Kiraly Finds His Focus
Interview by: Josh Staph
POINT. GAME. MATCH. WORLD.
It’s official. Karch Kiraly is the best volleyball player—EVER. The International Olympic Committee recently voted the Olympic gold medalist the greatest volleyball player of all time. Although natural talent, steadfast determination and a father who played the game all contribute to his success, hard work and tough training are key.
STACK met up with Karch and his coach, Mike Rangel, on the eve of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour’s stop in Cincinnati. Karch offered us a glimpse inside the routine that has kept him in the game physically and mentally for almost four decades.
STACK: Take us through your pre-match routine starting the night before.
KARCH: The night before, I really don’t think about anything. In fact, I purposely have Mike tell me where we are on the board, without telling me who we are playing. I’ll sleep better. I won’t start going over strategy in my mind if I wake up in the middle of the night. I do everything I can to avoid knowing who we are facing tomorrow. All I do is find out what time we play.
STACK: Do you go to bed early?
KARCH: If I hadn’t had such a brutal past couple of nights, I would try to get down around 10, but I’m going to try and get down earlier tonight and sleep well. In the morning, I’ll get to the court at least an hour before first serve.
The first thing I do when I get there—like all of the players on tour—is apply sunscreen. One of the few hazards of the job is the wear-and-tear our skin takes from the sun. I throw on some Coppertone 48 so I don’t have to re-apply all day.
Then I have a stretch routine, which is pretty extensive. I learned it from my now flexibility coach about 12 or 13 years ago. I sprained my ankle really bad at the end of the year, and I was having a hard time getting the flexibility back in it. He gave me a series of really neat stretching exercises that require a lot of focus, because they involve balancing on one leg. The exercises helped get the flexibility back in my ankle and also increased my overall flexibility. As I was getting into my 30s, I wanted to do everything I could to improve my longevity. One of the best ways to do that is to minimize injury or avoid it by being more flexible—especially when we are meeting at the net. There is a hitter and blocker, which means a lot foot contact, where you can twist your ankle easily.
I also do a whole 20- to-25-minute series of demanding stretches. It is a good warm-up and a way to focus my mind. It takes focus to do the exercises right. Then I do some ball work for about 10 or 15 minutes and then a little extra shoulder work. I bring a band or tubing with me to warm up my shoulder because I had surgery on it last year. After that, I’m ready to go for first serve. I don’t think about our opponents or strategy until the last few minutes before the match.
STACK: Do you have any particular superstitions?
KARCH: My biggest one started years ago. I had a bunch of different colored hats I wore. When I started wearing a pink one, we won five or six tournaments in a row, so I stuck with it. It started as superstition and now it’s tradition—my hideous trademark that I always wear. It makes it easy for my family to find me, because I am the only one on tour with enough nerve to wear a pink hat.
STACK: How have you been able to remain so mentally focused for all these years?
KARCH: I was fortunate to start the sport at a young age. I was 6 years old when my dad started teaching me. We started playing tournaments together when I was 11, in the lower ranking of beach volleyball in California. We weren’t playing against kids; we played against grown men, so immediately, I had to raise my game to compete. We competed well. It was really an exciting time trying to find my way from being a boy to becoming a man—being toe to toe and eye to eye with grown men, even though I was only 11 or 12.
My dad was a really intense competitor and that rubbed off on me. He was loud and vocal on the court, so I let him do all the talking. But I developed a kind of quiet intensity that I knew I had to have to improve and compete with grown men. It took every ounce of focus. I couldn’t be messing around and acting like an 11-year-old if we expected to compete well. I wanted to compete well, because it was great to see the looks in the eyes of men—like, "Wow, I am having a hard time beating this kid."
I thank my dad for my mental longevity and for the fact we played against better competition. Playing against better competition makes you better and more focused, so you can do what you have to, to win.
STACK: Do you listen to music to get ready to play?
KARCH: A lot of guys are out there with their iPods. I’m not one of them. I just never really got into it. In high school, some of the guys were really into music. When I first joined the team as a sophomore, I was blown away when we came out for our first home match—I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it. The seniors would bring their whole stereo system. We started by yelling and stuff inside this little room just off the gym; then the coaches said, "Ready. Go!" We threw open the door and came running out. Just then, they cranked up the volume with a whole tape of songs to get us jacked up. Even when I hear the songs now I get all jacked up. When I warm up now though—especially on center court—there is usually music playing, so I don’t really mess with music.
For years that technology was not available. Instead, it was more of a headache. I learned to be focused and prepared without relying on those things. For instance, what if the batteries go out or it breaks somewhere in Brazil or China? I don’t want to think I can’t play my best because this device was broken. I want to be as self-reliant as possible and do it all from within.
When I was on the U.S. men’s indoor team, I was on the road 200 days of the year and sometimes in the worst conditions. We didn’t have the food or luxuries we wanted. We didn’t have a laundry service. So every night after the match, I soaped up my uniform in the shower. I learned to rely on outside things as little as possible, whether it was music or massage. I just got out of the habit of relying on outside things. I didn’t want to use anything as a crutch and ever have excuses heading into a match.
STACK: Do you try to get yourself fired up for a match or make yourself relax?
KARCH: I just think about what I am doing on my side of the net, which requires focus. Even after all the years I’ve been playing, I still get butterflies before each match. So I have adrenaline going and then focus on what I have to do and do it well. I know we’ll have a good chance to win the match that way. I don’t concern myself with the other team. That way, I don’t have to get myself pumped up or calm myself down. As we get into the later rounds of a tournament and there is more at stake, I have even more adrenaline. If we make the finals, it’s just an extra opportunity to win a tournament at my age. That doesn’t come along that often.