Finding peak performance


By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor

Place a plank on the floor and walk across it.  Not too difficult, right?  Now grab two six-foot ladders and place the plank across the tops of both ladders.

Try walking across the plank this time.  Staring up at the plank from the ground makes that idea seem not only difficult but dangerous as well.

This was just one of the challenges that sports psychology consultant Brian Cain presented to the UNO volleyball team, just a few weeks before the start of the season.  Cain, one of the top motivational speakers and inspirational authors on the circuit today, spent a day with the team discussing the challenges of the season to come.

The start of a new year meant a move to playing Division I and spending most of the season on the road.  Cain came to campus to help head coach Rose Shires and the Maverick volleyball team develop the skills necessary to navigate a challenging year.

“It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the court,” said senior libero Angie Reicks.  “Plank is on the ground, DII, plank is in the air, DI.”

Cain has worked with some of most successful programs on the college and high school level, as well as world champion coaches and athletes.  His list of clients includes the likes of UFC stars Georges St. Pierre and Rich Franklin, 2011 College World Series participant TCU and 2004 College World Series Champion Cal State-Fullerton.

Cain’s focus in team development is in bringing that team to peak performance.  With the UNO volleyball team he worked on developing a mental toughness system that addressed the Mavs’ performance needs.

It was something quite different than anyone on the team had experienced before.  In the past Shires has brought in a nutritionist or maybe a yoga instructor, but not a sports psychologist.

In preparation for Cain’s visit, the team started reading his book, watching some of his videos and doing a worksheet as early as last spring.  Though Reicks and junior outside hitter Natalie Ebke said they kind of had a good feeling for what Cain was all about, once he arrived it was very different.

“We were all a little bit skeptical,” Ebke said.  “But once he was here he was very engaging.”

“It was completely different when he came,” Reicks said.  “His energy was unreal.  He made us think a lot about a lot of different things.”

Regardless of whatever reservations anyone may have had before Cain arrived, Ebke and Reicks said that everyone was open  to whatever ideas Cain was brining with him.  After all, they said, he came all the way to Omaha and they really wanted to buy in to what he had to say.

Some of the activities that Cain had the team do included breaking a board with their foreheads, eating fire and bending rebar.  There was little talk about bumping, setting, rotations or strategy.

The board breaking was especially memorable for the team.  Senior captain Brittany Hanssen struggled with her attempts at breaking the board and provided everyone a moment of inspiration.

Hanssen had tried three swings onto the board with no luck.  She stepped back to gather her thoughts and watched as everyone else went through successfully.

Hanssen got back in at the end for another attempt and still was unable to break the board.  However, she had started to crack it enough that when assistant head coach Karen Povondra had a try the board broke.  

Eventually Hanssen got it to break and rose from the board somewhat bloodied and dazed but having beaten the challenge.

“It was an emotional, team-building thing,” Ebke said.  “She wanted to get it for everyone.  She’s a senior, and she’s our captain.”

Ebke said that before breaking the boards, Cain had the team write some of their goals on one side of the board and what was holding them back from achieving them on the other.  As each of the Mavs stepped up for their try on the board, they got to pick which side to break through, positive or negative.

Yet, writing down your goals is not a very new idea to most people.  You can imagine then how the coaches and the players felt when Cain said they would also be eating fire.

Not only were most of the players leery about having fire in their mouths, but having open flames near their face and hair was daunting as well.  Reicks said it was a way for the team to learn how you fake it ‘till you make it.

“At first everyone looked at each other and he asked for volunteers, no one would raise their hand,” Reicks said.  “One of us volunteered, and then they did it.”

“So obviously if one of us can do it, all of us can do it, so we all got in line.  Every team he’s been to, not the whole team has volunteered and came up and did it.”

Cain told the Mavs the moment was about the team learning their ABCs- act big, breathe big, commit big.  If you have something in front of you, go for it and be committed.

As far as actually eating fire goes, Reicks and Ebke said you simply tilt your head back, open your mouth and insert the flame; simple as that.  Although you can feel there’s something hot there, the flame goes out before you actually feel it hitting your throat.

Not to be outdone by the dangers involved in breaking boards or eating fire, Cain also had the team bend rebar.  Not in the way you might think though.

Two players lined up across from each other with the rebar balanced between them, resting on their necks.  As the two players ran towards each other, the rebar would begin to bend.  It was further reinforcement to act big, think big and trust each other.

“I think we’ve implemented a lot of the stuff that he’s talked about in practice,” Ebke said.  “Even our pregame routines.  Everything is more routine now.”

Some of the team may have had routines before Cain’s trip to Omaha, but he made sure that all of them did before he left.  Much like a foul shooter does the same thing each time at the line or a hitter does the same thing each time at the plate, Cain wanted the Mavs to develop their own sense of continuity.

This continuity was meant to help train the minds of the players on the team.  If you do the same things all the time to prepare, then mentally your mind recognizes when it’s time for competition.

“(When) you come into the locker room you turn your phone off,” Reicks said.  “That’s you stepping away from being a friend, being a family member.”

“Then you are a volleyball player.  You put on your knee pads, you put on your shoes, you’re a volleyball player.”

But what did all of those activities really accomplish?  From the outside looking in, an observer might say that the 2-10 start to the season means Cain hasn’t helped the Mavs at all.

Ebke and Reicks would disagree.  Having to play Division I talent and spending a lot of time on the road meant a potentially challenging season for UNO volleyball.

However, there are lessons all around.  Unfortunately, it just so happens that losing is a better teacher than winning.

Reicks said that Cain taught the team not to look at every loss with a sense of disappointment or regret.  Losing is a lesson, and they should learn from it and make adjustments Reicks says.

“We always start out undefeated and really good, and I think this is almost kind of a stepping stone,” Reicks said.  “We’ve started out obviously shaky, and I think that’s really where we’re gonna learn from it.