Faith, vulnerability, and national championships: an interview with Calvin’s Amber Warners


Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously said his best coaching job came in 1959 when his team went 14-12, finishing just second in their conference and missing the NCAA Tournament. In contrast to the ten national championships he’d eventually win, Wooden often used that story to impress upon people that winning and excellence are not the same thing. 

More than 50 years later, Calvin head women’s volleyball coach Amber Warners is having a similar experience in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her teams won Division III national championships in 2010, 2013, and were runners-up in 2012, but Warners hasn’t changed her approach to coaching volleyball much in the preceding decades. People have just started noticing that it works.

Warners and I spoke for an hour last week about what has worked for her at Calvin. Her methods are largely a byproduct of her personality: deeply religious, vulnerable, and passionate about making volleyball a better experience for everyone:

Ryan Maloney: I told you in an e-mail that I’ve been reading the most recent John Wooden biography, and I was surprised to learn that the years Wooden was winning national championships were actually the unhappiest of his life. I don’t want to put that experience on you, but since Calvin Volleyball has ascended in the public eye, has it changed your experience of coaching?

Amber Warners: When you e-mailed that to me I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “somebody else gets it.” It’s not that I’m unhappy, because it’s not that at all. The last five years have been some of the best of my life, but I’m constantly bombarded about how important it is to win it all. I don’t get offended, but I get a little sad about it. We were really good before 2010. We would have 29-5 seasons, but nobody cared. Nobody around here cared, nobody anywhere else cared. We weren’t doing anything different then. So now when people want to know what we do, I’m flattered because I feel like I have stuff to share, but I had stuff to share in 2009 too.

RM: And I probably wouldn’t be talking to you back then.

Warners: Yeah. There’s so many great things about going on a tournament run, but there’s so many difficult things about it. You’re trying to prepare, you’re wondering about the outcome, you’re worrying about the group dynamic, but trying not to show stress. A tournament run is fun, but it’s certainly not relaxing. I’ve had so many people say, “What was the feeling like in 2013 when that ball dropped at 20-18 in the fifth set? That feeling must have been incredible.” And you know what? It was a relief, but my favorite moment of the entire tournament was in our hotel room with seven of the players in my room, and we talked about things like how many kids they might have some day, and who might get the coolest job when they graduate. That was real. The memories that you make is the cool part about a tournament run, not the plays or the final result.

RM: I want to ask a lot about sports psychology since you have such a deep interest in it. I read a little bit about your goal-setting process. A lot of coaches do goal-setting, but I read that you have social goals, and even spiritual goals for your players. Can you tell me about that?

Warners: It’s really important for me to first say that we have a system that’s about ownership on our players. We go on a retreat and have the players divide into really small groups and every player has to contribute. They come up with ideas of goals that they want to be held accountable to. And then they meet in a big group without any of the coaches where everyone has a voice. Then they list all their ideas and they talk together about what they really want to be held accountable for. So there’s four kind of goals. What kind of academic goals are important to this group this year? What kind of volleyball goals do we want to accomplish? We’re a faith-based school, so we have spiritual goals. Every player who plays in our program, I want them to walk away with a stronger faith. And then the fourth one is their social goals. I want my players to walk away from our program and say, “I am better at my relationships; I’m a better friend, sister, daughter, maybe wife, maybe mother some day, because my life has been changed by being a part of that program.” I can go on and on about just that aspect. But after they set their goals, we tell them that these goals need to be measurable. And so we work with them and figure out how we can measure them. We come up with six to eight goals in each category that we talk about the entire season, and the entire year.

RM: I’m curious because when we do (goal-setting), it can be easy to let things fall through the cracks. How do you hold yourself accountable to holding your players accountable?

Warners: We have a whole master calendar. (It includes) our conditioning, what we want to accomplish, and our devotion schedule. We do devotions if that’s what the women want to do. We don’t do devotions because it’s going to help us become better volleyball players. We do devotions because I look at our team as a small Church community. Our players have a lot of stuff going on in their personal lives that’s a whole lot more important than volleyball. So we’re there for each other. And so…

RM: Before you go on, can you explain what a devotion is?

Warners: Yeah. It’s different every year, but one year I read a chapter of a Max Lucado book every week, and we then discussed it. We took time out of practice on Monday’s, and we read it and we talked about it. Other times the players have wanted to share something from each person, and they take turns on those Mondays. And they can come up with whatever they want.

