Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Moving the needle...

Part two of our conversation with Brandon Rosenthal touches on the youth sports culture, advice for beginning coaches, the media in our sport and the explanation of the sign hanging in his office.

A Difficult Youth Sports Culture

The parent thing is big with helicopter parents and what not. We’re very up front with them and send them a letter and tell them what to expect and also to ask them to help us. I got this from Mike Heber and I think it’s beautiful; they’re part of trying to win a championship too. Their roles are different but they’re going to get phone calls and we ask the parents to tell their daughter that this is exactly what this is about and you need to trust and keep going instead of them trying to fix it. I think that’s probably the biggest thing, that instant gratification of this process to figure it out and get better. Even now, as I’ve got an 11 year old and a 7 year old and my son is all into sports, I say there’s two different kinds of teams in youth sports. There’s a t shirt team and a trophy team. The trophy team is we want ONLY the best kids and we’re out there to win and if we can’t win then we’re doing something wrong. A t shirt team is we want the kids to enjoy it. If they win great and if they lose they learn something. So I want my son on t shirt teams. There’s plenty of time for the other.

It’s going in the wrong direction. If you look at what’s happening with travel basketball for example, different factors come into play with that but ultimately it just comes down to money. I think education of coaches is probably the biggest thing. Right now we’re in a tough spot at a rate where we don’t have enough quality coaches. When I say that, in basketball, everybody played basketball, everybody learned at some level. Now all of a sudden you’ve got Parents coaching and we’re just coming into the age where parents played volleyball growing up. So it’s great because they’re teaching their kids and teaching kids the proper ways but we don’t have that long history like basketball.

Youth sports are scary right now. It’s different from when you were a kid and when I was a kid. Parents are at every practice. They’re dissecting everything. They have video now. When we look at a recruit, we ask questions about Mom and Dad, we talk to Mom and Dad. We try in the recruiting process to vet out a lot of that stuff and it’s tough. We’re in a culture right now where we have to keep up with the Jones’. We often times find ourselves asking is this what’s best for us or is this what’s best for everybody else. So we slow down and pump the brakes and find this is not what’s best for us so let’s not go in this direction.

Volleyball NOT Being about Volleyball

I’m very lucky with the culture of the University here. One of my favorite things is that the University really promotes these mission trips. Quite honestly I had never done one but I’d heard of people doing them. So four years ago we took our first mission trip to Rio de Janeiro. I was able to travel abroad through Pepperdine and post Pepperdine and boy, the learning process. I think it’s interesting now, with kids having MORE resources, they actually travel less abroad. It’s crazy to me. So it was great to make a trip happen in college. Travelling to me is important and if I can provide an opportunity for the girls to do that, I really wanted them to be blown away. So when we talked about where could we go, I don’t know how Rio came about but there was some people in the University that were from Brazil and they have contacts so it was welcomed. It wasn’t like how are we going to make this happen, it was alright, we’re going! And then here are the steps to make this happen.

At Lipscomb, every year there are 55 mission trips worldwide. The mission opportunities are a huge piece and you’re talking everywhere, from Honduras to Ethiopia to Charlotte and downtown Atlanta and inner city New York. It’s crazy to think about what these kids are getting to see. For me, it just went hand in hand with what we were trying to do. There’s so much to learn from a book but there’s so much more to learn when you’re out there making it happen. We’re lucky; we’re just about to embark this next May to Malawi, Africa. Lipscomb already has a connection with this orphanage we’re going to be working with. We’re so blessed and often times we complain about what we don’t have and what we need and then all of a sudden we go see what the rest of the world is doing and for us, it was life changing for the girls that went on the trip. It was life changing for me! I was very nervous and rightfully so. You’re in charge of 12 to 15 different people and you’re travelling abroad and it’s nerve racking but it taught me a lot.

This University has a lot of connections. The legendary men’s basketball coach Don Meyer, he believed in a lot of the same things I did. One of his big rules was pick up trash and leave the place better than you left it. It’s so simple. So to be at a school where that is celebrated is nice. I tell our girls I want our locker room to look nice and that was before I knew about Don Meyer. I feel like I’m in the perfect spot.

