Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Empty Pedestals...

Union Station in Kansas City, Mo. is a testament to working together and the ideal of American ingenuity and fortitude.

The 1903 Kansas City flood put the tracks of the Union Depot train station underwater and city officials decided to build another on higher ground. Construction began in 1911 and it was dedicated in 1914 as Union Station. World Wars I and II saw the station used as a turnstile for American GI’s going to and coming back from Europe and the Far East.

But after the war, cars and planes began to take the country’s fancy and trains were slowly left out of America’s transportation future. Union Station slowly fades from relevance and by 1973, only six trains a day pass through the station. It closes in 1983.

In 1996, county governments from both Missouri AND Kansas institute a tax and began plans to revitalize the property. It reopened again in 1999 with retail, exhibitions and welcoming Amtrak back to their tracks. Today it is one of the tourist stops in Kansas City and houses museum exhibitions, meetings, entertainment and amusement for kids and adults alike.

At the front of Union Station though is a pedestal. It’s empty.

It was put there by the latter architects to pay honor to a leader that they all felt was worthy.

To date, no one can agree on that leader.

Ironically, across the street from Union Station is the World War I museum which pays homage to not only the great war, but those that helped stop and learn from it. Facing the empty pedestal at Union Station is the five stone faces, including General Pershing of the United States, who were there in 1921 to dedicate this memorial. On the east side of the wall looking up at the Memorial tower is this: “The glory of America goes deeper than all the tinsel, goes deeper than the sound of guns and the clash of sabers and goes down to the very foundation of those things that have made the spirit of man free, happy and content.” President Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s leadership led the country out of WWI and helped heal a strained and foundering Europe.

One of the things we hear most from coaches across the country, usually like a mole on the back side of a rough season is, “We didn’t have any leadership on the court this season.” We hear this often. We throw captains up for coin flips and ask some players to help wrangle up players from snack breaks, but are we teaching them real leadership?

John Kessel’s coaching philosophy is three words: “Develop amazing leaders.” There are leadership schools, leadership conferences, websites, seminars, classes and sometimes groups within schools and organizations that attack this very subject. So the question is, where are they? How DO we develop them?

A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the NHL’s Stanley Cup with a convincing 4-2 series win over the San Jose Sharks. The Penguin’s Sidney Crosby, at the age of 28, held up his second Stanley Cup, his first in 2009. He was also voted the Conn Smythe winner for being the playoff MVP. The story isn’t this however…

In December, the Penguins were, much like the 1970’s Union Station, foundering. They were in 12th place and clinging to .500 hockey. They fired their coach and hired Mike Sullivan. He toyed with the lineups and asked of his star Crosby, more leadership. But he also made sure players knew they were appreciated; that they were respected as people, as men. The culture began to change.

Crosby, who had missed a season and a half with concussion issues, reluctantly took on the role. As Assistant Coach Rick Tocchet said, "I think he really took that to heart. He really wanted to lead these guys. He had them over to the house for dinner.”

Crosby embraced the young players on the team, playing that role himself just a few years before. When games got tight or chippy, Crosby was in the ears of his guys. He was looked up to and admired. He was the on ice leadership that made the difference.

How good of a leader was Crosby? He was voted the MVP of the playoffs yet didn’t score a goal in the final game and didn’t lead his team in goals, assists or points. We coaches call this, "intangibles." He also showed his team how much he cared.

In the Eastern Conference finals, Crosby’s teammate Trevor Daley had snapped his ankle in the series, finishing his playoffs for the year. He also went to see his ailing mother before the Stanley Cup finals started. She told her son Trevor that she would love to see him raise the cup.

After the horn sounded and Pittsburgh had crossed the season finish line first, Crosby’s first hand off of Lord Stanley’s cup went to Daley who held it high, on one good stick, for his Mom, and the city of Pittsburgh to see.

Pascal Dupuis retired from the Penguins earlier in the season because of blood clotting issues but was on the ice and the celebration that night in San Jose, 6 months to the day Coach Sullivan had taken the job. Daley handed the cup to Dupuis who was wearing the Penguin jersey for probably the last time in his life. As Crosby had done to him, Daley made sure Dupuis knew how much he was appreciated.

Crosby then made sure the cup was handed to Marc-Andre Fleury who was injured early in the playoffs and as is the case in sports, lost his job to a marvelous goaltender who played flawless hockey the rest of the way. Fleury knows sports and knows his future now is very uncertain as goalie Matt Murra has become legit. Crosby wanted Fleury to know how much he too was appreciated.

Maybe these are little gestures that in the grand scheme of things get lost. But to that team, they are indelible.

How can we help our players to understand these small ideas of leadership? Do we always look for the best player or the loudest voice? Do we search for the biggest personality and popularity at the expense of saying we have a Captain?

An empty pedestal sits in front of Union Station at Kansas City because city officials can’t agree on a leader worthy of a statue.

Sidney Crosby just won his second Stanley Cup and handed it off as soon as he helped his team win it.

Maybe empty pedestals ARE the best reminders of leadership and what’s missing…

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Minimum Input, Maximum Reward...

Lisa Stuck was fed up.

The head coach of the Glendale Community College Gauchos decided it was time. “About 6 years ago I made a decision to shift my focus to players with certain intangibles. I decided I didn't want to spend my time coaching kids without work ethic and who were only concerned with themselves. It was too frustrating and usually caused tension on my teams.”

Stuck was a top flight athlete at Apollo High School, Arizona State University and later in the pipeline at USA Volleyball. She struggled, as so many of us do, with how players today had to be coaxed and cajoled into working hard, into accepting and embracing a team first mentality like she was and like those she had played with.

So she shifted her recruiting focus.

