Dr. Julie Wiernik Trains Minds To Improve How Athletes Compete | OLLU


SPECIAL FEATURE (Sept. 26, 2016) – Since training camp in August, Head Coach Jeremiah Tiffin and the rest of the Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU)  volleyball coaching staff have drilled individual techniques into every player, built their physical conditioning up to withstand long rallies and worked to coordinate their defense and passing game. Everything the team needs to succeed is being written into their muscle memory, available to recall without a second thought—provided other thoughts don’t get in the way.

“Everyone, when they coach, always focuses on the physical part, the technique part, the scouting part; just the physical preparation,” Tiffin said. “And when you look at a typical practice, you’re training, you’re training, you’re training, but we don’t always train the mind for what the body needs to be successful.”

Since last season, the volleyball team has worked with Sport and Performance Psychologist Dr. Julie Wiernik (affectionately dubbed “Dr. J” by the team) of the Texas Center for Sport Psychology. Wiernik is a former NCAA Division I softball athlete who channeled her playing experiences into a successful practice—working with athletes from the college level to Olympians. She started providing her services to OLLU three years ago and has worked with the 13 men’s and women’s teams.

In 2010, Los Angeles Lakers’ forward Metta World Peace made some headlines when he thanked his psychiatrist after winning the NBA championship. At the time, the volatile forward—famous for his short fuse and role in instigating the brawl between the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills—was the type of athlete whot immediately came to mind when discussing psychology and professional help.

Since then, teams—from the Seattle Seahawks to the Dallas Mavericks—have been more open about their work with sport psychologists – even Olympic Gold Medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. The beach volleyball phenom has credited Michael Gervais, a noted sports psychologist in Southern California, with saving her marriage and helping her stay present and grounded during her competitions.

“People used to think working with a psychologist meant something was wrong with you; that you’re crazy,” Wiernik said. “But I think we’re starting to realize the importance of the mental game. Your thoughts are with you all the time, and who doesn’t get nervous or have confidence issues from time-to-time?

“Whether you’re LeBron James or Michael Phelps, you always need to work on your mental game. So it’s becoming more normal, where I’m just another coach like Coach Tiffin. I just strengthen the mental game.”

Wiernik describes the role of a sports psychologist as fostering positivity and communication. Though she is also certified as a clinical psychologist, dealing with depression and other individual issues, Wiernik’s main function with the team is to enhance on-court performance via team building and mental exercises.

Last year, at the behest of Wiernik, the team adopted a mantra to invoke before every match—something important to the women to get everyone focused on what needed to be accomplished. Talent and technique certainly helped the Saints through their first undefeated Red River Athletic Conference run, but the ability to consistently summon the same motivation and energy day-in-and-day-out helped the team reach its potential.

“My job is to maximize the controllables, and leave the uncontrollables alone,” Wiernick said. “Playing time, injuries, the opponents; those are things that are out of your control. Energy management, communication, accountability, preparation; those are things you can dictate.”

While talented, the Saints suffer from a deficit of height relative to some of the nationally ranked powerhouses that have been on their schedule this season.

Twice through their opening set versus Evangel University in August, the Saints fell to four-point deficits, punctuated by intimidating kills from the 6’2″ Morgan Kensinger and 5’11” Jackie Fugate.

At the lowest points of each run, the Saints on the court gathered to compose themselves while the players off of it broke into chants to recapture a rhythm and flow. Each time, the Saints were able to rally, winning the first set 27-25, and eventually the match 3-2.

“Volleyball is such a momentum sport, and you can see it at every level of play,” Tiffin said. “So mentally, it’s  important to understand when to forget the last play, and when to build off of it.”

Against imposing frontlines, smaller teams can often withstand the powerful spikes and blocks for a certain period of time before early challenges give way to retreat. In their victory over Evangel, the Saints’ resolve and schemes held true. In matches against nationally ranked teams  at the Hampton Inn Volleyball Classic in Columbia, Mo., the Saints faced opponents who could simply hit the ball over outstretched arms at the net—even when the blocks were set perfectly.

“There are going to be years when you have the more physical, athletic team, and that means you’re always going to start out ahead just based on athletic ability,” Tiffin said. “With us, we don’t have the imposing height. We don’t have the ability to win a lot of quick rallies via blocks or kills. So we have to train other aspects. Some of that is defense, others are serves and passes. Things we can control. And we have to train our minds to understand that.”

This is a team built to withstand such disadvantages, but only with a great amount of coordination. And that takes trust. Systems can be rattled by three or four powerful kills. Players can naturally begin to step outside of their lanes trying to compensate, creating more openings for the opponent to exploit.

Success often depends on whether or not the team sticks to its principles under adversity. That takes absolute trust in the person next to you.

“Something we’ve been working on with Dr. Wiernik is ownership. You have to own the team,” Tiffin said. “Our focus has been on, ‘How can I make the person next to me better?’ You can be the best player in the world, but if you’re not making the person next to you better, what’s the point? So we’re just focused on exercises to help them understand how to do that.”

Team dynamics can be a tricky balance, with different personalities working toward a common goal with different ideas on how to go about it. Every new face presents a test to that chemistry. Someone who was a leader for her previous school might struggle with how to assert those qualities with an established team. Returning players might have to deal with new competition for minutes, or new elements outside of their established comfort zones.

Wiernik meets with players and coaches individually and as a group, giving an outsider’s perspective on the state of the team. She can distill the information and present it in a way to get a player’s needs across without disrupting the team chemistry as a whole.

“Coaches can’t do it all. They can’t spend the time with every individual to figure out what’s going on in everyone’s head,” Wiernik said. “It helps to have someone other than the coaches, someone objective who’s an expert in the psychology of performance, to iron out communication issues.”

It also helps that she was once a high-level athlete in a team sport.

“If I wasn’t successful as an athlete, I don’t think I’d be a very good sport psychologist,” Wiernik said. “I’ve been on teams where we’ve had issues with coaches or players, or just learning how to perform well under pressure. So I think my history as an athlete gives me credibility and helps me understand the mindset of an athlete because I’ve been there.”

The team is still discovering what they can be, but working with Wiernik allows the team to develop that now instead of in the middle of a game, when it’s often too late.

“She brings a positive support system to the team,” Jessica Walaski (SR/San Antonio, Texas) said. “She lets us talk about how we feel about one another while keeping it peaceful within the group.

“I think we’ve become more supportive of one another and more of a team. We feel comfortable talking with her not just about issues with the team, but outside in life. She’s just a really good woman who brings a lot of positive energy.”

A volleyball court is 60 feet long by 30 feet wide with six players on each side of the net—a space more than confined enough to exert some degree of control over everything that happens within those lines. But players’  minds are endless repositories of thoughts and emotions connected to everything outside the court.

Coaches and athletes can train the body to react naturally to everything on the court. Working with Wiernik, the team is learning to similarly focus the mind to focus everything off it so those skills translate from practice to games—a skill that will stay with the women as they move beyond OLLU.

“It translates when you leave. You’re going to go through tough times in other aspects of life, you’re going to have obstacles; and you’ll have the mental training for how to work them and overcome easier than you would,” Tiffin said. “And that’s what college athletics is. Yes, it’s competition, but it’s also training athletes to be more successful than they were when they came in. And Dr. J is a big part of it.”

Source: http://www.ollusaintsathletics.com/article/2406.php

September 30, 2016 | Featured, Press | Comments Off on Dr. Julie Wiernik Trains Minds To Improve How Athletes Compete | OLLU

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