When I say it’s not about volleyball it’s not because kids have to learn about life. One of our seniors who just graduated in May justwrote a blog about her next step and the struggle that she’s going through right now especially being an athlete and she was given all these things and told what time to be somewhere and now real life is happening. There are some really interesting things that our girls are doing. She writes about the time she had here was the time of her life and now she’s being challenged with that next stage. I sent her a quick message just yesterday after I read her blog and just said, “Trust your training and trust your heart.” There’s this big fear and I get it. I went through it, you went through it but all of the stuff we did through college is applicable to what we should be doing in life. I’m hoping that they can take those lessons. I truly believe that all that stuff helps us win Championships.

I say all the time when we deserve to win we will win and when we don’t deserve it, more than likely it’s not going to happen. Since 2007 when we got into our first championship, we’ve been in the Championship match 8 of the last 9 years. We haven’t won all of them and there’s been some heart breakers but looking back on it I think they were all for a reason. As we’ve had a ton of success, we’re still fighting and in the NCAA tournament, we haven’t won a first round match and our girls are anxious so I am anxious for that to happen. We can’t just rely on the fact that we get to the tournament, we have to do something and we know it. One of the questions people ask is hey, it’s great you’ve gotten this program to this point, and it is but I want more and they want more. The University and the administration have done an unbelievable job of supporting that and seeing the vision.

On the NCAA Tournament

I’ll say this; I think it’s moving in the right direction. Kristin Fasbender who is the Director of Championships and Alliances for the NCAA, and I have been on a couple of committees and I’ve been able to talk to her and they’re hearing us. Is it happening fast enough, no. But that’s the world that coaches live in; we want it to happen now. I think we have to take a look at what’s happening. My issue is we really bust our butts for 4 and a half or five months to get to the tournament is totally fair. But it comes down to are we 380 miles from somebody versus 450 miles. If we’re 450 miles away from somebody we have to fly and if we’re 380 miles we have to drive. It has nothing to do with what we’ve done for the season. It has to do with the regionalization of the tournament. I get that part; we don’t want teams flying coast to coast. That’s hard on everybody. But at the same time, what’s fair to make the best tournament? We’re a mid major team that is really knocking on the door so we’re not just interested in being in the tournament. Last year was a tough year because both us and Belmont who is literally two miles down the same road were in the tournament. We had beaten Belmont twice during the regular season. Louisville is hosting and UCLA is hosting. We’re 50 in the RPI and Belmont is 165 in the RPI. UCLA is 15 in the RPI and Louisville is 16. In theory, just by numbers alone, you would think Lipscomb goes to Louisville because they’re higher ranked and Belmont goes to UCLA. And it happened vice versa and it was a tough trip for us. Looking back on it I don’t know if I did a great job because I was trying to manage all of that and manage our team. It was a great experience but we weren’t there for the experience. We’d really busted our butts to have that first round match against Louisville and I say Louisville but I don’t know what the difference would have been and that’s not a knock on Louisville but that was hard on me. I’ll say this, the NCAA was gracious enough to listen to me and we talked on a conference call after and I do think changes are coming. I think there was an anomaly with two schools that were two miles apart that kind of opened their eyes and maybe made them think we have to look at this just a little bit deeper. I say that but really what’s on the horizon is the NIT. I talked with Sean Hardy of Triple Crown Sports and I think the NIT is going to happen for Women’s volleyball in 2017 and a full 64 team tournament, so it’s exciting.

Women’s basketball has had this for quite some time because of Men’s basketball having it, I think women’s volleyball is starting to earn it a little bit more because of the sport, the sheer numbers of it you can’t deny. I was shocked looking at participation numbers in high school and I knew women’s basketball would be number one but women’s volleyball was only 3000 athletes behind. To me, that was validation of what I’d been saying before. Women’s basketball, the game, is not what it used to be and it’s changing and they’re in this tough transition period. It’s not just me saying it, Geno (U. Conn Women's Coach Auriemma) is saying it, the Big 12 coach who was saying they needed to practice more; she’s saying it. There are a lot of people saying it and women’s volleyball is doing nothing but continuing to climb. I think it’s our responsibility to take advantage of that.