“As a result, I began to look for specific qualities more-so than height, jump touch, and one dimensional ability. If we could find players with ball control, competitive spirit, work ethic and some athleticism, we could teach them what they would need to know and do to be successful.”

Make no mistake, Lisa wants to win. She is as competitive now, heading into her 19th season at GCC as she was her first day. The focus is still winning, but the landscape around her has changed.

“It was much more rewarding for me and my staff to be able to teach kids, who were eager to learn, improve, were team-minded and super hard workers. It’s about the satisfaction and reward involved in coaching kids who have a passion for the game and their teammates; who LOVE and know how to compete. Kids have the most success when they are having fun, learning, are challenged and successful.”

It’s hard to argue with her success the last few years. Lisa’s teams have a combined 90-30 record the last four years, 48-16 in conference play. Her worst season of the four was in 2014 when her squad limped into the ACCAC Regional tournament as the #4 seed of 4 and a sub .500 record and won out, winning a date at Nationals where her Gauchos finished the most improbable season with a National Championship. Her 32-3 season last year and 15-1 in conference sent her back to Nationals again.

She may be on to something.

Lisa is candid about the kind of athlete she is looking for these days. “We look for athleticism, speed, ball control, passion and competitiveness. We look for a positive attitude on the court, their reaction to mistakes and reaction to their teammate’s errors. We look for effort on every play. We want players who have a good attitude and are engaged when they are not in the game. A lot of the things we are looking at have nothing to do with passing, serving, hitting, etc. They are about personality.” 

She adds solemnly, “Those kids are hard to find.”

Stuck isn’t just a frustrated coach, she also teaches Psychology and Sports Psychology and has seen the tide turn over the last decade; these types of athletes who have become relics in a sea awash in Club politics and profits and overzealous Parents.

“The Club Machine has created a climate of individualism in the sport. By the time players reach 18, they are in my experience, tired and sick of the grind. They have endured up to 6 plus years of pressure to be on the ‘best team’, to be the ‘best player in their position’ and to get that college scholarship. They have lost their passion and love for the sport. They are not motivated and do not work hard.”

“Club has created a climate where parents are always searching for the best team, the best situation for their kid and guarantees. Learning to overcome adversity and working hard over time for what you want has been lost in the quest for instant success and guarantees without investment.”

“We want kids that are willing to be in the trenches and know how to persevere through rough times. A kid that has never had to do those things usually does not do well in our program. We sometimes look for kids that are young in the game and still have that passion, drive, and haven't been tainted by a climate that encourages a ‘minimum input, maximum reward’ mentality.”

So Stuck sidesteps the land mine players of entitlement and dysfunction and looks for the kids that may not fill the box score but can be a part of her culture. “I think it has to do with understanding the important characteristics your players must possess, really staying committed to recruiting those players and not getting caught up in the search for the 6'2 kid that only hits well, only blocks well, or only serves well. We want players who are ready and willing to work their butts off every day in the gym and 'live and breathe the game. That player may be 5'0 or 5'7" or 6'1". We aren't that concerned with the height factor.”

“The foundation of our program is a 'never quit' mentality and an inner strength that comes with overcoming adversity and being able to handle failure. In the search for the ‘easiest way’ to do things, kids are not very prepared or even know how to handle adversity or failure. We are looking for kids that do know those things. We have had numerous players who were not highly recruited, or were overlooked due to their size. They did however, have the qualities we wanted.”

Season 19 is upon her and Stuck is already looking toward the season. But she is now fully invested in this type of athlete and refuses to go back.

“Everyone has their own philosophy and I know there are many ways to coach this game. We just happen to have found a formula that works for us and has enabled us to have a huge amount of success. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The In Between...

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the U.S. Men’s team, on their way to the Gold Medal played 1,446 points in 33 sets in 8 matches. In John Kessel’s blog called No More Drills, Feedback or Technical Training he gives us this incredible statistic: “Most coaches do not know the average contact periods per skill - so I will share those now - .10 sec for setting; .05 for passing; .01 seconds for hitting and .03 for blocking. So using an average contact time of .05 seconds - the average total time of CONTACT by a player through the entire Olympic Games was - 27.4 seconds.”

So what the heck did those players do the rest of their time on the court?

As coaches, we should always be thinking about the “in between.” In matches, in training and in our seasons, those times get lost but are as or in some cases, MORE valuable than the actual time we count as productive training and playing time.

Often we pass through these “in between” times of our lives and don’t even realize it. In the book, “What are Comics” the author writes: “Each panel is separated by the others by a blank space called the gutter. The gutter is a very important element since it is the space containing all that happens between the panels. This means that the reader has to guess the missing elements in order to reconstruct the flow of the story.” In other words, the “in between” of a comic strip is nothing, but your mind is filling in the blanks.

When training our athletes we have to ask, how do THEY fill in the blanks? How can we as coaches help them?

In training, what is done before practice? What is done during drink breaks and how long do they take? Most importantly, what happens after a player executes a rep of a skill? At a May clinic at the Hopi Jr/Sr High school, they were given video feedback for the first time in their careers on every pass they executed. They got to watch themselves and learn from each rep. The passing began to improve just from this one added feedback loop.

As has become more evidence driven in recent years, too much feedback in between reps can be as stunting to an athlete’s growth as none at all, but those times “in between” reps can be used in other ways. How about peer to peer feedback, which many psychologists are telling us is more valued than feedback from a coach; players can receive it from another teammate or even better, give it? Is there another skill that can be “tagged along” with the skill just completed? Or maybe borrowing from Socrates, is this a good time or a question; asking the player what they saw, asking them about smaller details perhaps to help guide their next opportunity.

