Dan Buehring’s volleyball-playing career was not necessarily motivated by a drive to succeed, but rather by a desire to conquer his grinding fear of failure.
Deep introspection, an academic’s perspective and a healthy dose of “we versus me” comradeship helped Buehring break into main draws of AVP beach tournaments, and ultimately planted the seeds that made him perfectly suited to his present occupation:
NCAA Division III men’s volleyball coach.
Buehring’s deep and close-knit Stevens Institute of Technology team last month put an exclamation point on a 35-3 season by winning the D-III title, topping North Central College in four sets in the championship match.
Over three seasons at the nationally renowned private engineering school in Hoboken, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Buehring has won 87.2% of his matches (75-11). A coaching road less traveled has proved to be a journey to ultimate success for Buehring and his squad of self-starting brainiacs.
Interestingly, the Ducks’ 37-year-old coach grew up in the western Chicago suburbs of Naperville (where North Central’s campus is located) and Lisle, home of Benedictine University. Buehring launched the men’s D-III indoor volleyball program at Benedictine, coaching there from 2015 to 2020 before taking the Stevens job.
During his days of battling as a Midwestern outsider to break the proverbial glass ceiling of the AVP main draw — with serious intent from 2014 to 2018 — Buehring and his partner (and “very best friend in the world” since their club days at Sports Performance), Matthew McCarthy, trained regularly on Chicago’s Oak Street Beach. A gleaming sliver of quartz sand nestled between Lake Michigan and the bustling Magnificient Mile, Oak sees shadows from the 100-story John Hancock Tower and Lake Shore Drive high-rises cast upon it during summer afternoons.
And it just happens to be my home sand, so I witnessed first-hand the tireless work ethic of these superbly skilled, personable and well-spoken young athletes.
The 6-foot-3 Buehring and the 6-8 McCarthy (the 2015 AVCA national men’s assistant coach of the year at Lewis University in suburban Romeoville) figuratively poked their heads and shoulders through that glass ceiling, but were unable to consistently put their feet solidly on it. Their most notable success came, fittingly, on the sand of Oak Street Beach during the 2016 AVP Chicago tournament, when they advanced to the second day of competition with a winners-bracket victory over the 13th-seeded team and topped the 14 seeds in the consolation bracket to finish 13th.
To illustrate how close Buehring and McCarthy were to cracking the “Elite 16” (the domestic tour had cut its typical fields from 32 to 16 after reorganizing from its 2010 bankruptcy), they were beaten in the final rounds of AVP qualifiers seven times during the 2014, ’15, ’16 and ’17 seasons, one elusive win away from main draws.
Lessons learned from playing beach
During a wide-ranging conversation with him, Buehring turned inward in reflecting on his beach career, which was pockmarked by more instances of deep frustration than joy, and spoke passionately on how dealing with those setbacks made him a better coach. Coaches typically don’t talk about failure, but Buehring has made that a key aspect of his unconventional go-to mantra. The genesis of his approach sprang from a realization as a player “my body was way more fit than my mind.”
“I just loved beach volleyball. I loved the friendships. I love that [the sport] is so difficult. I love that you have to have mental and emotional discipline. I love that it teaches you things about yourself,” Buehring said in a machine-gun-like burst. “There are zero excuses (in beach doubles), nowhere to hide. What cracked Matt and I into the AVP was a growth mindset … and failure … and iteration. We told ourselves that we need to be more in the moment, and I told myself that I needed to deal with my anxiety about the outcome of the match that was seeping into execution at the moment.
“A lot of really great research was out there on performance. We started to look at that, and I dove into even deeper. There is this list of factors that are the best practices in high performances in any field, and for me the application was beach volleyball. Then I developed this passion that I could share this knowledge with the Benedictine teams I coached at the time.”
Buehring set his sights on getting a degree to become a therapist, “because I wanted to help people with their problems. I figured that while I was at Benedictine I could get this (education) paid for, for free, and I’ll do this (coaching job) for a while. It will be fun and it allows me to train and play (beach volleyball) all summer. During that time I did (the work) over half of that degree to become a clinical psychologist. Meanwhile, I just fell in love with coaching.”
