Finding Fulfillment: USA volleyball’s Matt Anderson gets candid about Tokyo, fatherhood, and future plans
The U.S. men’s volleyball team has their first chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Games this Saturday, September 30 through next Sunday, October 8 in Tokyo, Japan.
The last time the U.S. men competed in Japan they did with high stakes and in the midst of a global pandemic at the Tokyo Olympics in summer 2021. The team made a shocking early exit in pool play at those Games.
U.S. Opposite Matt Anderson, who’s been an integral part of the men’s national team for the last 15 years, gets candid about the weight of the disappointment and emotions he experienced during that time.
The West Seneca, NY native also opens up about the challenges of playing a sport with no off season, how being a dad of two has humbled him, and how Team USA has evolved in the lead up to Paris 2024 below.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Picking up where we last left off, walk me through your experience in Tokyo.
Matt Anderson: It’s pretty clouded with just personal disappointment, I think a team collective disappointment, in the way we finished. We didn’t even make out of Pool Play, which is a heartbreaking thing to accept, seeing that we were pretty primed—at least on paper—to fight for the gold medal which we were obviously working towards for a while.
Everything that led up to the Tokyo Olympics was life changing for most people in the world and athletes as well, especially with the way we had to train and prepare. The Games got postponed and everything kind of changed in a year. One of our Outside Hitters, Taylor Sander, actually came back from shoulder surgery and he had an ankle issue which he was able to rehab and come back from. Thomas Jaeschke (Outside Hitter) also came back from injury but then we lost Aaron Russell (Outside Hitter) who had a hip injury that required surgery. TJ DeFalco stepped up and played really well. For someone [competing] in their first Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised with the way he played and handled himself during the Games.
With that being said, we as a team just didn’t play as well as we could have or as well as we should have in my mind. That experience was tough. To get to the specifics, I don’t really know [ what went wrong] because honestly, I haven’t gone back and looked at anything and I’ve intentionally chosen to not do that, because I think it would hurt a little too much. But I think we’re in a really good spot now, and even though I haven’t processed it fully, I think we’re at least able to put it in a spot in our brains that doesn’t affect the way we’re playing or training right now. I’m excited for what’s going to happen leading up to Paris.
I don’t want want to take you back too deep because I know Tokyo was a difficult chapter for you to walk through but just so people really understand, can you explain the emotions that you said you felt clouded by?
Anderson: I think there’s a tendency to look at athletes and sports and [assume] that we get to play a game for our jobs so it must be fun. In a lot of cases it is, but we’re also trying to go for something that most people in the world can’t do. We’re competing at the elite level and that’s why there’s so much hype around the Olympics for everyone.
It’s childhood memories of sitting in front of the TV, watching your favorite athletes compete and win gold medals or fail, and in dealing with that there’s a lot of emotion. In order to [achieve that gold medal dream] you have to risk [failure] and being criticized for everything along the way.
I think I do a pretty good job of not paying attention to those critics, especially the ones that I don’t think really understand what we do. But I’m my own biggest critic and to be in my position, I have to be. I’m the one holding myself accountable to what I’m doing. I know my intention with my trainings, with my actual competition play, my preparation and in everything, so I have to be the hardest on myself.
In Tokyo, the moment we lost in those last matches against Argentina in Pool Play, I immediately started going back through the five years of what I did from when we won the bronze medal in Rio, to then start preparing for Tokyo.
It’s a huge wave of memories, thoughts, and disappointments because we’ve lost tournaments along the way. [I asked myself] Did I learn every lesson I could have from that tournament? Did I take away the best parts of the wins while also looking at the stuff that we can be better at, personally, individually and collectively as a team? Did I mentally prepare myself there?
At that moment, I was just [newly] married and had my first son, Jamie, and now I have a daughter, Juno. That part of my life is thriving in a lot of ways, but I also still sacrifice a lot of that for volleyball. A lot of emotions come up [to make me wonder] “Is it still worth it for me to keep playing?” I think it is, and my wife, Jackie, is in the same boat. I’m very lucky to have that support from her and the rest of my family.
There’s a lot of emotion that goes into it and it’s not just us playing a sport. When we don’t succeed in something that we really, really want—especially in a team sport where other people rely on us to put in that work—it’s hard to let your teammates down. Then of course you have the letters of your country on your back, that’s why you’re there.
What do you remember most from your experience in Tokyo?
Anderson: I remember going back to the room, starting to pack up my bag, and just sitting in bed just going through those emotions, thoughts, and disappointments. It’s kind of a sad way to look at the Olympics but that was my experience.
How would you sum up Tokyo in one word?
Anderson: Frustrating. It wasn’t a traditional Olympic experience without the fans or my family there. There was so much pressure to get the Games going, there were all of the COVID policies, and the anxiety and stress of worrying if you were contaminated. I’m extremely grateful for the Olympic Committee and the people of Japan for putting it on and I’m sure it was extremely stressful for them as well. But it was frustrating because it just never felt like the Olympics in my mind compared to the two previous Games (London and Rio) that I competed in.
