Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Game Changer....

It’s at the end of the hall, the last door on the right; three floors up and down the hall where quietly, although not for long, some of the most important research to come out about feedback was developed, proven and sustained. John Kessel’s Grow the Game blog featured her work in his post two weeks ago and several members of USA Volleyball have taken notice.

Dr. Gabriele Wulf, a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences at UNLV and the principal researcher into external v. internal feedback and focus.

We reached out to Dr. Wulf and she was gracious and accommodating in our interview with her. Unassuming and humble, Dr. Wulf is open and confident of her research and where it will lead coaches going forward.

In the 38 minute interview, found here, Dr. Wulf talks about her research and where it is taking her and the world of training athletics.

In her own words, here is a sampling of what Dr. Wulf’s research has to offer.

“The definition of an external is a focus on the movement effect on the environment so typically that’s the ball that you are manipulating; hitting, throwing, kicking, whatever, as opposed to your foot or your hand that is doing the work sort of speak. An internal focus is that, focusing on body movements that you use to… balance; when you tell a tennis player to focus on the swing of their arm, or a golfer, that would create an internal focus.”

“We use images which is another good way to promote an external focus.”

“One thing that is important to keep in mind when we are talking about external focus or internal focus, we are talking about the planning of the movement we are about to do. So what do we concentrate on when we’re about to execute a serve? That does not mean you are not aware of your body movements. I think that’s something important to keep in mind.”

“One of the interesting things happening in the brain when we think about the self and the body movements in this case, and those activations in the brain tend to interfere with our movements.”

“Technique in sports is oftentimes complex but sometimes one little tip will elicit a much better technique.”

“Physical Therapists and golfers were among the first to really get interested in this research and I think golfers for an obvious reason: I mean golf is so hard, it’s so hard to hit a golf ball well so they always struggle.”

“There was a study in the UK where they were asked to focus on the trajectory, the target and the landing point of the ball versus the club head or the wrist; that was internal. You had the proximal external focus: the club face and then a more distal one, the ball trajectory and that also was better than the proximal external focus and internal focus.”

“The feedback literature where the gist is essentially you shouldn’t get feedback very often. The reasoning behind that were people become dependent on feedback when they get too much of it and they never learn to interpret their own feedback. I question that. There are other reasons less feedback is better: people don’t feel criticized all the time, that’s one. Also, we have shown in two different studies that when feedback is worded in an external way, more is actually better. If it’s worded in an internal way, then less is better.”

“In 2013, a review article was published and looked at all the articles out there and I couldn’t find a single study that showed the opposite: that in internal focus was better than an external focus. It’s so reliable.”

It’s time to climb on board coaches. This is a game changer of how we, as coaches, can get more from our athletes; more effective training and better retention of what we are coaching. And be sure to listen to the end for the unveiling of Dr. Wulf’s new research which is another game changer in coaching.

Thank you Dr. Wulf for your time with the Arizona Region.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lessons Learned, the Az. Edition...

In the last of our series on what lessons coaches took from this past season, here are Arizona coaches, who agreed to have their lessons made public so we can learn from them as well.

"The lesson I learned from this season is the importance of mental toughness. The successful players are those that keep pushing forward even when they think they can't. That will find a way when it seems like there are none. That will keep competing and fighting when the odds are stacked against them. Training the mental side is often overlooked but so many matches are determined by a such a small margin of two points, the successful players stay mentally tough until the end. This is a skill that should be trained starting at the younger ages and have the power to take a player to the elite level."

Megan Taylor, Grand Canyon University

"The landscape of collegiate volleyball is ever changing. Student athletes who transfer from one institution to another have the opportunity to fill gaps in a team's roster that might otherwise rely on an unproven player. That is exactly what happened at Arizona this year. It was a transitional year for us because we lost six starters from our 2015 team. We were fortunate to get a transfer opposite and two defensive specialist. All three played significant roles on their previous teams. Instead of relying on the inexperience of freshman we were able to fill those position with two seniors and a junior. The addition of those three players and the development of our current returning players helped power us to a NCAA Tournament bid in what would normally be a transitional year."

