Friday, August 8, 2014

Reaching for walls.....

Fort Pulaski sits quietly now on Cockspur Island surrounded on the north and south by the Savannah River across from Tybee Island. If Georgia was a profile of Homer Simpson, Fort Pulaski is the belly button.  Rebuilt three times, it stood as is, being built in 1829 at a cost of $1 million using 25 million bricks and taking 18 years to finish.

Two weeks after South Carolina had seceded from the Union starting the Civil War in late 1860, the Georgia militia was ordered to seize Fort Pulaski and it became part of the confederacy once Georgia seceded on January 19, 1861. President Abraham Lincoln ordered blockades of the southern ports and by the end of the year, with economic woes confronting them, the Confederates receded and gave up some strategic points of which to launch an attack on the Fort.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, knowing an attack was inevitable, wasn’t concerned however; walls nearly 8 feet thick of solid brick with massive masonry piers was only part of the Fort’s defense. One U.S. Official speaking of its impervious  reputation said, “You might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains!”  It was a mile away from the closest attack point, Tybee Island. And since Union guns could only muster rounds that could travel 700 yards, Lee told the Fort’s commander, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead that the Union guns could, “make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”

What Lee didn’t know was that the Union had experimented with a new weapon: a rifled canon that used grooves on the inside of the canon barrel that caused the bullet shaped shell to spiral, gathering both distance and accuracy. The new rifled canons had a range of almost 8,500 yards. A new science was about to make a difference.

On April 10 of 1862, responding to Olmstead’s rebuttal of surrender began an assault on the fort. Shells from the rifled canons slammed into the walls of the fort shaking the landmark’s foundation. Shell after shell slammed into the Pulaski’s eastern facade, putting chunks and finally holes into the thought to be impenetrable fortress.  One shell went through a hole in the wall and skated across the Fort’s infield and settled just feet from the powder room where all the rest of the ammunition was stored. Had the shell gone a few more feet, the fort would have been leveled by its own firepower.

Col. Olmstead surrendered in 30 hours and the world was stunned at how quickly Fort Pulaski had been taken down. A new technology had seen to it’s demise and ushered in a new wave of artillery that is still used today.

Fort Pulaski sits as a National Monument today but it’s also a historic fable of overconfidence and hubris. It’s also a lesson in how new technology, when embraced, can make a difference.

The good folks at the Olympic training helm are constantly working on how to do things better: teaching our athletes from the mental, optical, physical and even emotional points of view. We, as coaches, need to embrace changes as they happen. A PowerPoint entitled ‘Debunking the Myths of Volleyball” has taken science and shown that some of what we have taught our entire coaching lives, is wrong. Are we as coaches willing to accept the fact that we didn’t know then what we know now and we have to change the way we train? At the very least, are you familiar with the science of Motor LearningTheory

Imagine an Audio Visual teacher in high school that started in the 1980’s and NOT keeping up with technology. They are threading the film strips and the reel to reel tapes while you are downloading the entire text book on a phone the size of the box of red pens on her desk.

A Chinese proverb states, “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.” As more and more information becomes available, are you, as a coach, embracing those ideas that are credible and easily adaptable to your team?

Take a history lesson. Embrace change. It can make a difference.




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Safe...

In his remarkable TED talk called “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” Simon Sinek calls us to the attention of what kind of leaders are willing to sacrifice for the good of the unit/team/business.

Sinek points out it’s not just because they are better people but that if the environment is right, everyone can become this kind of leader; an environment of “deep trust and cooperation.” But these are feelings and not instructions.  He points out that going back to the earliest part of our civilization, with the dangers of weather and elements and  animals, they created a ‘circle of safety’ and built a tribe and it’s in that safety we felt a sense of trust and cooperation.

In a way, it’s the same thing in a team’s locker room.  Coaches have to make our athletes feel “safe” in order for them to trust us as coaches. As Sinek eloquently puts it, “When a Leader makes the choice to put the safety and the lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice their tangible results so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

 We have to make them know, not just think but KNOW, that we want what’s best for them; as athletes and more importantly as people. As SInek points out, the variables outside the tribe can’t always be contained but the “conditions inside the organization, that’s where leadership matters because it’s the LEADER who sets the tone.”

Sinek points out that “If the conditions are wrong we are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other and that inherently weakens the organization.”

Sound familiar?

