“You can’t do this drill anymore,” she said.
UCLA and U.S. Men’s National Team coach John Speraw was dumbfounded. His masterpiece of a drill, which included radar guns and targets, was his answer to serving.
“What are you talking about? It’s a perfect drill,” he countered.
Calmly, Andrea Becker said, “It’s destroying their confidence. You have to stop it.”
Again Speraw battled. “What are you talking about? They’re going to get better, their number will get better, and they’ll build confidence.”
Becker looked at him and repeated, “You’ve got to stop it.”
Meet: The Coach Whisperer.
Andrea Becker has become a formidable presence on some of the top volleyball benches, despite her lack of experience in the sport compared to many of her peers.
“She works behind the scenes a lot, and she’s constantly giving me suggestions,” Speraw said of his assistant coach. “When I’m smart, I listen to what she has to say.”
“I grew up thinking I would be a coach,” Becker said smiling, recalling her athletic childhood in Martinez, Calif., 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. She was a three-sport star athlete all four years at Alhambra High School where basketball and volleyball took a backseat to her first love: softball. But her on-field achievements were shadowed by a painful back condition. Becker suffered from a degenerative disc disease and two herniated discs that she quietly played through.
Becker walked on to the softball program at Sacramento State University and earned her stripes while playing through the pain of her condition. She ended up being voted team captain her last two years.
“When I finished my undergrad, I thought I was going to coach softball,” Becker recalls. “I stayed on board as a grad assistant and got my master’s degree in sports performance.”
Becker had a teacher who introduced her to the field of sports psychology, and by 2007 she had a doctorate in the subject from the University of Tennessee. She then applied for and got a job as a professor at Cal State Fullerton.
“John [Speraw] was the only person I knew in Southern California at the time,” said Becker. (The two met through Speraw’s mother who was a professor of nursing at the University of Tennessee.) “I called him up and told him I got a job and we became good friends.”
The two talked often, discussing volleyball and the psychology of coaching, which is where Becker’s research was focused. What makes a great coach? How should coaches design practices? What kinds of relationships should coaches have with their players? What kind of environment should a coach create? What kind of culture?
Over the next few years, Becker was often in the stands for Speraw’s matches at the University of California, Irvine, where he was the very successful men’s head coach, winning the national championship in 2007 and 2009. In 2011, Speraw’s assistant coach left and he needed a replacement.
“This thought just hit me. As soon as I had the idea, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do,” Speraw said. He called Becker.
“I think I have a pretty good understanding of the volleyball game itself, so I’m at a point in my coaching career where I want to broaden my view of what we do and how I see the game,” said Speraw. “Working with people who aren’t volleyball coaches is intriguing to me. I also was intrigued about having a female on staff and how that might impact the guys. It’s proven to be effective for both those reasons. How I think differently about the game and me bringing somebody in who’s not necessarily a volleyball person gives you different perspectives.”
Becker split time between her two jobs. She spent her days in the classroom teaching in Fullerton and then drove to Irvine to be on the front lines of coaching the sport. She was hooked.
“Being indoctrinated into the volleyball culture while studying the game from an external perspective is what I do,” she said. “Whenever they’re implementing a new system or talking to a player about a technique, I’m really studying it from an unbiased position. I ask a lot of questions.
“Why do you do it this way? Why is it beneficial? How can we make it better? Sometimes the answer is ‘That’s just the way we’ve always done it.’ Maybe the way we’ve always done it isn’t the best way. So maybe we can explore options and use research to figure out what the best way is, and go with that.”
Former UCI opposite Carson Clark admitted he was skeptical about his coach’s new hire at first, but that doubt faded away quickly.
“She didn’t understand everything about volleyball when she first got here, so it was hard to understand how she could help us become better volleyball players,” Clark said. “It wasn’t until you understand that the knowledge she possesses has an impact on every sport. [That’s] when I started to see a change in how people responded to her and how willing they were to listen. I regret not being open to her immediately when she was available to us.”
Clark, who graduated in 2012 and is now a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team, took much away from Becker’s tutelage that first season.
“I knew I was a decent server, but she allowed me to reach an entire part of my game and maintain it from the service line that [previously] I was only able to touch maybe twice a match,” Clark acknowledged. “She helped me understand that I could control everything in that moment and determine which way the game would go, even if we weren’t passing or attacking well.”
After Becker’s first season with Speraw, the Anteaters won the 2012 national championship. Becker had become such a fixture on Speraw’s bench that when he made the move to UCLA the following season, Becker went along. She can also be found with the coaching staff of the national team, which Speraw took over last spring.
The two admit that the coaching talk from the early days of their friendship has not ceased.
“We never get tired of it,” Becker said with a laugh. “We could talk volleyball 24/7. A lot of people can’t do that. When he’s on vacation or I’m visiting family, we’re texting back and forth philosophies and we’re sending emails. That’s a unique thing.”
But don’t be fooled, it’s not always an easy relationship between “Becks” and Speraw.
“I chip at John a lot,” she admitted. “Most coaches wouldn’t put up with it, which is why our coaching relationship is so good.”
And along with helping the players, Becker also helps fellow coaches with their demeanor and mannerisms. She recalled during her first year at Irvine that Speraw would often put his head down when he was thinking on the bench.
“That’s a natural and normal thing, but it might be conveying the message that he doesn’t think his players can do it, or it might convey that he’s upset about something they did,” she said. “I would lean over and just say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get your head up right now just so they know you’re with them.’ Little subtleties like that can make a big difference.”
Speraw is the one who ultimately titled her The Coach Whisperer.
“So much of what she does is trying to understand athletes. And when I think of The Horse Whisperer I think of somebody [who] is capable of understanding something that doesn’t quite feel comfortable or able to communicate everything that they want. Oftentimes when you deal with athletes and the mental side of the game, it’s hard to talk about some of these things; these feelings, these thought processes that occur – I think she’s very good at delving into that subject matter and bringing out the best in all the people she coaches.”
Speraw’s praise is weighty, but Becker’s record tells all. After helping UCI win their fourth national championship in 2012, the 2013 UCLA Bruins went 21-11 under her and Speraw’s guidance. With another year together as coaches and players, plus perhaps the most stacked recruiting class in the country, the team is only expected to do better this season and will contend as always for the national title. The men’s national team, faced with a challenging international field including ferocious Russian and Brazilian squads, eked out a winning season (12-11) in Speraw and Becker’s first year.
It might be difficult to spot Becker’s hand in the performance of these teams, but notice the focus of the servers behind the end line and the upward tilt of Speraw’s head on the bench. It is in the small moments where The Coach Whisperer makes her mark.
Originally published in February 2014