David Rubio, University of Arizona

“For me, our past season was one of high achievement coupled with a sudden re-grouping due to two significant injuries. No season goes as you expect. There are always issues and concerns that present themselves that you can’t even imagine. The level in which you coach has little to do with the challenges we as coaches face. So as our season progressed and our team re-grouped, our coaching staff, in particular my assistants, played a significant role in helping our team and me. You need to have good people on your staff. You need to be able to relate and rely on them. I’ve known that as a coach – we all do. But it’s not until you get challenged as a program, do you really see the significance and impact having good people around you has on you and your team. I’m so very thankful for an outstanding staff and great assistant coaches.”

Jason Watson, Arizona State University

"This season's lesson: The importance of time off. The longer I coach, the more I firmly believe in the importance to time off. I know a lot of coaches believe in the 'no time off' philosophy. However, over the years what I have discovered is taking time off not only has enhanced my coaching, but has also helped my players stay fresh and eager. The cycle of volleyball has become unforgiving. Kids go straight from their high schools seasons to club within a week or so. Club season runs for nine months and then it's summer camps and clinics and again back to another high school season. The kids never get a break. By the time these players enter college, many are tired, lacking a love and passion for the game they once had, and many are dealing with chronic overuse injuries. I have learned that sometimes 'less is more' and that a day off here and there, can have greater benefit than any drill or practice. Chances are, if you are needing a break, your players are feeling the same."
Lisa Stuck, Glendale Community College

"This year I was reminded that how you teach players is just as important as what you teach them. Confident, relaxed, optimistic players are capable of great things. One of the best things I can do for a team is to help them keep this mindset through the stress and adversity of a season."

Ken Murphy, Northern Arizona University

Thank you Arizona Coaches for your input and we hope you have taken some lessons from the last few Coaching blogs.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Lessons Learned II...

To continue our conversation about what coaches learned from this past season, these are from High School and Collegiate Coaches from around the country. What can we learn from their lessons?

"There is an old saying, 'You can't push spaghetti, you have to drag it.'
When selecting a team, carefully choose people who have desire and heart. Cut the rest. I would rather work with players whose skill level may be inferior in the beginning, but their attitude and work ethic is great. It may take longer, but in the end you will be able to accomplish much more."

"When we listened to the kids talk about the 5 things they'll miss most... only 1 listed had to do with volleyball. So, here we have perhaps our most talented kids yet...and they love to compete, but they're here for the ride and all the team building, etc too. One of their favorite memories was our film&fun "practices" when after film we did things like play reverse charades and made cookies. So while these kids...some of our best yet....LOVE volleyball and LOVE to compete...even they remember everything else first too."

"Each season is a learning lesson for me, as I am the constant student of this game. So for me, this season was about what defines success and/or a successful season. And even though we missed the playoffs, I found myself proud of our progress this year. With such a large group of freshmen; 8 of 12, I really focused on the individual and group successes on and off the floor. When we watched film from our first match, and then film from our last match, it is night and day. This team dealt with adversity by working harder and bonding together. This team also demonstrated tremendous growth as young women off the court. So, for me, this season taught me to look at more than wins and losses for what dictates success; and to broaden my view to see the bigger picture that is in play."

"This season I learned to swallow my pride and remember that simple is better. I have always hated single blocking and considered teams who did it to be 'poor' teams. The old adage 'if one blocker is good, two is better' has always been our mantra. I pride myself on being a coach who isn’t afraid of pursuing innovative things. We took on swing blocking and jump serving at the high school level before other teams in our area had even heard of it. This year, however, our team was very small: 5’4, 5’5, 5’6, 5’7 with 5’10 and 5’11 in the middle. A few matches into the season, it was clear that our smaller kids were not getting touches on the block, and we were getting killed on tip defense because our back row was getting hammered. Our two middles are young, but they have very good timing and technique on the swing block. The little people on the outside and right side were just in their way. We decided to pull them off for defense and let the middle just swing from pin to pin. Our team this year had MORE total blocks than last season! Our MH2 had almost as many blocks as our whole team did last year. While I still hate the 'idea' of single blocking, I learned that sometimes, simple is more effective and practical scores points. We have to cater our offensive and defensive strategies to the athletes we have, not the other way around. Of course, a small part of me is still hoping our small kids will grow and get mad hops so that we can double block next year like 'real' teams and a voice in the back of my head is screaming, 'What’s next? Middle-up defense? What is this, 1985?!' but I know that my swallowing my pride and letting go of my own personal biases allowed our team to go 29-4."

