Photo courtesy of Sarah Otteman | Austin Wilmot, an American Studies graduate student and middle blocker for the Pepperdine Men’s Volleyball team, celebrates with his team after a kill against California State Northridge on March 16 in Firestone Fieldhouse.
In Spring 2010, Pepperdine Sports Psychologist Alex Cushing and his University of California, Berkeley Men’s Swim and Dive teammates fell 31.5 points short of a national championship, losing to the University of Texas at Austin.
In 2011, Cushing and the Golden Bears came back, and beat the Longhorns to the championship by 22.5 points.
Both moments are memorable to Cushing, for different reasons.
The Golden Bears’ victory was made up of more than just the final moment. While moments like a championship win play out in the presence of a cheering crowd, many more take place off the court or field, shaping athletes and sometimes leaving a greater impact than any big win. Whatever the sport, athletes have common moments that unite them all.
“Swimming is a delayed gratification sport. You train year-round, there’s no offseason for really probably just three big meets a year,” Cushing said. “But that’s what I still miss about the sport. I don’t miss all the practices, getting in early, jumping in the pool at 5:30 in the morning. The competition is what I live for and getting to spend, as a collegiate athlete, five hours a day working out, quote unquote ‘suffering,’ with some of your best friends.”
Moments of competition
Moments of competition are the most visible aspect of athletics, which makes up the core of being an athlete, Cushing said.
“The competition is what brings them [athletes] together,” Cushing said. “Practices can be fun, waking up early can be OK, you know, pushing yourself to the limit can be OK, but we sacrifice and put ourselves, you know, through stressful environments, so we can compete at a high level.”
Cushing recalled all the hours of preparation he went through as a collegiate swimmer and connected it to his field of sports psychology.
One method of navigating through competitions is the Yerkes-Dodson Model, Cushing said. The model graphs the relationship of arousal or stress and performance, which Cushing said is integral to how a player performs in those moments of competition.
“If you are too hyped up, too energetic, too anxious, performance decreases,” Cushing said. “If you’re not hyped up enough you’re not going to perform as well as possible.”
Athletes spoke to this relationship and how they handle competition.
“I know when I get out there on the court and compete, I’ll be ready, and then also having the mindset of being a dawg,” said Isabel Montoya, a sophomore Sport Administration major and point guard on the women’s basketball team.
For Montoya, she said it takes a little aggression to be competitive on the court.
“You have to be a dawg on the court and be rude,” Montoya said. “In that confidence, have a little bit of arrogance because if you don’t believe in you, nobody else is going to.”
Each individual handles competition differently, and for some, it may have been an uncomfortable adjustment at first.
Shiori Fukuda, a student studying for her master’s degree in Global Business at Graziadio and women’s tennis player, learned a competitive attitude at an early age from one of her first coaches.
“Everything he did didn’t make any sense to me because I was so young, and I didn’t even understand,” Fukuda said. “These little, really small things, but also really important, and as I got older, I really realized that ‘Wow, if he wasn’t my first coach, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.’”
Fukuda clinched the quarterfinals victory for women’s tennis against the University of California, Los Angeles in 2021, a moment of competition that she said she’ll never forget.
For others, the challenges of competition become overwhelming, such as in the case of Jacob Windham, a senior Political Science major who walked away from running cross country after his first year at Pepperdine.
“It was always like, a very weird juxtaposition of like, a great emotion, followed by like, a downward emotion,” Windham said. “I would say where it’s like, ‘OK, I did it, like, all this training paid off,’ but then it’s like well you know, I run again next weekend, and like you got to do it again, and you gotta, you know, you can’t just get comfortable.”
Moments of hardship
For Windham, one of those moments of hardship was deciding whether to continue running as he had for years. Windham said he had to weigh the pros and cons of the sport.
“I had accomplished what I set out to do with the sport, which was to go [Division I] in college,” Windham said. “I wasn’t gonna go to the Olympics, or anything, so I just kind of respectfully walked away from it after I finished out that last year.”
For some, periods of struggle can be much longer. Montoya, who struggled with ACL and shoulder injuries throughout her high school and college career, described the drive that kept her going in those moments.
“The driving factor is one, I believe in myself, and I know what I can do, and two, is you have someone who believes in you,” Montoya said. “The worst thing you can do is disappoint them. For me, it’s just proving people right. I don’t care about the naysayers and the people who say I can’t do it, I care about the small amount of people that say I can.”
Montoya said giving up would be like a “slap in the face” to those who believed in her.
“Almost all athletes are very, very resilient and have strong perseverance, and they’ll get through it,” Cushing said. “But it just depends on what that road looks like.”
In these moments of hardship, Cushing said an athlete needs a healthy balance of both mental and physical well-being, as well as having people around them who they can lean on.
Moments of camaraderie
At the end of the day, the competition is important, but there are a lot more elements to sports. For instance, there is a massive community of fellow athletes, coaches, trainers and staff, family and friends who support an athlete. It’s in this community that the heart of sport lies.
“They [athletes] remember the good competitions, and it’s always fun in the moment to perform well,” Cushing said. “But also being surrounded by teammates, and really what athletes remember are the times in the locker room, the times on the road trips, like that camaraderie, so to speak.”
When a team is able to build a strong bond in those moments, they can become a family, Montoya said.
“I think it’s super beautiful when you can have two-in-one, when your teammates do become your family,” Montoya said. “And then you start to play for each other, and then the game means more than just a game.”
Connection extends beyond players to all the people that build a team, especially the coaches, said Austin Wilmot, an American Studies graduate student and middle blocker for the men’s volleyball team.
“It’s just definitely coaches, in particular, that you know, have a ton of volleyball IQ,” Wilmot said. “And know a ton about the sport, and the ones that you could tell really care about your progression through the sport and really care about your journey and what you can accomplish. I think those coaches, by far, stand out to me.”
Wilmot said he loves to see his team enter a “flow state,” where they are able to play as if it’s effortless. He also said it helps him sync up when the teammates to his left and right are 6 feet 9 inches. Wilmot himself is 6 feet 10 inches.
All the athletes, no matter the sport, said they valued the camaraderie highly, if not above all else. It goes to show, the heart of sport does not necessarily lie in the moments of competition, but moments of connection. In the end, Cushing said the moments that athletes cultivate will continue to reward them throughout their lives.
“It really is a full-time job,” Cushing said. “The next stage of their life they’re going to have the opportunity to excel in another career that sometimes just won’t be athletics, but it’s still an opportunity for them to use the characteristics that they have learned and implemented as elite athletes.”
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