Courtney Thompson: People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care
In an exclusive interview Courtney Thompson talks about her movie "Court & Spark", life as a professional athlete overseas, being a leader and some difficult times in her career.
The film "Court & Spark: A Documentary Volleyball" debuted in December of 2013 during the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. It's a co-production by Jack and Leslie Hamann for the Puget Sound Region. And it follows the journey of Courtney Thompson, an Olympic silver medalist and World Champion, as a professional player overseas. Through her experiences the movie touches on sports, coaches and coaching, work ethic and competition.
"Court & Spark" is available for download for $9.99 or streaming rental for $4.99. Click here for purchasing information.
Video 1. "Court & Spark" trailer.
I would like to talk to you about your movie, "Court & Spark". Hod did you come up with the idea of making a movie in the first place?
Courtney Thompson: - It wasn't my idea. The producers, Jack and Leslie Hamann, came up with the idea to ask me for a lunch one day and it wasthe day before leaving California, and I almost said ah, no, I can't make it and so on and so on. The first thing they told me is that they want to grow the game of volleyball. And the idea behind the movie... you know we don't have a professional league in America and a lot of people don't know what our lives are like. And the reality of us living overseas and the whole experience of it. And for the young players, the little gil watching professional athletes at home it can be helpful too. "Hey you can do this one day too, this is the reality of what we do". Just to educate people about our sport you know and also with the help of the players in the national team.
And what was the reaction of your family and friends?
- (laughs) You know, that's a good question. I think everyone was a little curious like hey are you keeping me included? We didn't really know what to expect, we all kind of laughed and said "really? how is this to go on?" But I was fortunate and my family and friends were really supportive.
What whas the hardest thing for you? Having the crew following you all the time?
- Lucky for me I knew the, I grew up in the same area, so it was kind of cool. I know Jack pretty well and his son Brett ans I know I can trust them. I guess the hardest part was probably the fact that you have to be vulnerable. For me it's not really my story, but I was the example of this is what we do and this is what it's like. I just wanted to be honest and open in everything with the good and the bad parts of playing professionally overseas and what that entails. I like to think about mysefl as a positive person, so it was hard be willing to share those things that aren't wonderful, beautiful and happy about playing overseas even if there's so much of it. You know you don't want to come across like some kind of a jerk (laughs). Or like self-centered, or ungrateful and that's a big thing for me. But I trusted Jack and Leslie completely andthey weren't trying to meke me into anything other than who I am.
And did you have any troubles during the filming? Like someone didn't want the crew in?
- Oh, um yeah, I know there were some minor problems, but luckily I didn't have to deal with them. The producers did everything and if there was a prblem they took care of it. You know, you try not to think about it too much. It was funny and it was a little surreal. I like this documentaries a lot, I watch them all the time and it's funny to be on the other side (laughs). For example, I was waiting in my house to eat dinner, because they're setting up the cameras or something like that. But, no, it was pretty easy for me.
How much of the material was cut?
- Oh, my gosh, so much! (laughs). They stayed with me in Poland for a month, then in California for about two weeks and they also visited me at home in Seattle twice I think. I was joking, while they were editing, that you'll be so sick of me and then Jack was calling me and he said they've been watchin me for weeks and listening to me all the time and now they've started talking like me (laughs).
Did you have time to take part in the whole editing process?
- No, not really. They've sent me one version of the movie, not the final one, but close to it and I said well there are few things I'm not sure about, so it may be better to change them. No problem for them, they've always told me that I have to be honest and if I find something I don't like or makes me uncomfortable, I have to tell them and they will deal with it. I trusted them, so I changed maybe 2 or 3 little things and left the rest for them.
What is your favorite part of the movie? Do you have any?
- Whoa, wait, it's been a while since I've watched it. I need a moment to think about it. Gosh, it's so hard with the answer this question.. Well, I do not know if it's my favorite, it's like tragically my favourite and it's dancing in Poland. (laughs). It's so bad! My friends kept asking me "are you serious?". But that was the big reason I wanted to do it and yeah, we actually had to do this things and it's funny (smile).
It's quite popular here in Poland, you're not familiar with this?
- No, I mean maybe not in this form. This is not something we do as professional athletes. Sure, you could work out twice a week, it's healthy for the body and so on, but for us... not really. But, as you can see in the video, it was fun, we laughed a lot, so... I also like the part when I meet my friends in California, because it instantly makes me feel happy. They are awesome.