Volleyball and the Media- Selling Our Sport

The community continues to grow. There continues to be more checks and balances and that’s probably what it needs. You talk about the ranking system: it’s nice we have a coach’s poll. We’ve already explained that the coach’s poll is skewed. And then you have the RPI and people hate that. What I’ve said is we need to do a media poll. Who’s going to do it? Well, you need four or five media people and that will continue to grow and it’s not for anything other than checks and balances, competition. Then it becomes one of those things where, why is this team #5 in this poll and #25 in this poll. What is going on? And there is some transparency. I think the AVCA is doing a good job with the coach’s poll: hey, here’s what everybody voted. So every week you can see who voted for what. So if you have the balls to call somebody out then do it. People talk about volley talk. Volley talk is great for volleyball. They’re silly if they think otherwise. All these others sports, football- do you know how many blogs there are about football? We have one! Maybe there are two but Volley talk is great because I think people are asking questions and it’s about what people are thinking and it gets us talking.

I think we have a ton of room to grow. The national teams are a big portion of that. This is a tough year because of Rio and it’s an Olympic year but I don’t think we do enough to put our National teams at the spots where everybody is. I’ve been to the last 14, 15 Junior Nationals and we do barely enough. We might send an Olympian there to sign some autographs but if we really want it, the team is there and they’re playing and the girls are exposed to the next level. I would venture to say that less than 5% of the girls playing club know our Olympians. I also think it’s a great opportunity and we have to stop saying how sad it is and let’s do something about it.

I think the NCAA and the AVCA are doing some great stuff. Kathy DeBoer really built sand volleyball championship and now look at it. I went to it this year and it’s not stopping, it’s a runaway train. It’s here to stay and there’s plenty to bitch and complain about but it’s more opportunities for our girls to play and different girls, so what’s wrong with that? Ultimately it’s a different sport which I’m not going to say it’s the same sport but it’s volleyball. You can be a lover of the beach game and a hater of the indoor game and vice versa, it continues to grow and as it continues to grow, more money is being put into it, more advertising. So I do think there are certain things that are wrong with it.

I think volleyball was on the forefront of web streaming. They saw an opportunity for us being worried about wanting to be on National television, they really put their hooks into Big 12 TV and PAC 12 TV and they saw that opportunity there. So now, for us, a mid major team, we have ESPN 3 and we’re very fortunate but in 30 matches, I would say 24 of those matches are going to be on some sort of media outlet. So I think we have an obligation to continue to grow this. Media has completely changed, and I think for the better for us. People will watch games on iPads just as much as they’ll watch games on TV’s. Where as you had the semi finals and the finals on ESPN, that was it. Now all of a sudden, kids are almost going their whole career where every one of their matches is on some sort of media platform. I can remember just 4 or 5 years ago if we were on TV once, that was special. TV is different, it’s not the same. Kids don’t even watch TV, they’re watching Netflix. I think volleyball by some chance and forethought just said run with it. A lot of that was because we were up against basketball, up against football where as softball is in this sweet spot where there’s not a lot of programming and they’re able to get that. The tournament is growing. I think you’re starting to see teams growing and make moves. Kansas, even though they were a big school; that was a great story. Creighton and all these other teams, I think the competition is evening out. And that’s what makes the men’s basketball tournament so special is this Cinderella idea. Is it the best team at the end of the year? I don’t know; you could sit here and argue about that all day. Here’s what’s crazy, do you know how many teams have won an NCAA championship in Women’s volleyball, how many individual programs? It’s 10! In 30 plus years, that’s crazy to me; only 10. So I think there’s some of that on the horizon and I think that’s pretty cool. We’re able to recruit against bigger name teams because we’re on ESPN3 and it’s a cool thing.

