In the past two years, the UC Irvine’s men’s volleyball team has made tremendous strides and reached new heights by setting new records, winning championships and holding a No. 1 ranking in the nation at one point.
However, there is usually someone who is the mastermind behind the workings of a good team. In this case, his name is John Speraw, the UCI Men’s Volleyball head coach.
While training his athletes, Speraw uses a more modern and progressive approach in his coaching style, one that combines the mind and body.
However, this new applied approach has yet to be completely embraced by other coaches. Nevertheless, Speraw’s modern coaching methods are making him stand out, as well as his team.
Some techniques he employs are visualization, goal-setting and self-talk along with the physical aspects of prepping his team for matches. ‘Some think this is psychoanalysis and it’s not,’ Speraw said.
Rather, Speraw’s approach uses different methods to improve an athlete’s game on and off the court.
They are ways to coaching that Speraw had not been able to start implementing until he became a head coach at UCI.
Now, he uses them with his team because he knows that applying these techniques work. A former volleyball player himself, Speraw won two CIF championships in high school and later went on to play and act as an assistant coach for UCLA.
While playing volleyball, he remembers using self-talk, also known as a type of confidence-building that helped him during crucial games. As a coach, it is easy for him to teach this and other methods to his team.
But Speraw also believes what he teaches. ‘You have to believe in [your methods],’ Speraw said, ‘and I’ve seen it as a coach and player.’ It is also a driving force in his team’s responsiveness to his methods since he started using more applied approaches to coaching.
Goal-setting is one technique not unfamiliar to athletes, yet visualization is one not commonly used.
Visualization is ‘very focused on the technical aspects of the game and visualization helps implement it,’ Speraw said.
It’s a way to execute the team’s game plan before they even begin to play a real match. No longer are coaches simply relying on one way to improve their athletes.
Speraw is ‘just trying to help give [the team] every tool and understand it.’ To him, it is without question that coaching has evolved to combine both the mind and body, two areas where he focuses different coaching methods to help improve the performance of his team.
Speraw’s team has taken to visualization quickly after he implemented it during practices and before game days.
The team has become so used to it that once, when they did not have enough time to go over their prematch visualization, the athletes got upset and asked if they could do it before every match.
Now, the volleyball team uses visualization at least three days a week during practice and during prematches.
The team also sets goals for themselves each season, which are broken down into immediate, intermediate and long-range goals. ‘Goals need to be concrete, measurable and immediate,’ Speraw said. ‘If we can focus and accomplish goals then we can accomplish long-range goals.’
‘You have to take care of the process before you can get the product,’ he added.
Speraw’s mentor, John Wooden, taught him about process goals and another mentor, Al Scates, helped him learn about product goals.
Both Wooden and Scates are extraordinary coaches who were successful in different ways.
However, this time Speraw is doing it his own way and he’s doing his best to keep up with all the current articles and books involving sports psychology.
He even invites the help of Dr. Stephanie McEwan, a UCI sports psychologist.
McEwan works with the men’s volleyball team and introduces them to different topics that Speraw feels he and his team can learn more about and benefit from.
According to Speraw, this season ‘my guys are incredibly focused on learning the game. I think that focus can take us far.’
Speraw is doing the best he can to combine physical training with mental preparation and exercise in his coaching.
Looking at the record the men’s volleyball team has had since Speraw joined UCI, I’d say it’s working.