Alex Brouwer sought the source of the voice. The one that perpetually stood out among 13,000 screaming Germans at the World Championships in Hamburg. The one that was always heard by any player competing against an American team.
When he found the bearded face of Christian Hartford, the Dutchman pumped a fist and said “Let’s go USA!”
That is but a brief but encompassing glimpse into the enthusiasm that Hartford has brought into the gym at USA Volleyball, contagious enough that even a rival can be heard cheering for the Americans.
“We’ll be on the bike, and he’s always screaming at you,” Tri Bourne said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
Never is Hartford screaming in a negative light. He’s not a Navy commander, barking orders. He’s lifting up, encouraging, pushing, to the point that even someone like Alex Brouwer, the defender on the Netherlands’ top team and a former World Champ, can buy in.
“I remember my first couple months, Trevor (Crabb) was like ‘Who the hell is this guy? He never shuts up!’” Hartford recalled, laughing. “That was my job. I want to make that weight room the most positive, engaging environment possible. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have full out conversations of how your wife and kids are doing or your boyfriend or girlfriend. But when you walk through the door, I’m going to greet you. When you’re in there training, I’m going to engage and music is going to be blasting.”
Hartford knows, both from personal experience as an elite athlete himself and from half a decade of training college teams, it’s not a one-size-fits all approach. His day might consist of working with 44-year-old Jake Gibb in the morning on the sand, shifting to helping 23-year-old Sarah Sponcil in the afternoon and prescribing a weight program for indoor convert David Lee in the evening.
“We always talk about individualization and how you’re going to be able to do this program because as beach volleyball players, you’re all going to need certain characteristics,” said Hartford, who walked on to Wake Forest as a quarterback and received his masters from Northwestern. “Athlete A may get it a lot differently than Athlete B but also Athlete C might have a much different strength in their game that needs to be focused on than Athlete B. So you have to take into account all these individualizations.”
In that sense, it is perhaps Hartford’s greatest strength that, prior to USA Volleyball, he had little to no experience on the beach, but was an expert in virtually every other sport. As a quarterback at Wake Forest, he knew how to train football players. As a strength and conditioning coach at Northwestern, he worked with 115 athletes across a wide variety of disciplines. At Maryland, he helped with gymnastics, women’s lacrosse, wrestling, softball, and indoor volleyball.
All of that switching made his ability to pick up a new sport that much easier. He didn’t walk onto the beach proclaiming to know everything. Instead, he acknowledged he knew little. He asked questions, attaining his own unofficial Beach Volleyball Certification through coaches like Rich Lambourne, Jen Kessy, Jose Loiola and Tyler Hildebrand.
“Being around all these different sports as the strength coach, you don’t have any other choice but to learn everything about that sport,” Hartford said. “Diving in headfirst into whatever sport you’re working with and being at practice and asking coaches questions, watching film, going to competitions to see the environment and just the pure nature of each sport, I think that type of diversity in my coaching background helped me a ton with the transition to the beach.”
Most athletic performance coaches would be able to do that, in some form or other. Some might take longer. Some might pick it up as quickly as Hartford, who is immensely popular among the athletes. But what separates Hartford from the other candidates who sought the job is that he brings more than an ability to prescribe a quality training regimen.
For the first time in Bourne’s memory, there is now a tangible culture being set at USA Volleyball.
“When I got here I asked Tyler Hildebrand ‘What are we trying to create here, culture wise? What environment are we trying to create?’” Hartford said. “We were striving for a new culture.”
He acknowledges that it won’t be akin to a college team, where everyone is striving towards the same goal, together. At USA Volleyball, Hartford is working with individuals who represent the same country yet are also vying for the same Olympic spot. But still, you can find Chaim Schalk and Sponcil competing in Spikeball contests in the weight room. Athletes cheering their fellow athletes in pull-up contests. Others pushing one another on the assault bike.
“Try training 18 gymnasts at 5 in the afternoon after practice,” Hartford said. “You need as much positive energy as you can in that moment so I’m used to creating that and that’s always been a part of my mission is to create the most positive, productive training environment possible.
“To be in this environment where we have 25-30 athletes, it’s been incredible to build all of those relationships. Whenever you’re able to do that, you’re able to dive a lot deeper into the training process and thought process of what you’re doing. You’re also able to get a little more creative with your process as well. A huge piece has been being able to watch and talk to and see every single athlete as an individual perform and see what that person needs from a strength and conditioning side to get better.
“For me to be working with a specialized crew in a much smaller volume, it’s been a blessing because now I can see them practice, see them live, see how they jump, see how they swing and also talk to their coaches. You can really dive a lot deeper into these training programs.”