London 2012: 5 Steps to Winning Gold for the U.S. Women's Volleyball Team
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Choose the Best Team
Danielle Scott-Arruda is hoping to compete in her fifth Olympic Games with the U.S. women's volleyball team in London.
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The national women's team is still tuning up for the London Games, and head coach Hugh McCutcheon has not chosen a final roster yet. The team will play the FIVB World Grand Prix in the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Thailand in June. Assuming they advance to the final round, they will play in China shortly before the Games begin.
Many of the team's top players have been finishing up their professional obligations outside of America, where top players can earn serious coin for playing on pro teams. So the 21 women currently on the roster have been rolling into the team's Anaheim, California training center from places like Italy, Azerbaijan, Puerto Rico and Brazil.
Likely starters include a number of previous Olympians: Lindsey Berg, Logan Tom, Heather Bown, Tayyiba Haneef-Park and Danielle Scott-Arruda, who, at age 39, will make an unprecedented fifth Olympic appearance with the team. She's been on the team since 1994!
On the bubble is Stacy Sykora, one of the world's top defensive specialists (AKA the libero) and a two-time U.S. Olympian, who suffered a massive head injury in a bus accident in Brazil in 2011. She's fighting for her spot with Nicole Davis and Tamari Miyashiro.
Other likely Olympians are big hitters like Megan Hodge, Cynthia Barboza, Destinee Hooker and Foluke Akinradewo.
Follow the Coaches' Leads
U.S. women's national volleyball team coach Hugh McCutcheon.
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The women will be the force on the court, but there are two men guiding them from the sidelines who really know what they are doing when it comes to indoor volleyball.
Head coach Hugh McCutcheon is a transplanted New Zealander who led the U.S. men's team to victory in Beijing in the midst of very trying circumstances. His wife's parents were attacked in Beijing, with her father being stabbed to death and her mother suffering massive wounds. But McCutcheon soldiered on, and his team responded with an emotional gold-medal win.
Shortly after, McCutcheon shifted to the U.S. women's national team, and they have been getting better and better ever since. That's his training system for certain, but it may also have something to do with his choice of assistant coach.
Karch Kiraly, who is perhaps still the most famous volleyball player in the world, serves as McCutcheon's second. Kiraly has taken home plenty of Olympic hardware—two gold indoor medals and a gold from the beach—so he's a guy who knows what he's talking about.
The women are clearly doing what it takes to win by listening closely to both coaches—especially since, as McCutcheon told the L.A. Times, though the game basics are the same, there is a completely different style when coaching the fairer sex:
With the men, so much of it is getting through the ego, getting to the core where they are willing to be vulnerable enough to admit they need to make changes. With the women, there is a lot of fear and insecurity, so it's more about validating and helping people build trust so they feel like they belong out there.
Peak at the Right Time
The U.S. women's volleyball team in action.
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The key to winning any volleyball tournament is to get all 12 players on the roster in perfect sync. That means making sure that all aspects of training are in place, from peak fitness levels in all the competitors to the group's ability to effortlessly run the complex plays that a six-person indoor volleyball team executes on every attack.
McCutcheon and Kiraly seem to have that delicate balance well in hand, as evidenced by the intrasquad scrimmage they ran recently at UC Irvine. Breaking the team into a Red and a Blue squad, the exhibition match resulted in a virtually even showing for both sides, proving that the 21-player roster is deep with talent.
And as McCutcheon told NBC Sports, he's doing everything he can to ensure that all the women have their eyes on the prize—and nothing else:
You have to be as prepared as possible for whatever inevitable things are going to occur there -- the distractions, the increased media hype, the different stresses and strains that go with Olympic competition. It's about hitting your stride for two weeks. Preparing four years to be great for two weeks and hope that you get to be great for two hours on the last day of the competition.
Win Early, Win Big
Russian Ekaterina Gamova is a force to be reckoned with for the U.S. women's volleyball team.
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The Olympics tournament follows a round-robin format, with the 12 teams broken into two six-team pools. For the American women to dominate, one of the keys is to win early and win big.
They need to dominate their pool (which has not been determined yet) in order to come out as the top seed into the knockout (playoff) round, which means they would play the worst team from the other pool in the quarter finals.
There are five teams standing in their way, each with star players gunning to take down the Americans. Italy won the 2011 World Cup behind 6'2" MVP Carolina Costagrande, beating out the Americans. China, Japan and Brazil followed in the hard-fought playoffs, which look to be repeated in London. And the Russians will be a force, too, behind 6'8" Ekaterina Gamova—one of the tallest women to play the game.
The U.S. team has its share of big hitter/blockers, too, with Tayyiba Haneef-Park standing at 6'7" and Destinee Hooker at 6'4". Considering that the women's net is only 7'4" high, those extra-tall women have a distinct advantage, especially with their jumping prowess.
Confidence Is Key
The U.S. women's volleyball team shows off their confident spirit.
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Regardless of a player's skill level, volleyball is as much a mental game as a physical one. It takes real mental toughness to dominate in a sport that is full of big, strong players who just might also be talking trash across the net.
It takes mental toughness, too, to serve an ace as thousands of spectators cheer for the opposition, or to come back with a hard hit after being shut down by the opposition's big blockers at the net.
Coach McCutcheon has been building the team's confidence, and the No. 1 raking going to the Games certainly gives a boost to them as a whole. But as he told NBC, that ranking is only a part of the puzzle that, when completed, will end with the U.S. women standing on the podium draped in gold, listening the National Anthem.
I think [the top ranking] means we've earned the right to be confident but in no way does it mean we've earned the right to be complacent. If anything, it should serve as further incentive for us to work as hard as we can to try and finish this right, because clearly we have a real chance.