RM: When you talk about goal-setting, you’re very, very organized. We e-mailed you a couple years ago about your pre-season challenges, and you responded within 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s hard to get people that you know to get back to you, let alone someone you’ve never met. Is that something that’s always been a part of you? That high level of organization?

Warners: (laughs) Well, I don’t know if you caught me at the right time, but the e-mail thing is really difficult for me because before this year volleyball was only 30% of my load. I was a professor 70%. So e-mail was typically the thing that I let go. But I also like to respond to things that I’m very passionate about, and that I think can help people. We’re all in this together, and one of my thought processes for the last 20 years is that as coaches we don’t help each other enough. I just shared the conditioning program with some high school coaches and they said, “why would you want to share that? Why would you want to give away your secrets?” Well, this is about doing a job that’s really, really difficult. And if it can be a betterment for athletes and help the game be more positive, what’s more important than that? You know? I get really frustrated with the superficial records and the wins, and how important people put that on somebody’s resume as far as how capable they are as a coach. Some of my best coaching jobs have been when we’ve been 28-7 and just getting into the (NCAA) tournament.

RM: I should also say thank you because when we started implementing the challenges, not only physically, but just in terms of commitment to the program it’s been tremendous for our preseasons.

Warners: I’m really glad to hear that. When I was giving my presentation at the convention there were some Division I players waiting to get on the court after us. A few of my players were demonstrating the challenges, and they went up to my players and said, “I’m so thankful our coach wasn’t listening to your coach’s presentation. Because there’s no way we want to do that stuff.” Yeah, it’s hard, but my players wouldn’t want it any other way.

RM: I agree with you. Our players are already having anxiety for August, but I think if you asked them they wouldn’t want to change that because that’s what makes it meaningful for them. One more point on sports psychology. I’m really interested in the idea of community building. How do you approach that idea on our team?

Warners: Well, we kick it off with the retreat, and we do a lot of trust building. We don’t do any of these “fall backwards” type things. We do a lot of intentional things to become vulnerable, and to become real with one another. What I tell my players is, “we need to find out who the real you is.” On a day-to-day basis, most of us don’t show the real us. It’s, “Hi, how ya doin? Good? Okay, great.” But what is going on behind that? What’s going on in their lives? We really try to share things that have helped shape us in the past that make us who we are. And when we understand that, it is incredible how we give each other the benefit of the doubt. That’s just one thing. Communication and love are two major, major concepts that we talk about all the time. I meet our players for lunch for an hour when school starts every year. It takes a lot of time, but to be able to spend one-on-one time and really build the relationship between the player and myself… they don’t get one-on-one time with me very often. Then there’s all the informal touching base. On Monday’s I try to touch base with every single freshman, informally. They’re warming up, and I will walk to somebody and ask how her weekend was. Tuesday’s are for the sophomores, Wednesday’s are for the juniors, Thursday’s are for the seniors, and Friday’s are for anybody else I feel like I need to touch base with. And it could be one minute, but at least they’ve had me pick them out and say, “Hey, I loved it when you did this,” or “Hey, one of the things I want you to work on is this.” That’s something I’m very, very intentional about. I don’t ever shy away from the hard conversations, and I also don’t ever assume that they see the writing on the wall. During one of my first years coaching, one of my outsides hit the ball out or in the net seven times in a row. I finally took her out, put somebody else in, and I didn’t want to walk to the end of the bench to tell her why I took her out because I thought it would be an embarrassment to her. So after the match, her and her mom come up to me. I have a great relationship with parents, but she said to me, “I don’t know why you took my daughter out.”

RM: (laughs)

Warners: Since then, I have made a point to over-communicate. I just want to make sure they know where I’m coming from. They know I love them, I would do anything for them. But I also hold them accountable. So they know that when I get on them, or when I’m using some pretty brutal truth about what they’re doing, there’s some love underneath it. They know I’m only talking to them because I care, and they also know they’re going to get it straight from me. I’m not going to beat around the bush about something, and they’re not going to walk away thinking, “I wonder if she really meant that.” That’s really helped our program, and it’s put less anxiety on our players because they’re not wondering. A lot of coaches are too afraid to have the hard conversations.

RM: Is that something that comes more naturally to you than most people, or is that something you had to get better and better at?

Warners: Oh, I totally think it’s the way God built me. But I’ve also gotten better at it, and something I’ve gotten less nervous about. I would get sick to my stomach about some of the conversations I would have to have with players. I’ve never posted a (cut) list. Never, even 25 years ago I would always talk to them personally about if they made the team, and why or why not. It’s way worse to keep things in and not talk to them.

