Johnny Hooper is ultra-competitive, so when he failed to make the Olympic water polo team in 2016 at 19 years old, it was not taken lightly.
“There were a lot of older guys on that team who've been to three, four, or five Olympics, so I really had to prove myself. I trained hard and got the call to go to a few international tournaments where I played well and earned the coach's trust and I’ve been improving my game every year—working hard to be better in every way I can.”
At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Hooper is technically on the smaller side for an elite water polo player. Team USA’s average height is 6’4”, but this has never hindered Hooper. The four-time All-American finished his collegiate career as a captain at the University of California- Berkeley in 2019. Not only did he lead his team to the 2016 NCAA title but he was also ranked as the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 245 goals—just behind three-time Olympian, Chris Humbert.
Hooper is extremely talented, but his drive to perform his absolute best, goes beyond talent. Hooper has an insatiable desire to always improve.
“At the end of the day, you might not like hearing that you need to work on something, or, just flat out, you're not good enough. But, honestly, you need that. Not only to prove them wrong, but prove to yourself that you're better than that,” says Hooper.
Rather than needing someone else to light a fire under him, Hooper motivates himself to relentlessly train and compete with intensity. Hooper says the key to next-level performance is self-confidence.
“You need to trust yourself, trust your instincts. Be your biggest fan, and your harshest critic.”
With the Olympics postponed, we spoke with Hooper about training, nutrition, and how he’s been making the most of his time. Here’s what he had to say.
How did you have to adjust your training during quarantine?
We were on an intense team Zoom call routine moving towards the Olympics. Usually, we train Monday through Friday. So Monday and Wednesday, we do yoga from 8A-9A. I'm not a big yoga person. It's actually pretty hard and they didn't take it easy on us. So yoga sessions ended up being like a full workout. Then, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday we do workouts in the morning from 8:30 to 10AM followed by film sessions.
I also got to try different training techniques like BFR (blood flow restriction). The workouts are shorter, but it's a lot harder. BFR allows us to continue getting stronger with light weights or just body weights. We alternate between doing strength exercises with the BFR bands and power exercises without the bands on different days, hitting both upper and lower body each day. The workouts begin with a warmup to get us ready for the exercises we'll be doing that day, and they finish with "dessert," which is usually a hard core set.
What do you think it takes to pursue sports beyond the collegiate level?
You gotta be your own biggest fan because adversity is inevitable. It’s important to make sure your short-term goals lead to your long-term vision because there's a lot of distractions and a lot of obstacles that come with being on the world stage or excelling in anything you do at the highest level. So, the big components for my own success have been self-confidence, work ethic, discipline, and sacrifice.
What’s one tip you would give an athlete that’s trying to bring their game to the next level?
Keep a tight circle and surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed and push you to the highest level to be the best version of yourself.
How have you had to adjust your nutrition during quarantine training?
I've curtailed my routine a little bit in the way that I eat because I'm not probably burning as many calories as I was in full-time training, and a big part of my position is staying lean. So, I try to stay strict with portioning myself, which is why I love using Ladder Pre-Workout and Ladder Protein because the Pre-Workout gives me the energy I need to get through my workouts and the Protein gets me all the nutrients I need to stay satiated.
What techniques have been useful in improving your mental game?
Our team psych, Brian Alexander, travels with Team USA when we go to big tournaments. He sort of spearheaded the visualization method that we've been using. We have weekly Zoom meetings with him and it’s been really useful for us, not only in motivating us for games and visualizing success, but also being able to incorporate meditation into my everyday lives and learning to relax the mind.
In our visualizations, Brian helps us reconnect to our past peak performance mental and physical state. I imagine myself dominating in the gold medal game at the Tokyo Olympics. I am learning to center myself with relaxing breathing audios which he also incorporates in the WellU Mental Training app he created.
What’s your pre-workout routine?
I'm one of those guys that needs to stay really lean and be really explosive. I play a majority of the game and I sprint all four quarters. Which means, at the end of the day, it's about being the fastest. So, my training is a lot of cardio based exercises, intensive swimming, weightlifting, and lots of dieting, so Ladder really helps me achieve those goals. I wake up at 5:30 and have my coffee, and then I have my Ladder Plant Protein and Ladder Pre-Workout 30 minutes before my weight session.
What’s your post-workout routine?
After my weight session, I'll drink another Ladder Protein shake, either the Whey or Plant Protein, and that keeps me going until around lunchtime. In my afternoon training, I swim a lot, so staying hydrated is key. I drink Ladder Hydration throughout my afternoon session. Then, I’ll usually watch film and recover, get in a nap, or, get my bodywork done. Then, go home and, you know, repeat the whole process the next day.
What was your most recent Netflix binge?
So, we actually have a lot of downtime when we go overseas because we have to train and get ready for games, and we usually explore different cities at the back end of our trips once we finish competing. So, I’ve been watching a lot of ESPN’s “30 for 30”, The Last Dance, Breaking Bad, Black Mirror, to name a few.
What’s some music you’re loving right now?
I definitely consider myself more of a creative. That's a big, big part of my life. So, I’m always trying to find new music, new genres, cool artists, those are some of my passions. I love artists like Dominic Fike, Pop Smoke, Gunna, Lil’ T, you know, the classics like Future and Drake.
What do you love to do in your free time outside of water polo?
I think trying other sports and challenging myself outside of my own sport is a big part of me being successful in water polo. So, I surf a bunch. I'll play basketball and volleyball because I think you can learn a lot from other sports, like coordination and incorporate it into your specific sport.