"This season I learned that as a coach you need to allow your players the freedom to play well. I think too many times we as coaches are too critical about things that definitely don’t matter in the moment and today’s athletes really let that affect their confidence and performance. We had a way better second half of our season this year because I just a lot of things go and let them be them."

"I don't think I really learned anything new this year but certainly reinforced certain philosophies. No matter how good or weak my team is, hard work every day and commitment to the 'team' needs is critical. Take nothing for granted and earn it. And we can and will continue to learn and improve...even going into the practice before the championship. My team embraced this and I respected their commitment to improving everyday."

"A lesson I learned this past college season is to coach to your team’s strengths more than spending too much time on your team’s weaknesses. In the past I have been guilty of spending too much practice time and coaching emphasis on coaching to our next opponent also. This year we focused primarily on what our team was good at and how do we use those strengths to score more. Of course we spent some time on improving our weaknesses and scouting opponents but it was only about 25%-30% of our practice time. During spring season we will devote more time to improving our team’s weaknesses but during our competition season we will spend the majority of our time working on what we do best on the court."

"Patience was the #1 thing I learned from my HS experience. I get a mixed group of players from different levels of the game and many with a less diverse club experience. I do my best to keep things simple in HS and do my best to challenge players individually but don't have huge expectations of them. My goal is to make kids better in HS and do my best to make sure they have a positive experience. I held my players accountable and wanted them to achieve in everything they did, but was always realistic of what they were capable of. When we competed against powerhouse programs, I reminded them that we were not expected to win, but it would be awesome to upset!"

"Team chemistry does not guarantee wins. Winning without it is undeniably difficult but having it is not a promise of success. My
team this year was easily the most physically and athletically gifted
group of young women I have ever had the honor of working with. Mentally, we struggled. By the end of the season I knew I had missed something in the training process that as a coach I should have provided. We are taking steps now to ensure we address those issues early for next season. The girls got along amazingly well. They truly enjoyed the company of their teammates. I even had a parent tell me that her daughter told her that this was the first team she had ever played on where she got along with every one of her teammates! All of that is great but at the end of the day, we need to win games. Which we did. More than any other season in many years;14 wins. However, the team did not meet its goal of making it into the playoffs and therefore, as a program, we are disappointed with the season.
Despite the team chemistry and all the girls truly enjoying playing
together and spending time together, we still pulled away from each
other when our opponents put pressure on us during the games. This is
where our lack of mental toughness and discipline would show up.
Instead of trusting in the ability of the team to perform as a unit, we
tried to take over the game as individuals. In the end, I realize that
I designed a preseason plan that created opportunities for the team to
develop some chemistry on and off the court. I got the outcome I
wanted. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of creating mentally
strong individuals that could hold themselves together emotionally
during the toughest times of a competitive match. I have to hold them
more accountable and put more pressure on them in practice. I have to
train them to the point where they trust not just their own skills and
abilities but the skills and abilities of their teammates as well. I
also need to teach them to hold themselves and their teammates
accountable for their actions. I will have a veteran team of seniors
next year who will be highly motivated to succeed. Finding a balance
between giving them control of their team and doing what I tell them to
do as the coach will be a critical piece to our success or failure."

Thanks to these wonderful coaches who shared their lessons learned with us to help us get better. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lessons learned...

Lessons learned. We spend our seasons worrying about the little things, the big things and even the things we cannot control. But in the end, we learn. 

We asked coaches from around the country to weigh in on what lesson they learned this season past. 

This is what they learned...

"I always learn a lot but I would have to say that I realized no matter how or what is going on with parents or players I need to stay true to myself and my coaching style, coaching philosophy and mission. In the end people come and go but I have to live with myself."

