Natalie Hagglund’s Olympic mission

This time of the year is always an exciting time. May… when most USA athletes are returning back to the United States after a long season of professional volleyball overseas and are slowly but surely flooding back into the national team gym. Although playing overseas is an incredible experience, there is really nothing like wearing USA on your back and working relentlessly alongside women who simply desire the competition and work ethic necessary to be the best. While walking into the national team gym for the first time in 7 months is always pretty exciting, there was really something special about this time around.

Why? Well, as most of you volleyball, sport, or even USA nerds know, the Olympics is approaching. August of 2016. For those who don’t really know how our national team works, the first year of the quad the coaches invite a large group of volleyball players in the gym. They give everybody an opportunity to compete and to prove themselves and as tournaments approach/as we hit new seasons in the quad, the number of bodies in the gym begin to shed. So, as you can imagine, even getting past the first stage is quite an accomplishment considering you are competing in a pool of total studs.

Walking into the gym knowing that you are part of the final training stage of the Olympic Quad is a pretty incredible feeling. There are now around 19 of us in the gym relentlessly pursuing something that has never been done in USA volleyball history. This pursuit takes a lot more than just raw skill or even just talking about it. It takes years of mental & physical preparation, days upon days of tedious technical work, the cultivation of relationships and trust, vulnerability and a lot more. But, our veterans and our coaches have done an incredible job in creating a gym culture that inspires that pursuit because, why wait? This is our time!

With that being said, although we don’t have an incredibly large amount of time to train this summer, we are coming into every single practice session with a sense of urgency. We are working to take advantage of every rep, to be mindful, and to be the best version of ourselves. We are aiming to make small improvements & to be mentally and physically sharp because we are playing for something bigger than ourselves and honoring those who have gotten us here.

Making small improvements everyday and emphasizing recovery

There is a really small group of us in the gym right now and every single one of my teammates is good at what they do… in fact, my teammates are some of the best players in the world. We have all learned a new system or technique at some point and we have all worked hard throughout the years to execute the game OUR WAY… THE USA WAY.

We have done the hard work. We have had entire summers of frustration trying to learn new things. We have spent summers practicing two times per day, lifting three times per week, having mandatory film sessions and meetings. We have put ourselves in uncomfortable situations (too many times to count). We have started over and revamped ourselves on multiple occasions. We have done all that in the past. We did so because we were fresh, we were sharing reps with a lot of bodies in the gym and because a lot of us (me) had a lot to learn in terms of system and technique.

But this season is completely different than the ones prior. This season is not about quantity… it is about quality. It really isn’t all about learning a bunch of new things or making HUGE improvements. It is about fine-tuning and bringing ‘good’ to the gym every single day. It is about making small adjustments… polishing up our strengths and making strides to clean up our areas of weakness.

See, we are all good enough volleyball players. We are all strong. We are all fast. We are all working hard to be the best versions of ourselves. We just need to stay healthy, stay hungry, stay relentless and stay polished. We don’t necessarily need two practices per day or six hours of workload. We need a strong morning practice with a lot of good reps and meaningful communication. We need clear minds and confidence. We need active recovery.

With that being said, we are out of practice fairly early everyday and sort of have the freedom to do what we need to do in order to be the best versions of ourselves. More so than ever we have created a self-driven environment, where we can hold each other accountable as teammates, but we aren’t being pushed (physically) by anyone but ourselves. If we personally feel like we need extra reps… we go out and get it. If we need a heavier workload in lifting, we ask for it. There is a large emphasis on recovery and treatment… so having one big practice in the morning gives us a lot of time to recover and get that necessary treatment.

Being mentally sharp and resilient

Being physical on the court is one thing… but being mentally sharp and resilient is another beast that we have been working hard to conquer. The Olympics is the toughest tournament of the quad. Sure, physically it will be taxing… but competing for a Gold medal will be more so mentally draining than anything.

We have spent hours upon hours learning about the power of the mind and mental imagery. We have spent hours pushing each other’s buttons, questioning who we are as a team & who we are as individuals. We have spent hours simply learning in order to better ourselves and better those around us. We have all been vulnerable. We have all spoken about our deepest and darkest times. We have all opened up. There have been laughs, smiles and a lot of cries… but this vulnerability is what builds the sort of unbreakable bond needed to be the best in the world (in my opinion).

Although this has always been an important question in our gym, we now more than ever seek to individually find ourselves and make it known in the gym. Being a good volleyball team starts when each individual takes pride in what they are playing for and what they stand for day in and day out. A great volleyball team starts developing when teammates can look each other straight in the eye and say “I see you fighting for that every single day and I will help you get there if needed”. Similarly, we seek to each find our ideal competitive mindset in practice everyday and fight to get there even in the most difficult drills or moments of adversity.

In practice, we are often times thrown into uncomfortable situations, pressure moments or frustrating drills (on purpose). The coaches put us in these situations to train us to find ways to push past the difficult times that we each WILL FACE at some points in our career (whether at the Olympics or not). You never know what is going to happen in a match. You might be overly nervous, frustrated, tired or sick…the refs might make a bad call…the gym might be freezing. Sometimes we can’t control the things around us…so we are preparing ourselves to be able to take control of the things we can and to shake off everything else.

Playing for something bigger than ourselves

A lot of incredible women, athletes & volleyball players have been sent home since day 1, including myself a couple times within the quad. Not everyone makes final cuts every single year. Some do, but not all of us. That is why it is so intense in our gym. You have to earn the right to stay and a lot of people have worked really hard for a long period of time with high hopes of making this Olympic roster. We have all made incredibly large sacrifices and have gone above and beyond to make ourselves the best players possible…but even so, not all of us will be on that end roster, which is devastating, but it’s the inevitable truth. Regardless, we still all come into the gym every morning fully committed to our team’s goal of winning a Gold.

It’s tough… knowing that the only thing that is potentially holding you back from the Olympics is the one or two people in your position. Everyday you are competing for a spot and there is a lot riding on how you play vs. how another teammate plays. You may begin comparing yourself to them. You may begin counting their mistakes vs. yours.

You may begin over thinking it and you ultimately loose yourself in a seemingly never-ending competition vs. another person on your team. But, the moment you start thinking about a teammate as an opponent or as a competitor is the moment you loose focus of the bigger picture. The moment you start focusing on competing against someone is the moment that the pressure of performing will eat you alive.

Why do we have to compete against each other? Why can’t we compete with each other? Why can’t we come into the gym everyday with the mentality that we are going to be the best version of ourselves and work hard to make the team the best version of itself? And that is exactly what we are trying to focus on. So, the closer the Olympics gets, the harder we each have to work to foster a competitive atmosphere by competing WITH not AGAINST each other. By being our best to make those around them their best.

We are trying to do something that USA Women’s Volleyball has never done before…win a gold medal. And in order to do that, we need to send the best of the best in every position. And, if we (as individuals) ultimately get beat out…than we know that the person in front of us will do their best to bring home gold in our honor!

Honoring the people who have gotten us here

There are a lot of people who have taken part in this journey and our success in the past couple of years. There are a lot of incredible players, coaches, volunteers and staff members who have worked just as hard to get us here as those still in the gym right now. Yes, there is a small group of us in the gym right now. But, there is a huge team behind the team that really makes these beautiful things happen. So, this season we are working hard to give back to those people.

To our fans, our supporters, our staff, our organization… to the wonderful ladies who have been apart of USA volleyball in the past seasons… to our family members who have been there for us in this journey… we are playing for you guys. We are playing for you now and those who will be representing us at the Olympic games will be playing for you then!