I returned this summer to speak with the Netherlands Volleyball Coaches Association for their 35th anniversary national clinic, something I first did a quarter of a century ago.

Though it was decades ago, I can still remember the shock I caused by warming up the players with variations of small-sided games, including a 4 v 4, sit one out, rotate between all three spots of just the front row after each “send over”. First, just overhead pass, then add in forearm passing and finally jumping with roll shots – first cooperatively scored, then competitively. Something must have struck a chord as years later I saw their youth program was playing matches under the term “Circulation” volleyball, where the kids rotated with every crossing of the ball.

Then and now, this way of creating randomness in the learning process, and its imperfections, creates both better retention and creative play at any level. I still make sure to implement some form of fast rotation into each practice, either with every serve or with every net/ball crossing, while checking for understanding when I see a technique not executed in best form.

The challenge of coaching is often determining how well your players KNOW the technique vs MISREAD the game flow. What happens when their timing or positioning is flawed? The player looks technically wrong, yet they rebounded the ball with their best solution to being in the wrong place and time. It was likely a good adjustment to an earlier mistake.

I can’t say enough how most coaches I see practice for practice’s sake and not for performance – a phrase I first learned from the late Dr. Richard Schmidt, author of many great motor-learning textbooks.  Trainers make practice look good by throwing balls perfectly to the hitter or setter and are pleased with the technical results, only to suffer and agonize over the game’s realities. I would argue that no point in volleyball is like any other point; similar yes, but NEVER the same. We know that the U.S. Women’s National Team spends 48 percent of its time performing out of system. I know my youth teams spend the vast majority of their time in imperfect situations; so much so that my system is simply being out of system.

It starts with warm-up where most opponents are pair peppering or doing coach-controlled actions while my kids are in groups of three doing weave pepper, or loser becomes the net. It then goes to hitting, where our opponents slam ball after ball off a coach’s toss, until the setter sets off, yet again, a coaches toss. Meanwhile, my team is doing front-back form of receive, set hit in 2-3 lines, starting by the players throwing over the net. Yes, I have had parents look longingly at courts with coach-controlled warm-up and say “It just looks so pretty.” But the reality of sport, especially a rebound game like volleyball, is that it is more often “ugly” – in being out of system and learning to deal with the variety and randomness.

Funny how these teams so controlled by their coach in learning are far more often the ones losing. The coaches make their players run lines or do physical punishment for failure while the person at fault for the loss barks commands and does not one single punishment.

We seek perfection even though it is impossible and gets in the way of learning. The brain needs the trials and errors to get good. Your brain needs failure in order to succeed under stress. Your brain needs to READ in advance to know when/where to be at contact, not only the previous contact or opponent actions/set up – but the FLOW of the game that has gone on before. When we make things easy for the players in practice, we are making it hard for them in the reality of the game. I agree with this quote by Brené Brown, quoted before but it seems important to again share; “Perfectionism is a hustle.”  Parents and players get hustled by programs and private lessons, but that is a story for another blog at another time. What we need to teach better is learning, reading the game, and a growth mindset – and all the messy stuff that goes with that including failure and losing. 

Think about the realities of being a “loser”….

  1. In the millions of matches played in our sport, 50% of the teams lose. Risking by playing your best is something that not all will risk. 
  2. On a real TEAM, you win and lose as a TEAM. The loss is not one player’s fault, nor is any victory.  The game is random but the way you can care for your teammates, win or lose, is not.
  3. Winning and losing are temporary, but friendships last forever.  When you reminisce over any season/team in the time to come, it is the RELATIONSHIPS you remember, not really the scoreboard. Take time to thank your coaches and non-starters and…your opponents who that day just were a bit better.
  4. Separate the Performance from the Performer – there is a huge difference between failing to win and being a failure. Failures in the process are a VERY core part of learning.
  5. If it’s your child who lost, no matter what age, sometimes all you can do is embrace them, hold them tight, and remind them how much you love to see them compete and that success is a journey, not a destination. Oh, and that win or lose, the sun is going to come up tomorrow and that means there is another day to work on the process of being the best they can be.

Someone wisely said that failure is growth swag. I suggest if you find yourself tormented by losing, you pick up a copy of Curt Menefee’s book Losing Isn’t EVERYTHING, and learn more about the untold stories and hidden lessons from the toughest losses in sports history – sorta like the Warriors loss after being up 3-1 to Cleveland… and the other side of winning.