Ryan Foose: Managing Your Athlete’s Expectations When Returning to Play

We hosted a live webinar with Ryan Foose, Sports Psychology Coach of Strong Mind, and pro athletes Amanda Dowdy and Zana Muno to discover how best to help you manage your athlete's expectations when returning to play as restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic are lifted. His biggest advice is to be mindful of stress, self-reflect, and visualize! Here’s a recap of his session:



  • As stress goes up, performance goes up.
  • The top is peak performance.
  • When there is too much stress, performance goes down.
Stress Curve

How This Relates to “Return to Play”

  • In the beginning, your athlete will be highly motivated:
    • Excited to see their friends 
    • Play the game they love
    • Back to their “happy place”
  • Point where this motivation significantly decreases
    • Focus on Unrealistic Expectations and Comparisons 
      • Internal Comparison: “Before COVID, my vertical was so much higher.” 
      • Social Comparison: “How come my teammates are better than me?” “They are just as good as they were before and I’m not.”
      • Unrealistic Expectations: “I should be able to hit that ball straight down every time. What’s wrong with me?”

Takeaway: If your athlete is doing these comparisons, it’s going to have a negative effect on their motivation levels, confidence, and performance.



  • Self-Reflection:
    • What’s my identity? 
    • Who am I outside of being an athlete?
    • Why am I playing beach volleyball?
    • What is my motivation for playing beach volleyball? Is it intrinsic or extrinsic?

Takeaway: There will be a time when your athlete’s motivation falls. If they can utilize their self-reflection and their “why” of playing beach volleyball, it will remind them why they love playing.

  • Use Video to Practice Visualization
    • Confidence comes from realizing we have accomplished tasks in the past
    • We realize we have those tools through reflection

Takeaway: Your athlete will gain confidence from watching themselves on video and/or visualizing themselves performing a skill.

  • Journaling
    • Mental growth and progress are difficult to measure without journaling.
    • Focus on the Process: What did I do well? What would I like to improve on?
    • Develop an Optimistic Mindset: Write down three good things at the end of each day. What made those things occur?
    • Map a Performance Blueprint
      • Write down the fundamentals of a volleyball athlete
      • Rate your expertise, confidence, and mastery (scale of 1-100) in each fundamental and track over time.
      • Use this as evidence to reflect back on when motivation has decreased.

Takeaway: Journaling is a powerful tool to track mental growth over time and to look back on when confidence and/or motivation is low. 



  • Define your role by talking to them about guidelines and boundaries.
    • Ask them when (AND IF!) they’d like feedback.
  • Build their intrinsic motivation by encouraging autonomy.
  • Develop an optimistic mindset by practicing gratitude daily.
  • MOST IMPORTANT: Praise your children.
    • Don’t Praise: Intelligence, Abilities, or Outcomes
      • Inhibits them from being vulnerable and knowing it’s ok to fail
    • Do Praise: Process, Effort, and Strategy
      • Leads to increased effort and persistence
      • Greater enjoyment and engagement
      • Allows them to focus on incremental improvements 
      • Builds mental toughness



Ryan: Reflect on how your motivation typically looks at the beginning of a normal season and changes over the season.

Amanda: My motivation leading up to the season is always focussed on bettering myself and exceeding previous accomplishments and finishes, staying healthy, and being a better athlete and person. Throughout the season, I try to keep it steady and focus on getting a little better every day, I stay interested in enjoying my partnership and continuing to learn. 


Ryan: Tell us about a time where comparing yourself to others affected your performance on a negative level

Zana: Human nature is to compare yourself to others and it’s happened to me throughout my entire career. First getting to college, it was a challenge because of the new stage and I was used to being a big fish in a small pond and then that reversed. Comparing myself to my teammates deteriorated my confidence which resulted in poor performance. Now, I try to control what I can control (like the amount of work I put in) and it’s always gotten me the outcome that I’ve wanted. 


Ryan: Discuss a time you’ve used visualization in your performance.

Zana: I started visualization in high school through USAV HP but didn’t feel the effects of it then. However, once I got to college, I was recruited to be a setter and had never set before. Every time I stepped foot on the court, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. That’s when visualization really made a difference. Before every game, I would watch the best game I thought I had and then I’d close my eyes and visualize every set that I really liked. That made a big impact on me and reminded me that I could do it. Also, during practice, I used it as a tool to get better at my technical skills on things I don’t feel like I had perfected. Once I’d do it well one time, I would get in the back of the line and replay the one play that I thought I did well over and over again in my mind to try to engrave it and replicate it.

