John Kessel's Grow the Game Together blog

Lost a friend last month, who impacted so many, without being a coach – just by being damn good at what he did, officiate.  Players around the world held a moment of silence.  We had set up skiing plans for this season, and enjoyed a great Rio Paralympics together – after he was done being a great Rio Beach Olympic referee. Dan Apol impacted so many lives, on and off the court, because of the calm, playful and skilled observer of the game he was. I bet you even knew him as he helped in so many places. His too early passing at 44 years of age has me reflecting a bit more of late.

I missed the chance to mingle with his friends in his honor and I missed the celebration of our first Paralympic gold medal in OKC too for I was teaching CAP 1 in Atlanta. Twenty years ago, few in USAV knew what sitting volleyball/Paralympic sport was, as I spent weeks producing the Sitting event in the 1996 games, and watched one of my heroes, Mike Hulett, coaching our sitting men’s team. Now USAV is the NGB, Mike has our sport’s highest honor of being a Friermood award winner, and our women’s team is the gold medal team, after three previous Paralympics of competing and medaling for a different color.

Thankfully, I got to teach in Atlanta with Tom Tait, who goes back almost as far as I do in when we started coaching. Tom, you see, started both the men’s and women’s Penn State teams in the early 1970s. Helping hire some guy named Russ Rose, so that Tom could focus on the men’s team.  We compared stories about the training and competition we did then, and the uniforms our teams wore – making me very glad my Colorado College team did not wear the white thin nylon shorts of the PSU men, which made for many special comments as the guys would sweat. Nah, we just wore some darn pinnies which had numbers, over our somewhat matching t-shirts.

For two full days, some 30 coaches who wanted to learn to be better at teaching, shared the gym at the Tsunami VBC near the airport.  Tom is about a year shy of turning….80, and inspires me every time I work with him in his commitment to the science and facts of the game, not the opinions, and in growing the game in a professional way, together. It led me to wonder, while laughing and learning with the group, what would be the most important thing I would say to myself when I first started coaching at Colorado College, almost 50 years ago. So this is my letter to that young John Kessel.

Dear Lefty,

You know that being left-handed means your life expectancy is shorter than righties, for you live in a right-handed world. It’s not just the scissors you have to adapt to or coaches calling the right side hitting the “weak side” but being the only one in your right mind on the team, means you will have to put up with a lot of opinions – as everyone has one, just like they have holes in their body.  Listen and filter, as best you can through the science and facts you research and study after college, and work hard not to be an askhole (that person who asks you tons of questions and guidance, and never does anything shared through those time consuming conversations).  There will be a humorous guy on late night TV for most your life ahead – learn from him on how to laugh and enjoy this process and make a Top Ten list to boot, like this one to you.

1. Learn how to never be your athletes’ last coach. You will need a lot of arrows in your quiver to hit that target, so gather arrows from skilled coaching craftsmen in any sport, not just volleyball.

2. Success is a journey, not a destination. The process you are working on is far more important than the outcome. The score will take care of itself.

3. Make your gym a fun Exploratorium. – You will meet an Olympic coach who will teach you that word named Bill Neville – listen to his stories, for players retain facts more from stories rather than just being told the facts. Make sure you are practicing for performance and not just to have practice look good.

4. Focus on the science, the facts, of learning, and worry far less about other’s opinions. You will meet a guy named Carl McGown in 1975 and he will share with you for the rest of his life what is happening in Motor Learning Science, and while you will find most coaches don’t like what the science is showing, stay the course.

5. The most dangerous words in any language are “We’ve always done it this way.”  The first female admiral in the Navy, who likely oversaw your dad’s captaincy of his ship in World War II, said those powerful words. Seek to grow and change, no matter what the failures along the pathway. Your words have power. Make them inspiring, not insulting, as you believe in them. You will be a better teacher if you get rid of the words try (gives an unneeded excuse), but (change to and so they can hear your belief in them), and don’t (your brain, where it all gets stored/learned, does so positively and you can’t teach a negative).