How have you grown on and off the court since the Tokyo Games?
Anderson: I’m constantly readjusting my perspective on things and understanding that there’s only so many things we can control. Being able to recognize the difference between those two. Off the court, a lot things have changed in my life. I have two kids and a wife—my own little family—that I’m trying to give all the opportunities that I possibly can to. If that means working myself to the bone, then I’m willing to do that.
What would you say your biggest lesson from the Olympics was?
Anderson: You can do everything right and not succeed so try to find joy in the struggle. If I was to rest my career on my last Olympic experience, it’d be pretty heartbreaking but the 15 years now that I’ve been playing for the national team and playing professionally have given me so many great memories. I’ve been happy more than I’ve not been so it’s important to see the small little moments that create joy. Seek fulfillment, not happiness.
I love that. How would you say that this U.S. men’s volleyball team has evolved since then?
Anderson: I just think we’re more experienced. We’ve had so many rollercoasters of tournaments, quads, preparation, injuries and things that we’ve been able to learn from. We’re more trusting of each other and more free to play the way we want to play. We know that it does take risk in certain aspects of the game to win but as teammates we trust that when [someone] takes a risky decision, it’s with the intention of being great and not the intention of personal glory.
You’re obviously one of the veterans on this team. What would you say your role is?
Anderson: To lead. To put my head down and work hard. I don’t necessarily get caught up in the glory of the sport. I find that I’m at my best when I’m just working. That’s best for me and best for the team.
Paris 2024 will be your fourth Olympics if the U.S. qualifies and you make that Olympic roster. What would getting the opportunity to represent a fourth time mean to you?
Anderson: It’s always a goosebumps type of honor to play for America. It’s the Olympics. Everyone is excited for it and a lot of people actually only know us from the Games. Behind the scenes, we train year round. We compete overseas and then compete for Team USA every summer but people don’t really see the four years leading up to it—the hardships and sacrifice that go into it.
Paris 2024 would be a great end to my career. I don’t want to say it’s going to be the end because then I get emotional, but it’ll be really good. I’ll be excited to have my family there.
You talked about not seeing your family and loved ones for long periods of time and playing overseas. Can you explain the sacrifices you make as volleyball players in preparation for your sport?
Anderson: I’ll use the NFL as an example. They have preseason games and then their regular season goes through early February, if they’re lucky to make the Super Bowl or Pro Bowl. They have a couple of months off until they start doing OTAs and things like that.
As volleyball players, we never stop. We go from September to May with our professional seasons. From May to September we’re with the national team. Every year of the [Olympic] quad, there’s competitions for our national team that contribute towards our world ranking and ability to qualify for the Olympics. Then the Olympic year is what everyone sees.
In our [busier] years, we’re training for about 48 to 49 weeks of the year. We get about 2-3 weeks off, not consecutively, it’s usually a couple of days at a time [sporadically]. In our pro seasons, we have limited days off. If you play Champions League, you’re playing two matches a week and your days off are a travel day.
Volleyball is constant, it’s always there. It takes away time from family, it takes away time from friends. You don’t go to your friend’s weddings, you don’t go to birthday parties or pretty much anything unless it’s something really, really significant. A family member’s wedding or God forbid, a funeral. You miss a lot.
Your day is always surrounded by your training. We might only be in the gym for four or five hours but then comes recovery, refueling, sleep...as I get older, I’m getting in earlier and staying later. Volleyball runs my life for the most part. But like I said, I’ve had more joyous occasions than sad moments and I can only do it for so long. I’m in it for at least another year.
Thank you for sharing that! Let’s walk down memory lane. I’m going to give you a memory and I want you to give me a word to describe Matt Anderson during that time. Starting with London 2012.
Anderson: Green. I was young as can be. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was having fun.
Anderson: Getting there. I was learning. I was at the precipice of realizing where I was professionally and individually as I stood amongst other players in the world but also being able to carry the team.
Anderson: Probably a little naïve in thinking that I knew it all but I didn’t.
How would you describe yourself now and how are you different?
Anderson: As a player, hardworking. As an individual, genuine. My kids have humbled the sh*t out of me. Some things don’t matter anymore.
The last time we spoke [in the leadup to the Tokyo Olympics] you were newly engaged. Now, like you’ve said, you’ve got two kids and you’re married. How has that added to your life?
Anderson: It’s beautiful chaos. It’s been wild but exhausting. It’s been full of love.
Everyone has their seasons with mental health to a certain extent but I know you’ve faced some ups and downs on your journey. How have you been feeling mentally and physically?
Anderson: I’ve been good. Everyone has moments. I’ve become a little more aware of when my moments get a little too tough. Physically, I’m 36 now so the years have definitely added up but overall I’m good.