Kinesiology professor and volleyball coach Amber Warners is in her element. By combining her education in sports psychology with a passion for volleyball and an ingenious use of technology on the court, Warners has produced a volleyball team that has reached the National Championship game three of the past four years and clinched the title twice.
Warners’ teams prove to be much more than just a group of athletes. Her coaching style puts an emphasis on forming a tight-knit community, making and meeting goals, and knowing how to deal with high-pressure situations.
With her PhD in psychology-sociology of sport from Michigan State University, Warners teaches the team to work together and keep their heads on straight during high-pressure situations like national championship games. She incorporates activities into practice sessions that help the players feel like they are in a safe environment and that everyone is an essential part of the team.
“We do an activity in the beginning of the season where I ask everyone to share a person, place or event that has shaped them and helped them become who they are. I think once you do that, you establish a trust, and you give somebody the benefit of the doubt,” she says.
She also values direct communication with her players.
“We’re not afraid to confront each other,” she says. “This helps our players in every area of their life. Whether it’s with their friends or possible spouses or eventual children, or whether they are a boss or have a boss. It becomes a lot easier because that’s the culture we established in our team.”
Warners and the team set a series of goals each season. There are social goals, academic goals, spiritual goals and, of course, volleyball goals.
“Our theme in a recent year was ‘being a thermostat.’ We talked about being able to change the temperature of a room and not being affected by it. We went through devotional books and went to chapel together. We also have a prayer chain, so I’m praying for people, and I always know there are three people praying for me.”
Technology on the court
Recently, though, the team’s performance has gotten a boost of a different sort. Warners has developed a technology that she uses to help players develop their game.
In 2014, when Warners was working with her top setter, she was looking for a way
to improve that player’s decision-making on the court.
“One of the really important things to teach is decision-making as far as who and where to set the ball,” she says. “I couldn’t get her to do what I wanted her to do. We would look at film and she would say, ‘Yep, that makes sense,’ and then we would go out on the court for practice and it would just not transfer.
“For me the bigger picture for research is that exploring God’s kingdom by using my mind and talents is one of the best ways to glorify him.” AMBER WARNERS, VOLLEYBALL COACH
So I started to think about how I could get in her head.”
That’s when Warners remembered a three-way push-to-talk microphone system soccer referees used to communicate across the long field during games.
“I strapped the thing on my setter’s back, and I had her talk to me about what she was thinking between points. And then after that, I started to talk to her during play. I said, ‘Now I just want you to listen. I’m going to tell you things that I see, and we’re going to go on from there.’”
Warners’ use of sport psychology and an innovative use of technology clearly paid off. Calvin’s volleyball team won the NCAA Division III national championship that November.
After seeing the success on her own team, Warners wondered whether the technology could be extended farther. The best volleyball players in the world are excellent decision-makers and know the most about what it’s like to be in the moment, and Warners wanted to get in their heads. Through her contacts in the volleyball world, she called professional and NCAA Division I coaches, hoping to find research on the topic. But none existed.
“It’s a piece of the game that just hasn’t been explored,” she says.
From there, the path was clear.
“We had a six-way wireless microphone system developed,” Warners explains. The system has been created to be safe for players and won’t cause injuries if they land on the equipment.
“Players and coaches will be able to receive and send messages. I have control over all of it. So if I only want them to hear things and not say anything, I can do that. I can shut anyone in or out. The cool thing is that we have Secret Service earpieces that are really light.”
“Cool” is exactly the word. Warners worked for a brief time with Karch Kiraly, U.S. women’s national volleyball team head coach, recording some of the best players in the country who are in the running for the U.S. Olympic team.
She then traveled around the country to work with some of the nation’s best players from six Division I teams on their home courts. She used the mic system for research by having the players speak their thoughts out loud during the practice sessions. Athletes could then not only watch video of themselves playing, but also hear what they were thinking at the time.
A source for research
Warners is currently using the recordings as a source for research about what makes a volleyball player tick. One thing she’s learned already? “Be authentic. You’re the only person who can be you.” Warners stresses that there are many coaching styles among the top teams in the country, but they are all successful as coaches play to their strengths and the strengths of their team.
“I want to study the effects of negative self-talk on play,” she adds. “Then we’re also going to study each position and see what some of the best players in the world are seeing and thinking while they’re playing.”
Now, in 2016, Warners has her first chance for in-depth use and research of the developed product with the Knights. Plus, the applications of this technology outside of the volleyball court are also exciting for Warners.
“I want to study the effects of negative self-talk on play. We’re also going to study each position and see what some of the best players in the world are seeing and thinking
while they’re playing.” AMBER WARNERS, VOLLEYBALL COACH
“This is limitless,” she says. “This could be used on a soccer team, you could use this in basketball practice, put it on a pitcher and a catcher and a coach and talk to them in practice about what pitches to call. It could go from sport to sport. I’m excited about all of the things we’re going to learn.”
For this professor-coach, her research is coming full circle.
“What’s really cool for me is that I’m having pieces of my job all melt together. So, it’s not just going to be doing research on something and not have it be applicable, but this can be something that I can now use for my job because coaching is such a big part of it. It all mold together, so the passion I feel for it is incredible. It could not only help our team, but it has the potential to change something I love—the sport of volleyball.”
And for Warners, faith is at the center. “For me the bigger picture for research is that exploring God’s kingdom by using my mind and talents is one of the best ways to glorify him. It’s been very evident that God has had his hand in [this project] from the beginning.”