6. Play more; Drill far less. Listen & Watch more; Talk far less; Praise more; Criticize far less – and in the end, you will find you need not criticize at all if you learn your players’ reasons and hopes for being in your gym.  GUIDE their discovery of the who, what, when, where, why and how in everything, through questions, not telling them what to do.

7. It’s far more about the relationships than it is winning. Develop amazing leaders and citizens, not just scoreboard winners, by empowering and guiding the discovery of your players, not telling them what to do. When you see your former players start giving back to the sport by coaching, or being great parents, you will find that they don’t remember the victories, but they will remember how you treated them. Winning and losing are temporary, but friendships last forever, so befriend your opponents – players, coaches and administrators, and they will bring you many of your most valuable relationships in your life ahead. Focus on having conditional relationships with each player, but unconditional ones with each as a person.

8. Culture transcends Talent. Hustle beats talent when talent doesn’t hustle. Hustle makes up for many a mistake.  The culture you start with in your gym, and promote over the season, will be powerful and important. Get them to be curious, never furious, and recognize failure as part of learning things, both new and still developing, as the errors are not being done on purpose.

9. Measure what you value. Catch them being good. Be the most realistic positive force in the gym, and perhaps their lives.

10. That which you teach, you learn. As medical residents learn about their motor skill called surgery – See one, Do one, Teach one. Get your players at ALL ages teaching younger players, even 4th graders teaching 2nd graders.

Bonus to the list, as you liked getting a surprise in your cereal box growing up… Hook the kids with hitting, but win the matches with your serve reception and serving.  Can’t pass, can’t hit is true, but you get kids to love the game by first teaching them “superhero, superhero, SPIKE.” Teach them thru doubles and small court games like you learned growing up on the beach. You think you have spent enough time on serve and serving reception, but it will never be enough. The variance will sometimes not be with you and you will lose, even though your teams are very good. Focus on being a bit better each day (you will be part of every Olympics and Paralympics but one from 1984 on, so follow that Citius, Altius, Fortius path), and being great will also follow.

If you do these things, you will be a good teacher, just like your mom followed these ideas for her decades of being a great 1st grade teacher, so don’t forget to use your whiteboard in the gym. You will also be lucky use these skills to parent two amazing kids who will astound you at what they become in their own lives.

One last thing Lefty. There will be a remarkable new tool for teaching that will develop in the Department of Defense and grow and evolve to impact the world like no other thing. You will get on board early - putting the first USA Volleyball website up with the help of another great lefty and VB coach named Tom Jack from Hewlett Packard - when a company called Yahoo will list it as one of its first 1,000 websites (and give it cool little sunshades for being a top place to visit). Your CEO and COO will doubt what you are doing. You will join a group called Rec.Sport.Volleyball and meet amazing thinkers from all over the world.

So what is the one last thing?  When Yahoo calls to offer you to be their 35th employee, take the offer, don’t turn it down because you already are committed to being a Producer for volleyball for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (and Paralympics).  Leave USA Volleyball – and then a decade or so later come back to the sport – with hundreds of millions in the bank to donate and grow the game.  The sport might miss you along the way, but your gift to grow the game together will make a difference that cannot be measured. And bring your mega-millionaire friends along so they don’t donate to sailing or horse riding – but will change hundreds of millions of lives by assisting what is the safest, most unique, fun, rebound challenging, team building sports for both men and women, from 4 years old to 94 years old on the planet.

If you have read this letter this far, and know of someone who wants to fiscally make a difference in a sport, major or minor, have them get in touch. We could really do some amazing and impactful things in making their success be significant. One goal is to keep Dan’s memory alive and celebrate it through helping other individuals who have chosen this career. Other places to help include the Paralympic and Deaflympic side for both men and women.  As we know, our passion and the emotional reward for what we do far transcends what any other career could provide for us financially. Your gift, no matter the amount, is meaningful because it answers the question, “what would I like to achieve with my money that will be meaningful to me.” Thanks for your consideration, and if you have any other thoughts to share with my younger self coach, please comment!  Happy holidays all.