Do we as coaches communicate at a high enough level with our athletes to make them feel safe and give them a sense of belonging? In some of the Region’s preseason Parent presentations, we ask the athletes to tell everyone what it is about Youth sports that disturbs them the most; about parents, coaches, officials, etc. Their number one answer about coaches is, “the coach doesn’t tell me anything when I get subbed out. What I did wrong or why? Why I’m not playing?”

How can an athlete feel safe if they aren’t given the most basic answers to being an athlete?

Men’s National Team Assistant Coach Andrea Becker, in a blog here a few months back, talked about making sure athletes feel safe. “They’re all athletes. They all want to be great and they all have different issues that they work through. So what I try to do is work with that person individually and figures out what’s best for them in that moment whether it’s the National Team level or the College level or even high school level. It’s just about figuring out what that person needs in a given moment of time and doing what helps meet those needs.”

She also mentioned substitutions as being a fragile element into athletes feeling safe. “What you might do is sacrifice a point in the short term to get what you want out of the athlete longer. Most coaches won’t make that sacrifice because they are so focused on the outcome: they want to win NOW. When you don’t fear losing you’re able to make decisions that are long term decisions instead of reactions in a moment. And that allows you to stay with kids and they’re not going to always be at their best and they are going to have an off day and it’s hard to build trust and confidence in them. You sometimes have to stick with them so they know in the end that you believe in them, and that’s important.” 

Joe Ehrmann is a former NFL football player and the author of “InSideOut Coaching: How sports can Transform Lives.” He talks about Coaches on two sides of a road. One is the Transactional Coach: the self centered coach, ego driven who uses intrinsic values to guide his coaching style and philosophy. The other is the Transformational Coach: the coach who is egoless, who works for others and is a mentor, using those principles to guide his coaching style and philosophy.

If athletes think you are coaching them in a Transactional way v. a Transformational way, how will you be perceived, not only by them, but by Parents and your peers? Can anyone feel safe in an environment where YOU, the coach, puts himself first?

Sinek asks the question that those CEO’s that are laying off people, those managers that are downsizing, would they react differently if those were their children? We do everything we can, (sometimes too much) to make sure our children are successful and are able to thrive in the world ahead. That is what Parents do.

So imagine that one player that gives you attitude at practice, the one that mopes on the sideline after getting taken out of the front row or the player that just seems disinterested at practice anymore. Would you, if they were YOUR child, just ignore them? Tell your assistant coach that kid is too much drama and I’ve taken too much time on them already?

USA Volleyball’s John Kessel makes a great point on the topic. “I think that you can identify how good a coach is by how he or she teaches the weakest player, the most challenging player. Anyone can coach the kid who comes early, stays late, trains extra and loves the game. What we do to make practice and training safe for ALL players matters, for after all leaders eat last.”

We want what’s best for our athletes and as Sinek says, “When we feel safe inside the organization we will naturally combine our talents and strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities.”

High school season approaches. Boy’s club season approaches. City and Rec programs, middle school programs are ahead. If you are coaching, how can you make your team feel safe?


What do you have to do to create that sense of trust and cooperation?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Lamar Experiment...

In a tiny Midwestern town called Lamar, Missouri, a wonderful experiment took place.

Lamar is 45 minutes south of Joplin, the city that was leveled by tornados just a few years ago. It’s a small town with one main road, one Mexican restaurant, one Chinese restaurant, a McDonalds, a Denny’s and a local barbecue place called Tractors.

It’s a place of southern accents and where people use the phrase, “We’re getting some weather” in place of “It’s raining.” The local furniture factory moved out two years ago taking most of the town’s jobs with it. Lamar is trying to rebound. They take great pride in their local High School football program that is a perennial State Champion. They hunt and fish and fix things around the house themselves.

It’s also the birth place of Harry S Truman.

None of this has to do with the experiment that took place in the Lamar H.S. gym.

The first morning of camp, the high school varsity and JV players were encouraged to warm up. They grabbed their friend, stood on one side of the net and began throwing and tossing and bouncing and finally peppering to each other. The energy was low, the voices hushed and mumbled. It was a chore, and the net was treated as if it were radioactive.

Later that night, a middle school camp came into the gym. Girls as tall as a haystack and some so thin you were afraid a tough serve might snap their arms, the girls ranged in age from 8-14.  Some had never been coached before; they were just trying the sport on. In Lamar, very, very few girls can play just one sport; too many sports and too few girls. Coaches share athletes like neighbors share a cup of sugar.