I like this short moment when Christa Harmotto is trying to say a few things about you and she just gets so emotional, you can see the tears in her eyes, and it's so cute.
- It means a lot to me, she and Kristin are my close friends and it's humbling dear that the people I look up to are my friends and I can talk to them. This is something special. We have a great friendship. I remember a funny situation, when just gave these short interviews in the gym, and they were coming back to me like "I hate you, you jerk, I promised myself that I won't cry and now look at what have you done!" (laughs)
You know for me, as an outsider, it's just shows that you are a very special and maybe unique group. And some time ago I did some interviews with your teammates, like Foluke Akinradewo and Dani Scott...
- ... Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah I love that!
And they were amazing and all and for me the movie just adds up to that.
- Thank you, thank you for sharing that. It is special and it is unique and it kind of shows who we are and what our program is. Representing th US, being filled with that pride and see the bigger picture. You represent something that is bigger than you, the players, coaches, any of us. And it's also something that motivates us much.
Whenever I read or listen to an interview by one of the American athletes you always talk about how much it means for you to play for your country, how proud you are and while listening to your National Anthem you always put your hand on your heart... you know, typical you.
- (laughs) You're right! It is very typical for us and normal. It's interesting when you travel the around world and you play with other people and listen to some of their stories just to discover it's not like that them. It's not on that level, just totally different. Fot me it's something I appreciate.
Photo. 1. Courtney working with kids.
In the movie we could see you working with the kids in Poland and in the States. Is it somehting you do often or just one-time thing?
- Whenever I can I try to. For me as an athlete, especially playing at a high level, we are always focused on this, to take care of ourselves and it's easy to get kind of wrapped up in how we play and what we do, how's your team doing and it can be overwhelming. That is why it is good to keep perspective. Whenever I feel myself wrapped up again the best way to slow down, to remember what's important is to go and give back and volunteer to work with children or with older people, or whatever. The idea is to give something back, to focus on others. Do something for someone else. It may be a simple thing, but it makes a big difference. Also we, as the US team, we try to do that, Karch does that once a week, even in our busiest times in the gym. We all volunteer once a week. And that's really important part of our team. It's fun for me, it gives me energy. Sometimes when you are in a anothe country for eight months, sometimes it's easy to feel disconnected. And I think that's a really cool way to feel you're a part of the community and making a difference.
And you had this opportunity in Puerto Rico, Austria and Switzerland?
- Yeah, yes, but here in Zurich, we were a little more busy (laughs). Our schedule is ... well, typical for a top club in Europe. Many things can be done online, I can call home, talk with the kids and stuff like that, but to go out and meet with them, unfortunately not. But this is the first time I can't do it, I could always arrange it in all the other places.
So maybe there's a hidden coach inside you?
- (smiles) Yes, I think so. I like to coach, I like kids, I like teaching. Volleyball has never been easy for me, so I feel I can understand what the struggle is. I've also played for some of the best coaches in the world and feel I some sense of responsibility to pass on the knowledge. I kinda have to, but I just want to do it. And it's fun for me.
A couple of times you talked about being a leader. What makes a great leader, what do you think is the most important?
- Great question. I think the biggest one is just to believe. To believe in yourself, your teammates and that unrelented determination to overcome any challenges that come your way. Stay optymistic, even whet it's hard and everyone around feel kind if bummed or frustrated you say "okay, this things happen and whe have to do this, this and that" and you keep moving forward. There's a lot of power in that and it's very simple thing, but it's hard to do. For me it's kind of the player I've been. My former coach, Hugh McCutcheon, said you have to be eternal optimist, whatever happens. And it stuck with me quite a bit. And then I think there's also your work ethic. When you work hard every day and when you let your actions and not your words speak for you your coaches and teammates will notice. And they will respect you. I've never been the most talented volleyball player, I don't have the best hands, I'm short, I don't jump high, but everyone knows that. But when I tell them that I'm gonna work hard for you, I'm gonna work my ass off to get you into good situation and they respond to that and they will work hard for you back. I think that's important.
Also Sanja Tomasevic mentioned in that you never allow anyone to go easy in the gym. How do you do that, how do you kind of push others to do more?