What about in between games or matches? The inevitable pre-game/ post-game chats which can cause more angst for players then losing their cell phones. Are your observations proactive? Are you positive and focused what they did well or do your chats become a tirade of things that were done wrong and efforts to go back in time to get them to do it right?

Now that the Club seasons are winding down or over, what about this big block of “in between” time? Are they filled with camps and clinics and private lessons that are the DNA of over training injuries and burnout?

How about your athletes try another sport or play sand volleyball. Better yet, how about they don’t play for a month and get rested and healthy and get their mind clear before the High School camps and clinics begin. This is a big “in between” but what’s best for the physical and mental training of your athletes should always be your paramount goal as a coach. 

The “in between” in often times overlooked as coaches and players and parents but it’s valuable and can be used effectively and proactively to help our athletes achieve their success.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Kristen Schrag is going home.

The Kansas farm girl who followed her faith and came to the Hopi Mission School in the village of Kykotsmovi in Northern Arizona six years ago is spending her final weeks at a school she has helped define and build (literally) and a student body that she teaches, coaches and inspires daily.

Kristen has been a teacher, a counselor, has coached basketball, volleyball and cross country. She has been the Athletic Director of the school and this year added to her clustered resume’ the title of League President, which oversees the competition between the younger athletes in all the schools in a two hour radius.

The Hopi Mission School sits off of highway 264 in Northern Arizona, halfway between Tuba City and Keams Canyon. There is one swing set, two buildings of a handful of classrooms and only 16 total staff. This year, the enrollment is around 50, down from last year because the school couldn’t figure into the budget a bus, which could bring 30 or more students to school a day. The cost of a bus driver is one of the biggest expenses the school would have had to absorb and this year’s budget wasn’t kind.

The school gets its operating budget from donations. Tuition for the students is free and they are given a first rate education in a land that is in dire need of it. The Hopi and the Navajo tribes have land interspersed within each other, and both tribes are battling overwhelming issued of alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, gangs, STD’s and poor nutrition. The teachers at the Hopi Mission School work tirelessly to help curb this tragic tide.

Kristen came to Kykotsmovi to teach 6 years ago. She received modest housing and a roommate. She was given a small food allowance and the promise of $60 a month for personal expenses, often times spent on her students and athletes. If she stayed another year, she was promised $70 a month. No one at the Hopi Mission School is in it for the money!

Kristen’s Dad Wayne was a volleyball player in and coming out of college. He ran his Kansas farm and would play when he could. He introduced Kristen and her sister to the game, coaching them in Club and even trucking them hours away to see the AVP stop in Texas one year. Kristen’s memories of her Dad and volleyball are intertwined and her deep blue eyes sparkle at the mention of seeing him soon.

A muscular blonde sprite of an athlete, she loves to run the trails around the school and hikes and runs around, over and through mountains that many of us would look at as tourists. She played high school and college volleyball at Bethel College in Kansas. When she got to Kykotsmovi, she got her feet wet in a culture foreign to her, but one she embraced quickly. Her love of sports translated to her basketball team winning the League in her first year coaching. She worked to shore up a solid cross country program, working with her athletes on effort and persistence; skills they would need growing up on the Reservation and assimilating to life off it.

Her love for volleyball saw her reach out to USAV some years back. She ran clinics, put together teams and helped train players and coaches. She even helped put together a Friday night open gym that would see adult, high school and college players (and non-players) battle till sometimes 1 or 2 a.m. Some of these players travelled two hours or more one way for a chance to play in her Friday nights.

Kristen is engaged to a man she’s known for years but only began talking to last summer. She is excited to being her new chapter in life but will always have a little bit of the Hopi Mission School in everything she does. Her students don’t know she’s leaving yet and her face scrunches at the thought of having to tell them. Such is the hardship when you pour your heart into your work.

Tonight or tomorrow night, many of us will go to practice and go through the motions. Our check awaits us at the end of the month, our fees for our private lessons helping to finish off our car payment or fund our Saturday night out.

Think back to that time that you began to coach. You didn’t do it for the money. You didn’t even worry about getting paid. You did it for the satisfaction: of seeing maybe your daughter, your athletes getting better and maybe winning some tournaments, to feel yourself getting better at something you genuinely enjoyed and maybe, just being a role model in the lives of kids that experience that void.

Ask yourself this question. Would you plan and go to practice tonight if there WASN’T any money attached to it? Would you help a neighbor or a girl on your team without charging them a private lesson fee? Would you get up early and make an hour drive to show up on Saturday for your tournament or would you sleep in?

Kristen is an eye opener for those that are in youth sports for the paycheck. Rising club fees, tournament fees, travel fees, etc. Our sport has become a sport of the entitled and the socio economically enhanced but it doesn’t need to be. The Starlings Program, for example, helps clubs in disadvantaged areas put together teams and clubs and helps with fees but rarely will their coaches get a paycheck.

People like Kristen see how a simple volleyball clinic might be able to change lives and directions: how something as simple as giving young people more opportunities without a bill attached can maybe help ease them into a new direction. Small gestures, a little extra work and (in what should be an example for our athletes) striving to get the most out of a situation instead of scheming to get away with the least effort and hassle. 

Kristen will leave the Hopi Mission School this summer having made an indelible mark on a generation of kids, athletes and families. Once back in Kansas, she will marry and help manage a farm but she will, of course, get involved again: coaching volleyball and/or cross country, playing in adult leagues (maybe with her Dad?) and inspiring those around her to make a difference in the lives of the kids around them.

Kristen and people like her should be the norm, not the exceptional. What can you do tonight…this week…this month to emulate her?

Kristen, for the reasons above and so many more, kwakwhay.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Opened eyes....

"Facts, not opinions."

