During a late August match against Village Christian, Hart volleyball’s Ruby Duncan wasn’t feeling like herself.
“The negative thoughts start coming out once I start making more errors and its like, ‘Why did you hit that ball out? Your team is relying on you to put it away,’” she said.
Duncan has been playing volleyball since eighth grade and has been on varsity for her entire prep career. So why were these negative thoughts suddenly taking over?
It’s not uncommon for prep volleyball players to have ebbs and flows in their mental game, but Indians coaches Mary and Sia Irilian made helping Duncan overcome her early-season hurdles a priority.
After the match against Village Christian, a 3-2 loss, the two coaches essentially asked Duncan one question: How do you want to be coached?
“I said we need to find a way to get you back on track for me to help you without it feeling like I’m constantly on you,” head coach Mary Irilian said. “So she had a moment of breaking down and a lot of, I think self-reflection.”
As it turns out, a massive overhaul wasn’t required. A serious talk with her coaches, then another talk with her parents were two key conversations necessary to re-building the middle opposite’s confidence.
“I wasn’t like, going to quit, but it was very frustrating for me,” Duncan said. “Like, why am I here? If I keep up the mental toughness I guess, it’s like, it’s not enjoyable but then I (started) the positive thinking and all the goods outweighed the bads.”
Irilian and the rest of the Indians have all seen a transformation in Duncan’s play and self-esteem since then. Her attacking and blocking combined with her height and volleyball IQ has made her a formidable opponent in almost every area of the game.
“Every single time I set her the ball, whether it’s middle or opposite, I know she can put away the ball and she does almost every time,” said Indians setter Kylie Mattson.
Recently, Duncan paced her team in kills with 14 in a sweep of Golden Valley on Sept. 25. She’s been a consistent contributor in just about every match, though.
Her mental struggles have also made her a better leader for her teammates. When a player appears to be competing at a lower standard than usual, Duncan immediately notices.
“Once they start making more errors, it’s just like, they get quiet and they just look like the weight of the world is on their shoulders,” Duncan said. “If I can see that early and recognize it, I can go up to them and be like, ‘Hey, you got it.’”
It’s all part of a collective mindset that has helped Hart to an undefeated Foothill League record and a serious shot at the league title.
“We have one goal and it’s to be undefeated in league and everyone has that same mindset,” Duncan said, “so I think we’re all doing everything that we can to make sure that goal happens.”