- This is an endless process. For me, one of the biggest challenges is to play in the new team, somewhere overseas, when you have women from all over the world. And each one of them has a different ideas of the work, different attitude. Everything is different. It changes. I had success and I've played a lot of times trying to lead the team, trying to do something unique. I think the biggest thing is that I'm not afraid of difficult conversations. I think a lot of people shy away from that. But it's for the team. If I think someone can work harder or whatever I can ask "hey what's going on, what can I do?", "I feel we can work on this" I know when the team needed it is when someone who approaches do not go and ask "what's going on, how can I help you? We can work it out." I'm not big at yelling, I'm not a screamer. I get edgy and competetive and I get in fights when I play, but off the court I above all I keep learning about people and who they are, where they're from, how they operate, what motivates them. And then use it to kind of encourage them from behind. Like, figure it out "How can we do this better?" or "How can I help you?". Something like that. It really changes with each team. And my role's been different.
Foluke Akinradewo said to me once that while Karch Kiraly was still assistant coach he always asked her how she is, how's her boyfriend doing, just simple things, but they've helped her a lot.
- Absolutely, and Karch at all, in my opinion, is the best at that. I mean he's an amazing coach and one of the most amazing men I've ever met. He's incredible. He does that all the time, even now. He's so busy, we have like a million athletes in our program and he's got so much to do and everyone wants to talk to him. If any of the players call him, he always has time for you. Or like he texts me "hey, Court, can we talk about this and that?" And I say, yeah, yeah, and I call him and we don't talk about it for 15 minutes cos he's catching up on things here, on Volero, how was the game, how's the weather, what are doing for fun and things like that. Are you happy? He cares, you know? He cares about you and how you're doing. And that's another thing as a leader - "People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care" (Theodore Roosevelt - author's note). So if you can kind of establish that and be genuine, then, well, we'll follow Karch to the end of the world. He's got our back and we want to do well for him.
It's funny to watch his time-outs now, he always says thing like "everything's will be fine", "keep breathing"...
- (laughs) "stay calm", "don't worry" (laughs).
Some coaches like to yell at the players all the time, some like to give a lot of feedback and Karch just talks about breathing.
- (laughs) That's right. My teammates here ask me is it different in the USA? And I'm like, "Oh my God ... yes." Just "yes", I don't even try to explain it.
Photo. 2. Courtney with the film crew in the club's bus.
I would like to talk about one thing that you mentioned in the film - the most difficult moment of your career, when I almost gave up and you wanted to quit the national team. So for those you haven't seen the movie yet, could you tell me what was going on through your head at that time?
- Sure, no problem. So as I said - I've never been the most talented setter in the world, but always, in every team, the starting setter and I was the captain. And when I first went to Colorado Springs to our training center, and Jenny Lang Ping was the coach, with all these expectations, I discovered suddenly that I was somewhere at the bottom of the list. For me it was something new, I've never been in this kind of situation before. I felt terribly uncomfortable. There are two ways you can go - you can quit, make excuses like the coach didn't like me, maybe I'm not cut out for this. Sometimes for some people that's right, but not for me. I had lots of conversations with other coaches and also with my parents and the one that stuck with me was with my dad. "Court, I know you, I know it is hard and it sucks and it's uncomfortable, but you have to keep going."
I played with some great coaches and I've learned some important lessons. And I would go and talk to kids and tell them not to worry about the things they can't control and it's going to be hard, but you have to keep going. Ale the serious things. And suddenly I was in that position and I was like "oh, wait" (laughs) That was the first time I had to live to what I was preaching about. And realise that it's easier said than done. Now I know, I've been there. And know I appreciate things a lot more and that's maybe the biggest lesson.
Another interesting thing for me was when you were talking about that Lindsey Berg question "You're the third setter, how can you do it?"