Etched above the archway of the Kirkaldy Testing and Experimenting Works in the late 1800's, this phrase came to signify what David Kirkaldy, a Scottish engineer, was implementing every day. Kirkaldy established engineering principles and methods for measuring the strength of structural materials. 

Driving over that freeway overpass today, David Kirkaldy and the idea of "Facts, not opinions" kept your car from falling earthward and that plane from DRIVING instead of flying from Sky Harbor International airport to Los Angeles.

As coaches, if you haven't embraced science in your coaching knowledge acquisition yet, you will soon be passed by; much like photo mats, new Coke and the rotary phone.

You probably embrace science more than you think. Mathematics of course are the stats you are keeping and using to help decide lineups and positions. Chemistry comes in handy when working with a dozen 14 year old girls. Unwittingly, good coaches employ psychology, sociology, anatomy, physics and several sub-classes of biology to name but a few.

In a wonderful 90 minute webinar entitled "The Game Grows the Brain," USA Volleyball Director of Sports Development John Kessel interviews Dr. Steven Bain about the brain, how it works and how best for us to train our athletes using this knowledge to get the best out of practices AND athletes. 

A few months earlier, Kessel had recommended a newer podcast titled, "The Perception and Action Podcast" hosted by Professor Rob Gray. Turns out Gray, an affable Canadian with a background in hockey (duh!) currently works with baseball and softball teams and is an Associate Professor of Human Systems Engineering at the Polytechnic campus of Arizona State University. 

Gray's podcast visits research papers and explores topics to help us better coach and train our athletes.

Gray was nice enough to sit down with the Az. Region and talk about his work, his podcast and what his field is working on to take our athletes into the new technological world of athletics. You can find his interview with the Region here. 

Last month the Region also posted an interview with Gabriele Wulf about her work on external v. internal feedback. The USA Women's National team coaches have started taking notice and are working toward using Dr. Wulf's information to better train our Olympians. 

Science is making our athletes better, our training more efficient and giving those coaches and teams that embrace it a leg up going forward. Like politics, often times lines are drawn into the sand and the search for better methods becomes a 'my way or the highway' proposition. But open minds and opened ears leads to opened eyes.

You don't need test tubes or Bunsen burners, just the idea that "facts over opinions" can make you a better coach. 

If you would like more information on the things discussed or other topics, contact us.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Hustle...

It starts with an errant serve receive: the ball skipping past outstretched arms into the back wall….point. The head lowers, the eyes find the floor. Eye contact at this monumental moment of embarrassment is not an option. Failure has struck and there is no escape. The other team celebrates her error and can’t wait to go at her once more. She slowly returns to her position and all she thinks about is not screwing up again. The ball is served and she hesitates slightly, not wanting to go through the nightmare of just 30 seconds before: her hesitation costs her and she again watches the ball carom off outstretched arms…point. She looks at the floor, cursing herself and her inabilities. Teammates come to pick her spirits up but she is lost in a fog of self doubt, anger and trepidation. “Why isn’t the coach taking me out?” she asks herself? She slowly readies herself for her next disastrous folly, knowing she’s not good enough now and hoping that the server misses or serves someone else. The other coach nods approvingly at the server… “You know who to serve here.” She looks up and sees the server glaring at her and she tenses up…she hates this. She hates volleyball, hates her team, hates her parents for making her play. No one should have to go through this she thinks to herself… The ball is served at her once again.

She is 14 years old and playing a game that is dictated by how you handle your shortcomings as a player and a team and where perfection is not a possibility.

Sound familiar? Do you parent or coach (or both) one of these kinds of athletes? They used to be few and far between but today, many athletes come with a special entry into the sports psychology schema: perfectionism.

USA National team libero Natalie Hagglund’s blog talked about this in extraordinary frankness; a look inside the mind of one of the top athlete’s in the world and a sharing of something that so many others go through.

“When I was finished with USC and joined the national team I was pushed out of my comfort zone more in one week than I had been in my entire life. This is when that same perfectionist mindset…the mindset that drove me to accomplish so many things in the past, became my worst nightmare.

Within the first couple of weeks with the national team I was taught a new system and completely stripped of my technique. Every movement that I ever sort of felt confident about was evaluated and eventually thrown out the window. I was also placed in a gym full of volleyball legends whom I looked up to and ever so badly wanted to impress. So yes, I think it is safe to say that ALL I was concerned about was making a good impression, and in my mind, performing at a perfect standard was the only way to make a good impression.

But, the more I had to learn…the more I failed. The more I failed…the more it ate at me…the more it ate at me…the harder I worked. But now, it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I still failed. These idealistic perceptions, these visions that once drove me to accomplish even my highest goals were now dragging me down…even ripping everything that I once loved about playing out from under me.

It just got to a point where it wasn’t fun anymore. I dreaded the thought of waking up and going to practice because I knew that I was going to fail again…and I was scared shitless of that kind of failure. See, this was a different type of failure for me. This wasn’t the type of failure that I could work hard to overcome QUICKLY. It was going to take time and patience…and let’s be real, patience was never my strong suit. Every morning I put on a strong face; a face of confidence, a face of competitiveness, energy, passion & love…that same face that I just dominated in college…but on the inside I was scared.

I never really saw this side of perfection…the side that everyone was always talking and warning me about…the side that picks at you, exhausts you & later defeats you. But there it was, slowly but surely defeating me.”

As parents, we love the fact our child will stay up until 11 studying and finishing homework, that grades are all A’s, that their team went undefeated at the last power tournament and that they won the election for Class treasurer in a landslide.

As coaches, we love the fact that athletes came in early to get more reps and that while the other girls are having fun, she scowls and stands away from the rest of the team: game face affixed and ready for battle.

