U.S. women's volleyball
Getty Images

U.S. women’s volleyball team takes risk with peer reviews

Leave a comment

The experiment might have backfired with any other group: A decorated former player-turned-coach asked a team of world-class athletes to share candid feedback about each other through peer reviews.

U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly would have considered scrapping the idea altogether had his players said no way. Instead, they embraced it, and discovered their teammates’ words made them better as individuals and as a whole. Now, the Americans are heading into this summer’s Rio Olympics in search of that elusive gold medal with a stronger sense of what makes each one of them so valuable.

Rachael Adams hadn’t known her teammates so respected her competitive fire and energy.

Megan Easy learned, to her surprise, just how much her teammates admire the way she is handling the balance of her volleyball career and caring for toddler son, Easton.

Setter Alisha Glass accepted some constructive criticism that she could be even more vocal as a leader, and went right to work on it.

“Some people would be, ‘Wow, you guys evaluate each other on some very personal things,'” captain Christa Dietzen said. “We evaluate each other on a number of different things — respect, our ability to compete every day, bring it every day, some really intense things.”

Kiraly and his assistants asked players to review the coaching staff last year, then brought up the idea with the national team in late December of also having the players conduct evaluations. A source of annual apprehension in workplaces, it’s a rare practice on sports teams.

The Americans went for it with open minds.

“I guarantee to you not a lot of teams could,” said Natalie Hagglund, the libero, or back-row specialist. “It’s difficult to hear the things you can improve on because you want to hear, ‘You’re so good, you’re so good.’ It’s really difficult but it’s one of the most important things ever, especially on a 14-person roster or a 16-person training roster where we’re so close. We can affect how each and every one of the people on our team plays just by saying a few things, so that was huge.”

They will never know who said what. It was all anonymous. Still, there was anxiety.

Some players feared it might be just as hard to give critical feedback as it would be to receive it.

“People were a little nervous,” Easy said. “We have a lot of different personalities and some people might not be comfortable saying anything about someone else or some people might be really quick to say, ‘You’re this way and you need to change this,'” Easy said. “We all have each other’s best interests in mind and sometimes it’s hard to hear things that maybe you even know you need to change about yourself. But hearing it from someone else just gives you that confirmation that it is a thing to work on.”

The evaluation forms were mailed out before the Americans reconvened from their club teams in Southern California on Dec. 26 ahead of a January Olympic qualifier in Nebraska, where the U.S. secured its Rio berth after missing an opportunity last year with a pair of World Cup defeats in Japan. It was the group’s lone tournament loss in the last seven.

Once back together training, the women discussed the reviews during team meetings. They also have worked with sports psychologist Michael Gervais.

Kiraly, who won gold as an Olympian in beach and indoor volleyball, was an assistant coach for the women under Hugh McCutcheon at the London Olympics four years ago, and he had hoped to do the peer evaluations earlier. Yet the timing wound up being ideal ahead of the qualifier.

“People call that kind of a 360 review. We created our own, rudimentary version,” Kiraly said. “The neat thing was, lots of players were really excited — and a little apprehensive, understandably — but excited to learn. Our big job is to grow, so this is an opportunity to learn why we can be a little better.”

Many times, team dynamics are tough. Egos might run rampant. Personalities vary. Feelings can get hurt.

“Especially women, too,” Adams said. “Women take things a whole lot differently than men and of course we know there’s probably a comment in everyone’s where like, ‘I feel misunderstood on that one,’ but it’s all coming from a good place and we all want to make each other better.”

Having gone through the process, players realize they are in an environment where taking chances is not only accepted but unitedly encouraged.

“It gives you a little more freedom to try something new and maybe try something that’s not in your comfort zone. When you know that your teammates want that from you, you know you’re in good company and that you can make those risks and try to do different things,” Glass said. “They’re saying, ‘No, go ahead, you have the freedom to grow and expand.'”

The Americans got out of the project just what Kiraly hoped — and he believes it could lead to a special summer ahead. The U.S. women have never won Olympic gold in volleyball after believing they should have brought home a victory from London in 2012 before settling for a second straight silver medal at the hands of Brazil.

“If they were not open to it I would have been far more loathe to go ahead with it,” Kiraly said. “It’s a special group. I’ve told lots of people, it’s an incredible group to work with. I’m very fortunate.”

MORE: Logan Tom continues volleyball career in Indonesia

Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!