Each summer I conduct a volleyball program where we meet every Sunday for two hours and simply play standard and modified volleyball games. Instead of filling each class with specifics about technique and tactics, we focus on positive behaviors of the game. Intangible traits such as attitude, body language, desire and hustle, communication, leadership, teamwork and motivation take turns being the spotlight behavior of the week.
The characteristic is described in the beginning of the class. We introduce it, talk about it and then do some volleyball specific activities that allow us to practice it. We then spend the majority of the time in traditional and modified game play where I ask the students to focus on that trait of the day. I will usually choose a player or two in the end who exemplified the characteristic the best; an icon player if you will.
Out of all the camps, clinics and various programs that I teach, I can honestly say that this intangibles program gets results. I truly see players develop, what I feel is an important part of their game, right before my very eyes! It is characteristics like communication, attitude, body language and leadership that coaches expect from their players every match and practice. But how often do we practice it? These skills are just like our physical and technical skills in that they must be put into practice to become permanent.
Throughout my junior’s season, I also like to deliver ideas about intangibles to my team. To work on teamwork and support, I will have them draw names from a hat in the beginning of a practice and it’s their job to show as much support to that player as they can the entire practice. During games or drills, I will often add bonus points for the team that demonstrates effective communication. Not just constant chatter, but language that is direct and pertinent to the play results in extra points for the team. Sometimes I like to stop practice in the middle of an activity and take a time out. It is a 30 second break where I give them some directions about how to change the output or direction of what we are doing in the game. It’s a chance for us to practice time outs, but also I stress that they practice listening, understanding and learning to refocus. Of course it is practice for me too as I learn to use words that are understandable and direct to the point to help them do better in a 30-second time span.
One of the biggest challenges I see in coaching young girls in the sport of volleyball is finding ways to make young players cope and learn from the never ending trials of mistake making. It’s an inevitable situation that all teams must learn to deal with. Not only do we need to teach coping with mistake making in volleyball, but we need to get our players to learn to use this as a positive tool of learning and teamwork. After all, each mistake affects the whole team, so shouldn’t the burden be shared by the whole team?
We have all seen, and probably even been part of, that team that just falls apart. One or two crucial mistakes from a player leads to clipboard throwing, parents yelling, and even worse, teammates giving that player the cold shoulder or a bad attitude. And even though we all feel the same amount of frustration at the end of that loss, it’s always the coaches job to bring the team in and say those common words known as a lecture that goes something like this: “You all have to work together. You have to be a team out there! You need to go to the huddle after every play and when your teammate makes mistakes you need to support them!” Sound familiar? Again, here is a common skill we want our players to have but how much do we really practice it?
This past season my 14s team and I started something we would call “taking heat.” The concept is simple in that we practice taking the blame for each others’ mistakes. We used words like, “my bad,” or “I got that one,” any time a neighboring player would make a mistake. I asked them to practice it in low stress situations at first and they thought it was fun. I would later remind them, during an intense receive drill or ball control game when things would start to fall apart, to take some heat for each other. They knew exactly what I was talking about and instantly the mood would change from heavy shoulders to high fives and eye contact. During practice, this was seen as something kind of funny and easy. But when game time came, and I noticed any of the potential situations arise, I could remind them about taking heat and it wasn’t such a task. After all, this was something that we have been practicing and something that they knew how to do.
I do agree that players need to learn to be responsible for themselves, their actions and their mistakes. The idea in taking heat is not to allow players to hide from their faults. It is simply a way to support each other. This is an attitude that I love to see in players. In fact, the idea of “taking heat” came from the best player that I have ever had the chance to coach. She has been a stand-out throughout her career, now in college, and other than being a great player, I remember her most for her great attitude. I remember her doing this naturally, taking the blame for fellow teammates, just so they wouldn’t have to feel bad about the mistake and so we could move on. She was always so anxious to get that play behind us and get to the next one that it was quicker to just take the blame rather than look around for someone else to.
The way I try to explain it to my players is like this: even if you didn’t make the touch that caused the shank, there certainly was something you could have done more to help the situation. Going after the shank, calling the ball in or out louder, calling the open shot on the court, or covering the block are all ways the play could have been indirectly helped. We want our players to understand the team concepts of this game which means, touches aside, the end result is the responsibility of all players equally.
At the end of a doubles exercise one day in practice, I simply asked the team who was the player that they most enjoyed playing with. It was almost a majority vote that their favorite was a girl that skill wise was in the middle of our team. When I asked why everyone liked her as a teammate so much the answer was, “because she never gets upset when you make a mistake.”
This goes a long ways in my book. It’s a tough thing asking a young girl, or boy for that matter, to swallow their pride and not feel a hindering burden when they are not immediately successful. It’s a steep uphill battle when teammates, coaches and parents are egging it along.
What we want is for the girls to fall in love with the game and the experiences that they have. Spending a little bit of your training time practicing good character will allow us all to spend our match time knowing how to play and enjoy the game the way we all agree it should be played.