But are we, as both coaches and parents, missing a bigger picture?

In a paper entitled “The Relationship between Perfectionism, Eating Disorders and Athletes,” Sarah Forsberg and James Lock, both from Stanford, define perfectionists as, “those described as setting extremely high standards for which is often accompanied by fear of failure and concern with mistakes.”

Sound familiar?

Youth Sports Psychology looks at these four characteristics of a perfectionist:

1. Expect a lot from themselves (to be perfect and not make mistakes)

2. Are afraid of making mistakes (that’s where the fear of failure comes in).

3. Often become frustrated because they can’t perform the way they expect to perform.

4. Are very critical of themselves. They’ll lambaste themselves for the smallest goof-ups.

In her book, "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead," Brene’ Brown talks about the scam that perfectionism can be. 

“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance, (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.’ Please. Perform. Perfect.”

She adds, “Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?” 

She concludes in dramatic fashion: “Perfectionism is a hustle!

Dr. Michael Gervais is a psychologist in California that specializes in high performance athletes and who has done extensive work with the Seattle Seahawks and the USA Women’s National Volleyball team. He says this about perfectionism: “It’s a double edged sword. It’s the thing that gets us really good and then sometimes it can get in our way of believing that anything is good enough.”

A query for research on perfectionism is a window into where sports psychology sees it taking our athletes. Some of the things we’re learning going forward:

From a research paper called “Perfectionism and Perceptions of Parenting Styles in Male Youth Soccer," the following was concluded. “…personal standards was unrelated to perceptions of maternal and paternal authoritativeness. However, concern over mistakes, perceived parental pressure, perceived coach pressure and doubts about actions all had significant negative correlations with perceptions of authoritative parenting for both mothers and fathers.”

In a 2012 paper titled, “Shame Coping, Fear of Failure and Perfectionism in College Athletics,” the authors discuss the four areas of shame coping: Withdrawal, Attack self, Avoidance and Attack others. In their paper, they conclude sadly that “Females tend to employ internalizing forms of shame-coping (Attack self, withdrawal) more than males. In contrast, males favor externalizing forms of shame-coping (Avoidance, Attacking others).”

The study goes on to conclude, ”First, if shame is elicited by devaluation, then shame (embarrassment, humiliation) and fear of failure can be lessened by reducing athletes' perceptions that their shortcomings make them less worthy, as a person. Some coaches already do this intuitively. They avoid comparisons between participants and minimize the link between performance and acceptance - they convey the message that they value all their athletes. Such coaches also minimize the shame of mistakes by conveying the belief that mistakes are a normal and necessary part of learning. Second, they intuitively tailor the nature of their critiques to each athlete's ego strength; some athletes can take criticism more directly than others without resorting to maladaptive responses.”

In another paper entitled “An examination of Perfectionism and Self-Esteem in Intercollegiate Athletics,” the authors conclude simply, “…athletes who adopted a maladaptive perfectionist orientation had low levels of self esteem.”

And in yet another paper entitled “The Relationship between Perfectionism and Burnout in Junior-Elite Athletes” from 2014, the author concludes, “Overall this study showed that there is positive relationship between socially prescribed perfectionism and dimensions of burnout. It expresses that socially prescribed perfectionism is an obstacle in against of athletic performance and progress.”

You’ve seen where the word perfectionism has been associated above with eating disorders, shame-coping, self esteem, burnout, attacking self and withdrawal and we haven’t even touched on the subjects of anxiety, injury and overall mental health. These are the issues that we may as parents and coaches have to deal with every day in our homes and gyms.

How do we fix this?

In an amazing TED talk titled, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfectionism,” Reshma Saujani says, “When we teach girls to be brave and we have a supportive network cheering them on, they will build incredible things.” She adds, “We’ve got to socialize our girls to be comfortable with imperfection and we’ve got to do it now!” 

Parents are asked to be careful about placing super high expectations on their young athletes and comparing them to other athletes, better or worse. Keeping youth sports in perspective is another way parents can help. A missed serve at match point isn’t worth arguing about and recalling 10 times in a disjointed method of motivation.

For parents and coaches, embracing the idea of a growth mindset and understanding that learning and getting better comes with making mistakes. That understanding the process of learning and getting better is more important at the youth levels than winning and losing.

Celestine Chua is the founder of Personal Excellence, a website and blog has a wonderful title, “How to Overcome Perfectionism: Eight Easy Steps.” They aren’t that easy of course, but it gives insight on how she overcame her perfectionism.

For coaches, there are hundreds of books and videos in the coaching sphere to keep you busy for months, but many of the same ideas are brought forth.

· Focusing on the process and not the outcome

· Focus and feedback on the athlete getting better and not on their bad rep or their bad practice, which youth athletes will inevitably have

· Adopting and nurturing a growth mindset in your gym where mistakes are welcome and learned from and not to be used to embarrass or compare athletes with

· Keeping a positive tone to your interactions and culture

· Building the kind of relationships with your athletes where they acknowledge you as their coach, want what’s best for them and will do all you can to ensure their success

There are no easy fixes, but we all have to work together: parents, coaches AND athletes to ensure their youth sports experience are a positive and healthy one.

If you would like to share your story about you or your athlete or child working through perfectionism, or for more information, contact us here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Tao of Joe...

In the midsection of North Carolina, weaving in and out of the Raleigh-Durham area is a path of landmines for visiting teams of all collegiate sports: Duke, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina lying within 25 miles of each other and another hour down the road, Wake Forest.

They call it Tobacco Road.

