How do you climb to the top of a crowded college sports landscape? Locker room dance parties and Ultimate Frisbee games are part of the winning formula for the University of Nebraska’s women’s volleyball team.
“In the off-season, building camaraderie is just as important as building strength,” says Mikaela Foecke, a senior and co-captain. “Because you rely heavily on your teammates, it’s important to get along on and off the court.”
The Cornhuskers have more wins than any other NCAA Division I college program and five national championships. Ms. Foecke, 21, has been a dominant force on the team. She was twice named most outstanding player of the final four, including last fall, when she helped lead the Huskers to their second national crown in three years.
Ms. Foecke means business on the court. When the team needs a score, her teammates jokingly say, “Feed the beast.” That means getting the ball to Ms. Foecke, who is known for her kills—unreturnable spikes or attacks that lead to a point. But she also values fun at practice.
With three to four freshmen in this season’s starting rotation, it was crucial to use the off-season to bond. The team uses unconventional workouts as a way to tune up their skills and get to know each other. Games like Ultimate Frisbee and flag football, Ms. Foecke says, help improve team communication, while also working hand-eye coordination and cardio.
“Throwing a football spiral is actually quite similar to hitting a volleyball,” she says. “Plus, it’s more fun to throw to your teammates and it helps with our speed and reaction time.”
Players also take a DiSC personality assessment test ahead of the season. They use the results to help improve team communication. “The test helps us understand how different players approach conflict or deal with stress and pressure,” Ms. Foecke says. “If someone is having a rough day, you need to know how to handle it.”
Ms. Foecke played middle blocker in high school in Fort Madison, Iowa, where she earned the 2014-15 Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year honors. She played outside blocker her first two seasons with the Huskers. Last year head coach John Cook asked her to become a six-rotation player, responsible for duties in both the front and back rows.
Few players have the versatility to attack, defend and pass, says Huskers strength coach Brian Kmitta: “Mikaela is that rare athlete who can do a little of everything really well.”
Ms. Foecke, an animal science major, says she would like to play volleyball professionally after graduation, but first plans to attend veterinary school. The Huskers finished the weekend ranked third nationally.
Two mornings a week the team hits the weight room for an hour, focusing on the low back, quads, calves, glutes, shoulders and abs. Muscle-activation exercises help ensure the players use their core rather than their back when hitting the ball.
“There can be a lot of wear and tear on the body if you aren’t engaging the right muscles,” she says. When she does crunches or holds plank pose, she focuses on firing her abdominal muscles. To activate her hamstrings and quads, she’ll do deep walking lunges backward.
The team practices for three hours, five afternoons a week. Basic skills drills cover blocking, serving and hitting. Ms. Foecke says agility is especially key when playing the back row. Rather than just have them do wind sprints or ladder drills, Mr. Kmitta might ask the women play tag or a game called rabbit and hound. “The rabbits can choose what cones to run to and in what order, and the hounds have to follow them,” he says.
As the season progresses, practices focus on fundamentals and six-on-six scrimmages. Recovery is essential to stay injury-free throughout a season that runs from August through December. Ms. Foecke relies on regular massage work and ice baths. She also uses compression leg sleeves after games.
Breakfast is either oatmeal or eggs and multigrain toast. She’ll have a protein shake with berries, spinach, flaxseed and almond milk after a morning strength session. She eats a turkey sandwich loaded with vegetables on whole grain bread for lunch. Dinner is usually chicken with broccoli and a starch, like potatoes. “A good, soft chocolate chip cookie is my favorite splurge,” she says.
“Knee pads and elbow guards are essential,” Ms. Foecke says. Adidas is the official supplier of the Huskers athletics program. When it comes to apparel, she loves her Apple Watch. “I don’t wear it when I play, because I’m afraid I’ll crack the screen,” she says. “But during workouts, it’s super interesting to see my heart rate change and calories burned.”
The team is known for its locker room dance parties. Favorite songs include “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus and “Cupid Shuffle” by R&B singer Cupid.
Laugh Together, Win Together
Mary Fry, director of the University of Kansas Sport and Exercise Psychology Lab in Lawrence, Kan., says Mikaela Foecke and her teammates are wise to make off-season activities fun.
Academic research backs it up, she says, adding, “When athletes are having fun, it follows that they try harder, enjoy social interactions with their teammates and have greater commitment to their sport.” Exercisers who make their workouts more fun might have similar success. “Making physical activity fun is key to sustaining workout motivation over time,” says Dr. Fry.
Upping the fun factor can be as simple as putting on music to lighten the mood, or for individuals, asking a friend to join, says Warrick Wood, a lecturer of sport psychology at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. Mr. Wood says by turning basic drills, particularly warm-ups, into some type of game, you get the added bonus of working on spatial awareness and communication.
“It’s likely that games will use different muscles, so athletes also get a chance to rest the muscles they use all season while still getting a workout in,” Dr. Fry says.
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