By Christine Mooberry, Head Volleyball Coach, Montreat College, USA Volleyball CAP Level II Article

Over the last eight years of coaching, one of the most beneficial things I have learned is how to set up players to have ownership and pride within their program. Ownership within the program is something that is built over time and with the setting of certain standards. Ownership of the program by the players makes them responsible for the expectations and standards and therefore has the potential to make the program stronger. 

It has been my experience that players are drawn to our program in part because they desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves, they desire to be challenged, they want teammates and a coach that will speak truth in love to them even when it is hard to do so. In our program, speaking truth in love means that the expectations we have for a college student-athlete are verbalized and they know what they are responsible for both actions and mentally, on the court, off the court, as a team player and as a leader and that they are accountable for these things. 

At Montreat College, it also includes striving to honor christ in all things. Letting the players have ownership within the program reaps a vast array of benefits. The players will sacrifice for the team, make wiser decisions on and off the court, push to play better, practice harder, keep each other accountable and pass the torch and expectations to those that enter the program. 

Not all of the athletes who entered our gym doors at the high school and college are cut out to be in the program. Training leadership and work ethic in your current players sets a higher standard of skill and fitness for the program and allows a pretty clear picture of who will fit the program. Part of this realization came out of necessity for me. Like most high school coaches, my decisions on who to cut and who to keep were challenged. I knew my reasoning for each, but trying to explain to a non-volleyball minded parent was hard. 

Out of the situation of having to defend my decisions came the need for being able to show on paper which athletes were performing better. We started with a letter to all athletes that stated the expectations for skill and fitness testing. Fitness testing included things such as push ups, prone run, agility run, pull ups, many of our ideas we got from Sue Groganzky’s Volleyball Book. Putting what would be done and what was expected in writing gave the players that were really driven an opportunity to work for their spot. The skill testing included stats on all areas, for example serves over out of ten, or serves to a certain area out of an allowed number of attempts. Basically it gave us the opportunity to get stats for all of the players. We would crunch these numbers that the players had earned and rank them for each category and then end with a final number. We compared positions, so if we had a player that was trying out for the libero position that didn’t do well with attacking, they were only competing with others trying out for the libero position. These stats also gave us a platform to address concerns (for example, lack of quickness in a setter). 

This first step of setting the standard of what is needed to make the team was the first step in having the players take ownership of their performance. My athletes started preparing for fitness testing at the end of the school year knowing that if they worked hard all summer their numbers would show it in fitness testing. They compared speeds and number of push ups throughout the summer workouts and those that worked hard looked forward to being able to prove it on paper. The testing was also helpful when I needed to address concerns for why a player did not make the team. Setting the standards high and allowing the student athletes ownership of their performance raised the prestige of making the team and brought with it all the benefits of players who enjoy being known for hard work ethic and strong performance. 

The second step towards establishing higher standards and ownership within the program came with setting certain standards during practice, verbalizing them and setting consequences when those standards are not met (and then having those same expectations for games). Every coach probably has standards and expectations, but it was especially important for us to verbalize those and set consequences if they were not met. For example, one of my frustrations when I first started coaching was when players would let the ball drop, or not go for a ball because they didn’t think they could get it. So we established the rule that “no ball drops without a body,” any time a ball would drop without someone going for it, we had a quick consequence (for us it was a rolling ladder). The athletes would much rather go for a ball than run a rolling ladder. They started being frustrated with each other if one would let the ball drop and so started addressing it with each other. The expectation was that everyone would at least attempt going for the ball. This not only helped improve our defense by leaps and bounds but improved the attitude our players had with defense. Relentless pursuit was the standard. I no longer have to state a consequence with athletes, they own their performance, and they push each other to never give up. Let me clarify that I never have consequences for a poor performance as long as there is 100% effort. So, if a player goes for the ball and just happens to still shank it, there is no consequence. It feeds into another goal that we have, to let mistakes go because everyone makes them, there is nothing we can do about it once it’s done, and we refuse to let it distract future performance. The big mistake deserving of consequences is lack of effort because that we have control over. 

