Breaking Bad Habits Part 3 of 3 - 2016 (NCAA Story)

The final three steps of the five step process are to research, plan, and record.  When I was in my first season at UC Irvine -- junior year in college -- I gained the starting Setter position, mid-season, after my teammate suffered a concussion in practice.  Our team did really well over the next few weeks with me as the starting Setter, and surged into the number one ranking in the country for Division I men's volleyball programs.  I thought I was doing everything I could to make our team successful, and perhaps I was.  I was obviously attending practices, team weight lifting sessions, watching more video than my teammates (and probably any player in the country), coaching club in the evenings, as well as going to the court three mornings a week at 6am with a few of my teammates; we called it, "The Breakfast Club."

Yes, things were going really well for our team.  We were dominating, using the Quick Attack with our Middle Blockers, and the Bic Attack with our Outside Hitters.  It became so comfortable.  I used it more and more and more, until it became known as our signature style around the league.  However, as it does at any high level in most sports, time caught up with us and it was clear that we could use the Quick and Bic, but we couldn't win the whole thing without having a backside attack with our Opposite Hitter.  He was a left handed, 3-time All-American, leading the nation in service aces, spent the previous summer traveling with the USA Men's National Team, and passed up an offer for a professional contract to come back to UCI for his senior season.  I am telling you all these accolades behind him because I want you to understand what everyone else saw when I was giving this guy an average of 10 of 15 sets in an entire match.  For the non-volleyball readers of mine, a mediocre Opposite averages 35-50 sets a match; and my guy wasn't mediocre.

No, the reality was, I had become a Setter so late in my career, and although I was and had always been a winner, I had some extremely bad habits when it came to setting overhead (back setting the ball behind my head).  Video helped some, coaching helped some, visualization helped some, and plain old-fashioned playing the game helped some... but none of those things struck me as enough to set overhead more than I set anything else.  I wasn't oblivious. I knew that there would come a time when the Quick and Bic wouldn't be as available as I had always forced it to be.  Although he never said it directly, my coach knew it too.  He didn't have to say it.  We spent so much time in the video room together, he knew that it was staring me in the face.

It was at that time, about three-quarters way through the season, that I put in the research.  I started to ask for the distribution for every match that we played up until then, and I continued to ask for it.  I asked for all of the 6 vs 6 competition video in practice.  I called the starting Setter from the '06 and '07 UC Irvine teams (who'd begun setting for the USA Men's National Team) and asked him if he would have dinner with me before every single playoff match, so that I could pick his brain about the process and thoughts that he went through during his title runs.  I drew my whiteboard at home into four sections and wrote down all of this data, updating it frequently, almost daily.  That research, pushed me into the next step:  my plan.

My plan was to win the 2012 NCAA National Championship.  To me, the only difference between a plan and a goal is the time constraint.  My goals have a general time frame that I would like them to happen in, but those time frames can be adjusted.  In my mind, I can't be late for a goal, and I can't be late in achieving a goal.  My plans have strict time constraints.  I planned to win a National Championship on Saturday May 2nd (or whatever the date was) and if I didn't then there was no other date, there was no other time, I would have been late to that plan that I made.  In order to reach my big plan on time, to make it through the grind of a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference post-season and into an NCAA Final Four post-season, I had to make small plans.  The plan was to get something I had never gotten before: slow, broken down, technical, "real Setter training."  I visited some of my old coaching friends at Mizuno Long Beach (where I got my start in coaching) and questioned them about technique.  I talked to Brian Thornton, who as I mentioned before was setting with the USA MNT.  I talked with everyone I knew who had won at the level that I was trying to win at, and developed a training regiment for myself.  No one else in the country knew, not even my own teammates, but every spare moment that I had was spent on preparing for when I needed that overhead set in excess amounts.

Each weekday I recored a minimum of 150 perfect overhead sets.  If I could finish them in the mornings with the Breakfast Club, then great.  If not, then i would stay after practice and finish them.  If the Breakfast Club wasn't meeting, then I would do them before or after coaching my club practice(s) in the evenings.  I played a team sport, so if things didn't workout for my team at the end of the day, then I hope I wouldn't lose sleep... but nothing was going to stop me from making sure that I wasn't the reason that a National Championship didn't work out.  I had a journal, and each day I recorded how long it took me to get to my 150 perfect.  Over the weeks it became faster and faster.  Originally it took me something like 430 sets to get 150 in the baskets.  By the week of the last match in the MPSF conference tournament, it took me 183 sets to get 150 perfect.

Once you have done everything you imagine you can do to prepare, you've got to let the results fall where they will.  We made it to that 2012 National Championship.  To that point, it was the best day of my athletic life.

- Lion

Chris P Austin

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