This week my son Cody is playing in his first ever college matches for Princeton. He has been touching base lately about his concerns about playing at this next level, which will be played against California teams like UCSD (who Princeton has not defeated in over 11 years) Long Beach and Cal Baptist. He has a great roommate; coaches and teammates; schoolmates and teachers. He just wants to become the best player he can be, having been raised in the backyard of Citius, Altius, Fortius and the Olympic Training Center (OTC) of his hometown. He also has been personally impacted by the power of Paralympians, Special Olympians and Wounded Warriors, and wants to make sure he lives his life even somewhat approaching the passion, strength, and will to strive that they exhibit. His sister has the same drive, which of late has been tempered by the challenges of mono that hit her early this month, but she has recovered enough to miss even more school (having caught up to her classload), and I flew her out to watch her brother start his college career.

So this top ten list is written to Cody, and his sister McKenzie, their teammates, and for all those players in our global volleyball family seeking to grow and become the best player they can possibly be. It’s my checklist of things to focus on, as they are things you CAN control, rather than wasting time, energy or focus on things that are out of your control – like the outcome or the conduct of your opponents, the officials, fans and countless other things…


1. EFFORT – By choosing the team sport of volleyball, you have chosen to give up being able to control the outcome. You can, however completely control your effort, in practice and the match – As I tell every team I coach…I don’t care if we win or lose, but nobody is going to out-hustle us.

2. SERVE – There are six basic skills in our sport of a lifetime, but only one that is in your control. The serve. Serve it in, and over the net. If this guy can shoot this many hoops in a row, you can control the toss to yourself – make it consistent – and then put it over and in, time after time after time. Re-read this blog about serving and share with your teammates.. ;

3. COMMUNICATION – Both self-talk and the way you talk to your teammates. Speak only in the positive, never the negative. Eliminate words like don’t, can’t, won’t, try, but, and others that weaken you and your team, and be relentlessly positive. And since you are a Kessel, throw in some humor too, as life is to be enjoyed, never feared.

4. MOTIVATION – Keep watching the best. I am jealous, in a good way, of YouTube, as when I was learning, you could not record things – you had to watch it live, and take pictures. (I know you can’t take pictures when you play but take lots of pictures, as your grandparents taught you). Study the best, and become yourself. Keep reading the best books and surrounding yourself with the best quotes.

5. CONDITIONING & DIET – It’s homework, as Anson Dorrance wisely puts it, and yet it is in your control all the time. As part of effort, you should run during practice, not walk. When you have a choice of stairs or elevator, chose the stairs, and run them if your book-load allows, just like your sister does up the famous Manitou Incline here. Play doubles in the sand as often as you can (I know there is a court right outside your dorm, what a great opportunity, once the snow is gone). Eat healthy, and choose good things to eat, but we know that ice cream is worth rewarding yourself for – just remember to always distinguish treats, from habits, in what you regularly eat.

6. LEARNING – You know from so many IMPACT clinics and time with Carl McGown, how we learn motor skills fastest. You know that means the chaos of randomness, and even playing half your time below your average, on the journey of raising that average. The puppy dog syndrome* is not going to fool you, so celebrate even below average performance with the reality of getting better – you may fail but you are NEVER a failure, it is just part of the process of learning. Work hard when your coach is watching you, and work harder when he is not. Be creative, and “try stuff” and know that when you do new things you have never done before, you will err. Just work hard to make sure they are positive errors, on the path to error free play, rather than negative ones.

7. ATTITUDE – attitude, attitude. Sometimes there may be nothing more important, and nothing much more to say, other than for players to read my article “My Favorite Player”. Remember, you win, regardless of the score, with PEOPLE, not a volleyball, and those who keep a positive, problem solving, love of the game, win, regardless of the scoreboard.

8. LEADERSHIP – After decades of sharing being a Bronco fan, we have had the pleasure of seeing a quarterback teach the lesson of believing in your team every day. Being from Denver makes watching Tim Tebow a bit more special but in the end, it is his belief in his teammates, which we all can do and control. You have always been the first to acknowledge your teammates after a kill, both setter and the passer, for you know it takes a TEAM to reach the point of being able to score most points. Keep building, teaching, and supporting every teammate, with compassion and passion, and be a leader both on and off the court – Here is a video clip done by some kids your age which speaks to some of this.

9. GOALS - Personal and team. One win or loss does not change your control of your goals, if you set them realistically, and do things every day to reach them. Set them and work on them, for you control the goals you seek to reach. Set them for practice, matches, and in daily life - just remembering that most goals are steps to final, larger goals. Like they say about how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…

10. DELIBERATE PRACTICE – Remember the lesson of your handwriting, something you “practice” daily but I still cannot read. It is not enough to practice, you MUST practice focused in those precious two hours with your teammates and be asking yourself, was that a good or bad error and how should I do it better the next time. You can control your dedication and commitment to practicing with full focus. As that one OTC quote says, when you are in the gym, be in the gym. We call this sometimes mindful practice, or deliberate practice. Since you get measured every game, point by point, it is important to set individual practice goals and SCORE a lot of your training, For in practice, and in every game you play the ONLY point you really have a chance to "control" is the next one. Not the last one, it's done. Not two points from now, that is the future. This NEXT point with a right here, right now focus. It is this kind of mindful, one point at a time focus that helps you succeed.

In closing, know for historical reference that the first match had the outcome of a 3-1 loss, all but one game close. He had his sister texting that he played amazing, and a dad, who could not be there because of work, smiling and proud that he did so much with the things he can control. A second match was not close, but the third, the Tigers won in a 5 set thriller, defeating an always well coached and hard playing UC San Diego Triton team 24-26/23-25/28-26/25-21/15-8. My favorite line from Cody’s email is excerpted here “Last night was so fun with the team, everyone was high off of life (especially our senior captain Scott who had never won in his home state) and we are still talking about the match and all the great plays we made and how we can continue to win in conference play.”

For the coaches who read this blog, make sure to take time to teach these top ten topics so your players focus on what they can control. For the players reading this, hope this is a good start to giving you more power to perform on the court, as you focus on those things in your control, and not the countless things which are not.

*this is the term is use for kids who do not think they are getting better over time. Your volleyball development is like the growth of a puppy, yours or someone else’s. If you own it, you do not see the changes, but those who come by once every couple of weeks or more, will always say…wow, I can’t believe how much your dog has grown – and you look at it and think…looks the same to me. As coaches we need to use video to record players actions at the start of the season, and then show them how much they have improved along the way, as they don’t believe it most the time. Same for parents, but that is a different story…lol.