"Easy question--go back to what's important--loving children, loving the game, and keeping life in perspective. Sounds simple, and usually is. However, when life took over last year, as hard as I tried to stay focused I couldn't see the forest for the trees. We always want our kids to let go of everything when they come into the gym, but I struggled doing that very thing. The harder I tried the worse I did. Funny how that works sometimes. This summer I realized I needed to be true to myself and my kids. My responsibility is to serve them and be committed to their success. I could care less what anyone thought. Thank goodness my girls are so unconditional. They just loved me through it and forgave me without hesitation. We had a great year, made wonderful memories and are looking forward. Life is good. Everyday is a blessing. I am so lucky to be able to have the job I have and enjoy these kids. Life doesn't fall apart--it falls into place if we just let it. It's a great time to be a Lady Tiger!!!"

"The most important thing that I learned this year for my 9-11th grade 'B' team was it was important to let them play through their mistakes to gain confidence rather than sub them out."

"I think I learned that towards the end of the season it is more important for the kids just to play and that we aren't going to make any HUGE changes in their skills-just let them play 3 on 3, 4 on 4, 6 on 6 drills and make it fun. I knew this before but it was really reiterated this season when we had 2 weeks between our last game and Region tournaments. The days I tried to focus a little more on passing or hitting fundamentals were a bust and the girls did not enjoy practice or get much out of it because they weren't invested."

"This season I was reminded that the most important things my volleyball players will learn from playing volleyball has nothing to do with volleyball. We tried something new this year and had a weekly discussion called 'Monday Moments' where we discussed different aspects of what it means to be healthy. Some weeks I had the girls come prepared with short presentations, we discussed the different character traits in John Wooden's Pyramid, we talked about confidence, we discussed the importance of sleep, time management, etc. This started out as a way to use time while we waited for the court, but became an amazing bonding tool. The girls referenced the things we discussed multiple times during matches and games. It was 15 minutes once a week, but they really looked forward to it and taught each other so much."
"Every time they bring something up from our discussions, it reminds me what it's all really about. Keeps me from getting too caught up in the competition and from forgetting that I'm dealing with people. Amazing young people. They may not always be volleyball players, but they'll always be people who I got to have an influence on for a short time, so my goal is to make it count."

"The most important lesson I learned this year was to trust my assistant coaches more. I am very stubborn in my ways especially when a game is going on. My assistant coaches are watching the girls more than the game itself and can see when they are having a bad day quicker then I can. Usually they will tell me to take someone out for another girl and I was quick to say they are playing fine and no sub is needed. Early in the season it didn't burn my team at all to leave the girl in but I always noticed on film the girl struggling and remembering my assistant coaches telling me to sub one in for her. As the season wore on I would trust my assistant coaches and their judgement more because of this early season lesson I learned. It helped us more than it hurt us to listen to them and use their judgement. I wouldn't always listen to them but they were right more times then they were wrong."

"I learned that through injuries and adversity you need to remain steadfast in your beliefs and positive to a fault.  We struggled all year and could have thrown in the towel on a less than stellar season, but kept coming to work each day and talking about a team goal that could still be reached.  Focus on what lies ahead and do not dwell on things of the past.  We were able to play our best volleyball down the stretch and win our district for the 3rd year in a row.  We also managed to get to 10 wins when at first it looked as though we'd remain in single digits.  Keeping positive and focusing on energetic practices and improving on areas we could improve on each day kept the team together and working towards a very reachable goal at seasons end.  Also, not being afraid to take days off late in the season to allow kids to rest and recover both mentally and physically kept them wanting to come to practice."

