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Micah Ma'a: What it takes to win is always going up

 

Micah Ma'a in action at the net during the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.

Los Angeles, USA, November 4, 2020 - The 2016 UCLA volleyball season was, by most any metric, a success. The Bruins finished 25-7, which is good for most, but for UCLA? It was a near overnight turnaround from the 2015 season in which the Bruins finished 13-14.

The 2016 Bruins marched all the way to the Final Four, losing to Ohio State in five. They were, by all measures, a programme on the rise, one that could contend with any in the country.

“I thought we were a bunch of losers,” Micah Ma’a, the freshman setter of the 2016 Bruins, said. He laughed at the memory of that thought. It’s easy for him to see that 25-7, a Final Four appearance, a programme flipped around, is certainly not a team filled with losers.  

But at the time, it was the most losing Ma’a had ever experienced.

Raised in Kaneohe, Hawai’i, you’d be hard-pressed to find an athletic competition of any kind – basketball, volleyball, football, whatever – in which Ma’a would not be on the winning side. His club team, Ka Ulukoa, won six national championships, becoming the subject of the book, The Way. His now somewhat-famous high school team, Punahou, the alma mater of USA national team teammates Micah Christensen, Erik and Kawika Shoji, and American beach Olympic hopefuls Trevor and Taylor Crabb, won four consecutive state titles. Ma’a, of course, was far from being merely a participant on those teams: In his senior year, he was named the State Volleyball Player of the Year.


So when he enrolled at UCLA, and the Bruins lost two matches in a six-day stretch, it was an odd experience for the kid so accustomed to winning virtually anything he tried.

“Up until college, in terms of volleyball, I had won a lot,” said Ma’a, who also won a state title in basketball and played three years of varsity football as a wide receiver. “I didn’t really know what losing was like. My sister actually said that: 'He just doesn’t know.' Winning was the norm.”

It begged the question, then: how did Ma’a continually find himself at the centre of winning cultures?

He’s self-aware enough to know that one individual cannot command a new culture on a team of more than 20 players, as was the case at UCLA. But, at the same time, as the setter, if there’s a man to do it, he would be the one.

“There’s a lot of different cultures that can be winning cultures,” said Ma’a, who is currently competing in the French league for Poitiers. “I don’t think I have a grasp on it totally. I’m not at the point that I can create it alone. I got lucky with this team, because we have a bunch of guys and it just works. What it takes to win is always going up.



“I don’t know what it takes to win at the national team level; I’m a rookie. I’d like to believe it takes a lot of the same things, you just gotta work a little more, and work a little harder. I’d like to think I’m helpful for team culture.”

It would be difficult to argue against that. Everywhere Ma’a has gone, winning has quickly become the norm. His four years at UCLA featured four consecutive winning seasons and a National Championship appearance in his junior year. When he was signed by Poitiers in November, he entered a team fraught with tension. There were injuries to the starting outside and middle hitters, the team record was subpar, the coach was out sick, the culture fraying. Ma’a can’t, and won’t, take credit for the team’s subsequent turnaround in January, when Poitiers would begin a run that would end in a French Cup win – it must be noted that this one does come with an asterisk, as COVID resulted in a few forfeits – and an underdog mentality that they were no longer a team to simply roll over.

“Everyone kind of takes a little bit of the load. We don’t have a superstar right now and we’re all on the same page,” Ma’a said. “I haven’t had to be this crazy leader I’ve had to be in the past, we just all chip in to create this healthy culture. Anyone can talk to anyone and you don’t need one guy to pull all the weight when the culture is doing it itself.”

He’s a people person, Ma’a. Loves a good, genuine conversation. It’s why he’s been able to assimilate not only to his team of fellow youngsters so well, but the culture of France as a whole. He’s found that, though it may be nearly 8,000 miles from Hawai’i, France isn’t all that different from the Islands. He’s tight with the local barbershop, chats with the folks at the coffee shop and bakery on the corner. When people ask him how he’s doing, they’re legitimately curious.


“The things that I enjoy about Hawai’i, I enjoy here,” he said. “In my little area, the people are really genuine, they take an interest in your life. There’s just a strong community. In that little community, people are so welcoming, they’re always saying hi, always welcoming you, and they actually care about your answer. They don’t care what car you’re driving or what you do for a living, they just care about you as a person.”

It explains how he was able to sign with his manager with nary a second thought. The guy seemed nice, genuine, real. So when his manager recommended the French league, Ma’a didn’t hesitate.

To the French league he’d go.

“You could put me anywhere,” he said. “As long as I’m around good people, I’m good.”



So maybe that’s his secret then: find the good people, and the winning follows. Or maybe he’s just an expert at bringing out the good in those around him, an intangible that you cannot teach a setter, but which any world-class setter will have.

He has it, that it factor. And it’s making an impact for Poitiers.

“We’re not supposed to be one of the top teams at all, which I love,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of guys with big names so we’re just under the radar which is amazing. I like it a lot. It’s not like ‘Oh my God, how did you lose?’ It’s ‘wow you guys won?’ It’s pretty sick. I enjoy it a lot.”

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