At the 2014 Sitting World Championships in Poland in June, I watched a wide variety of coaching styles and while there are over 20 nations and their cultures competing here, the styles fall into basically two different camps – often within the same coach. I agree with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa’s character who in the 2006 Rocky film said:

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place, and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now, if you know what you're worth, then go out and get what you're worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain't you. You're better than that! I'm always gonna love you, no matter what. No matter what happens. You're my son and you're my blood. You're the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, you ain't gonna have a life.

It’s one of my favorite quotes, and Hugh McCutcheon often paraphrases it to something like rainbows and ponies, but it is true, in life, as well as in the chaos and randomness of sport.  It is true for not just the competitors, but the coaches teams as well.  It is part of the “growth mindset” that those teaching can impact their charges with. I especially like this summary of Carol Dweck’s research brought into her book Mindset that address this skill of taking hits, aka  - You see, to be in the sunlight, you opt for less challenging, faster to solve challenges, so that Carol writes: “Speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning: ‘If you think I’m smart when I’m fast and perfect, I’d better not take on anything challenging.’”

So I have been pondering about improving coaching performance in the heat of competition after serving on jury for over a week at the championships and watching coaches hours on end. At the risk of being relentlessly positive to the point of discomfort for many negative people, I have some questions if you are going to be a sunlight or shadow coach in competition and in practices…

Do you light your players’ way or bury them in your personal landslide of disgust?

Are you a shelter from the chaos or a tornado of frustration and visible disgust?

Are you a HERE I AM! or a THERE THEY ARE! Coach?

Are you Coach Jekyl or Coach Hyde?

If they have doubt in themselves during the match, can they look over at you and find all the confidence they need, or will they see no such support?

Would your player consider you a teacher or a warden?

Does your body language express belief, or doubt?

Do you see failure as part of the learning process always or get angry when you see it happen in competition?

Are you a sequoia or a willow?

Can the players rely or your consistency or do you leave them bewildered with your inconsistent actions on the bench –all the while DEMANDING they are consistent in their on court performance?

Do the fans and everyone on court see you as a hand clapper or a foot stomper?

Are you specific with your feedfoward, or spouting nonspecific things every player already knows?

Would your parents see you as a high fiving arm raiser or a clipboard slammer?

If your grandma was watching you coach, would she approve of how you treat your players?

If someone posted a video of your coaching in competition on YouTube, what would your first grade teacher say about your teaching competencies?

Do you understand that mistakes are part of learning, or think errors are done on purpose?

Do you let the referees err at times without yelling at them, knowing they make far fewer errors than each of your players – or would you like them to yell at you as often as you do at them, for your own coaching staff or player mistakes on the court?

Do you call your players “my kids” or recognize that the parents are the only ones whose kids they really are, as it is them who takes their kid to school, the doctor, feed/clothe and house them for nearly two decades?

Are you a relationship counselor between your players and their love of the game through all its ups and downs, or are you a taskmaster who the athletes fear playing for?

Do your players err and turn to one another on the court to focus on the next point or do the athletes, every time they err, turn to look at you on the bench?

Have you empowered your players to compete at their highest through your practices so they can fight in competition even if you are not there, as Hugh McCutcheon tragically experienced in the 2008 Olympic Games?

Would fans say that you sure showed your players how to compete, or that you are simply a showboat?

The game has countless streaks, both short and long, and the calmer you are when these streaks don’t go your way, the more the kids will love the game. In Poland the top teams turned inwardly to celebrate each point or even error, while other teams would err and all eyes would then stare, often filled with fear, at the coach.

You see, as much as the game is random and chaotic, the effort and consistency of a coach should not be. I love to watch athletes risk in competition against any foe. I dislike intensely (not hate, a word I  teach and personally save that wording for the worst in life, like say Adolf Hitler) coaches who verbally and visually give up on their players.  I saw in this event coaches who scoffed, chided and became very angered when streaks we not in their favor. I watched one coach shoot an imaginary gun at players as the score went to 18-24, but then begin to “believe” when the team, despite the coach, fought back to 23-24.  Olympians get to an Olympiad through the tens of thousands of failure that test their mettle. As Rocky said, it is about what you do after being hit by the errors, in the sunlight of successful plays, or the darkness of defeat and mistakes.  

Sometimes I feel like writing a blog or book called “Zen and the Art of Volleyball Maintenance.” I would love for you to share your coaching best practices on how you teach teamwork and the power of being on a team sport to your athletes. I will start with three of my favorites.

  1. Take 14 pencils to practice. Show the team how easy it is to break a single pencil (especially letting the player most needing this teachable moment do the breaking), then group the remaining 13 pencils all together (the roster plus the coach) to show it is impossible to break the group when it is together.
  2. Give each player, or the teachable moment athlete if you wish, a sheet of paper.  Have them “hit with an error” and tear the paper in half. Then have them tear the 2 pieces in half as they “get hit again” – Continue getting hit by tearing four pieces into eight, until you can no longer tear the “athlete or team” in half again with any more “hits” as the learning is deep and deliberate in practice.
  3. Have a player compete 1 vs 6, one contact for the single teammate, normal three or less for the sextuplet on the court.

So what are your ways to show how the team is stronger together than apart in any way, including the sideline actions of a coach in any level of championships? Thanks for your help in growing the game together and I look forward to your comments and ideas shared below.