Over the years, I’ve talked to and observed many players, parents and coaches. Coaching USAV 13- to 16-year-olds, high school junior varsity and varsity, and now as the assistant coach at a NCAA Division III university has given me a lot of player/parent/coach experiences. I’ve watched team dynamics blossom, fade and even implode. I’ve seen friendships made, lost and put on hold. So I thought I’d share some thoughts and experiences.
I had been sharing stories recently with a fellow coach / friend when one of my old teams came up. This was a talented team that half way through the season seemed to struggle with confidence and focus. In talking to the team after the final refereeing duties before they were released to go home, I could see confusion and frustration on their faces.
During our next tournament, I watched the team like an outsider. Their lack of performance wasn’t driven by fundamentals. They used to play with emotion and reckless abandon, but now they played tight. I noticed players look to the sidelines after each play, not to the staff but to their parents (who were club or high school coaches themselves). Then immediately after the match I saw the parents talking to the kids about their play. I saw them mimicking fundamental form, explaining what the player did wrong in a match they just lost 15 minutes ago!
As a rule, win or lose, I do not talk to the team in depth about anything that happened that day. There is still too much emotion involved at that point. We wait until the next practice, after the emotion goes away and we’ve all had a chance to reflect and review the day in our thoughts. Then one-by-one the players share something good, bad or ugly about the day. They may even nominate a player for the game ball. The team then gets the coach’s review and the focus of today’s practice.
Now the point is, that team had information overload. They got instruction and feedback at practice, during the game, after the game, and probably on the ride home. On top of that, they were afraid to be too aggressive and make a mistake. Add to the mix another stand out player who rode to practice/games with the club coach parent and also was being saturated with information after the match. And finally, there is the sweet kid of a Blackhawk mom, who is convinced that her 14-year-old daughter’s growth plates are closed. “Because she is only 5-10 she won’t be a middle hitter in high school or college. She needs to play as an outside hitter in club, not middle. Plus, she only gets to play three rotations as a middle hitter and the outsides play all the way around.”
For me, my daughter who will be three years old shortly is my reality check. (She reminds me that she’s two but soon will be three!) Maybe she’ll be in the conservatory as a vocalist. Maybe she’ll be a gymnast. Maybe she will play volleyball. She was in the gym during club tryouts when she was five days old and is always around the game so I like to think she will be naturally drawn to the game. I imagine what our exchange will be after a match. I hug her and say, “How was the match? Did you have fun?”
“Yes Dad, I had fun today!”
“Great! How about some ice cream?”
Since she has been old enough to form her own sentences and understand that Daddy has to go to volleyball practice, she has bid me farewell in the same manner. “Daddy go bolleyball and teach the girls to play bolleyball?”
Teach. There it is a word from my core belief; to coach, with the heart of a teacher. I continue to tell myself what I want to achieve as I mature…..What I want to be as a coach and a parent. I want not just my daughter, but all of ‘my kids’ to enjoy this sport as much as I do. That’s one of the greatest things about coaching the younger players like 13 or 14 year olds. For most, it’s their first exposure to truly organized and competitive volleyball. They come from a grade school environment where, God bless them, they are coached by a parent who was volunteered or volunteered themselves to coach. And many times, all they know is that kids love volleyball and they themselves played when they were younger. You could argue that knowing that kids love volleyball and volleyball is fun; they have the most basic of coaching knowledge right there.
Keeping it fun, fresh and challenging is the goal. As a coach, depending on the team and how you run your program, this can be tough. As a parent, it’s about communication with upbeat and supportive talks each day. As a coach and parent, the kids need to know that we expect them to make mistakes. We don’t need to add pressure to them. They are trying. They don’t want to disappoint mom and dad or coach. They need to know its ok to make a mistake as long as you’re trying, rather than hesitate because they don’t want to make a mistake and disappoint someone. We need to remind them it’s ok, whether they serve game point out, bury the perfect set into the net on game point, or shank game point. As a team, 24 points were given up prior to that play.
We prepare with the help of the team. The goal is to put them in position to be successful. We must define success for them. Does it mean win? Score double digits? Use three hits? Together we win, together we lose. Remember that we need to be realistic about what can be achieved. A starter on the one’s team of the best club in the area as a 14 year old doesn’t even guarantee a supporting role as a junior varsity or varsity player.
People want to know if this 13- or 14-year-old kid will be a star, an outside hitter, or play in college. To be honest, I believe about two percent of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships. Realistically, at that age no one has that answer. When will this kid peak? How will they develop? What type of team will they be on in high school? Sure, at 13 or 14 they may be the tallest on the team so they play middle. More than likely, they had a growth spurt and their muscles can’t quite deal with this long, lanky body yet. So they are a bit clumsy for an outside, but they play middle, learn the game, get touches and learn what it’s like to be in a competitive environment. But the ultimate goal is…The kids have FUN!
I learn something new every year from players, coaches and even parents. As my kids get older, one of my goals is to support all of my kids’ coaches even if I don’t agree with what they are teaching is correct. To tell them the coach is wrong will confuse them. I need to have the patience to let them learn from their own success and mistakes. I want to help them learn time management as they get older so they can pursue other interests if they wish. I don’t want them to judge their success or self-worth based on points scored, win / loss records or what teams they made. They must first succeed in the classroom and in life. If the kids can do that all while having fun in sports, I can retire with a twinkle in my eye and a song in my heart, knowing that I have helped. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to show my daughter how to catch a beach ball. Then we are going to have ice cream! Woohoo!