It’s game day at home and the volleyball team is gathered in Kresge, loaded up on electrolytes from their traditional pregame pickles and blasting music in the locker room. There’s much to commemorate this season with the team closing in on a historic record of 25-4. After a sweeping 25-19 win over Kalamazoo College on Tuesday, the Brits advanced to the semifinals to face Hope College today. The secret to their success? It’s all in their mindset.
The true strength of the team goes beyond just talent and skill, Jesse Hepner, Davisburg senior and middle back, said. “It’s that one extra piece of ‘how are we going to stay strong mentally throughout this game?’ even if it’s the hardest game we have.”
Mental performance has been increasingly spotlit in sports in recent decades. Once a novel discussion, it’s now a pertinent game tactic. For the Briton volleyball team, building mental stamina is a high priority cultivated by alumna Kelsey Gustafson ‘20, who was a formidable outside hitter on the team for four years.
“I think there’s a huge key to the mental aspect of sports,” Gustafson said. “To learn how to focus and regain focus and know a lot about yourself.”
Gustafson, who recently received an M.S in Sport and Human Performance from Adler University, offered her services as a mentor to the team last spring and has returned this fall as a professional. As a high-achieving former athlete, her background in volleyball has provided the team with an extra edge.
“She knows how tough it can get if we’re in the fifth set and we might be down a couple of points,” Hepner said. “She knows exactly what that feels like, so for her to be able to communicate that to us in words and help us through that is really helpful.”
As one of the most teammate-reliant sports, communication and networking are vital aspects of volleyball, which the team continues to manifest. Gustafson said that during her career at Albion, the team environment was “insanely different than it is now” and has changed drastically over the years.
“To be a part of a culture in the team that Coach Slamer has grown over the years, and to see it flourish is so great,” she said. “I’m so excited to be a part of that mental side of it.”
The environment has allowed the team to achieve a national ranking of 24 with many impressive wins, and Hepner is excited about their upcoming matches.
“We’re in our most winningest season so far,” Hepner said. “We’ve won a lot of tough competitions that we’ve had and we’re really close to where we want to be and I’m just excited to see where that takes us.”
The benefits of focusing on mental health go beyond bumping their stats. The team is improving from a cohesive team dynamic, on and off the court.
“I think the number one thing has been our chemistry on the court,” Hepner said. “Honestly this is the closest-knit group we’ve ever had and it really attests to how well we’ve been doing on the court because we trust each other.”
Having a strong leadership team with mentors to look up to has significantly impacted the team, yielding their growth while uplifting each other, a convention that Hepner hopes will continue to be passed down.
“Our returners really value the culture that we have and we really try to kind of exemplify that and show it to our freshmen. So that’s the number one thing, is having a good group that can inspire each other,” Hepner said.
Kristin Slamer-de St. Aubin, the team’s head coach, said she values the platform established by returners, with the transition adding developmental heights which “continues to grow this tradition of success we’re trying to build.”
“Immersing your first-year [students] into the things your program does is so important and that takes time to build a class that believes in it,” Slamer-de St. Aubin said. “They set the stage for the next one and then they set the stage for the next one.”
Gustafson emphasized that “mental skills are life skills” and believes that changing perspective is key.
“I really like to restructure the way we view pressure,” Gustafson said. “Viewing pressure as a challenge, like an opportunity instead of a threat, is something that I like to hone in on.”
For four weeks throughout the spring this year, Gustafson worked on a “confidence campaign” intended to build self-confidence within the team. As a multi-step process, the progress isn’t always evident until they go for the kill.
“It takes a lot of time to build that confidence and know that you can win those tough matches,” said Slamer-de St. Aubin.
Gustafson said that her desire to become a mental performance coach stemmed from her personal background as an athlete.
“To have someone like me who understands the research and knowledge behind sports psychology is really important,” she said. “If I had known about someone that worked in my profession when I was younger, I totally would’ve taken the opportunity to talk to someone like me.”
Improvements in inner confidence and trust bolstered the team bonds, helping them thrive.
“She gave us the tools we need to be able to be strong mentally individually but also be able to support each other more than we ever have,” Hepner said.
To Gustafson, mental performance means a lot more than what is commonly viewed as “being mentally tough.”
“It’s also about holistically aligning yourself. Your mind and your body need to work together. You have to one hundred percent believe in your abilities to be mentally tough,” she said.
As the team prepares to face Hope in the MIAA semifinals today, their mindset is clear.
“Everyone wants the same goal. We all want to win, and we all push each other to get there,” Hepner said.
No matter the result, there will be many memories that the team can look back upon fondly.
“A lot of the highlights that I reflect back on are just the energy that we feel on the court every time we go out there,” Hepner said. “It’s unmatched, just seeing how everybody is enjoying themselves, and even if we’re losing, we’re so loud and we’re having a good time.”
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