As the middle school girls started flooding in they started throwing the ball over the net trying to pass and serve and hit. They broke off and played two on two and three on three and one of the courts became six on six in less than 5 minutes.

This was all done BEFORE their clinic started and BEFORE a coach had said anything to them.

The gym was loud, the voices laughing and screaming and had a blind man walked in, he would have thought he had crashed a birthday party. It was the soundtrack of kids having fun.

The next morning, the older girls lazily oozed back in. They fitted themselves in shoes and knee pads and ankle and knee braces and began the drudgery of warming up. This time though, their coach stopped them cold. They were encouraged to grab a partner, or two, or three, or even four. Stop being afraid of the net, use it! Then the word was uttered that changed the gym’s mojo…

Play!

Confused glances shot around the group. They slowly backed up and grabbed a ball and waited for someone to yell, “Just kidding! Pepper!!!”

But it never came.

Two girls started a rousing one on one game, pass-set and roll shots back and forth in a confined space near the antennae. Beside them was a two on two game with one setter dipping under the net to set both sides, a game that started as a cooperative effort but quickly turned into a game of torture the setter as the action got faster.

A three on three game started on the other court and soon melded into a 6 on 6 game featuring a few girls on the same court that weren’t facebook friends! Imagine that!

The cacophony was the polar opposite of the lifeless gravedigger’s cricket chirp the morning before. The girls came out of their warm up sweating and smiling and laughing and ready for a long day of camp.

What did this show? The girls on the older court had been coached, for years in both school and club ball. They were told how to warm up, what to do, what the coaches wanted which was regimented and structured and controlled.

The middle schoolers were for the most part too young for coaches yet and did what kids do…play.


We continue, as coaches, to suck the fun out of our game. We talk collectively about how more touches are good but then limit the opportunities for more in something as simple as just playing as a warm up. Queens, speedball, dog house, mini tournaments, 10’ tournaments: they are fun because they are play.

If you ask your athletes which they would rather do, pepper or play, what do you think the answer will be? What would YOUR answer be?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Pop"

“It starts with Peter at the top, where he lets us do our jobs right down to the training room, the scouting area, the management, the whole deal. And everybody knows that, everybody in here knows they have a piece of this thing. But I’ve never been more proud of a team nor have I ever gotten as much satisfaction from a season in all the years I’ve been coaching. To see the fortitude you guys displayed   coming back from that horrific loss last year and getting yourself back in position and doing what you did in the finals, you’re really to be honored for that. I can’t tell you how much it means. Thank you very much for everything you’ve allowed me to do.”

With that, the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and their steadfast coach Gregg Popovich signed off on another Championship, their fifth in the last 17 years. His post game soliloquy wasn’t the stuff of Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it typifies the logic and the ideals of the man, the coach, Pop.

Why is he so successful?

NBA teams usually have two buses per team when going to arenas on the road. The first bus has rookies and bench players, who struggle to find minutes, riding on it 3 hours before the game and the starters and high minute players are on the second bus 2 hours before the game. Pop decided to buck NBA tradition, something he does quite regularly actually. The Spurs have just one bus. It’s how he thinks a team should travel.

A tenet of Spurs basketball is the idea of “Good to Great.” In it, Pop gets players to buy into the idea that great shots are better than good ones and players must train themselves to make the extra pass without any regard for their own statistics, egos, etc. Many a player has come and gone through the Spurs organization that haven’t bought into this premise but his team first mentality is how the Spurs won the NBA title last month.