His research into the psychology of sports caused Buehring to peer even deeper into his vulnerabilities.
On that aforementioned list of performance factors, “foremost is the ability to be in the moment and to breathe. Another is to be committed to your skills and your body. I was doing a lot of (cross-training), with my goal to be the biggest, strongest, fastest guy out on the beach, which is a hard goal,” he said. “It was about a sound mind in a sound body, but my body was way more fit than my mind. I needed to settle myself down between the ears. I learned that the deal is to dance with your demons – your negative thoughts – tuck them into bed and say that you’re fine. Not that they need to go away, it’s about being OK with yourself.
“What the game does under pressure is that any of your negative stories about yourself will sabotage you in that moment. So (athletes) need to learn the techniques to put your attention on the right things, the fundamentals. If my commitment is to my teammate – for me that was Matt, for these guys, it was their teammates at Stevens – if my commitment is that I care about you more than anything, then you subordinate your personal issues for performance in the moment.”
I noted to Dan that those sound like principles taught to soldiers in combat, to which he replied that his “favorite performance psychologist is from West Point. I emailed him as soon as I got back on Monday and wrote, ‘You don’t know me, but I read your book and it won us a national championship.’ Applying (those principles) for him meant saving lives. For me, it’s about winning volleyball games, but ultimately in service of the players’ life beyond. If (these young men) can get over their inadequacies and start to see their adequacies, if not power, that’s the actual point we were expressing in this national championship.”
Buehring flipped it back around to the apex of his pro-beach career, that special Labor Day Weekend in 2016 on the familiar sand of Oak Street Beach. Dan and Matt had developed a fan base through their successes in local tournaments and supporters ringed the outer courts two and three deep for their matches.
“When Matt and I broke through (into the main draw of the AVP), that was just us breaking through our personal barriers,” he said. “We had a spot in that field without even being in the ‘Q.’ Then we won multiple matches and were playing on Saturday at home, in front of our friends, in front of the Chicago volleyball community that had supported us, and what happened (between the partners) was clarity. I love you. You love me. We love volleyball.”
Did Buehring have regrets that his hard work and frequent mental anguish did not result in more tangible rewards than career AVP earnings of $2,750 and best finishes of 13th (twice)? Certainly. But he understood his life priorities and walked away from the tour at an appropriate time.
“When we would finish on a Saturday I saw that this was our ceiling unless we wanted to move to the South Bay (in California), Hermosa and Manhattan and start training,” Buehring admitted. “I didn’t want to do that. I enjoyed coaching too much. I loved the Midwest. I could see that, at best, it would be five to seven years of making like $18,000 a year just to see that next tiny increment of improvement.
“While I had some good years athletically left in me, I knew my place. I knew my station. Yes, there is a part of me that says, ‘I wish I would have played in the 1990s, with 32-team draws. If I had just been younger, I would have played in the main draw every time.’ But overall, yeah, I felt I had been successful and could move on.”
Dan Friend, the highly decorated men’s indoor coach at Lewis, trained and coached Buehring and McCarthy on the beach. Friend said that he was “super proud” of what his former pupil has accomplished at Benedictine and at Stevens. He called Dan “highly cerebral and meticulous in his preparation. He placed a great emphasis on his fitness, studied the videos, paid great attention to the details.”
Friend acknowledged that battling through his innate anxiety had been Buehring’s constant challenge, but he said that experience “puts him in an ideal position to relate to many of the highly intellectual D-III athletes he coaches.” McCarthy, after nine seasons working with Friend at Lewis and five years as the associate head coach at Loyola Chicago, is the boys director and recruiting coordinator for Pipeline Volleyball Club in the western Chicago suburbs.
The bonds of deep friendship that Buehring forged with McCarthy and other beach partners, and that list of high-performance practices had borne fruit. From failure after failure had come fulfillment. Buehring used those as a template to turn his start-up Benedictine program into a team in the top five of the AVCA D-III national poll by 2018, reaching No. 3 during the 2019 season.
