be the best human beings we can possibly be to each other. There are challenges everyday to this culture, but we have created an open and vulnerable learning environment in our gym, so that we can hold each other accountable to our words and actions and know that it is always in the best interest of the team."
Cassidy Lichtman explained the bad behavior I've seen and made clear why that just isn't part of the makeup of her team. "I think the people who yell and scream and hit things when they mess up or blame their teammates/coaches often believe that they're just being "competitive". But they've misunderstood. Being competitive means wanting to win and that behavior is not conducive to winning."
Lichtman continued, "I think what you're seeing in our team has a lot to do with the mindset we've collectively adopted. The constant goal on our team is to do everything we can to win the next point. Getting upset generally does not help us reach that end. Poise wins matches. We might take a moment to be angry about the mistake and then we move on, because our game moves fast. We do hold each other accountable on the court and sometimes that can be done loudly. But that is so we can clarify the error and find a solution so that it doesn't happen again."
Is trust a key point of emphasis? Cassidy thinks so. "That's where the trust comes in. We have to trust that the people around us are all equally invested in that goal of winning the next point. We have to trust that our teammates want us to succeed. We have to trust that they care about us as athletes and as people. And we have to trust that nobody on our team holds themselves above anyone else. I think it is important, finally, to note that the mindset and the culture of our environment starts at the very top. Karch is a very big part of this and we have a brilliant sports psychologist, Michael Gervais, who helps us to navigate through these areas."
What results when a team establishes this "Ultimate Trust"? A sense of calm that makes them hard to beat. Tori Dixon puts it all in perspective. "As a team, we definitely present 'cool, calm, and collected'. This is practiced on a daily basis. We treat every match we play like a gold medal match. Because of this mentality, I think that is why you don't see any one of us acting out in a dramatic manner. We work on positive body language, we don't yell at other teams when we get points, and we also don't react to teams that yell at us when they make plays. The best mentality is taking every point one at a time and resetting after every point."
What team, business, or family couldn't use a little less drama and a little more trust? Imagine the people in your workplace adopting these lessons, communicating better, improving with each mistake, trusting that the person in the next cubicle is doing likewise. The same can be said of families, but that is what you will find our National Team really is. Watch them, next time you get the chance. They'll entertain you with their athleticism and impress you with their togetherness, trust me.
Special thanks to those whose terrific responses to my questions made this all possible! Tori Dixon, Cassidy Lichtman, Nicole Davis and our own "Hometown Hero" Christa Harmotto-Deitzen!