Written by: Alexander Mrkalj
1. Being completely self-dependent
I knew that coming to live in a different province and leading a completely different
lifestyle was going to be a huge challenge, but it would be a challenge that has a giant payoff in
the long term. Most people go into their post-secondary career never having spent much time
away from home, and that statement is completely true for myself. I’ve always had the guidance
of my parents and I was excited to live on my own to see just how self-dependent I could be.
Living on my own requires me to get myself to practice on my own every day, prepare
nutritious meals for myself, keep my living space clean, and build new habits for myself that
enable me to live the lifestyle of a high performance athlete. Previously, my parents would do
most of this for me, and as nice as it seems in the moment, it made me too dependent upon
them. It has truly been an eye opening experience to live by myself and to do some of the things
on my own that I have taken for granted for so many years.
If I could offer my advice to young volleyball athletes, it would be to start being more
dependent on yourself at a younger age. By no means do you have to start cooking meals for
yourself every single day, you’re still a kid. I advise taking small steps that will ultimately have a
long term payoff. Prepare your own meals before a tournament, learn to cook from your parents,
maybe even start to do your own laundry if you don’t do so already. I suggest taking these small
steps so that when you do get to the point in your life where you are living on your own, you will
not feel the pressure of not knowing how to take care of yourself.
This has been an invaluable lesson to me, and it has helped me grow as a person
because I’m taking responsibility for my own high performance lifestyle.
2. Proper Warm-Up/Cool-Down Every Practice
volleyball. I made sure I was activated and ready to play at all times, and would show up extra
early to practice to ensure that I achieved this goal. However, I did not take the cool-down as
seriously. After practice I would put on my sweatpants and walk right out of the gym.
The combination of warming up and cooling down properly is what provides an athlete
with the longevity of their career. An athlete that does not warm up or cool down properly is at a
higher risk of getting injured and breaking down early on in their careers, which does not provide
a promising athletic career.
Every day, my teammates and I show up to the gym twenty minutes before practice
starts to do our ‘individual protocol’. This is very personalized and allows us to work on areas
that are extra sore, need more activation, or are weaker than others. My protocol consists of
foam rolling my legs, rolling my shoulders and back with a lacrosse ball, planks for core
activation, along with eccentric squats and band walks. This protocol works well for me, but it
may not work well for everyone. Luckily, younger volleyball athletes have wide access to
different strength coaches who are looking to help you improve. Having an effective protocol
that you are committed to will certainly prolong your career, so be sure to use the resources you
have available to you.
After our protocols, we warm up with various dynamic stretches and get into pepper for
about 10 minutes and then we start to train. At the end of practice, I take about 15-20 minutes to
effectively cool down by rolling out and stretching my shoulders and hips.
Playing volleyball gives me so much enjoyment, so I do everything in my power to be
fully prepared for each practice through my warm up and cool down. I would recommend that all
athletes take this much more seriously because this is the foundation of a long and injury-free
volleyball career. Instead of messing around on court before practice, take those extra 5-10
minutes and get activated. When you’re watching TV or Netflix, take out your foam roller and be
productive as you kick back for a bit.
I have been very fortunate to not have sustained any major injuries, and while it isn’t
always in our control, it is vital that we do our best to prevent injury as best we can to enjoy our
volleyball careers and to lead happy and healthy lifestyles after volleyball.
3. Learner Mode vs. Performer Mode
One of the amazing things that I have learned at the NEP is the difference between
being a learner and being a performer. In order to be a high performance athlete, you need to
be able to do both, however, the timing is what needs to be taken note of.
In our morning trainings, we do a lot of skill work, whereas, in the afternoons we do a lot
of 6 on 6 gameplay. Our coach, Dan Lewis, constantly reminds us to be in learner mode in the
morning and to be in performer mode in the afternoon. Essentially, what this means is that when
we are doing our skill work in the morning, we should not be too focused about the results we
produce. Most times we are trying a brand new tactic or an adjustment to a skill that we want to
execute in game, so we are not expected to be perfect immediately. Being in learner mode
allows us to actively think about the skill we are executing by thinking about the small details
that our coach will point out. For example, if we are working on reception with our hands we
need to actively be thinking about attacking the ball, squaring up to the target, and getting low to
give the ball lift.
