An Athlete’s Mental Awareness. Interview with Kusti Nõlvak

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How Kusti Nõlvak, a beach volleyball player, is developing his mental awareness and how it has helped him to become a better athlete? Find out!
Picture Kusti Nõlvak. Picture by Gertrud Alatare

Kusti Nõlvak is Estonian’s beach volleyball player. He used to play indoor volleyball but chose beach volleyball 5-6 years ago.

Kusti and his volleyball partner Mart Tiisaar have a very different approach to practices compared to most athletes and teams.

They are putting a lot of effort into developing their mental awareness and inner peace that has strongly improved their game and personal lives.

We interviewed Kusti to better understand his journey for becoming a better athlete.

To be able to change something, you need to notice the need for a change yourself.”

Kusti Nõlvak

Kusti, how has your mental awareness changed over the past 5 years?

If you put it like that I have to begin by differentiating the two- first there is the mental part and then awareness.

They are completely separate. In 5 years time, my mental part has become more quiet and obedient and my awareness has grown.

I’ve learned to use it as the primary tool for doing sports and also for everyday things. It’s always calm and clear so it’s the perfect place to turn to when things get overwhelming and tough.

The learning process has had many ups and downs and it’s still far from perfect. But even the small improvements in leaning towards awareness are incredibly helpful. 

How do you personally feel, have you become calmer in the volleyball court, or sometimes you let your emotions take over?

Overreacting in a way doesn’t happen very often anymore. In fact, I don’t even remember overreacting in an intense situation over the past few years.

Coming back to your question, then I definitely have become calmer in the volleyball court.

There was a period when I became too calm and that was a problem. The whole vibe has been very chill in a game situation.

I’ve done everything I can in a situation, but after looking back I’ve realized that maybe if I had been a little bit more active, my game would’ve been better.

But overall inner peace is the foundation where you can build up your activity.

If you don’t have that inner peace, it’ll be tough to control your emotions and you will just let your emotions control you.

With those uncontrolled emotions comes out the aggressive side of you, where you’ll yell at the judge or don’t act very smart in general.

You will never see angriness from Mart and Kusti – image by Gertrud Alatare

For example, if I want to do some kind of activity, I’ll put my inner fire into that activity and after I’ve finished my activity I’ll go back to a calm state.

Before I didn’t have that calm state, and because of that everything was more complicated. The balance was off, and I couldn’t take control of that situation.

Do you think that this kind of state is something that only comes with age or it’s something that solely depends on your personality?

It depends a lot on your personality as well and that kind of a package you get from home.

There are athletes/people that don’t get irritated easily. For them, it’s a lot easier to find that state of peace.

However, there are mental awareness techniques to do and what’ll work on everyone. It might take longer for some but it’s possible for everyone to get there.

How’s your preparation for practices and tournaments changed over the years?

I’ve been asked this a lot, about my routines and activities I do before the game. I used to have a routine, like 6-7 years ago when I played indoor volleyball.

Back then, it was very particular. When I played indoor volleyball, everyone would start to warm up altogether 45 minutes before the game. We all had some specific exercises we needed to do, and that became my pregame routine.

Kusti nõlvak as a setter during his indoor volleyball career
Kusti Nõlvak was a setter during his indoor volleyball career – image source

But now in beach volleyball, it’s a little bit different, because you never know when will your game start.

Sometimes you have back to back games and sometimes you don’t. There are also other distracting factories involved, like the weather or when can we have a lunch break, etc.

I’ve discovered that if I don’t have a routine to follow, it’s easier for me. By that I mean, if I don’t have a specific routine I’m ready to play literally at any time.

For that matter, I don’t have a specific routine, I deal with everything as it comes and it’s a lot easier for me.

What about overthinking?

Overthinking is something that I try to avoid in every situation. Thinking, in general, isn’t very important in the volleyball court.

For example, we use thinking to communicate with each other. With that comes the mentality that we put in use, otherwise in order to play ball you don’t need to do a lot of thinking.