Another way we encourage ownership of performance is with goal setting in practices and games. For example we often use percentages. An article written by Mick Haley in one of the AVCA’s publications talked about percentages needed to be successful at the NCAA Division I level. Using these numbers, we often run practices striving for certain percentages. For example, as soon as the players earn seven out of 10 first kills on serve receive they are allowed to rotate. If they are stuck in the drill for a while, it’s no ones fault but their own and they need to focus to get the job done. Of course, it’s important to know your team and set attainable yet challenging goals. The players are always told why we need to reach certain goals and this helps to push to reach those goals (for example, statistics would lead us to believe if we are able to get … we will most likely be successful). 

We also expect our setters to carry a good amount of responsibility and ownership. We practice seeing the other side of the court and talk strategy quite often with our setters. Our setters are responsible for knowing the strength of the opposing blockers and running plays to split the block. They are also responsible for communication with players for running the offense and for setting the player that is most likely to get the job done based on the opposing teams strengths and weaknesses. We certainly help our players to identify as much as possible if they are not seeing it, but if they are able to do this their ownership of their success is much greater than if I am calling all of their plays from the sideline. 

Along with the strength and ownership of our setters, we also talk about mental toughness with our other players. This includes stressing always making wise yet aggressive decisions and what that looks like. Our players know that this includes everything from talking on defense and what needs to be communicated to simple things like serving the seam by a new substitution. 

We also talk about owning your form with performance. We stress this especially at the beginning of the season with new players. We do form drills until everyone at least knows and is capable of showing correct form. This way all the players know correct form and are able to feel when their form is not correct, and these drills help to build the muscle memory for using correct form. With our form drills we also include blocking drills where we practice good form and being uniform in closing our blocks and talking to each other. This has helped tremendously in being able to close our blocks in a game. Players know and are responsible for doing what they know how to do and helping the defense by setting a solid block. 

Our players also know the standards and expectations we have for them off the court. In the classroom students are expected to maintain a higher than required GPA. They challenge each other if they feel someone is making unwise time management decisions. I have actually seen my captains set standards and give consequences for bad time management issues (talk about ownership of a program!). In the cafeteria they are expected to make wise decisions to fuel their bodies well. This is something I have seen them ask questions about and strive to do the best they can to fuel their body well in the cafeteria. They know that how they fuel their body affects their performance and because they own their performance, it matters to them personally. 

Along with the high standards in the gym, we make sure to talk about character. Respect and responsibility are two of the biggest character traits we talk about. Respecting our teammates means holding them to a higher standard, challenging them in drills, not letting them off easy or telling them what they want to hear, but speaking the truth (in love) to them. Respecting our opponents means always giving a hundred percent effort, even if they aren’t a great team. Responsibility is emphasized for our actions and decisions on the court and off. As individuals they all have responsibilities in turning in workouts and other areas that have an effect on the whole team. We stress how each individual’s responsibility and decisions always affect the team even if it is not realized. For example, if someone decides to go out with friends and put off homework and then is up super late with homework, and exhausted for practice the next day, it effects the team. 

Setting high yet attainable standards for making the team, verbalizing expectations and consequences (and being consistent with following through on them), having practice and game standards of 100 percent effort, teaching the mental side of the game, setting goals and sharing the purpose behind those goals, giving leadership opportunities to certain roles or players, and knowing, striving for and owning perfect form are all part of developing leadership, ownership and pride within the program and work ethic in your players. Some players will step up and push others to do the same and the level of your program will improve. Having these standards and expectations also helps weed out those that wish to be a part of your program without sacrifice or commitment. In the end, it’s a win-win situation resulting in stronger more skilled players that know the game and love that it’s not something for everyone, it’s a reward for those who have committed, worked hard, sacrificed, and challenged themselves.