Advice for Beginning Coaches

I listen to books when I run which people think is crazy but I blow through books. I try to run 4 to 5 miles a day so if a book is 6 hours, it’s basically a week and it’s done. I’ve really gotten into that in the last three years. I’ve always wanted to read but I never had time. I fall asleep reading. But I wanted to run and workout more and I stumbled on to So right now, I’ve got three books going. There’s so much out there I can learn.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There’s not enough of that; asking questions, e mailing, calling, can I come by, can I come watch practice. I think in volleyball it’s just people are afraid, nervous when in reality I had to the do the same thing. I had to call Marv Dunphy. Now granted I knew Marv but these other coaches call and I really have tried to ask him poignant questions throughout my career: why do you do this, how do you do this? So I would say ask questions. If you call a coach and they don’t have time for whatever reason, don’t get jaded about it. Move to the next one. There are so many great coaches out there and I’ll take it a step further, just don’t stop at volleyball. (Holds up the book Legacy) This is a perfect example. This has nothing to do with volleyball and it has everything to do with volleyball. They’re like, do I need to know anything about rugby, how to play rugby and I was like no! I love sports so I’m drawn to any story that can move me so I’m scouring You Tube on a daily basis to be motivated and to find one more piece. I’ve got a thirst or a hunger for knowledge. I think a lot of people do but they’re nervous to venture outside their box.

I think one of our biggest challenges, and I don’t know that I know the answer to this, but when I went to go watch some men’s programs it was so great for Craig (Skinner, head coach at Kentucky) and we had a blast because we are driving all through Southern California. And it wasn’t just going to the practices as you can imagine, and driving in Southern California, there’s plenty of time to sit and talk in the car with nothing else going on. We’re bouncing ideas off of each other. So we’re leaving Irvine and saying, I can’t believe this happened. What did you think about that? I would love for us to do it a little bit more within women’s volleyball. I think probably the answer is spring and getting out. I’ve tried to. Joe Segula is a guy I’ve talked to many times and I say that I really want to get to see him do his thing. That’s what Joe’s all about. I think we’ve got to do that more. There’s going to be some coaches, but I think fewer, that don’t want to be a part of it. So be it but I think we’ve got to get out more. And it’s the same thing; we’ve got to get out more in the high schools and clubs. Our excuse all the time is we’re busy, and we are. But I think more often than not, you learn just as much as you do when you are teaching. That’s what I like.

On the Club System and USA Volleyball

Money is the root of some of the wrong direction of what we have in the clubs. The ironic part of club volleyball is everybody thinks it’s about scholarships at the collegiate level and everything shows that’s it’s 1%. Every year, 1% get collegiate scholarships to division I, 1% get scholarships to division II. It’s just mind boggling because we’re talking about 1%. I mean that’s nothing. I think all of us need to step back and look at it

So the education of coaches is a big issue in our sport. I don’t know how we do it. I think soccer does some really good stuff with their CAP stuff. Now, there is no incentive to be CAP I, CAP II, CAP III. I think it’s nice, they do a great job. Soccer has their licenses; I think it’s like AB. Those mean something. The coaches that have those licenses get paid more and that’s it. You aren’t getting paid the highest level without the highest licenses. We probably need to look at that. I don’t know if it’s too far gone but it’s something I’ve always been intrigued by, the education part of it. I think that there’s a responsibility of college coaches to do more clinics, but again the time factor. And maybe more than the time factor is the production.

I think USA Volleyball has a responsibility and they’re in an interesting spot too with what’s going to happen after Doug (USAV CEO Beal) retires. USA Volleyball from the youth side has just blown up and everything from the qualifiers to High Performance Programs to High Performance teams. It’ll be interesting because people are understanding the dollars that are going into it. I think the JVA movement was good, and I think it stalled for a second but I think it’s picking back up. It will be interesting to see if JVA can catch on west because I think there’s some opportunity. I’m not saying anything about USA Volleyball, I just think when you have competition, you have to step back and say are we doing things right?

I think there needs to be more transparency within the clubs, within USA Volleyball. Issues like ‘stay to play.’ Stay to play is an initiative where if you’re in the national championship or other qualifiers they have the means to work hotel deals. Well that’s great and I think everybody understands that but the back side of it is those people are also getting kick backs. So there’s some struggle with that because I don’t think that’s completely transparent. I would never want to hold anyone back from earning a living, I just think that it’s getting to the point where when enough is enough without getting ugly. I think the getting ugly part is what travel basketball has gotten to. And you know what, travel baseball is probably the same way, soccer is the same thing. I just think the amount of money in basketball exceeds everyone else. We’re all heading in that direction.