Players describe him as demanding but fair. He doesn’t treat every player the same but he does treat them fairly. He is without filters and doesn’t warm to a media that trolls the waters of inane questions for the rare controversial sound bite. He is short and curt in many interviews and sometimes comes off on-air as a jerk. Something his wife chides him for but doesn’t seem to faze Pop. He is who he is, genuine, 100% real.
He is great with people. He remembers player’s families and spouses and details of their lives, something that players see and appreciate. Sure, he’ll get on his players at times, but there is never a doubt that Pop cares for his guys or wants what’s best for them, a palpable trust. “Relationships with people are what it's all about.” Pop says. “You have to make players realize you care about them. And they have to care about each other and be interested in each other. Then they start to feel a responsibility toward each other. Then they want to do for each other.”
In an industry of players going to the highest bidders and owners stockpiling talent to bypass the idea of player development, Pop and the Spurs front office have kept three core players together since MTV introduced ‘The Osborne’s’. Adding a smaller piece to that core makes it easier for everyone to adapt, which would explain why San Antonio has been in the playoffs the last 17 years in a row and has won at least 60% of its games every season over that stretch, the best run in professional sports over that time period.
Pop had to compete for playing time at the Air Force Academy and it bolstered his competitiveness and drive.  When he would point out to his college coach how well he had played in that day’s practice, his coach simply told him, over and over, “Shut up and play.”
He has tasted failure and knows what humble means, going 2-22 his first season as a college coach and losing to a team that gained national attention by dropping 310 straight conference games.
He took a sabbatical into his college coaching career to intern with Larry Brown at Kansas. He learned much from his time with Brown and his growth mindset is still a staple of what makes Pop so successful. He listened to his players when they approached him about their being able to fulfill other roles on the team and adapted his team, using those suggestions, to make them better. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his idea, it just mattered if it worked or not. In his coaching staff, yes men are not welcome and new ideas are encouraged and expected.
Current Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr told about his run in with Pop when he was out of the rotation and sulking. Instead of ignoring Kerr and yelling and screaming, Pop simply said, “Your body language is terrible. I know you're not playing, but you're a pro who's always handled yourself well, and now you're not. It doesn't look right, and I need you on the bench.” Kerr appreciated the honest wake-up call and returned to the bench, gladly.
Pop will also make the culture surrounding his team fun. “One of the ways you do that is let them think you're a little crazy, that you're interested in things outside of basketball.” He says. “Are there weapons of mass destruction? Or aren't there? What, don't you read the papers? You have to give the message that the world is wider than a basketball court."

He’s also an outside the box thinker in a sport where xeroxing the personnel and playbook of the championship flavor of the month is the status quo. The Spurs were the quintessential defensive equivalent of a wall through most of the mid to late 2000’s but a slew of international youth, surrounding his core, gave his team a chance to out run and gun teams the last few years. A bad one minute of basketball in game 6 of the 2013 NBA Championship cost his team a chance to repeat this year. He learned from his mistakes and let his horses run this year, played the bench more but never wavered in his expectations of them and they delivered in the most crucial time of the season. The San Antonio bench outscored Miami’s reserves by 76 points over the 5 game series; Trust and faith.

Why is Pop so successful? Because he is a coach, the kind of coach we should aspire to be with the responsibilities and attributes that the best in our profession hold up for us to follow.


Thanks Pop.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Under the Radar...

Saturday ended the 25th season of Arizona Region volleyball with the Open Division and the 12’s battling across town from each other.

As a parent or a coach, you will look at this and smile, your team or your daughter (or both!) hopefully enjoying her experience, and you as well.

What you probably didn’t notice this season is what it took to get your daughters registered, insured for practices and matches, giving them venues to play and making sure there was proper supervision at the tournaments including site directors and officials.

You didn’t notice this probably because the three people who are responsible for this monumental task are stealth, flying under the radar at their own behest. The Region doesn’t call attention to itself, it just professionally goes about its business day to day.

Lisa is the Region registrar. She has handled 9,350 registrations this season with one phone, one desk and not a lot of help. She answers Parent questions, takes complaints when coaches and parents don’t read the instructions put before them and makes sure all the teams in the Region: Junior AND Adult teams, are good to go for their National tournament experiences.

Steve is the tournament director. Over the past 5 months, he has gathered gyms, tried to make sure no teams have to drive more than 4 hours in a day, tried to put teams that are hosting tournaments at those sites, updated results every week and posted those tournaments as early on Monday morning as he can. He doesn’t complain when a gym falls through on Monday morning, or when a team calls him Thursday night to say they aren’t playing and he has to reformat that pool, he just does his job. By season’s end, Steve is responsible for 5,797 matches played in our Region just this season. That doesn’t count the side tournaments such as Vulture Peak, Fiesta, Sol Survivor, etc. Oh by the way, Steve also coaches a team.

Becky is the glue that holds it all together. She makes sure everyone, including officials, sites and site directors are paid. She is the conduit between the office, the161 Junior and Adult clubs in the Region and USA Volleyball. She goes to National meetings and is relied on heavily for her organization skills and helps with everything above as well. No doubt you have at one time or another talked or e mailed with Becky. She is quiet, unassuming and keeps the Region moving forward every day.