Not only do these four Universities share an excellence in athletics and academia, they are the platform of some of the greatest coaches in collegiate sports history. Names like Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Kay Yow, Roy Williams, Anson Dorrance, Sylvia Hatchell and Mike Krzyzewski leap to mind as coaches who have a transcendent effect on their athletes, schools and teams in Tobacco Road and these rivalries continue to fuel debate and speculation with a passionate fan base so often lost in professional sports.

Another such coach resides in Chapel Hill and is taking us through his newly renovated locker room. In a deep voice riding a Bronx foundation, University of North Carolina Head Women’s Volleyball Coach Joe Sagula shows us the state of the art video which is touch screen and interactive in both the coaches room and the locker room. He shows us the facilities and as we pass from the coach’s office to the locker room, there is a large chart hanging on the wall.

“We have certain performance criteria that we think if we can accomplish those things it will help us be successful in the end.” Sagula says confidently. “What we really wanted was for our team not to focus on the outcome but how to be successful and what it’s going to take. If we just want to win, sometimes we fall short.”

He points out that the places in a match where the team exceeded their goals, a UNC logo is placed over it. The more stickers posted usually predicts a win at the end of the chart. “What we have to realize is what do our outside hitters have to do, what do our middles have to do and what do we have to do on defense? If everyone is doing their job at a good level, then we’re in a good position to win. Still, things happen in the crazy sport of volleyball so we have the team think about those things.”

A living example of a life-long learner, Coach Joe is finishing up the spring season of his 35th year coaching collegiate volleyball and his 26th at North Carolina. “It all starts with, and we talk about this from the first match of the year to the last match of the year, from the college level to the international level, who is winning the serving and passing game?” He says emphatically. “If we’re out passing our opponent, we’re going to keep our offense running and keep our opponents from serving well. The same thing applies as we want to out serve our opponent as well.”

“The criteria changes each year and depends on our personnel but also the history of what has been successful to win the conference and what it’s going to be to take a big step nationally.” Joe says. “We think outside hitters should be at .250, middle hitters should be around .350 to .375. Our right side hitters have been very strong so they need to be around .275 to .300. We also look at dig percentage; how many balls do we dig that the opponents hit? We also look at first ball kills and things of that nature. We have about nine different criteria and we think if we can get at least five of them, that puts us in a good position to win a match.”

Winning is tradition at UNC. Tar Heel basketball, women’s soccer and hovering with them is Sagula’s 12th trip to the NCAA’s this season. He has amassed 6 ACC titles and is closing in on 800 wins for his career. One of the DNA strands of UNC volleyball is also on the board. “There’s the all important one that is the subjective one by the coaches and the team and that’s what we just call our competitive spirit. That’s the criteria we measure for each match as well. Were we competitive from the beginning to the end? Sometimes we come out and we play inspired for one set and then we fall asleep or we’re good for two sets? We know that to be successful, we have to have a competitive spirit and an attitude to play hard. That’s something we measure and it might be as important as any other statistic out there. Sometimes you might not hit all of your numbers but if you have a really good fighting spirit and compete hard, you have a chance to win.”

“What we’re looking for is consistency. Sometimes it’s very deceptive. If you win the last set but you started slowly, the team might think, ‘Yea we had it, we came on strong!’ We’re looking at consistency from the first point to the last point. Sometimes we don’t make that decision till the next day after we watch video again. We want to sit back and not let the emotions take you: you might have a close one. If you won 16-14 in the fifth set you think yes, you have it but what did you do in the first two sets? Why did you go five? So we just try to look at that and as a team become aware of just how important that is. We want to hit well and pass well and serve well but we want to compete hard and have that attitude every day. We’ve won matches where the team didn’t have the competitive spirit and we’ve lost them and we felt the team fought hard and did everything they could that day and the other team was better.”

Coach Joe was a collegiate setter at New Paltz College in New York in the late 70’s where he earned a degree in Fine Arts, Arts Education and of course, Coaching. He parlayed that into being the Men’s and Women’s coach at Penn where he was coach of the year four consecutive seasons and won Ivy league titles throughout the 80’s. He came to Chapel Hill in 1990. Sagula has seen the game change and as great coaches do, he’s had to alter his coaching to fit the game and the players he’s coaching. He still attends coaching clinics, gives them, and is an avid reader: an entire wall of his office is a fully stocked book shelf.

"When I first started coaching, I wanted our players to have perfect technique.” He says smiling. “I wanted our passing platform to be great, our setters to never double the ball, our hitters with great arm swings and great footwork but I learned the hard way that sometimes that didn’t really matter and what I needed to teach them was how to compete and how to score and win games. I quickly learned that technique was good but you need really competitive people so I concentrated on playing more games in practices.”

“I give credit to my assistants Tyler Adams and Eve (Rackham) to help me realize what the other teams are doing well and what do we have to do to be better than them? I never really in my career looked at numbers. I didn’t understand them, I wasn’t great at them. I wasn’t one of those people who really understood the box score. I knew if you outhit somebody and had a higher hitting percentage, that was better and if you had more aces and less errors, that was good. That was something back in the 80’s that didn’t concern me, I didn’t know about that. I’ve learned that over the years that there are certain things you need to do and certain parts of the game you need to work on looking at the whole season. Where did we fall short? Who didn’t block well, who didn’t dig well? Who do we need to put over on the right side, whatever it might be? What do we have to get better at? So now we concentrate on that and we use that in practice.”

"We don’t want the players too consumed with numbers; they don’t need to know their hitting percentage but it’s the simple things. Are we making too many unforced errors is something we really talk about with our team. Are we getting first ball kills and the value of that? They understand point scoring situations that when we go back to the service line, how many times do we score points when we’re on defense when they’re serving? They have a general grasp of that but we also don’t want them thinking too much about that. We have at times tried putting hitting percentages on the board in the practices and that’s paralyzed them. For us, it’s learning how to win, learning how to hit the right shots at the right time.”