Ryan: When you have a memory that you reflect on, your mind doesn’t understand it was a memory. It thinks it just occurred. Build confidence by reflecting on your accomplishments of the past. If you’re reflecting on the same perfect set 10 times, your mind thinks you did that perfect set 10 times.


Ryan: What was it like for you to discover your identity and your “why”?

Amanda: My identity and my “why” has been a journey that I wish I would’ve learned about sooner in my career. As a professional athlete, your athletic identity becomes your human identity. Your sport becomes everything to you. Learning who I am on and off the court (volleyball is what I do, not who I am) helped build confidence, gave me the ability to take chances, overcome challenges, and trust myself in high-pressure situations. Understanding my “why” has given me the freedom to enjoy what I do. It’s not everything in my life. While winning is super fun and a goal, it’s taken the pressure off of that. My reason for playing volleyball is so much bigger than winning: lifelong relationships, positive impact on others, etc. This realization took a lot of thought, journaling, and conversations with my support system. In an interesting way, COVID has been really cool for that: for the first time in well over a decade, I’ve stepped out of the sport and discovered new things about myself and see life without the sport. It’s been hard and weird but fulfilling in a lot of ways. 

Zana: That’s something I’m in the process of doing as well. Encourage your kids to have a well-rounded life and have a lot of things outside of volleyball. For me, I found that I perform the best when I’m happiest outside of volleyball. When I feel good about my life and who I’m surrounding myself with outside of volleyball, I perform my best on the court. 


Ryan: What caused that realization that you perform at your best when you’re happiest outside of volleyball?

Zana: I was a duel-sport athlete at UCLA with no off-season. I got hurt my sophomore year spring season so I didn’t play beach. I made real college friends, joined a sorority, and lived a regular(ish) college life. Once I got back to indoor, I performed the best I’d ever performed. My identity was just volleyball before and that time off made me realize that I’m a college student and I have friends to hang out with. I still workout and take care of my responsibilities but now I have all the parts that I need as a human being. Now, I’m a happier player and a better player. 


Ryan: It can be difficult to focus on the process instead of the outcome. How are you able to do it and how has it helped you compete at such a high level?

Amanda: It doesn’t come naturally for me. I’m naturally hyper focussed on outcomes. When I first came to beach volleyball, I was completely outcome focussed. It was a detriment. I would leave practice with a lot of anxiety and felt like a failure. I was trying to learn this sport and didn’t give myself room to make mistakes. It was intimidating, suffocating, and hurt my confidence. 

Throughout my six years on the AVP, I’ve learned more about process mindset. I’ve fallen in love with the thought of waking up and getting better. I love challenging myself and finding ways to improve in increments. It’s really exciting when those improvements do happen because I’m bettering myself. It’s given me permission to take chances. 

Last year, I wanted to establish my topspin serve because I knew it was an important piece of playing at the elite level. I worked on it all year, put myself in pressure situations, and gave myself permission to make mistakes. When I got to one tournament (Chicago 2019), I made the decision to jump serve every single serve. I had three or four matches when I had opportunity to jump serve for match point. Finally, in the 4th match, I won the match with my jump serve because I kept giving myself permission to go for it, make mistakes, and learn from it. There were some really hard learning lessons in that tournament. It put us in a situation where we had to climb out of the contender’s bracket because I wasn’t able to capitalize on the opportunity when I had it. But then we got out of the contender’s side because of the lessons I learned the day before. 

The biggest take away from the process mindset is that it gives you permission to learn and grow without scrutinizing yourself. Going from outcome to process, I’ve seen a huge growth in my performance and happiness as an athlete. It’s been fun learning how to enjoy the process. It’s hard but a lot more positives with that way of learning and thinking. 


Ryan: What advice would you give parents today about giving feedback to their kids?

Zana: Personally, I was really grateful because both of my parents were professional athletes but neither played the sport I played. I’m so hard on myself that when I come home, I don’t want to hear what I’m doing wrong or be instructed anymore. You’re exhausted already because you want to get better all day long. When you get home, home is a safe place. My parents did an amazing job of giving me love and support and the only thing they did was encourage me to work hard. From what I’ve seen, if you force your kid to work hard or get more reps but they’re not willing, they aren’t going to get anything out of it. It has to be their choice and when you can encourage them to make that choice, then you’re going to see the best results.


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