Assistant giving UCI mental edge

To paraphrase one of Yogi Berra's incisive gems, 90% of sports is half mental. Now while the mathematics of this assertion are clearly open to question, UC Irvine men's volleyball coach John Speraw has long believed that the mental side of his game has been undervalued.

Well-known for his innovative mind and lab-coat mentality on the bench, Speraw seized an opportunity this season, his 10th at UCI, to analyze how having a sports psychologist on his coaching staff could impact the performance of the program.

"There was no blueprint," Speraw said of hiring Andrea Becker, a professor of sports psychology at Cal State Fullerton, to replace longtime assistant David Kniffin, who left after last season to become a women's assistant at Illinois. "Has it worked out as I originally anticipated? No. But the end result has exceeded what I had hoped."

Becker, who played and coached softball at Sacramento State before being coaxed into the still controversial field of sports psychology, said her preexisting friendship with Speraw led to her involvement with the Anteaters this season.

No. 2-ranked UCI (21-5), is the No. 4 seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament that begins Saturday with a quarterfinal clash against No. 5-ranked and No. 5-seeded UCLA (22-7) at UCI's Bren Events Center at 7 p.m.

"If it wasn't [Speraw], I wouldn't have done it," Becker said. "But another coach would not have asked me to do this. He's one of the few coaches that is going to come to practice with a research study in his hand. A lot of coaches read a lot of stuff, but one of John's strengths is that he can synthesize it down and effectively apply that information. That's really tough in a dynamic environment."

Speraw said his request for Becker to join his staff this season, in what was agreed would be a one-year enlistment, came from a perception that some of his messages about mental preparation were no longer reaching his players.

"I've always been open-minded toward managing the mental side of the game," said Speraw, who guided the Anteaters to NCAA championships in 2007 and 2009, and an additional Final Four appearance in 2006. "But I recognized that there needed to be a change in the way that message was delivered to the team. For example, you can't do goal-setting the same way every year or, all of a sudden, it starts to lose its potency. I was noticing in 2008 and 2009 when I was doing this, it had a profound impact on our ability to succeed in 2009. So you think you have a system that is going to continue to work. But it didn't work the same way in 2010 and 2011 that it did in 2009. [The players] were developing a resistance to my system of addressing the mental side of the game. We needed to change the format and one way to change is to individualize it by bringing Andrea in. When I was delivering the message in a group setting, some guys were tuning out. Andrea has been able to manage that a little bit more on an individual basis."

Becker, known to UCI players and coaches as "Becks," said the way she envisioned her role has changed due to necessity, and the limited time frame she has had with the team.

"I came in with the same expectations that John did, in terms of developing systems of mental training that he could use in the future," Becker said. "And I'm not convinced that we still won't do that. But I think I needed a year to learn what was in place and to learn the culture of volleyball and to learn their practice systems, their physical-training systems and their coach-athlete relationships."

Becker said developing relationships with players and her fellow coaches requires daily interaction.

"Being in the gym everyday is huge," Becker said. "Being on [road] trips is huge, seeing who sits next to who on the plane. I think what I've learned through this experience, in terms of sports psychology, is to be truly effective, you've got to be there every day."

In addition to her court-side presence, in practices and matches, Becker meets one-on-one with players regularly to discuss ways of maximizing their ability to focus on the floor. She also has regular discussions with Speraw about coaching and training techniques, and has even used a wireless microphone to record interaction between Speraw and players during matches.

Becker said that as a doctoral student at Tennessee, she wired former Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt during the 2004-05 season, trying to replicate a famous study done on John Wooden by a pair of UCLA professors in 1976.

"I'm very interested in seeing feedback patterns between players and coaches," Becker said. "One of the things I've noticed that John does is, he uses very different language than I've heard from any other coach."

Becker said she has had to earn the respect of the players and that, generally, it was only toward the latter half of the season that she became confident approaching them during a match.

"This is a high-level team and these are talented players and exceptional coaches," Becker said. "And this is my first year, so I tend to say less rather than more. One of John's strengths is game management, and I don't think it's my place to impede on that. But sometimes I will just give a reminder to a player. Sometimes, you are just giving them a different perspective. Rapport building with athletes could take a while, but once you have it, you have it. Sports psychology is coaching, just in a different way."

Carson Clark, a senior All-American opposite, has credited Becker with helping increase his productivity and efficiency during the second half of the season.

"She talked to me about freeing myself up to just play and not think so much," Clark said.

"One thing about what I do is that sometimes it's unconscious," Becker said. "I don't know if I helped Carson as much as Carson helped Carson. Carson freed himself and I would say that's the real truth about it."

Speraw said Becker has truly helped in myriad ways. And her impact will carry on after this season.

"She's very intuitive and she can look at some body language and see some things that I don't necessarily see," Speraw said. "And when I'm focused on the court, she is watching the bench. I think that independent vision is really important for us.

"The total influence she has is pretty tremendous," Speraw said. "She has a lot to say about how this team trains. Nobody knows that. She obviously has individual influence on specific players and she has made me a better coach.

"It's my hope that if I ever had to design an ideal staff, Becker would be on it," Speraw said. "I know that at a place like Irvine, where resources are limited, you can't have everything you want, and there are some things that also need to happen within the program. We need to recruit and Becker is not at a point in her career when I can send her out to a gym and she can come back and say whether a guy is big-time or not. This was originally a one-year deal, so we'll have to see where this all goes. But I would sure like to figure out some way to keep this whole thing going.

"I've told Becker for a long time that if she gets tired of being a professor, which has its challenges, too, she should just coach. There is going to be a day very soon, especially if she sticks with it, that some major program is going to hire her. If I was a women's volleyball head coach and I did have financial resources, Becker would be my first hire."

Sports psychologists have gained renown for working with athletes for more than two decades, but Becker said the daily implementation on a coaching staff is still a novelty.

"I think it comes down to the coaches and whether coaches are open to taking that next step to help their teams and athletes be successful," Becker said. "I feel like it's just one more component. Thirty years ago, a lot of coaches were resistant to strength training and strength coaches. Now, they are fully accepted.

"I feel like [sports psychologists] are like Roger Bannister, who hadn't hit the four-minute-mile barrier yet. Once someone does, it's going to break open."


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