“If you’re hitting three hundred when the game is over does it matter or is it what you did to help your team win and score points at the right time? We try to make them aware of those things. So I’ve evolved and appreciated learning from my staff that really have an understanding of numbers for helping us to just tweak things. I still think it comes down to competing hard and having a winning attitude and making good plays. Sometimes we don’t win the stats battles but we win matches and I never want to underestimate those people that go in and compete every day.”

Joe’s continuing embrace of what it takes to succeed leaves his past opinions and traditions behind as he implements and searches to keep his program successful. “One of the things I look at now is being good at out of system volleyball that I never really understood. It’s kind of a hot thing now: out of system and in system but I think something that we concentrate a lot on is being good when things aren’t perfect. Early in my career, I wanted everything to be perfect. But now I realize you can win without being perfect. You want great passing but can you still find ways to score when things aren’t going well: how to win ugly. Sometimes that’s really important and having people that want to compete that way. I’ve learned that. I’ve learned the value, even more so of serving harder and being that much more aggressive at the service line and not being overly consumed with service errors at times. Not to the level of men’s volleyball but service pressure is really, really important in the game in order to compete. It’s tough to play defense unless you are putting a tough serve in there.”

“I think I have also learned the value of a libero. When the libero first came into the game, I think everybody thought they’re going to be a passer and when we all created volleyball and at camps and clinics and asked who is the most important person on your team, it was the setter. The setter is the best athlete. I think they the outside hitter is really important. It’s a great athlete who can pass and hit and make shots and she might be as important as the setter. But now, I think a quality libero can make a team go. I think that’s something that wasn’t true a few years ago. When they first came in and a couple of really good ones established themselves at the collegiate level, it got us thinking wow: that position is so much more important and they could be as important as the setter and maybe equal to these days. They can change the game, solidify your serve receive and make plays on defense. A really good libero is a great thing to have on your team. When our team has been really good, I think that was a big reason.” 

Part of Joe’s success is his recruiting which he says over the last five or six years has focused on overall athleticism. “I feel like we can train kids who are great athletes whereas years ago, I think we were trying to get really good volleyball players. The reason why we’ve been able to take some steps up is that we’ve recruited some really good volleyball players but we’ve taken some chances on some really athletic kids. When you’re at qualifiers, you can see kids who are jumping well, who have quickness, move well and have a good vision for the ball. They may not be perfect volleyball players as sophomores or freshmen because unfortunately we’re looking at them at that age but we want to see how they move on the court. What we want to see is are they comfortable, are they fluid, do they jump well and their arm swing. I think a lot of times we think we can fix people’s arm swings but if they aren’t good by the time they’re 16 it’s hard to fix them and get a great one. So those are some of the things we are doing whereas years ago we just recruited volleyball players.”

“We needed good athletes and height so we’ve gotten taller and athletic and physical. We like our pin hitters to be physical players: strong, hit the ball hard and have good size. Recruiting is still so challenging because you can see some of the fire and some of the passion in some players but sometimes you just can’t get a read on them. The hardest players to recruit these days are liberos or good liberos because if they’re really good in competition they may not get served or people will hit away from them. I have to watch them in practice and I do think one of the things that’s changed is we try to go to more practices to see what their work ethic is. If we see someone who hustles and does those things I’m looking for in competition, what kind of a work ethic can we gather when they play the game when you watch them practice. To me, that’s a really important quality. They’re some kids that are really athletic that you say you don’t want them in your gym because they’re going to bring us down; they’re not going to work hard and fit into the culture of the team.”

One of Segula’s sticking points with the game is how it’s being trained at the younger levels. “I think there are definitely more athletic kids playing the game without question: bigger, stronger, more athletic kids overall. But because we specialize so much, I’m not sure the volleyball IQ has gone up. There are some ballers out there that are really good but you can get a 6-3, 6-4 kid who is a stud athlete that may not know how to put the ball in play. You set them in the middle or a good tempo ball at the pin and they’re going to swing, but it’s making good decisions; keeping the ball in play at times, how to be a good ball control kid. I think as a whole, you don’t see as much of that out there, unfortunately.”

“Kids haven’t learned how to pick themselves up. If they make a mistake they get subbed out, they don’t learn how to succeed after having failed. I think we do this in college too, we specialize but I don’t think we get as many kids that know the game these days. Most middle hitters come in and they don’t know how to pass at all and they don’t care about passing, they don’t understand the value of it. It’s like, ‘Okay, that’s not for me, I really don’t need to worry about that.’ Then when they get to college they realize hey, I might have to pass a good free ball. It takes some really athletic kids a year or two in college just to learn how to ball handle or to be able to put a ball somewhat near a target as a setter.”

“I’m a fan of kids playing more than just volleyball up until a certain point in high school. I think a lot of kids in 6th and 7th grades quit playing basketball and soccer or gymnastics or track and field and they only do volleyball. I think there’s a lot to be gained by playing different sports. To me, having a kid with a good athletic mentality, a good athletic IQ is only going to be enhanced by letting them play other sports, learning how to be successful, learning a work ethic and taking it from say swimming to volleyball, from softball, from track and field. I know clubs; there’s this pressure to specialize and they have the time to do that but I think probably by the middle of their high school career, if they want to focus on one sport, fine but I think up till then, kids should play lots of different sports. I think it just adds to the overall mentality for them. I think it makes a difference.”