You would think these folks would take a collective sigh and a week off after the last five months, but next week, USA Volleyball’s Open Nationals are invading downtown Phoenix and the office is responsible to help with much of this 700 team adult tournament. There is no rest for the weary.

Like you, they have good days and bad. They have family issues and crisis arise but they go about their business, their days in the office with professionalism and a smile.

Our apologies if you find this a bit self aggrandizing for the Arizona Region but they are unaware this was being written about them. If the readership of this blog, (numbering in the double digits soon we hope…) now has a clearer understanding of what they do day in and day out, then this blog was successful because you will never hear it from them.


It’s very quiet under the radar.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Eyes Have It...

As coaches, maybe the first thing we notice about an athlete is their height in relation to their age. We might notice that bang from a fluid canon of an arm sending some poor Molten Pro Touch to its wooden grave. We might even go one step beyond and look at the length of a player’s arms, the size of their hands or the length of their calves which may have direct correlation on their subsequent performance.

Maybe what we should be looking at is their eyes!

Athletic performance and eye sight go hand in hand with sports that require quick movements and reaction time. Between 1993 and 1995, a group of ophthalmologists tested the vision of 387 players in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. A normal human’s eyesight is considered perfect when it’s 20/20 but the Dodger’s players AVERAGED 20/13 and only a small number of players, usually pitchers, were worse than 20/20. In fact, 2% of those tested leaned against the theoretical threshold for the human eye, (thought to be 20/8 vision) testing in at 20/9! A similar study of U.S. Olympic athletes found elite softball players to average a visual acuity of 20/11!

Darlene Kluka is a preeminent expert of visual acuity in sports at the Barry University School of Human Performance and Leisure Sciences in Miami Shores, Florida. “Vision just may be the most variable and selective of all the senses.” She says. “Attempting to observe fast movements that occur in sport places great demands on human vision.”

She helps break down the process we all take for granted. “The eyes send information to the brain, where it is integrated and interpreted as a three dimensional (3D) phenomenon. The information from both eyes into a 3D image is called fusion. Fusion is needed to accurately locate the ball when it moves in time and space.”

Kluka points out that without a conscious effort to attend to something, the eyes will continuously move throughout the field of vision. “When something gets our visual attention, we may focus both eyes on the object. This pause is called a fixation.” She says.

Now why is it important that we know about fixations you might ask? “Fixations are important because focusing ability is limited to only 3 degrees of visual angle.” Kluka comments. She points out if you hold your thumb straight out in front of you and look at your thumb nail—that is approximately 3 degrees of visual angle! Kluka adds, “It is assumed that when your eyes fixate on something, information is being recorded by your brain to assist in visual perception or the decision making prior to motor program initiation. The rest of what you see is peripheral.”

As you read this blog, (all three of you), your eyes must move so that the 3 degrees of visual angle are used to pick up the words while the peripheral vision provides a view that there are additional words to either side of your focus.

Two athletes that have a lot in common are a hockey goalie and a libero. They are subject to super human reflexes and reactions and their play can dictate their team’s success or failure more often than not so it should be asked, what are these athletes fixating on when playing?

Researchers at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Kinesiology have found that the difference between elite goaltenders is what their fixation is on before they make a save;  the puck. The best goaltenders rest their gaze directly on the puck and the shooter’s stick almost a full second before the shot is released making the save 75% of the time. Graduate student Derek Panchuk says, “Looking at the puck seems fairly obvious until you look at the eye movements of novice goaltenders, who scatter their gaze all over the place and have a much lower save percentage than the elite goalies.” The study also showed the distance of the shot doesn't seem to matter, as long as the goalie concentrated their gaze on the puck and stick in the critical second before it's released.

Two-time United States Olympic libero Nicole Davis shares an interest in these studies. The Women’s USA National team coach Karch Kiraly and Davis were working on this in practice just this week. “I have been working on seeing the line of the serve earlier.” Davis says, who has 20/16 vision. They conducted an experiment where Nicole alternated between focusing on the ball for 8 serves, and then focusing on the server's arm for 8 serves, for several rounds each.  