On the Sign Hanging In His Office

Every year we have a mantra if you will. I read a book called Insanely Simple. It’s about the rise of Apple, Steve Jobs and things like that. It talked about the crazy ones. The crazy ones, if you remember the Apple commercials, when you start to read it, for us, it’s exactly who we were. We’re the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the ones that see things differently. I don’t want to be the same, we want to be distinctly different: we say that. I think we do things differently; we train differently, we recruit differently, we put emphasis on different things, the culture and the chemistry.

I love the last line; Because people are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. When I took over we were 315 out of 330 in the RPI and I said to Steve Potts Our Athletic Director (who is now the AD at Pepperdine) in 5 years we’ll win a championship. Steve said, look Brandon, let’s just have a team and compete and then in our fifth year we won a championship. So we said okay, now we need to be the top 150 and we weren’t there yet. So that was the move. Then we said if we really want to make some noise, we have to be in the top 100, come on! We did that and then obviously 75 and then 50 and people said, that’s great but you’re a one big conference. I asked why is that possible. If you’re good enough and by some chance you lose in your conference tournament, isn’t it the same for me as it is for everybody? No, it’s different. It didn’t make sense so I had to learn about the RPI and how important it was. Unfortunately for us in 2014 we lost in the Championship but we were in the 30’s in the RPI and we were given our first at large bit into the tournament. I still think we can make it to the Sweet 16 and people say were crazy, and I’m okay with that. I’m always searching books and videos. Don’t get better, get resilient is from that video from Kelly Sheffield. I’m always looking for something to move my needle and pass it on to them. I think we can expect more from each other and hold each other accountable for more. I think where most people fall short is they reach one goal and they’ve made it and then they stop. For me, I don’t know why I’m wired that way but it’s a blessing and a curse. I don’t want people to think, and I’m sure my players would agree, it’s not easy here. This is not like we’ve won from one year to the next, it’s been a lot of trials and tribulations, pushing myself and the girls. And I think that’s something that young coaches need to understand. I’m way better today than I was 15 years ago and I hope that in however long I do this, I’m better then! You personally have to get better. That thirst for knowledge.

Rosenthal talked for another 20 minutes after the recorder was turned off, bemoaning the negative feedback he's witnessing at the National Qualifiers from so many coaches and wishing they would understand more that we do in fact, learn from our mistakes. That no one is perfect and that half of the teams win, and half do not. He shakes his head while talking about it.

As we left, he was introducing us to a member of the Athletic Staff. As we were saying goodbye, the phrase "Coach Rosenthal" was used in a sentence. He shook his head and closed his eyes smiling...

"It's just Brandon..."

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"It's not about volleyball..."

Tucked away ten blocks or so south of the I-440 in Nashville, Tennessee, Lipscomb University provides an education for just under 5000 total students. Every 15 minutes the chime from the Allen Bell Tower resonates across campus and can be heard from the Allen Arena which at court level, houses the athletic offices and the office of one Brandon Rosenthal.

If you have never heard of Rosenthal, no worries. Despite amazing success at Lipscomb U., he stays involved in our sport in a huge way but doesn't call much attention to himself- spreading his program's success onto the athletes and staff.

But Rosenthal is an influential figure in our sport and one you should know! He is outspoken on many issues and in the next few blogs, we will give you a taste of what he's all about and some secrets into his success.

The day after his Lady Bison volleyball camps for the youngsters, he agreed to sit and chat with us. His baritone voice meandering in and out of volume, his eyes at times surveying the room, he is captivating in not only what he says but how he says it.

Enjoy Brandon Rosenthal unplugged, unedited in the coming posts.

His history with the Lipsomb Lady Bisons

The head coach ahead of me was here for three years and he went 6 and 84. They won zero matches the first year, two the second year. That was the transferring from NAIA to Division I. When I took over, we were fully fledged Division I. I was lucky in a sense that I didn’t play in college. I played in High School and I played the game well enough to play around in pickup games but I didn’t know it well enough to have my mind clouded with all these different thoughts.