This is quite contrary to being in performer mode because performer mode is about
executing the skills we have developed through learner mode. It’s not about overthinking the
small details, but rather, being competitive with teammates and trusting that the skills we’ve
developed in learner mode will lead to our success.
Thus, there is a big emphasis on learner mode because it shapes the way you perform.
You can’t develop new skills and perform new tactics if you don’t train your mind to analyze
things in practice.
One common fault I find with people is that they mix the two modes up very frequently,
and I think it is an important lesson to learn. When we find ourselves in a practice situation, we
don’t want to make errors because we feel embarrassed by them. Therefore, when we train, we
focus too much on the results instead of focusing on getting better at executing on the skill at
hand. Also, when we find that things aren’t going well in a game situation, we look internally and
begin to break down all the skills during competition as if we’re in learner mode. The mind
cannot focus on that much at a time. When you compete, you need to compete and not focus
on the small skills you should have been focusing on in learner mode.
This has been one of the most important lessons I’ve learned at the NEP because in
club volleyball I did not distinguish between learning and competition. Only now do I realize the
importance of focusing your mind to the task at hand, be that learning or competing.
4. Mental Performance Training
We are lucky as a group to be able to work with an amazing mental performance coach
named Kyle Paquette. Every Tuesday morning we spend about an hour and a half in a group
discussion with Kyle about what makes a great performer and how to train our minds.
The material we learn is very relatable and it is enjoyable to partake in our group
discussions as we pursue the mastery of the mental side of the sport.
Two practices that I’ve started as a result of learning from Kyle and wanting to be a
better mental performer are journalling and meditation. These are two habits I’ve created here
that help me achieve my goals as a high performance athlete and will carry on as important
tools for the rest of my life.
Journalling is very open-ended in regards to what you want to write about, and that’s the
beauty of it. You can write about your practices, your food intake, a daily bite of knowledge… the
list goes on! I journal 2 times a day, one before the morning session to set my goals and one
before bed to reflect on how I went about my day. I think it is a very powerful tool that athletes
should start to use because if you start journaling now, it will be cool to look down the road in a
few short years to see how far you have come as an athlete, a student, and a person.
Meditating has a certain stereotype around it – legs crossed in an upright seated position
with the palms facing upwards while gently muttering, “Ohmmm”. Meditating is completely
different, and is has been widely researched over the past decade proving that it helps enhance
athletic performance. Meditating is nothing other than sitting up in your bed, being present with
your thoughts, and filtering thoughts as needed. I meditate after I journal every day (so twice a
day), and for guidance I use the Headspace app that can be found on your phone. It is such a
great guide through meditation because it tells you what to focus on and how you should be
Any athlete that is ready to take their game to the next level needs to start journalling
and meditating. The mental side of the game is just as important as the physical side of the
game, so by starting to train the mind at a younger age, the payoff will be enormous in your
5. Pride Behind The Jersey
Putting on a Team Canada jersey is something that I’ve dreamed of ever since I started
playing volleyball. This opportunity has been a dream come true for me because I get to play
the sport I love every day. When you find your passion, working hard for a goal doesn’t seem
like a job.
One thing I never realized is how lucky I was to wear my own club team jersey and I truly
hope that all athletes realize how blessed they are to be able to put that jersey on and compete.
Remember to be grateful for where you are currently, and never stop working towards
your goals because anything can be achieved with persistent hard work!
Alexander Mrkalj (centre) trains with the National Team’s National Excellence Program in Gatineau, Quebec. Previously, he has been a member of Team Canada’s Youth National team, Team Ontario’s Canada Games team and has recently accepted his offer to attend school at Princeton University in the United States.