"I learned the hard way this season: one player who is NOT invested can and will be the downfall of the entire team and its mission. In three seasons, I had established a culture at my high school and a theme that had been our foundation: 'Heart and Hustle.' We don’t have big kids or a big offense, so we’ve had to rely on our defense and our 'never let a ball touch the floor' mentality. I lost my setter this year because of concussions, so I was in trouble at the beginning of the season. When I got word that a 5’10” senior setter AND her 5’10” freshmen OH/MB were moving in, I thought my prayers were answered. They weren’t. This kid became our biggest nightmare because of her moodiness and her lack of commitment to what my other seniors had been working towards for three seasons. They didn’t understand – and I couldn’t seem to coach above this kid’s attitude. I had no other setter, so I had to have her on my court. While we still finished third behind the #1 and #2 teams in our state, we didn’t make it out of our Regional tournament, and for the first time in 3 seasons, didn’t make the state tourney. It was a tough lesson to learn, but the old adage is certainly true: you’re only as strong as your weakest link."

"The most important thing I learned from this season is the power of a true 'Team First' atmosphere. One of our mottos for this season was '14 Strong!' We had 14 girls on the roster, and we called on each and every one of them to make big plays on our way to our first league championship in 23 years. As an example, during one of our matches versus the eventual 2nd place team, we were down 5-9 in the fifth set. My libero was struggling and had a bit of a breakdown. I called on one of my outside hitters (who hadn't played at all during the first 4 1/2 sets) to come in as a defensive specialist for her. My outside hitter came in and did AMAZING. She made amazing dig after amazing dig. We ended up winning the set 15-13. This type of thing happened several times throughout the season. Every one of the girls stepped up in different ways at crucial moments."
"This example shows the power of the team. My bench worked very hard to maintain a positive attitude, even if they weren't playing, and to always stay ready to come in and contribute in whatever way they could for the team. As a team, we celebrated each other's successes and all the girls made sure that they were never bitter or negative if someone they were directly competing with for court time was finding success on the court. We were able to compete and win because we were '14 STRONG' all season long."

As you can see, most lessons weren't on court lessons but lessons about people- trusting, getting them invested and enjoying the process, the 'ride.'

More to come....stay tuned!

Friday, November 27, 2015


Our Netflix and HBO Go accounts are full of movies that we watch when we have a down night, when practice gets cancelled or you just need a few hours away from the world. We use them to escape, we use them to gain knowledge and a lot of times, use them to just kill an empty 2 hours in your week.

So how about giving up one of your movies in the next few weeks to get better at our craft. As we say here often, we shouldn’t expect our athletes to get better if we won’t do the same.

Let’s take the time of a motion picture and work at growing our coaching mind and resources.

First, let’s tackle just being better at our skills with others: our athletes especially but how about parents and fellow coaches as well:

Brene’ Brown on Empathy


How much can we learn from those great coaches who go before us?

John Wooden: the Difference between Winning and Succeeding

Anson Dorrance: Grading Character

How to understand the science in our sport better...

...and realize sometimes we just need to be 'the pat on the back.'

How sometimes we should see size in a heart, not a body.

How through empathetic eyes, we can work through what our parents do.

Why you should always skip your kids baseball games

And even how to do our job better with simple tools.

Making White Boards on a Coach’s Salary

You have probably seen many if not all of these videos, but in the time it would take to watch Adam Sandler's new release or rewatch "The Hunger Games" we can maybe get a little better at what we are passionate about in just a shade under two hours.

Popcorn is of course, optional.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Be a Shark...

Imagine that as a coach, you got this e mail from your 6-1 outside hitter on Thursday afternoon around 4:45 p.m.

“Hey Coach, sorry I can’t make practice today. I have to do this research paper that is due tomorrow. Our stupid teacher assigned it like two months ago but didn’t remind us about it until this week. I know what I’m going to write about so it should be easy. I just need to get a C or better on it to keep my C in the class so I don’t have to spend that much time on it but still, I have to miss tonight.
I will of course be there Saturday to play.
By the way, me and Kayla skipped out on weights Wed. We just shuffled around the bleachers and the weight coach didn’t even know we were missing. We stayed in the snack bar playing ‘Candy Crush’ until Kayla’s mom picked us up. She asked why we weren’t even sweating and Kayla just told her we finished earlier than the other girls. SO funny!
Anyway coach, I know you understand. See you Saturday.”

I doubt any coach would get this e mail and be okay with what this athlete is saying, doing or the behavior she is displaying. As her coach, DO you understand?