To me it really wasn’t about volleyball, it was about a culture and how to change it. I was lucky in a sense that we didn’t have this great tradition, it was all about building. When I first looked at the program I had just finished my MBA here and to me it was simple: we’re just building a business basically. Everything I had read, all these case studies were about empowering employees and for me, it was just about empowering the athletes. So from day one, I just told them it’s not going to be my program, it’s going to be their program and I get to be a part of it. I made that very clear to them and I still say that to our recruits today.

It was about building traditions and family. I was lucky because the culture in the gym had to completely change so we had to do everything different. The girls were shocked right away. They went from really slow practices to two hour practices that are just going to kick your butt. What I mean by that is it was my job to plan a practice so we could maximize that time and not have one drill, take a water break then walk back and let’s talk for a bit. It was about the planning process and they bought into it right away because before they had nothing. There were no results. Six and 84 isn’t really getting after it.

For us, if we’re going to lose…we’re going to lose fighting. I thought we did a fantastic job that first year. I think we went 8 and 22ish. All of a sudden the writing is on the wall for me so I thought, yea, we can do this. If we doubled our win total this year, next year we could double our win total. It was real weird though. As it progressed and we won 8 and the next season 9 and I thought okay this isn’t going to work, if we’re winning one more than the year before. Then the third year we won 13. Year one and year three, I realized we can do this. In year four we stumbled because we only won 14 games; one more than the year before.

Year five was when it all came together. I knew we had the pieces but boy, did we struggle. We lost out first seven matches in that fifth year. I thought we had a really talented team that year: five seniors and a couple of transfers. It was a matter of just putting it all together. We had five seniors that were all very vocal. We had two freshmen that came in and started and then we had a transfer from Alabama. She was really good but to work all that together, I mean talk about butting heads. Everybody had their own agenda. It was a matter of bringing it all together. I literally remember we lost our last conference game on the road and shouldn’t have, but got beat bad. There was a big blow up on the bus and we had one more home game, a non conference game and I said to somebody we’ll see what our team’s all about. We were already going to our conference tournament but we came out and destroyed that team at home and I said ‘I think we’re going to win the tournament.’

I always talk about that season as an hour glass. As those grains of sand are leaving you think oh, we’ve got 30 games left then all of a sudden it’s 15 and then it’s 10 and suddenly you’re looking at the hour glass and it’s so bottom heavy. I think that’s what they realized that fifth year. 

I always say this; it’s not about volleyball. I truly believe that. I think it’s a lot more about culture and a lot about empowering people. It’s kind of fun to see what Karch is doing now. There’s a lot of eyebrows raised taking Courtney Thompson attributing it to chemistry and leadership and culture. I truly don’t think enough coaches pay attention to culture of a program.

It started with ‘We’re going to outwork teams.’ We might not beat them, but we’re going to out work them. If they’re going to be more talented, we were going to have to tap into their ability to work. They weren’t just going to have to show up, they were going to have to work for it. That’s where we saw these teams that were just destroying us in three…we were pushing them 22-22. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to see us lay it all out there and just see what happens and see if we could push teams. I remember when Central Florida was in our conference and they were the top dog. Somehow we pushed them to five and for us that was a moral victory. We never took a set off them and now we’re pushing the top dog to 5. And a lot of it was just attitude.

For me, the analogy for our girls in volleyball and the rest of the program is if you take a wet wash cloth and wring it out, then wring it more, you’re going to get a couple more drops. I think that’s what my job is, to keep wringing it but not in a bad way. I love these girls and I think that was one of the things that needed to happen too. To show them that love: not just on the court or in the classroom but beyond. We constantly talk about this being not just a four year experience but a lifetime experience.

We’ve had a lot of great times: winning championships and now girls getting married and having kids but we’ve had some tough times too, some tragedies. For me it’s about being there for them regardless of how old they are or how tough the situation is. I think they needed to see that. So it’s not about volleyball, it’s about some simple principles of unconditional love, hard work. There is a sign in our locker room that says ‘the only things you deserve are what you earn.’ I’m not a guy that was academically gifted. I wasn’t the best in sports. I think the one thing my parents always taught me was work ethic which I’ve tried to instill into my girls. More so now than at the very beginning since I now know how hard it is in the real world, especially Division I athletes who have been catered to all their lives. Then all of a sudden they get out there and you’re pulling the tight rope out and it gets kind of crazy.