RM: You talked about intentionally creating vulnerable situations during preseason for your players. You also talk about communication, about conflict, and love. Is that something that you also intentionally create, or does that come from your example?

Warners: Well, I think it certainly comes from my example, but as coaches we can’t get it all right. It’s impossible for us to always make the right decision, so I don’t have a problem going to my team and saying, “You know what guys? I totally screwed that up,” Or I’ll talk to a player and say, “I should have talked to you about this two days ago, I should have seen that better.” I think it’s partly example, but people will also ask me what I do in our program that makes it so special. People see our team as different, not only in the winning, but in the way they interact, and the culture. My comment back to them is, “I don’t know what I do, other than it’s the way God built me, and the things I do are very easy for me to see.” Because that’s just the way I do things. I look at our team as me being a part of it. I’ll definitely make executive decisions, but I don’t do anything major with the team unless I talk to them about it and we get the leaders’ buy-in first. Then they sell it to the team. I think that’s the thing that’s been unique. Our juniors and seniors will not let the culture of the program drop on their watch. And the other thing that’s unique about our program is that there is no hierarchy as far as responsibilities or seniority. I’ll give you a powerful story. At our (preseason) retreat we draw straws for who gets the beds, because there aren’t enough beds. We had a senior whisper to a freshman, “Hey, I’m going to sleep on the floor, you take the bed. I know you’ve had a rough week. I want you to get a good night’s sleep.” For a freshman to hear that from a senior, how powerful is that? That is a lesson that when the freshmen get to be seniors, they’re going to do the same thing. They’re going to treat the freshman like that too. To me, that says it all.

RM: Do you have captains?

Warners: We do.

RM: How do you pick your captains?

Warners: First of all, I never pick them. I always have a vote. I can say who I think will be a tremendous leader, but if their peers don’t feel that way about them, then we’ve got a problem. Some kids have very good leadership characteristics, but they don’t have the followers. There has to be some authentic leading going on when the coaches are not around. So I’ve never gone away from the vote. We do points: you have to give five points to two people, and you can give those points any way you want. You can give four points to someone if you feel really strongly that they should be the captain, but you have to give at least one point to someone else. We vote for them at the end of the season, because I want my graduating seniors to have more of a say in who the captains will be than the incoming freshman, because the freshman only get a two-week glimpse. I give players a whole sheet of what I expect out of a leader, and it’s difficult. I tell them there’s no way any of us could be great at all these things, but these are what’s important. It’s not about their playing time, it’s not about their year in school. I could care less if they’re a senior, junior, sophomore, freshman. I also tell the group that just because you’re not named a captain, that we still need every person to do what they do. We might have a floor general who’s a setter, who might not be named a captain, but she’s just as much of a leader on the floor. I tally the votes, but I don’t name the captains right away. I usually do it by February or March. If the people who were voted for haven’t stepped it up in the off-season without me asking … like I said, I’ve never gone against the team, but I have decided on one captain vs. two, or two vs. three, depending on personality and what the team needs. But some of my best leaders and captains come from the people that I didn’t think would embrace it.

RM: You talk a lot about faith, and you talk a lot about God. At our public school, it’s something that can be foreign to us. Is that something you have to look for in the recruiting process? Someone who would be a fit for your religious school?

Warners: The way I recruit is very different than most. I don’t go to a weekend tournament looking at a board and say, “I want that girl, that girl, and that girl.” We’re so unique because we’re playing at a small Division I level at times, and getting kids that are turning down athletic scholarships. So one, we have to find a unique person who might want to take money for an academic scholarship instead. Or maybe have the means to afford it in the first place. Two, the faith-based piece. I don’t care how good a player is, nobody is going to come in and change the culture of our team. I can typically tell within five minutes of talking to a kid if she’s going to be a good fit for us, or maybe better yet if they won’t be a good fit for us. I will not sit down and give my recruiting spiel based on what I think a kid is looking for. I say to them all the time, “I want you to get a very clear picture of what we’re about, and if we’re not what you’re looking for, then that’s okay, because you wouldn’t be a good fit for us either.” I’m really careful on that. One person could ruin what we’re trying to do.

RM: Sure

Warners: And they’ll end up transferring. I don’t want that. I try to paint the truest picture of what they would get here. One of our All-Americans said to me a couple years ago (about recruiting), “You were the only coach that asked me about anything other than volleyball.”

RM: If I’m that girl, or any other recruit, what are you telling me that I should be expecting about your program coming in?