The Region got this e mail a few weeks ago. “I am the club director for XXX Volleyball and a long time coach in Arizona. I was just taking the IMPACT course online and they said that the certification was a lifetime certification. I am hoping that it would be possible to petition to have a vote brought about to remove the 3 year renewal requirement from the AZ region. Thank you!”

And still last season, a coach sitting in an IMPACT class, when asked what he hoped to get out of it responded, “I want to do the least I can to be able to coach in the Region.”

Hard to imagine sometimes how our athlete’s get their ideas to do just enough to get by...

The Sport in America survey found that coaches are the leading positive influence on today’s youth.

So what kind of influence are we on our athletes when we tell them, either through our words or actions, that we don’t need to get better at what we are doing. We are fine just where we are?

This blog has talked a lot about growth and fixed mindsets. Coaches will stress it to their athletes and then do the absolute least they can to coach those same athletes. Isn’t it time that double standard dissolves?

How about making small efforts to become better at your craft?

This is a terrific podcast (that you can listen to on your computer or phone) with Karch Kiraly on his upbringing, his philosophy and why he coaches the Women’s National team the way he does. It’s an hour. How much time did you spend scrolling instagram, snapchat and facebook today?

The Kansas City Royals just won the World Series. Have you thought about how good of a manager they must have had to navigate a 162 game regular season, the playoffs and then win the World Series? Thank goodness this New York Times writer did. It’ll take 10 minutes to crack it out. How long were you in the Starbucks drive thru today?

One of the great coaches in the world, one that you probably have never heard of, talks about A B C’s: “You Assume something through analysis. Believe nothing and go out and Confirm it.” He also says he tries to simplify everything for his athletes and even his own coaching which he says simply, “Make sure we get better at what we do.” He is a coach named Steve Hansen and he coaches the world’s best rugby team known as the ‘All-Blacks’ because of their uniforms. Google him and read some of his interviews instead of finding out what Brad and Angelina said on the Today show this morning…

Interested in how the San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich builds and manages his team? Check out his blueprint of success, another 10 minute read which might keep you from your daily TMZ fix for a bit.

On You Tube, check out this impassioned 17 minutes North Carolina Women’s Soccer coach Anson Dorrance conducts about character and how he treats his team who has won 22 of 24 National Championships.

Social media has made learning a click and a scroll. No more books or reading for hours and hours. It's fast, it's visual, it's immediate. You just have to go look for it.

Like a shark, coaches have to move or die. Coaches that spend their lifetimes coaching their teams and athletes the same way they did 10, 15 or 20 years ago will struggle to connect with this generation and ultimately, no matter how deep and impressive the resume’, will lose them.

You expect every athlete you have to give you their best: at practice, in matches and hopefully off the court as well.

Don’t we owe them exactly the same thing?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bamboo and a Better Self....

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”- Mother Teresa

We’ve become so engrained with how indoor volleyball should be: nice gym floors made of wood or tile with shiny red or blue poles surrounded by thick padding and pristine black and white game nets in use because the practice nets might have a small tear in them or seem dingy. Uniforms splashed with color and screaming the name of the player underneath huddled around pre and post match acreage of food and snacks and more water and Gatorade than can be consumed by 12 players in a month. 

Inclement weather; hot, cold or rain affording everyone a chance to tell their stories of what a struggle it was to get there and get set up. Officials smartly outfitted with navy blue pants, white shoes and colored shirt of the day overseeing score boards and deflecting the parent heckling of their miscues, whether real or imagined. Players tossing a ball aside because it’s “too hard” or doesn’t feel right. The court living and dying with each point; mistakes magnified with gasps and catcalls and winners given rousing ovations from the crowd and bench alike. Players meandering through team cheers that seemed much more clever at the beginning of the season. 

Finally a match ends and one side, gripped with disappointment and anger, the other with jubilation and relief. A quick meeting with the coach and then on to the next one; an assembly line of recreation with the grandeur of a college scholarship at the end of the rainbow for some, and often a torrent of disappointment and excuses for those that fall short.