The type of player he recruits

What we look for is we obviously want talented players. Everybody wants talented players but what we found as we’ve gone back and examined our top players: who were they and why were they successful and we found they kind of play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove.

We’re in an interesting mix where we’re a top 50 program but we’re still a small name. So we’re competing against everybody. Now we’ve beaten PAC-12, Big-12, Big 10, SEC; those are the teams we’re competing against. For us, it’s the kids where the big names schools have said, you might be a little too short or you might not be able to touch ten whatever. I don’t even know what everyone touches. A jump touch; I don’t know, I don’t care. I’m not saying that’s the right way, I’m just saying for me, that’s not the way the game is played or even scored. So you’ve got these kids that had dreams of playing at these huge schools and for whatever reasons they were told no and here we are, kind of the breath of fresh air saying I could care less what you touch. I love the way you play, I love the way you see the court. For me, when we go out and watch, it’s just that; the ability to score, the passion that they play with. The blue collar kids, there’s plenty of them out there but you have to look past the fact that they’re a 5-8 outside hitter.

We’ve got a girl, Carlyle Nusbaum, who’s probably 5-9 or 5-10 but she jumps 34 inches so it becomes one of these things that on the surface, you say 5-9, that’s way too short but you haven’t even looked. She’s got a canon for an arm. So it just became easy for us. Why are these teams passing? We find ourselves asking that question. Why does this team want to change our other outside hitter, Lauren Anderson who is a true L2, into a libero? She doesn’t want to be a libero. I get it, she’d probably be great at it but she can score. She can tool the block; she sees it, hits hard angle.

When we recruit, we don’t change a whole lot. If this is who you are, I just want to take it to the next level. That’s it. We don’t want to change you; we just want to make you even better. The kids like that, they appreciate that. They’ve worked hard to become who they are. To hear someone tell them we’re going to change everything you do, then they ask, well what have I been doing wrong? It’s an interesting mix.

(Wisconsin Coach) Kelly Sheffield just has a video out where he says, “It’s not my job for them to like me. It’s my job to know that I love them unconditionally. But it’s not my job for them to like me.” I think that’s an interesting statement. It’s this idea that we’re in a tough position. We have to push you each and every day. There’s going to be things that rub you the wrong way but if you look at things in the big picture, we’re just trying to make you better. If you’re willing to learn and willing to trust- I think that’s a key term- trust the idea that we have your best interest at hand. It’s hard and it’s scary. A lot of these girls are naturally gifted and now all of a sudden you’re saying we’ve got to go further, you’ve got to dig deeper.

We’ve chosen to do different things in recruiting. We don’t have a questionnaire. So where as most programs have a questionnaire and you go online and you fill it out the next thing you know you’ve got 45 kids for one spot at the outside hitter. You feel this obligation because they filled out a questionnaire and we probably need to go see them even though they’re 30th on our list. But I want 1, 2 3 and 4. That’s no offense to them but to me it’s a waste of time. I think the other side of it too is number 34, when they fill out a questionnaire they feel like wait a second, I’ve done my part. I’m shocked I wasn’t contacted. So we’re real careful with that. When we say we’ll work with really just 3 or 4 kids per position and really try to get to know them and hopefully get number one but if we don’t we also know number two is a really great option and we don’t have to go back to the process. It’s hard because the majority of schools have these huge lists and maybe that’s what happens at camp. Our camp is not overrun. I guess it could be but I think it works together.

I was just talking to one of our current recruits who’s going to be a senior and she has a younger sister who’s a really good player and she went to a bigger name school and she’s all excited and showed up and realized that there were 10 other girls that were there for the same thing for the same reason and she didn’t know that. So a light bulb went off in my head: alright, I don’t want that feeling from people. We’re very up front with people, we don’t have to judge and go over all these kids, and we’re working with 3 or 4 per position. When we do talk, we’re very honest with them and that’s a hard conversation to have with a 15 year old or 16 year old. But I’ve always believed I’ve told them my expectations and I can never be accused of, well he told me this and did that.

