Micah Ma’a: What it takes to win is always going up
LOS ÁNGELES, USA, November 5, 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
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
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
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
“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.”