Making the move from home to Stevens
When Stevens came calling, Buehring was required to make a fast decision, but he had few hesitations about the job, even though it meant leaving his Chicago-area roots.
“It was in the middle of COVID. I had to show up to Stevens really quick,” said Buehring, who worked as assistant in the women’s indoor volleyball programs at Illinois-Chicago (2009-12) and Loyola-Chicago (2012-14). “I was offered the job in late December (of 2020) and they were going to do a fraction of a season (that started in March) navigating around COVID.
“Yes, it was hard to leave the people and the relationships at Benedictine. The (athletic) department was great, the young men were amazing. We had achieved a lot together, and emotionally it was extremely difficult. But professionally, it wasn’t as tough, because I knew I was going to a top-caliber program with really great support at one of the best academic institutions that hosted D-III men’s volleyball.
“So for me, it was a dream position. I told myself that I was going there to win national championships and do it the right way. Teach these young men about what’s coming their way in life, the character they have to build awesome lives for themselves. And if they’re as smart as I hear they are, then we’re probably going to do some pretty extraordinary things in our time.”
Buehring inherited a program at Stevens with built-in advantages. He replaced Patrick Dorywalski, who built the Ducks into a perennial small-college power during his tenure from 1989 to 2019, which included seven trips to the nationals and an NCAA D-III title in 2015.
Another national championship, Buehring said, could be chalked up to the Ducks’ deep roster and strong esprit de corps. Setter Louden Moran, a senior from Joliet, Illinois, Buehring’s former neck of the woods, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after dishing 40 assists and making 15 digs in the 25-15, 26-24, 15-25, 25-22 championship-match victory over North Central (25-4). Twelve players saw court time for Stevens. Sophomore Koby Sherman had 16 kills and senior Percy Bickford added 11. On the road to the final, the Ducks swept Geneva, defeated Wentworth in four sets and swept Messiah.
“If you look at the depth that we played this year, we had two full different teams, and our ‘B’ squad was beating some incredible teams,” Buehring said. “Our ‘B’ squad was winning in practice about 30-40 percent of the time, that’s how deep our squad was. We played our depth this year a lot, even in the national championship match. Some of our ‘B’ squad guys would be All-Americans elsewhere.”
Division III programs award no athletic grants. A deep thinker in his own right, Buehring seems a perfect match to develop the non-scholarship athletes at a “brain school.”
“What’s amazing about the D-III level that I can’t talk enough about is these young men are not getting paid anything to do this,” he said. “They’re doing this because they love it. They want to be there. These guys are highly motivated apex predators. I did not always find that to be the sentiment with the Division I women’s teams I coached. Largely they were, but there were plenty who complained that they were burned out and just didn’t love it anymore.
“The guys’ huge passion makes my job easy, because they are high energy and they’re engaged. When you have people this smart — we are a really high academic caliber school — you have this massive asset to work with as a coach, which is their intellect. We give a lot of our leadership stuff over to the players and I tell them that the authorship and the ownership is yours.
“The first question I ask is, ‘What do you want your college experience to be like?’ Let’s go through this journey in an authentic way, and by the way, you are going to be the leader. I am just going to mentor you. What happens is that you get 10 ‘X’ the effort out of them.”
While not moved by any great wanderlust, Buehring did just add a national championship to his coaching resume. In a more-high profile sport than men’s volleyball Buehring likely would be on a short list of potential “hot hires.” But Dan seems content in a situation he refers to as a “Goldilocks zone.”
“After living in Chicago all those years, I was ready for Hudson River Valley, mountains, ocean nearby, one of the most incredible cities on your front door, literally. The views on-campus are crazy,” Buehring said. “That view alone is a terrific recruiting tool.
“Long story short, I’m extremely happy here. This is a pinnacle job for me and I’d like to be here for a while, I’d like to (win national titles) multiple times. Stevens is a place where the formula is ready to go, you just need an organized coach who can put it all together. When it comes to professional stuff, if you have a job like I have, you need to be really grateful.”