LONDON — As she’s ascended through the ranks of volleyball, Lauren Carlini has become accustomed to adjustment.
She’s bridged the gap between West Aurora High School and Wisconsin, proved herself to USA Volleyball coaches and recently forged a professional career with Florentine outfit Savino Del Bene Volley Scandicci.
Of course, there have been some difficult moments. She was left off the USA roster for the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix last summer, and says she suffered a dip in form (along with her team) in Italy this past winter.
But merely focusing on the play of Carlini — a supremely skilled setter who has largely thrived at every level — neglects another part of her daily growth.
She’s developed her mindset along with her physical performance.
Ask her about her biggest improvement during her time in Madison, and the three-time First Team All-American will mention a quality that’s nowhere to be seen on the statsheet.
“Leadership is all about finding out what makes people tick,” she said. “What makes each person the best that they can possibly be, and how do you reach them at that level.”
Carlini currently shares the hardwood with teammates ranging from 18 to 31 years old, and uses those leadership skills constantly. At Wisconsin, she learned how to balance the personalities of her teammates and has quickly become an important voice on her professional team. Even her team’s website describes her as having “great qualities of leaders.”
But as much as Carlini helps teammates on the court, she still leans on others sometimes to stay sane.
The former Badger utilizes the mental performance resources provided by the national team, regularly calling a team-specific sports psychologist to sharpen her game.
The calls provide Carlini with various focusing and breathing techniques — subtle pointers that she hopes will elevate her game even further.
“It’s just things that you don’t think about in your beginning years of high school or college, at all,” she said. “But when you get to this level the margin of error is so small, that you will do whatever it takes to be in that top one percent.”
Carlini is the norm, not the exception, when it comes to USA Volleyball players seeking help to boost their mental attributes.
The men’s team employs Andrea Becker as its sports psychologist, and her work has earned her a spot on the bench and the respect of players.
“People think that a sports psychologist would make the players think more,” she told Vice Sports in 2016. “But I'm actually trying to get them to play in the absence of thought—analytical thought. I don't want them analyzing why the pass went well or didn't go well.”
All of this points to how Carlini’s mental state will affect her on-court performance. Whether she’s feeling comfortable with her team or missing her family and American breakfasts, volleyball is vastly more involved than simply hitting a ball over a net.
Mental attributes — whether it be leadership, focus or resilience — are paramount to high performance in the sport, and Carlini is doing everything she can to sharpen that side of her game.
Carlini also makes sure to hang out with other American volleyball players who live nearby in Florence, proactively quelling any feelings of isolation or homesickness that could arise.
“There’s definitely enough support around me that I don’t feel completely alone,” she said.
Every dinner date, FaceTime to her dogs and phone call to her sports psychologist improves Carlini’s mental state just a bit more, ensuring that her mind will match her mammoth ability come game time.
Even the negative experiences have made her stronger: Carlini was forced to play without her contacts for four games after contracting a bacterial infection in her right eye, but managed to produce what she said was “the best volleyball I played all season.”
“Maybe I should take my contacts out and play blind from now on,” she joked.
As she prepares for the semifinals of the playoffs in Italy, over 4,500 miles away from where she honed her craft in college, Carlini couldn’t be farther from home.
But she doesn’t regret her move one bit. If you listen close enough, you may even hear her embracing it.
“Put yourself in an uncomfortable situation,” Carlini said, “because that’s where growth happens.”
Jake Nisse is currently studying abroad in London. This is the third of an ongoing series profiling former Wisconsin athletes playing sports overseas.
To read about former basketball player Mike Bruesewitz's wild international career click here.
To read about how UW prepared former women's soccer player Geneviève Richard for her international experiences click here.