“We have a kid this year that’s played three sports in high school and she gets it, she knows how to compete, she doesn’t get fazed if she’s not perfect. She’s really invested in learning how to get better because she realizes coming in she doesn’t have all the answers. Kids have to be open to saying, ‘Hey, I need to learn how to get better.’ They need that in college. They aren’t perfect when they leave club or high school and I think the parents need to let them know that they’re not perfect, that they have to grow and they have a long ways to go. Just the fact that they can be open and experience different things really helps a kid be a better athlete. The Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer says he’s recruited 40 kids on his football team that are multi sport athletes and he thinks that makes them better football players. I kind of have that same mentality. It’s hard, we’ve got a couple of kids that played all four years of high school basketball and they’ve become great volleyball players. Or they’ve done track and field: I like that.”

“I also think we tend to play too much volleyball in club year round. We need to give them a break. I think we get kids with bad shoulders or bad knees and they come in to college half injured. They’ve played too much. I think that’s where a kid’s future really comes down to what happens after their freshman year. Are they going to keep going or are they burned out, and I think that’s where kids themselves have to come to an understanding of what do they really want. Some of them just go through the motions after a while and those kids never amount to much. I think they really need to be inspired. I think how we manage the kids is vital. Are we giving them enough off time, enough rest time and managing their training cycle throughout the year and what their workload is? I think getting the summer off before they go to college, at least 3-4 weeks is a very good thing. During the club season, they play so much. I know one club that is playing every other weekend from January until I think the end of May. That’s a lot of volleyball. Go play some beach volleyball, go play something else. That’s okay. Maybe just a change of pace; something to give their bodies a rest from wearing out. I think 70% of kids come into college with some sort of nagging injury and if it’s not in that first fall season, it’s there in the spring. Somehow, we have to manage that better.”

For volleyball players, the Tao of Joe is about staying engaged, being healthy and being your competitive best. He sees a few things that would help. “One thing would be every kid who is coming up learns to play the total game. They can specialize with that kid that plays middle or outside but when they train them, train them to play defense, train the smaller kids to block and hit. Teach everybody the total game. I think that’s really important and not to limit them or to make judgments about how the tall kid always has to play the net or the tallest kid plays middle. I think that’s one thing: teach the kids to play the overall game.”

“I think the second thing is let kids compete and play games and understand the value of how to compete at a younger age. Not to drill, drill, drill; make it so that the kids want to come in and play games. Not always 6 on 6 but 2 on 2 and 3 on 3 and that when they come into the gym, it’s okay to even play 1 v 1; just having fun playing the game, working on different shots and doing different things when they’re younger and seeing the value of that. I think we just need to have kids have fun playing volleyball, not just doing the drills and doing passing and setting. There’s times they’ll understand the quality of being a great passer, that’s going to come later but I think when they’re younger, how to compete and enjoy that. Those would be the two things: letting kids be overall athletes and teaching kids to compete hard and competing when they’re younger and understanding that. Volleyball shouldn’t be pulling up your knee pads and do 100 passes. Let’s pass, set, hit and do more game like things.” 

One of the ripples coming soon is what Segula sees as a changing of the guard in college volleyball. “There have been so many veteran coaches who have been coaching across Division I in particular and Divisions II and III for at least 25 to 30 years and I just think that at some point, in the near future, just by the timing, a lot of coaches are going to end up retiring in the next couple of years. They’ll all be over 60, and have put in 30 plus years and when that changes I just think that’s going to mean that people who have been part of volleyball since the growth of the sport at the Division I level, in the 1970’s and 80’s, they’re all going to be retiring. They’ve all helped the sport grow so much, and when they leave they’re going to be mentors to a lot of people but it’s going to create a lot of openings and voids in many ways because of what they’ve meant to the sport over the many years.”

“I’m thinking people like Dave Shoji and Russ Rose and Mick Haley and I would put myself in there as someone who has coached for 35 years. I don’t know what Mary Wise is going to be doing but she’s younger. John Dunning is another one. Many of them have won National Championships and so you’ve got high caliber championship coaches that probably in five years that are going to retire and that changes a lot: big shoes to fill. To keep that legacy going at these really great schools, I think there are some great coaches that are going to come up but it’s going to change things. When you have people who have been around the sport for such a long time and are institutions and have become synonymous with volleyball: not just Division I volleyball but volleyball throughout the country and what they’ve meant, it’s going to be very different.”

“Why those coaches have been successful is that they’ve been evolving over the time: they’ve changed. I don’t think any of them have continued to be successful because they know how to do it; they’ve had to change from the 70’s to the 80’s to the 90’s and even the last five years. The recruiting level has changed. What they have done is mentor really good assistant coaches. These assistants know how to do good things so I don’t think it’s going to be a big change in that regard. When you think of Denise Corlett at Stanford who’s been there for almost 20 years, maybe more and Shoji has had different coaches come through and they all seem to do a great job. Mick has had veterans come through there and Russ has had Salima.”

“People who come in there have to be prepared but you’re never going to be that personality. That’s the thing. There’s never going to be another Russ Rose type of person in that position at Penn State. There’s not going to be another Mick Haley or John Dunning. They come with their own unique personality that has made them successful in the way they’ve handled their relationships and dealt with people. That’s something you can’t just fill in. Someone has to come in and be their own person and their own personality. I think that’s exciting- that’s an exciting time but in some ways it’s a big change too. Those people that have been out there for so long won’t be on the sidelines anymore. If you think about those four, one of them has probably in the final four every year over the last bunch of years. It’s going to be very different.”

On this day, it’s hard to imagine Coach Joe not at UNC, not surrounded by baby blue and patrolling the Tar Heel sidelines in the fall. He is as much an institution as the coaches he sees ushering in the new generation. He is North Carolina volleyball. We say our goodbyes and Joe Sagula walks back into his office to prepare his team for the showdowns looming ahead on Tobacco Road. At the moment, the Tao of Joe not missing a turn on the road ahead.