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Strategy Chat: Traci Callahan

Traci Callahan launched into the Champions Cup Series with an unrivaled fire that afforded her three of three Main Draws. She and Crissy Jones were the only qualifying team to make all three, as well as the only team to win their way out of a Qualifier at Week 2’s Wilson Cup. She looked like she never lost a step in the pandemic; her body was fit, her skill was high, and her chemistry with Crissy was effortless. So I reached out to get it straight from her – what made her and Crissy so stellar this season? The answer: strategy, planning, and not letting COVID-19 hold her back from progressing. She had a bunch of insight into the game, but first, let’s get to know her a little better. 

TC: I was born and raised in the Inland Empire, aka “the 909”, where I was under the impression that club volleyball was the kind of organization where girls got together to exchange stickers and hair ties. Once I realized it was actually a competitive travel volleyball team, I signed up and never looked back. I preferred volleyball over basketball (my first love) because my opponent had to stay on their side of the net. I started my collegiate career at CSUSB and finished at Concordia University in Irvine. Playing in CBVA tournaments with college teammates was what initially attracted me to the beach game. 

But, I was awful at first. I knew this because I occasionally lost to pregnant women and girls young enough to still sit on their daddy’s lap (Summer Ross). Despite a few embarrassing losses in the beginning, I played off and on from 2012-2015; I earned my best finishes in 2014 with Emily Stockman. In 2015 I moved to Tallahassee to work with the FSU Beach Volleyball team under the new leadership of Brooke Niles. Stepping away from the game for a bit in 2016, I decided to move back to California, began teaching yoga and meditation, interned on an organic urban farm, harvested honey, and walked across Spain with Havaianas and a backpack. At that time, I never intended to return to the sport but the nagging feeling of unfinished business wouldn’t relent. With a dream and a lot of encouragement from family and friends, I started playing again in the fall of 2018 and haven’t looked back. 

But this article is about strategy, so let’s get into it. 

 

Pre-match: Before matches, I have two goals. 

  1. Make sure my body is loose and warm and ready to go. I have a base routine I’ve developed over the last two years that I often do. But depending on other factors (soreness, temperature, feeling tired or sore, etc.) I strategically add varying movements and stretches to get my body ready to compete at the highest level. Throughout the Champions Cup Series, I had soft tissue work done at our hotel before and in between matches by Ryan Cadaret from Shift Gym Torrance. He made sure everything was feeling fresh and ready for battle. Little details make all the difference. 
  1. Center myself and take a read of my internal temperature. This takes time to develop through trial and error. There’s an emotional and energetic range that I perform at my best. It’s a feeling, but I can see it manifest through my breath and my ability to focus. Once I’ve found my center, I can arrange my thoughts. My focus may be on specific cues and strategies that we’ve talked about as a team or something I want to accomplish individually during the match.

My warm-up is about finding and creating the feeling of freedom I need, both in my body and mind, to have a peak performance. I have learned the hard way that skipping this step is detrimental to my game. 

Playing with emotion: I see emotions as a tool that can and will be used to my advantage. If you don’t know how to control them, however, they can absolutely turn on you. I pretty much spent all of 2019 trying to figure this tool out. Some matches I experimented by playing quiet and more reserved. That was awkward. Other matches, I screamed my head off after every play. It was exhausting. In 2020, I found the perfect balance between the two. I discovered how to harness energy when I needed it and how to calm myself down when I noticed I was losing control. 

To say self-awareness is crucial is an understatement. Many players are too insecure or afraid to use emotion as a tool. When I play, I hope I can do something that will get under my opponents’ skin just enough to distract them. If they think I am annoying-GREAT! It’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of your opponents’ emotional and mental state. A little interaction doesn’t bother me, so I use it to my advantage.

Volleyball is such a momentum game, but you actually have more control of that momentum than you think. By developing a better understanding of timing and energy shifts, you can play with the rhythm of the match and shift it in your favor. For instance, in the last qualifying match of the Monster Hydro Cup, I noticed that both our opponents were mentally and physically tired as we made the 5-5 switch, in what felt like was going to be a bloody fight-to-the-death sort of 3rd set. On the switch, sensing their fatigue, I turned to Crissy and said, “This game is NOT going to be close. We are going to crush them.” And that’s exactly what we did. We willed our victory by creating energy from our emotion and simply deciding that that was what we were going to do. 

On strategy between the Champion’s Cup Series Qualifiers vs. Main Draw: Our strategy didn’t change much from the Qualifiers to the Main Draw. Mostly our strategy changed from team to team, reminding ourselves of tendencies and what worked or didn’t work against them the last time we played. In the Main Draw, we played Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humama-Paredes three weekends in a row and played Brandie Wilkerson and Sara Hughes two weekends in a row. We drew from our previous experiences with them and made tiny adjustments we felt could help us win. Game plans are great because they create focus and purpose. Executing those game plans is the difference between the top teams in the world and everyone else.  

The importance of a good coach: Our coach, Evie Matthews, is brilliant and has an excellent mind for the game. I lean on him a ton for strategy because he picks up opponents’ tendencies so easily and simplifies the game. I think it’s one of his gifts. At the end of the day, beach volleyball is two people trying to cover a lot of sand. The odds are forever not in your favor. However, by playing percentages and narrowing in on a team’s tendencies, the court starts to feel smaller. 

Training during the Pandemic: Despite all the uncertainty of 2020, earlier in the year, I decided to treat this year as a normal training year. I practiced consistently and worked with my trainer (often over Zoom calls) just as I would in a standard year. I committed to being prepared and to improvement, practicing at a private court 5-6 days a week. I began training with men on a men’s net more consistently, which improved my speed and confidence. Although there was zero certainty of any tournaments happening, I wanted to be prepared just in case the opportunity presented itself. Progress was and is my personal and team goal for the 2020 year.