“With pretty conclusive numbers, when my focus is more on the BALL in serve receive, from toss, through the line to contact, my results were much more consistent in terms of how early I saw the path, how early I got my angle out and also my ability to make last minute adjustments, as well as quality of the pass.” Davis says.  “Obviously, or maybe not, it's a little counter-intuitive to stare at the ball, because the server is the one acting on the ball and giving you the cues as to where the ball might go.  All of that comes into view, in a wider focus (peripheral), as the server is contacting even though the focus is mainly on getting a good look and following the ball.”

The National team also experimented with eye goggles that had a tracking device on them to see what players were watching while playing defense. (You can see a sample of these on this video with soccer star Renaldo ) “One thing that we noticed in common for those of us getting a good ‘read’ on the situation, is that we get our eyes on the next actor of the ball quite early.” Davis observed, adding conversely from serve receive, “Not a lot of time on defense is spent staring at the ball.”  

Unlike serve receive, the trained eye moves past the fixation point and to what will come next. “Once we see the quality of the pass, before it reaches its peak, the eyes immediately shift to the setter's contact point and relation to her body, so often her shoulders and hands.” Davis points out.  “Once the setter releases the ball, the eyes shift immediately to the hitter, and more specifically the hitter's shoulder and elbow.”  

There are lots of clues that setters and hitters give defenders that tell them where they are setting or hitting, but Nicole says the shoulders often are the easiest tell.  “Hitters tend to have a lot of tension in their torso when they are hitting hard, or will kick up their legs and not pull the elbow back as far when hitting off speed or roll shots.  Setters will take the ball at different points, some will pivot and some will square to the set while others might try to disguise it longer.  There is a lot of information to process on defense in a split second, so the earlier you can get on the actor of the ball and pick up the tells, the earlier read you can make.”  

A different set of visual skills seems necessary for serve receive and defense. “My theory as to why the sequence is a little different for serve receive is that the ball has longer to travel and can often change direction, and it's important to follow it from start to finish.” Davis surmises.  

Kluka agrees with Davis. “Focusing visual attention on important cues while visually searching can lead to good decisions in competition. This has been referred to as effective anticipation.” She adds, “Skilled volleyball athletes may not be aware of the important visual cues they are attending to.”

Kluka sums up the role that Coaches can play in the enhancement of a player’s vision. “As coaches develop and use drills, drill objectives are important. Each drill must have multiple objectives that have measureable outcomes, one of which includes visual perception and decision making. By including this objective to each drill, coaches are more likely to find multiple outcomes that are in a more game-like environment.”






Thursday, March 13, 2014

California Adventures IV- "It starts with today..."

The American Sports Center is chilly…okay, downright cold. Players walk in from the warm sunshine and put their jackets ON as they enter and head to the training room to get taped.

Week seven of an eight week training block with mostly new faces is what head women’s National Team Coach Karch Kiraly is staring down. Players at this level are early, and ready. With the lights still off, Karch goes to his white board and writes down the day’s practice plan.

As the team filters into the three courts set aside for the National Team, the players make their way to the back of the white boards and grab a pen. At the top of the white board is written, “2 Things I Control completely.” The players have initialed and written the two things they want to control in today’s practice. KR wrote “Hold angles- Flean.” NH jotted down, “See the line early, form angle early, good hold.” SG put in blue, “Square up, quick release.” Every player is now invested in what they want to work on in practice as they jog out to the court.

At 8:10 sharp, tutoring begins. Servers are hammering “flean” serves into the liberos and passers while video cameras tape each pass and are delayed so after a pass, the player can see how her platform was, where she took the ball, etc. Feedback is instantaneous and incontrovertible.

On a side court, Karch is giving instruction to Bailey Webster, a 6-3 opposite from the University of Texas. She is uncomfortable in the back row and Karch is working her passing angles. He gives her help with her arms and keeping her movements efficient and, as he calls it, “quiet,” all the while repeating passing cues to help confirm in her mind what her body is doing. He tosses balls at her from across the net, only commenting on her platform being early: good or bad pass doesn’t matter although he continually points out the good ones and continues to give positive feedback on the bad. He moves Bailey from one side of the court to the other and then places the balls higher over her shoulder in the next round, working on her platform and footwork. It’s a matter of minutes before seemingly Bailey is a better passer. Karch blows the whistle and everyone grabs a drink and heads to the board.