- Yes, that was another tough time for me. When you see the poeple around you doing well in trainings and that's great, cos, you know you always want people to do well, but you're not one of them, then it's just... It's challenging. When I went to talk to Hugh about this, he told me that there is a small, tiny chance that I could be in the Olympic lineup. So I kind of had a choice, either I'd believe that or I could not. But before Hugh the months leading to that conversation were like wishy-washy, I was working hard, but I couldn't like get there. And I didn't have anything to hold on to. So that conversation realle helped me to get back on track and made me believe. And I knew that's what I wanted. He said I have a chance and I was going to believe that with every ounce of me. And I also knew myself enought to know that if that's what I wanted to be happy, I had to give everything. Everything. Which is a lot, cos I pride myself in working really hard. And after that I went back with the reckless abandonment and I said I wanna do everything to help this team. And also I stopped worrying about myself and started to thinking about how can I help the team. And that I need to be better to help the team. And I started to play better. That's motivating, you know? You have to keep going and keep going and my relationships with my teammates evolved and got stronger. Suddenly I wasn't afraid to tell Hugh " hey, I'm ready!". Where's before I would never say that. I'd be afraid or worried about what he says and so on. And the first thing he did was to smile and nod and like "yeah, yeah Court, I know" and I repeated "no, no, I'm ready". And everytime we had a meeting and I wouldn't get picked in the team I said "okay, I disagree with you". And just being able to say that aloud...
... It's incredible power.
- Yes, exactly. Of course, I told him I respect your decisions, but I simply disagree with them and I think I'm ready to lead the team better than anyone else. And I will keep being ready. When you get me the chance, I'll be there, I'l be ready. Also in saying that it made me prepare harder, cos now I had to back it up (smiles). I think the biggest lesson there was when you have the mission and you commit to it, then you can handle setbacks. When you don't know what you're going for you can get distracted by anything, but you don't know where to throw your energy. And when you're throwing it in the one place it doesn't matter what comes your way. I think it's such a metaphor for life. Many people don't give their best, because it's the hard thing to do and what will you do when you fail? And sometimes it's easier to say that well I could've done more and just say it's okay anyway. But that's not me, I don't want to live that way. And if I'm gonna fail, I wanna fail hard (laughs). I'm going to give everything I have. And that's important to me.
Another thing is that you are working with people who are close you, who are your friends and, as you mentioned, you wish them well, but then at the same time you compete with them for a place in the olympic squad.
- It's true. Ultimately we all believe that the program is bigger than any of us, any player, any coach and our time will end at some point. New players will come and you have to just appreciate it for what it is. It's easy to, you know, get bummed when there's the tournament and you didn't make it to the team and you think it's a tragedy and blah, blah, blah. And you have to step back. Like I go back home and realize that I get to play for the USA national team and if you were there to told me that when I was 12 years old, that I' get the chance to play professionally and make money, get to compete at the highest level, I'd probably drop dead to the ground (laughs). So it's really important to keep that perspective.
I remember talking with Dani Scott, who is simply an extraordinary person...
- ... Yes, she is!
... And almost every answer was about what is best for the team. How to help the team, what she can do for her teammates. It was amazing how it was all releted to the team
- Well, there had to be some reason that made it to the five Olympics (smiles). Dani is great, she really helped me once. She always takes time it to talk to others, to see how can she help. Right now she's probablyin the gym figuring out how to help the team.
And how are your golf skills?
- (laughs) Oh my God! Still bad, still bad. My friends were laughing, because I said I want to make friends outside the volleyball and that that was my goal in Poland and they said "You said that and we see you with a bunch of old men, what the hell is this?" (laughs). But it was part of the fun, to have this random experience. That was cool, but I'm so not that great at golf. Actually Kristin Hildebrand, she gols all the time, so I've been few times at her house and her husband is big golfer, so.. It;s fun and it's fun way to hang out.
Is there going to be another movie maybe?
- (smiles) I do not know, I guess it's up to Jack and Leslie. No idea what they can come up with.
How do you feel about your second time in Switzerland?
- It's really wonderful, it's one of the most enjoyable overseas experiences in my life. I get to play at such a high level, the club is amazing, they all take care of us. Of course, they expect a lot from us, but I like that. I'm happy to be playing in the Champions League, it was one of my goals. Anyway, what more can I say? Just look out the window. I love the mountains and I get to see them day in day out. It's a good recharge from me and I feel balanced here. Zurich's great, there's a lot of English speakers, so I guess I just feel... normal. Like in Poland, as a foreign player, I felt very isolated.
And three things that make the volleyball better than the other sports?
- Well, uhm, the fact that we get to celebrate every point. It's fun. I like how much of a team game it is and that you cannot win with one player. It's similair to number two, but one player can't take over a game and you need everybody, everybody, to win. And that's a cool thing.
main photo - fivb.org
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