For part two of Brandon Rosenthal's interview, go to the next post of Arizona Sidelines.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

No Capes Necessary...

You should know Jada.

You should have seen her at camp. She’s a sophomore in a program that has celebrated success the past couple of seasons centered around her sister Mya, the teams setter…all 5-3 of her. Jada loves being taller than her “big” sister, loves volleyball and basketball and plays both plus other sports since she is one of a handful of female athletes at her high school which houses less students daily than a slow day at the Phoenix DMV.

She worked hard the two and a half days of camp with temps in the mid 80’s in a gym lacking A/C. She hung with the older players, working on her jump serve and her approach and diving for loose balls with one minor difference.

Her pain was visible. Her foot would drag behind her in an awkward angle. She had a noticeable limp when she walked and ran. She grimaced with every move, with every pivot and pushed off her legs that had betrayed her heading into adulthood.

Her knees were disheveled causing her pain and imbalance. At the end of June, Jada had a tibial tubercle osteotomy where bone was cut and refitted. She will be in a brace and wheel chair for the next few months and then 4-6 months of rehab.

Three months into that rehab, the other leg will be done.

Jada never whined, never complained or tried to get out of what everyone was doing despite the fact she was hurting. She never made excuses and kept her focus and intensity the entire two and a half days of camp. She was a few weeks from a life altering pair of surgeries that will affect her social and athletic life as a high school junior.

She says, “I’m happy that the pain might go away but I will be mad if I have to miss any junior year sports.”

You should meet Zay. She lives in a small town in north Texas. She is new to volleyball but a wonderful basketball player and has the strength and power that high school coaches drool over. She is personable, loves taking selfies but seems moody at times.

On the first day of camp, during a demo and explanation of a jump serve, she soured. She became withdrawn and angry that she couldn’t get her steps right, that she kept hitting the ball under the net. Her camp coach blindly told her to stay with it, she’d get it but her anger lead to her becoming withdrawn and mentally checking out of the session, basically giving up and feeling she was now behind everyone else in a sport she was just learning.

Zay is dyslexic. She had struggled with it from her early childhood and at times, her frustration with learning bubbled over into her athletic life as well.

The coach saw her checking out and realizing a potential that lie inside of her, spent the first 15 minutes of her lunch going over the steps with her alone. She was a little embarrassed at first but warmed to the one on one coaching. She got the steps and started making clean contact on the ball. She smiled for the first time in a few hours and her confidence grew with each piece of feedback.

After lunch, Zay was cracking jump serves much to the delight of her teammates and coaches. She fought through her demons and served them off the court; her confident smile lighting up her gym just a little bit more.

I wish you could meet Lauren.

She is a six foot statuesque bundle of funny and charming with prominent cheek bones normally found on the cover of fashion magazines. She works hard in the gym and has been a relentless and constant contributor to her high school program in the Pacific Northwest.

Last season, she noticed during pre season camp she felt weak and out of shape. She was prodded to work harder in the weight room and she did but with little result. Season started and her energy lacked. She began to lose weight and the coaching staff called her Parents attention to it.

They balked at first but as her eyes began to bulge out of her head and her eyesight worsened, they realized she had the symptoms of a family ailment they had hoped she would avoid: Graves' disease. Her thyroid gland was basically running like an Indy car engine all the time which was causing her to lose weight and adding to her symptoms. Lauren’s promising senior year was derailed and she wound up watching some of the final games of her teams season from the bench.

She has taken prescriptions but may require more treatment and ultimately surgery. She has handled it in her way: with humor and deflection. She has spent the summer with friends and teammates, at the lake and parks and going to ball games. While she doesn’t talk about it, she worries that her eyesight may be affected going forward. She has too much to see heading to Arizona for college.

Dusty eyes opened a little wider and ears and minds kept open a little longer and things we might have missed become clearer.

Heroes are all around us, but most of the time, they keep their secret identities: just everyday stories where heroes battle demons and villains. They surround us if we pay attention and they change OUR lives with just a casual interaction.

These are our heroes. Quiet, unassuming but courageous: on the court or off. They raise the bar for us all.

No capes necessary.

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.