Mindfulness coach trains UCLA volleyball teams

As the UCLA women’s beach volleyball team battled for the NCAA title last May, player Izzy Carey used a new skill to stay in the game — mindfulness.

“It was a high-pressure situation on every play, so just being focused and doing what I could in that moment really helped me mentally,” she said.

During the regular season, Carey and her teammates had trained with Brian Shiers, a certified instructor from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, to learn how to get out of their heads and into “the zone” — a state of total immersion in the moment.

Studies suggest mindfulness can help athletes stay calm, sharpen their focus, recover faster and even prevent burnout. That makes sense to Carey, a rising sophomore majoring in business economics.

“People in athletics are always focusing on the physicality of it,” she said. “A lot of the time athletes don’t realize that the mental part of the game could be as much of a factor as some of the physical training.”

Izzy Carey, UCLA Bruins | Courtesy Dan Avila (avilaphoto.com)

A longtime meditator with a background in exercise science and kinesiology, Shiers has taught mindfulness to UCLA’s volleyball teams for the past four seasons. He started with the indoor program after head coach Michael Sealy asked MARC to connect the team with one of its certified mindfulness instructors. In 2013, Sealy’s then-assistant coach, Stein Metzger, became head coach of UCLA’s inaugural beach volleyball program. The former Olympian, who has national and world championships to his credit, asked Shiers to train UCLA’s new beach teams, too.

When Shiers introduced the Bruins to the concept of “flow,” many of the players were intrigued, Metzger said. A Hungarian psychologist coined the term in the 1990s to describe peak performance during full absorption in activity. “Brian does a great job of connecting mindfulness to athletics,” Metzger said.

Shiers started by teaching the Bruins mindfulness meditation with their eyes closed in quiet classrooms. The next step was to put these skills into action on the court or at the beach. But instead of worrying about outcomes — such as whether a particular spike, block or serve was successful — the women learned to focus their attention on the felt experience of practice and play.

“We’re trying to sensitize the players to their intuitive feeling of what it means to be really present and to allow their skills to be expressed beautifully and well,” Shiers said. “It’s the feeling of that as opposed to conceptualizing and pushing from the thinking part of the brain.”

Brian Shiers

As part of the training, Shiers turned standard volleyball drills into meditative exercises. He asked the players to watch the ball with enough intensity to see its seams or follow its spin. The Bruins focused on the sound of the ball as it hit their palms, fingertips or forearms, and tuned into how their bodies felt during the drills, Shiers said.

“When you add all three — sights, sounds and body sensations — it creates such a field of attention that the mind tends to step back,” he said. “The more you practice that, the more you just lock right into flow.”

The Bruins took third place in the NCAA tourney, losing to top-seeded Florida State University. The 20 young women on the beach team, most of whom were freshmen or sophomores, defied the odds in going as deep into the championship as they did, Metzger said. “We have only had two recruiting classes since we launched the team in spring 2013, so we are comparatively young,” he said.

Did the mindfulness training play a role in the Bruins’ NCAA run? It’s possible, Metzger said. “I’d like to think that doing some of this meditation — creating more awareness of what is going on in our heads as we get into pressure situations — was one of our major advantages,” he said.

Ultimately, Metzger said, the goal of college sports is to help student athletes develop as complete human beings. While mindfulness training can be useful on the court, it can also help players deal with the pressures of daily life, he said.

Carey, for one, has already found the skills useful in dealing with the fast-paced life of a student athlete at UCLA. “When I’m present and know that I have prepared myself for what needs to be done, I become more confident and more comfortable, whether it’s volleyball, test-taking or just social situations that could be uncomfortable,” she said.

For some athletes, feeling less stress off the court could also translate into a more relaxed and confident on-the-court performance, Shiers said. “The more engaged and connected the athlete is to herself, the more she will actually be able to show up on court,” he said. “She will be more resilient and better able to access her resources under difficult conditions.”

Stein Metzger

Pleased with the results so far, Metzger is looking forward to seeing what will happen as the Bruins train with Shiers in upcoming seasons. “It starts with the physical, because that is what they are most used to, but these athletes are starting to pay more attention to their emotions as well,” Metzger said. “That is gold. It’s something they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”