It’s here every practice that Kiraly has a story or a message for the girls. Today, he relates something his assistant coach, Tom Black has sent him from an Australian educator in the field of Growth Mindsets, Lorraine Davies. She and Tom trade e mails regularly and he asked her how to define success. Karch brought this up the group and as is his way, first asked questions. What did the group define success as? He didn’t give the group a chance to be quiet, he called on players individually. After a few answers that he wrote on the board, he read out loud Davies’ list defining success:

  1. When you embrace a challenge in spite of fear.
  2. When you persist when your mind silently screams for you to give up.
  3. When you ask for help when previously it was impossible to do so.
  4. When you make a mistake and recognize because of the mistake you learned how to make a better choice or a more effective strategy when once you would have covered it up
  5. When you ask a successful other how they achieved a particular personal or professional success where once their success felt like a threat.
  6. When you experience failure you recognize failure as a necessary tool for learning what needs to be changed

The team took this in and then Karch said, “Since none of us have ever been able to get this program where we want it, where we think it should be, we all have to work harder. That starts with today and next week and next month.” The players put hands in the middle, yell USA and head to their spots in practice. Even though this group is in week seven of eight, it starts with today…

The warm-up begins with some pepper and works into servers hitting zones to a libero and then attackers off a pass and hitting into a defender. Every drill and contact in the practice is of multiple elements: hitters have to transition AND hit AND block AND then dig a ball. Setters set a ball AND block AND play defense on the same ball.  There is no time to waste and in this gym, contacts are king.

The group works on blocking and hitting against the block in a game like scenario after a quick water break. In between the drill written out on the white board, Karch has written in black, “Focus: find the edge/ outside hand.” His drills have a focus that he articulates before every drill. They go from this more technical drill that is still laden with contacts from several players into a hitting drill that is meant to make the blockers read and think. The focus on the drill is blockers footwork, “Blockers recognize- normal or load?”

Throughout the entire practice, no one yells. In fact the only ones raising their voices are the athletes themselves. Six foot six middle Katie Slay from Penn State in on a bike rehabbing a leg injury. After a good play she will randomly shout out, “I see you Plummy!” speaking to Lauren Plum of the University of Oregon. The coaches will pull aside a player who seems to be struggling with something and on occasion the drill will be stopped for a very short consult with a player.

The feedback from coaches is direct, short and usually starts with a question. At one point, Missouri setter Molly Kreklow comes up to Asst. Coach Black and asks him, “How was that one?” Blacks answer? “How did it feel?” She replies it felt good and he smiles. They both know it was a good set. Questions are the way the staff knows these special athletes aren’t just going through the motions. They are engaged in the process; it is demanded of them.

Thirteen different colleges and one high school are represented in the 19 girl training block. For most of the girls, they know it is a long shot for them to be playing in August in Brazil in two years, but they work hard, pushing themselves because just the thought that they might be invited back is enough. They will all be better players after this training block and one can only hope they realize along the way what an amazing opportunity they are a part of at the moment.

The last 80 minutes of practice involves 6 on 6 waves in which bonus points are awarded for hitters tooling the block and for a defense that covers a block and converts it into a point. Also written on the board under the drill description is, “Flean is on.” Karch has been working hard to get his girls to serve tough. Serving and passing IS the game and every drill, every warm-up has had an element of serving and passing in it. “Flean is Karch’s word for how he wants his jump float serves: Fast and clean = “Flean.”  The waves go on for almost 50 minutes, every player going hard, hoping to stay on and earn points. Karch calls out the serves that aren’t “flean” and the other team receives a point.

The practice ends with serving to the liberos and finally a servers v. passers drill. In this drill, players are expected to get 9 out of 10 serves in for their side. If during the drill 2 serves are missed, they goal is missed and the serving team drops to the ground for two crunches and two push ups, a reminder of mindfulness in what they do.

Exhausted, the team warms down. Surprisingly, the gym is as cold 4 hours later as when everyone arrived. Several of the players haven’t taken their jackets off for the last four hours and some have taken them off and put them back on. Yet no one complains. Most will go to lift and get treatment. The day isn’t over yet for these athletes.

Karch and his coaches gather and talk about the day. They are happy. Both Black and the other Assistant Coach Jamie Morrison told the team it was the best they had seen of this group. No dropped balls, better communication, more of a flow. The whole process will start again tomorrow at 8:10, but for today, smiles abound.


It starts with today, and next week, and next month.