I often talk about variance and bell curves in coaching and player courses, as being aware of this fact of life, including in sports, is important. Someone on this planet is the tallest person alive, and someone else is the shortest – and while the Guinness Book of World Records may track that sort of thing, what matters is that variance along the bell curve is reality. The same goes for selfish/unselfish people on almost a hero continuum.  This past weekend I again go to work with one of my heroes, Mike Hulett, Director of the Adversity Volleyball Club.

He’s put his life savings on the line to run a club, to give boys, not just girls, a chance to discover the life lessons that come from playing on a team in the sport of volleyball. Those who remember the classic Life cereal commercial know the astonishment of Mikey liking something.  Well Mikey does not just like, he gets his love from giving back to volleyball to thousands of others…  So last weekend, six of USA Volleyballs top CAP cadre came to Chicago, and spent two days sharing “secrets” and ideas in growing the game together by being a better teacher of the sport. The coaches came from as far away as New York and California, and included the Great Lakes Regional Commissioner Sandy Abbinati, who wanted to see what is new and different since her last coaching course in the 1980s.

I learned some new things yet again while teaching over the weekend, two of them I will share here. The first came up while talking about measuring your success by never being a child’s last coach. A coach told the story of a mom who yelled out to her husband and kids who were out playing hard on the lawn, “Be careful of the lawn!”  The dad replied, “We aren’t raising grass, we are raising kids…” I love it. 

The second one I will use going forward in any coaching clinic I conduct. The coach said he simply asks the question “Where do you play volleyball….” and lets the discussion begin. The players reply with towns, club names, etc. so he asks again….this time they might narrow things down to a gym, park or court, and so he asks again, and again until they come to realize that you play volleyball on the OTHER side of the net. What a great way to get others to think more about reading through the net, not reacting as it comes over it, or worse, training from in front of the net doing the classic partner “ball control” drill of pair passing or pepper.  To get this over the net learning happening at all ages, the  USAV net bands, four nets on a rope and 2” wide ribbons were all in full force to start, and then again on Sunday night well after the coaching course was over.

Fellow cadre members were long time Florida State University head coach Cecile Reynaud, who should move to California and write comedy, not coach, as she is so sharp witted. We were watching a new drill together on wall passing, something that we eliminated from training decades ago based on how non-specific it is, that was promoted as “teaching platform control.”  Kneeling, standing on one leg like a stork, and machine gunning dozens of balls in a minute into a little square…when Cecile made me spew my Powerade when she asked “do people get a lot of out-of-control platforms in our game?”  Stu Sherman from Graceland University, and Robin Sparks were also sharing secrets, along with Bill Hamiter, our USA Director of Paralympic Volleyball. 

Mike, Bill and I did the sitting volleyball module together, starting with me speaking about how you can do 3 sitting courts on a single regular court (endline to 3 meter line, 3m to 3m and the other endline to the other 3m line, and how fun it is for anyone, not disabled players to learn to use their hands in playing VB and for sheer fun at ANY age.  Now I have been doing Paralympic Volleyball for over 25 years, but after my opening part, I said – “You have the 1996 Paralympic head men’s coach, the 2000 Paralympic head men’s coach, the 2004 Paralympic bronze medal women’s head coach, the 2008 Paralympic silver medal women’s head coach – all in Mike Hulett AND the 2004 Paralympic men’s head coach and 2012 Paralympic Silver medal women’s head coach Bill Hamiter here in front of you. I am going to go sit down, listen and learn…”

Sunday night happened as Mike hosts a kids program too, for kids learning the game whose ages are only in the single digits. So after the course was done, I was asked by Michelle, a mom of 5 who helps Mike’s Adversity program to stay around and be a guest at their youth volleyball training. I am so glad I did, for I got to work with some neat parents and their kids, and to see the power of Mike shine.  You see, most American kids are taught to serve like we throw, as we live in a sports culture of football and baseball throwers. This means most little kids can’t serve over the net, and are traditionally taught to serve from the 3 m line, then as they get better/stronger to serve from deeper and deeper until finally they are able to serve from the full court endline.  When kids are introduced to the torque serve (aka roundhouse, aka Asian style), they suddenly are given enough power by utilizing full shoulder rotation and a faster arm, that even little players can serve long distances.

I don’t know how many kids served their first ball over the net on a regular court that nite, but it was a bunch. That’s always cool to see. What they got to see, that will inspire me until the day I die, was that even Coach Hulett realized he could again serve a ball over an adult net. Sure you could say he had the advantage of being able to hit is with a rigid contact because he was using his metal claws he has on his prosthetic arms. The challenge there though is that those Captain Hook shaped claws are hardly consistent as they are well curved. Those wooden arms don’t move fast with muscles in them either, so he loses that option to hit the ball too.  Torque though, he still has his shoulders, and after raising his wheelchair arm up and out of the way, and fighting the balance war to make a low toss to himself with his other hook/arm, Mikey practiced (see pic) then hummed not one, but two balls over the net in several trials.  It took me back to when I helped a Marine Wounded Warrior’s dad help his blind, double leg amputee son serve the ball over the net. His name was Chuck, and in his case while he had arms to toss and move fast, his not being able to see the net/ball, meant dad guided him in how he was doing in his learning totally kinesthetically how to serve the ball. Chuck became that training camp’s designated server, and was able to hum ball after ball “flean,” as our national team calls a flat and clean serve, over the net.

Two years ago I wrote about Mike receiving USA Volleyball’s highest award, the Frier, in this blog. He has been my hero for despite the loss of both legs and arms, he still gives back to the sport by growing the game together. He sure could have thrown in the towel, but instead he pushes himself citius, altius, and fortius by hosting and attending CAP and teaching IMPACT.  If you ever see him puttering around a gym in his wheelchair, walk up and say, nice serve Mikey…