Two coaches from the world described above went across the globe and found another world. Seventeen hours into a calendar day disappeared and they arrived in the Philippine Islands: Manila to be exact. It was a discovery wholly unexpected but the kind of sojourn that can help define a person’s make up going forward: a recipe for maybe finding their better self.

These are the lessons of that journey. (video)

They landed in a world of indescribable poverty: a place where most of us would only be aware of because of pictures in a National Geographic or an ad in Us magazine asking for a donation. Small children being bathed on the street in a bucket, cardboard boxes used as building materials on a roadside or on the banks of a river keeping the relentless rain or merciless sun off a family or two…or three. Small children putting blank faces onto a car window at a stop light begging, their blank eyes looking through you and neighborhood after neighborhood built out of corrugated steel panels and makeshift wood and mortar. Many sheds in American backyards are constructed more soundly.

The journey began with many lessons to be learned for these two American coaches. They walked into their first clinic onto a high school campus and realized how Dorothy felt leaving Kansas. Two large security doors opened up and upon driving into the campus, students were busy: some heading to class but many sweeping the grounds, picking up the leaves and branches from the storm the night before, hauling trash and helping with the day to day workings of the school. There was no janitor, this was the student’s school and they were expected to keep it tidy. The gym was a metal roof supported by four beams, no walls. The volleyball net was intact but held up by the resourcefulness of a school PE teacher and fancy knots, affixed to metal poles sitting in a rounded piling of cement that made it easier to roll on and off the concrete basketball court. Fifty students, male and female were seated quietly awaiting a chance to forget, if only for a few hours, some of the struggles their daily life presented them, by playing volleyball.

The coaches quickly learned that a gym doesn’t’ always need walls to make it a sanctuary for aspiring athletes and for some, a home. These students, who had to apply, write a paper and take a test for the chance to be part of this program, listened intently to the instruction given. English was spoken here but it was fragmented and oft times misused. The coaches out of necessity spoke less, showed more and kept the group moving, rep after rep. They realized that a simple rope strung across the court lengthwise and tied to basket supports and tape helped to untie the traditions of only playing over a “real” net and afforded all fifty students an exposure to game like reps.

An afternoon thunderstorm that would lead the local news in some parts of the country was a shrug and an inconvenience when the ball would roll out from under the roof and a player would wipe it dry with their hands and shirt and get back to their team. The heat and humidity was stifling at times but it never slowed anyone down: coaches or athletes. At the end of the clinic, the students would play: 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 across the rope and with every point would do a cheer which morphed into dances, songs and celebrations of pure happiness. From the first clinic, in a foreign land, two coaches had learned a most valuable and universal commodity: the power of play.

They took to heart how much everything they did was appreciated and not one minute, not one, was wasted or taken for granted by these student athletes or their teachers. The coaches brought an enthusiasm with them that mirrored that of the athletes they were helping and the reciprocity was a conduit for electric coaching and teaching moments. As the energy drew down a bit, the coaches thinking the athletes had hit their wall, were once again blindsided by a fact that permeates the poorer parts of Manila. School starts at 7 a.m. and goes until 1 p.m. and then another shift of students comes in from 1 p.m. till 7 p.m. The players weren’t tired.

They were hungry.

They hadn’t eaten for 6 hours or longer. The program the coaches worked for fed every player and or coach at the end of every clinic. There was never anyone asking for more, no one taking two of anything. The meals/snacks were sandwiches and a banana and water. One clinic was a hardboiled egg and a banana. No one took cuts in line, no one left trash behind. It wasn’t so much a treat but a necessity for many.

The week went on: two clinics a day, sometimes three. It was never a grind for the coaches, they summoned more and more from those they were with. One day was spent at a facility for girls who were abused, had issues with law enforcement or were trafficked. That word was used far more in one week than should be used in a lifetime but it is a stark reality in the Philippines where some daughters are sold into slavery for $20 U.S. by their parent. The sheer cliff of emotion that must be faced every day is simply unfathomable. The facility, called appropriately “The Haven” was another outdoor gym with a roof that echoed the afternoon rain. With over 100 girls on the court in two different sessions, over 200 in all, the rope and inventive games were used to get the girls engaged and playing. Again, hunger became an issue as some faded toward the afternoon but the coaches saw an amazing array of human spirit and fortitude. Looking into the eyes, the faces and imagining what horrors these young women between the ages of 10-24 had been through, the coach’s souls were bruised a bit but their hearts grew outside themselves.

