Feet, follow through, confidence.
Minutes before the start of each match, junior setter Jordan Timmer closes her eyes, sets on the wall and repeats those words to herself.
Timmer learned the exercise in a training program with an Olympic setter during the offseason, and has used it to boost her confidence and reclaim the starting spot she lost to sophomore Emily Clemens last year after eight games.
Head coach Amanda Ault said Timmer didn’t lose the spot because she struggled physically, but because she let the key responsibilities of her position slip.
“One of the biggest things that a setter has to do is run the floor, take charge and command things out there,” Ault said. “I think that got away from Jordan last year, but she quickly realized she needed to make changes. She knew that she needed to make connections with the attackers, see what’s open, what’s not working for the team and who’s hot.”
Determined to win the starting position back this year, Timmer dedicated a large part of her off-season training to improving her mental toughness.
“Being a setter is like being the quarterback of a football team, so you take the brunt of all the yelling and have to compose yourself, and I think Emily did a very good job of that,” said Timmer, who transferred to GW from Central Michigan last season. “The offseason and the summer, I really focused on getting myself mentally correct.”
Timmer stayed in D.C. for the summer months, holding herself to a strict workout regimen. But to strengthen her mental approach to the game, she had a more unorthodox strategy.
Ault, who has known Timmer since the student athlete was in the fifth grade and attended University of Michigan volleyball camps where Ault worked, heard about a drawing for an opening in a mental training program run through Positive Performance. Timmer entered and after being selected in a lottery, received a spot along with nine other collegiate setters.
In each session, Timmer meets with Olympic setter Courtney Thompson and the other student athletes online, using tools like FaceTime so they can have face-to-face conversations. The students perform mental strengthening exercises, such as meditation and visualization, to learn how to stay calm and focused in the high-pressure environment of a game. They also complete training workouts and self-assessments to track their progress.
In one visualization exercise, Timmer was instructed to look at her thumb and turn it as far to the right as she could. After her initial attempt, she was told to close her eyes and visualize herself turning her thumb further, “pushing herself” mentally. Then she repeated the exercise.
“In the beginning, I didn’t think I could go any further than my first try, but then I went three feet further,” Timmer said. “This opened everything up for me because I realized we all have so much potential.”
Timmer said her mental training has helped her focus her teammates on the floor when they are trailing in a game or trying to rebound after a string of tough plays. She has also performed pre-game rituals to calm her nerves. Along with the three keywords she says to herself during warm-ups, Timmer writes “for the team” on her wrist before each match.
The mantra is appropriate for a setter: Though Timmer likened the game-managing aspect of the position to a quarterback, setters are not highlight-reel players, and typically are the ones setting up big plays instead of making them.
“I’m not the first one to get the recognition, but the team does a good job at getting the big kills and making us look great,” Timmer said. “The job is a lot of pressure, and we don’t get a lot of praise, but I like being in the background. Knowing that I helped them to get there is enough for me.”
Timmer has served as a key player for the Colonials, even if she is out of the spotlight: Through 13 matches, she has already recorded 432 assists, after totaling just 330 assists all of last season. As of Sept. 14, she’s ranked as the 10th best in the NCAA in assists per set.
On top of excelling at her own position, she also ranks second on the team in digs (118) and third in blocks (30).
Just as Timmer recalls her keywords before each match, Ault recognizes Timmer’s growth and achievement this season with three words: work ethic, perseverance and competitor.
As a team, GW (9-4) is off to its best start since the 2011-12 season. GW leads the Atlantic 10 in kills, assists, hitting percentage, digs and blocks. The Colonials open conference play Friday against Rhode Island.
“She’s a player you can see hard work has paid off,” Ault said. “She was working out everyday this summer, came back in great shape and is ready for the new season. Now that she’s stepped in and running the floor, good things are happening.”