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As mere mortals, we often have a tendency to believe that medal winning athletes have it all figured out and that, somehow, the fame and fortune and the adulation of the crowd makes them complete. Matt Anderson, who is an Olympic bronze medal volleyball player and considered to be one of the best in the world at his craft knows that this is not always the case, and is here to tell you that everyone can suffer self-doubt, depression, and anxiety even when things are looking fine and dandy to those on the outside.
M&F sat down with Matt Anderson for a frank and brave discussion about the psychological challenges that he’s faced in his stellar career, and we came away with some valuable tips for how anyone, at any level of sport, can learn the same lessons that he has.
Matt Anderson is on the men’s indoor volleyball squad for Team USA. He’s a three-time Olympian and took home a bronze medal at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. Before that, Anderson was a 2015 World Cup winner, and he’s also enjoyed victory in multiple CEV Championship League finals throughout his career.
Success came relatively quickly for Anderson, who was scouted for the men’s U.S. national team during his time at West Seneca West Senior High School in upstate New York. He trained hard, and by the time he reached his second year, Matt Anderson had picked up a professional offer and signed a contract with the Hyundai Capital Skywalkers in the Korean League. What followed was a whirlwind of intense play and travel. Not only did he live in South Korea, but he also spent time playing in Italy before volleying the ball over in Russia.
It all sounds like the career of an athlete that has the world at his feet and, for the most part, that’s true, but just like the rest of us; negative thoughts can threaten the chances of us reaching our full potential. Having moved to Russia, where his club won a bronze medal in that countries Championship, he was also named MVP in the Russian League, but, with all of that success, 2014 proved to be a difficult year as Matt Anderson felt at the time that he had underperformed. This would be the year that the player needed to put on the brakes for the sake of his mental state.
“I felt a lot of pressure really residing on me,” says Anderson. “I was really the all-star of the team and arguably playing my best volleyball at the time, too,” he says with the benefit of hindsight. But the back-to-back competitions and the constant travel ever since first starting out with Team USA in 2009 had finally taken its toll. “I would go to the gym, and I would just think about home,” he recalls.
Then, when Anderson finally did get home, he admits that he became ashamed of himself because he felt like he hadn’t given his all on the court. These destructive feelings, coupled with the fact that he was still trying to process the death of his father in 2010, meant that the player had a lot to unpack, and needed some time and space to finally do the work for his own wellbeing’s sake.
Fortunately, after several weeks of digging deep within himself, Anderson was back on the court before the end of the same year that he’d left, in 2014, and although he’s still working on his mental health to this day, the popular player is back to his medal winning best. Here are three important tips that help Anderson to consistently keep his head in the game:
An experienced athlete must come to terms with the mistakes and hard realities of defeat but fortunately, those negatives can be turned into positives. “Even at the highest of my accolades as a player, I still struggle with confidence,” shares Anderson. “I think that’s part of the perfectionist mindset that I have, and I’m always focusing on what I did wrong versus what I did right.” The Olympian says that being a successful volleyball player gives him confidence when entering a room so when things don’t go well on the court, he takes it hard and it affects his very identity as a person. But he’s also learned strategies to deal with sporting losses. Anderson says that with every loss comes wisdom and a chance to pause, reflect, and glean information about where things went wrong, in order that he doesn’t make the same mistakes again.
Athletes talk incessantly about keeping their training consistent, and this means sticking to an iron clad routine, but no matter who we are, getting older will bring change. Now aged 36, and with a wife and two children (aged 3 and 1), Anderson knows that his days can no longer revolve around just his own needs. As a result, he’s adapted his schedule to get the most that he can from both sports and family.
Now training for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, Anderson, and other members of his team with the same responsibilities, are being supported by their coaches to meet multiple time demands. This allows players to attack training with the intense energy and motivation required to perform at the highest level without feeling under pressure to give more time to their families.
“Our coaching staff was onboard with giving us one big training (session each day) so that the guys who do have families can be with them,” shares Anderson. This is a break from tradition, where players would previously have completed two training sessions per day.
Now, the champion volleyballer has his head well and truly in the game thanks to the culture of embracing change, and is still putting in one hundred percent of the work required. Anderson explains to M&F that he is on the court for around 9am, but before that he hits the gym at 7.30 a.m. to give himself a really good warmup, going through any stretching and mobility work that may be required to prepare him for the day. He leaves the court at around 12pm but hits the gym once again for at least a further hour in order to lift weights. Embracing change is a great way to forge realistic routines that can be adhered to in the long term. “I also try to sneak in some date nights with my wife from time to time,” says the balanced athlete.
As a perfectionist and an overthinker, Anderson, just like many of us, can be the victim of overthinking. When we fail to just “go for it” our constant questioning of ourselves can lead to micro-adjustments that derail our performance. This is something that Anderson has struggled with in the past, and has a technique that may come in useful as taught to him by the late, great, sports psychologist, Dr. Ken Ravizza.
“He talked a lot with (mental) pictures,” shares Anderson, who says that Ravizza spoke of the field of play as a circle and that overthinking creates a distracting mound within the circle. Anderson goes on to explain that with this mental exercise, you can embrace overthinking whenever you are outside of the circle, but once inside it you must leave those unnecessary thoughts on the outside, where they belong. “Don’t bring your s**t into the circle,” Ravizza told Anderson. It was a light hearted way of making an important point and it still massively helps the player to this day. Perhaps these tips could be valuable to you too.