If you’re looking for the most efficient summation of the mindset to which Hailey Harward strives, and often achieves, on a beach volleyball court, you’d find the best reference in a rather old piece of literature.
“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters,” James wrote in the opening chapter of his epistle in the New Testament, “when you face trials of many kinds.”
The trials James spoke of, of course, are vastly different than that of Harward’s. Her trials come in poor passing, errant setting, a missed opportunity on defense or a swing that goes awry. But still: It’s a frustrating thing, to be in the perpetual pursuit of perfection, only to realize, on a daily basis, that perfection is unattainable, an asymptote that will never be reached, no matter how tantalizingly close it may appear.
Where’s the joy in falling short of that expectation?
“After taking some of December off, I came in with more expectations than I should have,” Harward said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “So when I made mistakes, I was like ‘Ah! This is sixth grade volleyball! What are you doing!’ Just verbally attacking myself.
“Other days, I can joke about it, ‘Oh wow, that wasn’t very good. Moving onto the next one.’ This week I’ve been beating up on myself but reflected on that, and that is now how I want to be on the court, so I think it’s important to have positive self-talk. We do this every day, so it’s something you want to come and do instead of it being a burden or feel like you don’t like yourself if you’re not doing well.
“This is such a gift to be able to play and to be at the beach, oh my gosh. Now, after this week of feeling down, I feel so refreshed to come back with pure joy, fun, work your hardest and bring your best attitude. At the end of the day, you just leave it all on the court.”
It’s a constant battle, to maintain such a mindset. Last May, in Gulf Shores, Ala., Harward wasn’t necessarily losing that battle, but she wasn’t winning it, either. After winning 23 of 26 matches throughout the season, Harward and Haley Hallgren had lost three straight on the stages in which it mattered most. They fell to UCLA’s Abby Van Winkle and Lindsey Sparks in the Pac-12 Championship, once more in the first round of the NCAA Championship to Florida State’s Molly McBain and Payton Caffrey, then again to LMU’s Jessie Prichard and Savannah Slattery.
The joy, even as the Trojans marched onto the finals, was gone.
“Going through that whole week, I was so down, I didn’t feel reliable for the team, I felt bad for losing for the whole team, dealing with that the whole time,” Harward said. “I couldn’t hide it that I was so down.”
All week, assistant coach Gustavo Rocha told her to be patient. That her time was coming. That, at the end of the day, “only the last game matters.” A hard concept to buy into when you’ve lost three straight. A concept in which Rocha proved uncannily prescient, for there were Harward and Hallgren, closing out Van Winkle and Sparks, 21-14, 21-17 to seal the NCAA Championship for USC.
It’s easy, of course, to believe you’ve discovered the wellspring of joy when you’re tumbling into the Gulf Coast with your teammates, National Champions all. But that happens but once a year. Throughout the off-season, Harward reflected on everything that comes in between that climactic moment, the practices, the film sessions, lifting weights — the 99 percent that precedes the championship peaks.
While sensational, those moments are ephemeral, punctuated by brevity and the inevitable wondering of “what next?”
It took Harward barely a month to find a perpetual source of joy, one with lasting power, one that isn’t impacted by wins and losses and shanks and doubles. On June 2, Harward and Julia Scoles, a teammate and close friend, were baptized together in the Pacific Ocean.
“Prayer and reading the Word and I think having a cause for your joy — it’s one thing to have this blind optimism which I feel like can fade if your circumstances keep punching you,” Harward said. “That’s tough on anyone. But if you have this source of love and light in your life, which is what I found in this last year, that just takes precedent over everything else. This is what’s really important in life. I want to share this with others and it just puts things in perspective. It took pressure off me as a volleyball player and emphasized ‘Who does Christ say who I am and how do I want to live my life?’ That’s the source.”
Still: The creep of expectations, of material wins and losses, crept in. During a goal-setting session with USC’s sports psychologist, Harward found that it wasn’t process-oriented tasks to which she gravitated, but results-oriented metrics: aces per set, dig conversions, wins in a season.
“But [our sports psychologist] was like: ‘Well how about your attitude? How you want to be remembered by your teammates? What are those types of goals you can think about and then intentionally bring with you every day to practice and reflect on?’” Harward recalled, laughing. “I go ‘Oh you’ve got some wisdom! OK! That’s true!’”
It’s constant, this battle between process and results, micro and macro, joy and a masochistic pursuit of perfection. But Harward’s prepared for it.
“I just want to play for the love of the game and just spread joy,” she said. “My college season process goal is to eliminate expectations.”
It helps that she’s surrounded by arguably the most talented team in NCAA beach volleyball history, where even the loftiest of expectations are likely to be met. But it’s more than that. Deeper. Tina Graudina is an Olympian, sure, but she’s also a phenomenal friend. Her relationship with Scoles is one of those that’s rare to find. She has a coaching staff who couldn’t be more supportive.
“That’s the biggest part of wherever you are in life: If you have amazing people with you, whether you’re winning or losing, more often than not, it’s going to be a great experience. We happened to win last year but it was close. It was kind of a coin toss a lot of times. I think that was something huge to remember despite winning or losing: Going in with that mentality of knowing I have sisters for life here, and that’s the coolest part.”