After the 200+ girls at “The Haven” were ready to head back to their dorms, they delighted the coaches and program hosts with a show. Several of the girls danced hip hop, another sang beautifully and a few others donned traditional costume and danced, making their ancestors proud. At the end, a giant hip hop parade with almost all the girls commenced and the “whip” and the “nene” took over the cement court. Looking at the scene, it was a clip from a movie a parent had taken 100 times on their iPhone at a local club tournament starring their daughter and her friends. While this was on the other side of the world, it still seemed so familiar but both coaches felt what the girls felt at that moment: they were home.

The Americans took a flight mid week to the island of Cebu and got a chance to work with students studying to be PE teachers. The coaches saw a chance to open minds and showed them sitting volleyball: not only as an option for schools without a volleyball net or poles but also an option when their students hadn’t had enough to eat and needed a fun game that required less cardio tolerance. Next up was Smashball and showing the teachers how to let their students hit a ball first and fall in love with the game, then add the skills as they went along. Finally, once again over a rope, they played. They laughed and just like the kids they’ll teach soon, they danced on points won, strategized on points lost and showed pure effort and passion with each serve. At the whistle, they stopped: labored breathing through toothy grins and smiles. The coaches cajoled them to remember what they felt at that moment: the power of play.

Toward the end of the week, the coaches spent time at an orphanage for kids once again abandoned, abused or trafficked by a parent. Like many of the other stops along the way, a group of the students sang the coaches and program folks a hello song, welcoming us to their home. The head of the site spoke and as she did, the remnants of the typhoon that had soaked the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines the previous day cleared to blue, promising skies. The coaches unleashed the entire school onto yet again another outside court and watched as the younger and older kids mixed together all over the grounds, practicing their passing and attacking and serving. Some set for their friends and got to crank balls over a real net while others were content playing off a wall with a friend. They were finding their own path. The coaches, helping where they were asked, did what worked the best. They got out of the way.

The last day with coaches and players was a brutally hot and humid outing into a southern part of Manila. The youth coaches in the morning session took in all they could from the two Americans and learned not only skills but drills to effectively raise the amount of contacts in an overfilled but understaffed gym. They learned how to set up drills that the kids ran themselves so they got to do what their name tags said: coach. They learned more sitting and smashball and how a rope can be a liberating piece of equipment. In the afternoon came the players of many of the morning coaches. They once again learned skills and played, ran drills and played, and played and played. If smiles were the currency by which the American’s were to use that afternoon, they were rich beyond their wildest dreams. With pictures, hugs and tearful goodbyes, the week was over; the coaches were heading to their home but felt like the entire week they had been there all along.

One thing through the eight days stuck out to both coaches: the people. Manila is a city of 22 million of them in a country of 110 million. Pollution, poverty, traffic that makes the 405 look like a bike lane in Houston and hot humid weather should have been a point of contention the entire week, but neither coach noticed…because of the people.

One of the programs directors told the coaches upon their first meeting that the Philippine people are resilient and unbreakable, just like the bamboo that blankets the islands. Those few words described every personal interaction the American guests had all week. Throughout all the humidity, the hunger, the rain and the overpopulated courts, not one complaint was uttered, not one player cried or took umbrage to someone else’s abilities or success. Often times, the older athletes helped the younger ones with no one asking. Often those that struggled looked to their peers who would stop what they were doing to help. It was the people; the beautiful, gracious, charming, polite and humble people of the Philippine Islands that were the success of this story.
Two American coaches came to the Islands and left; humbled by what they saw, humbled by what they were able to be a part of and most of all, humbled by the resiliency of the human spirit displayed daily to them in the eyes and faces of those they spent the week with. These two grateful coaches were lead to their better selves over the week and will use it to make those around them better. It’s in the wind, between the bamboo stalks; humbled smiles.