Warners: Well, I would talk about how we want to win. I’m not going to shy away from that. I also talk about how I care and that I want them to walk away in every area of their life changed: spiritually, socially, academically, and I want to help them be the best volleyball player they can be. I also talk to them about how we have a culture that cares. We have women who really put themselves second, who want to be a part of something that’s an incredible thing that’s way beyond what they do individually. And that’s hard. I also want players to come in not being afraid to fight for a position. One of the most important things is that if a person is scared of conflict, or having to fight for something really hard, our program is not for them either. They’re going to quit before they get through the year. Because some things don’t go your way. We have really good players who don’t get the starting position. But what I can promise them is an experience that’s going to shape their life that goes way beyond the playing court. I want players who have things in their life that are more important than just playing time. That’s important to me.

RM: I’ve been intrigued lately with the idea of a person having two professions that complement each other. In our world I think you have the practitioners who are the coaches, and you have the researchers who are helping the coaches, and sometimes it’s hard to bridge that gap. But you’re both a researcher and a coach (Warners received her PhD from Michigan State). I want to ask about your research a little bit.

Warners: I started out being really intrigued by the connection of alcohol and athletics.

RM: I saw that on Jeff Jansen’s website.

Warners: I really wanted to find out how leaders impact their team members in their alcohol use. Nobody had ever studied it. What I found in my dissertation was that if the leaders of a team tend to drink more alcohol, then the whole team tended to drink more. If the leaders tended to not drink, the whole team tended to not drink. The interesting thing that I found was if a team has an alcohol policy beyond what the college already has, the team wouldn’t adhere to those rules unless it was decided by the team. It didn’t matter how many times a coach tried to implement an alcohol policy, there were still violators. But when the team said it, the team would do it. The whole group dynamic really started to intrigue me.

The research I’m doing now I wasn’t going out looking to do it. As a coach, I really try to be innovative and find ways that may be a little outside the box, to try and get my players to do things the way I want them done. So my setter a few year ago, Megan Rietema, I couldn’t get her to make the kind of decisions I thought a setter should make. I tried everything. I tried showing her video, I tried stopping practice to show her the play. I finally decided I wanted to try to get in her head in the middle of a rally, and find out what’s going on. So I knew we had these rinky-dink two-way microphones that soccer officials use to communicate. I put (Rietema) on one, and I put me on one. Between every point I asked her to tell me what the middle blocker was doing on the other side of the net. From there, and once she got to the point where I thought she was really thinking the way a setter should, I said, “okay, now I want you to just listen to me.” And so now I was getting in her head. We came up with this cool communication system with words in the middle of rallies. She got a feel for where I wanted her to set, and why. It was a difference-maker for us. Then I started thinking, “What should a DS be seeing? Or a left side? Or how about a middle with their eye-sequencing?” So I started to trying to find that information, and there’s nothing out there! There’s all kinds of stuff about the physical part, but nothing about what’s going on in what players see. Then I thought maybe I could come up with a device that would help answer some of these questions. So I called Kathy DeBoer (AVCA Executive Director) and we talked for an hour-and-a-half. She thought it was a great idea. Long story short, I was granted a sabbatical, and an anonymous donor who I wasn’t looking for gave me up to $100,000 to pursue it.

RM: Wow.

Warners: And I had a connection with Karch Kiraly who had heard about it from Kathy. From there I went to five of the elite Division I coaches, and they all said, “yes, we’d love to have you come in with this machine.” Right now, I’m in the middle of coding research from all those places, and I want to find out what are two or three things that players are seeing in the middle of a rally that are really important. As coaches, if we know that, how do we train for that? I’m hoping to have the results by the end of summer. I’m really excited about it because I believe it has potential to change the way we coach.

RM: And you’re talking about coaching any sport?

Warners: Any sport. Since then, I’ve had some professional teams contact me in different sports. The machine is six wireless microphones that are very portable and durable. Then I have four earpieces. You can use any combination. But the really cool thing is that all the microphones get recorded into a computer, and you can then sync it to video. So you can now not only show a player what they were doing on video, but what they were saying too. I’ve used in our gym with my players’ serving routine. I’ve talked to my players for two years about the process and the protocol for what they should be thinking before a serve. Until I put them on the microphone this spring, I realized that some of them really weren’t listening to me!

RM: (laughs)

Warners: I’ve got great kids, but they’re held accountable now. John Dunning (Stanford) said to me that it changed the way they practice, that it’s finally something that can keep his players accountable for what we want them to see or say.

RM: That’s a really big complement.

Warners: I know! I’ve been incredibly fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to go into those gyms.

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