I oft speak of the impact  a Discover magazine article long ago had on me, on how we are fooled by randomness, in helping me be a better parent and coach.  A short TED.com clip on why we need to teach our kids stats over calculus – as my daughter struggles to decide between taking 2 semester of AP calc next year or not – is well worth the 4 minute viewing.


My son is a passionate volleyball player who also has worked hard in school, and will be attending Princeton next fall to play, learn and grow.  Unlike his dad, he is above average in intelligence. Long ago I would see him get exasperated at fellow students who were not on his level in smarts, so we had our first “Stats” talk. It went something like this...

Everyone in America, indeed, the world, has some level of smarts. Put together in total, there will be an average – which falls at 50 percent. So in the USA, using an easy number of 300 million folks and incorporating the science of mathematics, 150 million of those people simply will have to be at or below average in their smarts. That is a lot of places poor decisions might be made or errors, compared to you, should you just be average in smarts. You, son, are above average in smarts. It does not matter how high above average you are, it just means even more of the people you meet, well, they will make more mistakes and poor decisions than you. If someone in the top 10 percent of smarts, 9 out of 10 people they cross paths with in day to day life, are likely to make more errors and all. If you let yourself get frustrated to the point of incapacitating yourself, or spending 90% of your time being exasperated, you will not achieve much in life.  It is what it is…and so focus on what you can control and work through the errors and challenges that might befall you because of others.

The thing is that the SAME thing is happening every day in every volleyball gym in the world, including my 2x a week teaching our Team Colorado 14ers. At one end, while we have some overall above average, passionate kids playing, on any roster, half the kids will be above average and half below. Those who can RAISE their skill average, which is in each player’s control by training hard and practicing DELIBERATELY will more likely start over those who do not. 

More importantly is how we see our children playing in tournaments or even in practice if we watch. We get fooled by randomness, and we suffer from the “Puppy Dog Syndrome.”  The latter is where, since we are watching every point/practice, we fail to see the growth happening – just like people with a puppy do not “see” it growing. Then a friend comes by once a month or so and every time it is “look at how big your dog is!”   The former is REALLY important to understand as parents, and goes back to the same stats we need to remember regarding average intelligence.

Each of my players has a personal average and – in each practice and each tournament, they will play

  1. ABOVE their average half the time and

  2. BELOW their average HALF the time.

Again, it is what it is. This is the science of how this random, chaotic game is played. What I see in too many parents, and players, is a form of panic or disappointment in their child’s performance, or the team, or even the club, when things are happening in the lower half of the learning process, the “below average” performance.  Chill! Let it flow. Relax, it is just part of the game and of learning. There is no need to yell at them to “work harder” if they are working hard. No reason to be disappointed in their performance – for if you are as a parent, well, you too will spend at least half your time watching, being frustrated and disappointed. 

One of the key ideas of practice is to make sure that “the first time” happens there, not in a competition.  Good coaches and players embrace the chaos of competition.  They create challenges and adversity, guiding and letting the players problem solve these situations which might happen in play. Changing setters, playing new positions, making sure players are well rounded and able to perform all skill sets (not just a specialist) are all things EVERY player should experience. The point is to get players comfortable with the chaos, and the changes in the game flow that present themselves every set of every match. Volleyball is a game of high speed rebound chess, and each player needs to know how to solve the problems caused by the changes in events, not turn to the coach for the answer, because they have dealt with it in training first.

While I am at it, please recall (mentioned before in this blog) that in the last 115 years of recorded volleyball play throughout the world, that HALF THE TEAMS ARE LOSERS! So if you think losing means you are a loser, you are in for a miserable ride.  We – players, coaches and parents alike – MUST take the long range view and focus on mastery over outcome.  Support your child’s effort and hustle, even when they are playing in their 50 percent of the time below average zone!  It is like the line my teams hear so often they may be sick of it – and that I have put in this and my previous blog…“I don’t care if we win or lose today, but NOBODY is going to outhustle us.”  Even there, I must remind myself and know, that their hustle levels will be below average half the time! My job? To raise their AVERAGE hustle level to be so high, other teams, even when hustling well above average, are not hustling as well as most our 50 percent below average. 

Referees also have an average, and they will be making mistakes too, albeit not on purpose. Just know they too will referee half their judgment times below their average. Again, like players, they want to reduce their standard deviation and raise their personal average level of making judgments – something that comes only by refereeing…doing it.

Sidebar – To be the best teacher you can be, you need to understand what I mean by standard deviation, bell curves and average. Click here to get better informed.

Illusory Superiority

Studies show that just about ALL people will say they themselves are above average in smarts  - even though that is statistically impossible. This is known as “Illusory Superiority,” though it is more fun to call it the Lake Woebegone effect – after the fictional town Garrison Keillor has created where "all the children are above average."

The same is likely true for parents about their kids and their child’s volleyball skills

So the point is…skill performance will ebb and flow, with 50 percent of the time being spent in below average performance for each player. Practice is for RAISING each player’s personal average, even if in tournaments, they will be performing below their average half the time – when you look at it OVER time. Sure they will have wonderful streaks of success, but also frustrating streaks of failure. It is all part of the learning process and….your support in both cases should be consistent and with LONG range development paramount.  Relax and enjoy the ride – it is over faster than you may realize and it WILL be one of peaks and valleys, not some smooth highway up to the stars…..If the first time you experience it is not really the first time, as you have handled it in practice, you are on your way to embracing the chaos of citius, altius, fortius.  All the while focusing on one point at a time to get better and raise your average through mindful, deliberate training in this right here, right now world of competition, even when performance is below average, as it most certainly will be. Just stop comparing yourself to others and become the best you can be…