You see, you understand and you don’t need that comment in your head. This comment in your head is unnecessary and always comes with a delay.

For example, I received great service, then if you start paying attention you get that comment in your head saying “wow what a great service” meanwhile you’ve already received it and you’re doing something else.

At one point I realized that this isn’t very helpful and it’s just commenting on some kind of activity and I don’t need that extra commentator.

Did you start finding your inner peace in practices first or is it something that just comes naturally and can’t be forced?

This kind of inner peace is something you need to bring up yourself. No one can do it for you.

It might happen naturally as well but then it’ll be random rather than controlled.

In order to have your inner peace be sustainable, you need to find that state within you and how to bring it up.

There are a lot of mental awareness techniques that’ll help you get there, the more you do these exercises the better you get and the results will be amazing.

What are some of the mental awareness techniques you are using mostly?

One of the techniques I use is you close your eyes, you try to empty your mind and get into a state of calm/silence.

Then I look into myself to see what are my emotions doing if I notice some unnecessary emotions, before doing anything else, I free those emotions. 

How big of a connection do you see between your mental and physical health? Do you think an athlete can win if they just have the physical body for it?

There’s a direct connection between physical and mental health. Sometimes it can happen that the athlete doesn’t have any problems.

If he/she doesn’t have any problems the need to deal with these problems is unnecessary. Even if they don’t deal with their mental health if they have no problems they can still perform at their highest level. 

Kusti and Mart during 5-star beach volleyball tournament in Rome – image source

But there are a lot of athletes who struggle with mental health issues and don’t know how to handle them.

That knowledge about mental health surely helps because with that knowledge you can concur event the smallest problems.

Even if you don’t have any problems yourself but you are aware of the mechanisms (you’re aware of the techniques and know the basics) you can give advice to someone who actually needs it.

What kind of advice would you give to coaches whose athletes are struggling?

To try to actually listen and try to understand only then you can get to the bottom of this problem.

Normally coaches have some kind of experience with athletes with mental issues and their first instinct is to use whatever has worked before with other athletes.

My recommendation for coaches is to approach every athlete differently and treat them as individuals and actually listen to what they’re telling you and try to understand what’s bothering them.

You and Mart have been playing beach volleyball together for over 5 years now. How did your journey start and how did you find that inner peace and reached that calm state?

In the beginning, it was more learning about our inner peace and not really about volleyball practices.

We started out by reading a lot. We discussed it a lot with Mart and took some courses, but it all happened after practices not during.

At one point we started to conclude these techniques (that we learned by reading or taking courses) into our practices as well but it happened after Indrek Verro (coach) joined the team.

Kusti Nõlvak and Mart Tiisaar in action – image by Gertrud Alatare

You can’t separate your personal and your professional life. I mean you can but that one thing that connects the two is you.

YOU are the one you need to get to know and change for the better not anyone else.

Actually it doesn’t matter whether we do these exercises during practice or after, there will still be change.

If you do these exercises in the morning at home, during your practice and in the evening at home as well, you’ll get better faster.

I’ve combined my personal and professional life and that’s why I don’t get worried or stressed out if I can’t go to practice for a day or so.

I know that these things I do at home instead of going to practice will help me better than pushing myself to go to practice. Luckily we have a coach that is very understanding.

For example, during this pandemic, we didn’t have practices for over 2 months. After this pandemic, I notice huge progress has happened in my game, everything had changed for the better.

All these exercises I did at home during the pandemic had paid off.

It’s kind of funny because everyone else would say that it took some time to get back on their pre-pandemic shape.

Actually I had a long break from volleyball, due to a back injury. It had been over 7 months since I last did a proper jump attack on practice.

After the pandemic, I actually did better than I did before the injury and pandemic.

For me, it kind of makes sense and I don’t need any proof how or if these things work.

I know how these things work and I know the better I get at controlling my inner thoughts/emotions the better I get in volleyball.

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