Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh aren’t just the most talented women’s beach volleyball players ever—they’re the most mentally gifted too.
May-Treanor and Walsh won their third straight Olympic gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In London, Beijing and Athens—three top-end tournaments which featured only the best beach volleyball players in the world—they never lost a match. They boast three more golds at the World Championships. And at one point in their careers, May-Treanor and Walsh won 108 straight games.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why they’re widely known as the greatest beach volleyball duo ever: unmatched dominance.
How they became a special breed of competitor is a different story, though—a story that Dr. Michael Gervais, Director of High Performance Psychology at DISC Sports & Spine Center in Los Angeles, CA, has the answer to.
In an interview, Gervais stressed that winning is a product of talent, but winning repeatedly on the world class stage is a product of refined skill and mental strength. He said: “Once you summit, everything changes. This is what we’ll see often times with athletes once they taste victory, one of two things happen: they get hungrier for more or they become satisfied.”
That is the key, isn’t it?
Back in 2008, the world witnessed a historic display of dominance as Michael Phelps racked up eight gold medals. Instead of being fueled even further by his success, though, Phelps fell victim to satisfaction. He admitted that, in the three years following his takeover of Beijing, he lost the motivation to train.
And this year, the result showed as Phelps’ gold-medal count was cut in half.
Gervais explained the heightened pressure that an athlete at the top of his or her game is faced with when they peak. He said:
“You now have a bull's-eye on your back. If athletes are not careful, they can move from predator to prey quickly. What we want to be able to do is create that predator mindset, that hunter mindset. And to do that we have to know what we’re hunting.”
May-Treanor and Walsh were likely unsure of what they were hunting at the beginning of the 2012 season. They stumbled out of the starting blocks in the FIVB World Tour. After the women sought the help of Gervais, though, their fortunes began to change.
Gervais shed light on just how challenging May-Treanor and Walsh’s attempt at an Olympic three-peat was. He said:
“Winning after winning is very difficult to do and this is their third opportunity to do it together at the Olympic Games. Their platform, the way that they engaged with the world was fundamentally different now than it was 12 years ago.”
When May-Treanor began her career, she wasn’t married. When Walsh began her career, she wasn’t married or a mother. What do those off-the-court issues have to do with their performance on the beach?
When “everything changes,” as Gervais said, naturally, everything is influenced by that change.
Jon Ackerman of NBC Olympics reported that Walsh revealed why she and May-Treanor worked with Gervais—to help enhance their chemistry, sanding away any rough edges that were created by change. She said:
I've known (Misty) for so long and I’m so close to her but I don't know everything she's thinking. And it's really important to just get on the same page and talk about those little things. Nothing's too little.
Gervais deflected the credit of aiding May-Treanor and Walsh saying, “They were already unbelievable,” and he went on to clarify his role in their comeback. He listed their agenda as, “Spending time to articulate the vision together, to be very clear about how they wanted to achieve this goal together and to sharpen up a few mental skills.”
He went on to give further detail to his philosophy on what it takes to zero in on that unparalleled poise. Gervais said:
“This is something that I think all of us can take away from, is to spend a lot of time being very clear about what the mission or the vision is for our own life. And the second half of it is, how do we want to move together to work on a mission?
“And then the third piece is to sharpen up or dust off the mental skills such as generating confidence, no matter what the situation is. Knowing how to generate a sense of poise in big moments and small moments—whatever those might be. And knowing how to adjust to when things don’t go their way.”
May-Treanor identified their mission: to win gold and end their storied careers on the highest note possible. They moved together on that mission by adapting to change and embracing their roles within their relationship. Walsh illustrated her bond with May-Treanor:
“We're married. Misty and I are married. I have two amazing partners: my husband Casey and Misty” (via NBC Olympics).
And it’s safe to say that they effectively generated confidence. The results speak for themselves.
Now, while May-Treanor and Walsh succeeded in adjusting to the change that invaded their life, not all are able to make such a nearly seamless transition. Case in point: Tiger Woods.
Woods faced a more extreme case of adversity than May-Treanor and Walsh—and he couldn’t take the heat. His entire world was flipped upside down after his adultery debacle.
How did Woods cope with this change?
He created more change.
He fired his long-time caddie Steve Williams—a friend that he could’ve had a May-Treanor-to-Walsh-like rapport with. But he removed Williams, his swing coach and others from his life in an attempt to recover.
Woods hasn’t won a major in over four years. It’s safe to say that his approach failed.
I asked Gervais if Woods’ collapse was the result of mental susceptibility created by the scandal. Before stating that only Woods knows what truly caused his downfall, he replied:
"When our lifestyle becomes incongruent with our philosophy—or approach toward life—our performance in other aspects of our life can become negatively impacted. Even worse, when our behaviors—life choices—are so out of whack with our deeper philosophy, we can quickly run out of mental and emotional tools that allow ourselves to consistently perform at a high level. When this takes place, by definition, we run head-on into a crisis."
How does Woods regain his once legendary swagger that made him not only the greatest golfer in the world, but the most clutch athlete alive? How does he reach that level of mental strength that May-Treanor and Walsh attained?
Gervais walked through how a competitor reaches his or her ideal mentality to fulfill their potential—the process that May-Treanor and Walsh went through before winning their third straight Olympic gold. He said:
“For athletes to achieve close to their potential, they have to be able to string together many high quality moments. Because this really is a moment to moment adjustment in life, in sport, that allows athletes to be high performers.
"The first part is being present. The second part is, in that present moment, engaging in a very high quality way. When you do that repeatedly, you end up becoming a high performer in life. When you become a high performer in life, you end up being able to touch your potential.”
So, the next time an athlete flat out chokes, you now know the reason behind it: they weren’t prepared for the moment. May-Treanor and Walsh adjusted to change which prepared them for the moment and because of that, they reached their full potential.
David Daniels is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report and a syndicated writer.
As an official medical services provider of the United States Olympic Committee, DISC Sports & Spine Center (DISC) is one of America’s foremost providers of minimally invasive spine procedures and advanced arthroscopic techniques. Dr. Robert S. Bray, Jr. founded DISC with the vision of delivering an unparalleled patient experience for those suffering from sports injuries, orthopedic issues and spine disorders. DISC’s individually picked, highly specialized physicians apply both established and innovative solutions to diagnose, treat and rehabilitate their patients in a one-stop, multi-disciplinary setting. With a wide range of specialists under one roof, the result is an unmatched continuity of care with more efficiency, less stress for the patient and a zero MRSA infection rate. For more information, contact DISC at 866.481.DISC or visit www.discmdgroup.com.