Thursday, September 15, 2016

'Beautiful Chaos...'

There is a Greek word, Meraki. Translated, it means the soul, creativity or love put into something. The essence of yourself that is put into your work; leaving a piece of yourself in your work.

For Sara Ramirez, she doesn’t know another way.

If you’ve coached in the Arizona Region the past few years, you have probably seen her at tournaments, or maybe heard her. She is almost always smiling, has dark beautiful eyes that can look through you and her calling card: a laugh that is a hybrid between Woody Woodpecker and the sputter of a diesel engine. She is engaging and brings a heightened sense of how charmed she finds her life and how much more you should appreciate yours.

This morning, as you read this, she is waking up in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been there since July and she spends 6 days a week trying to make the lives of Syrian refugees a bit more tolerable.

There are 28,000 refugees in Greece which is also in the worst economic crisis in its history. We sit at the breakfast table and read our papers or watch the news on TV. Maybe we’ll see the crawl at the bottom of our phones and iPads. The refugee crisis: we shake our heads and mumble something about it being too bad and how sorry we feel for those people.

Those people are who Sara has given the next year of her life to.

She was a high school volleyball player in El Paso, played at Mesa and South Mountain Community Colleges and has done some coaching with club, school and some church camps and groups. She spent some time in the Middle East on mission trips but this mission is a year, her 28th on the planet. She is donating it to people she doesn’t know half way around the globe. To people she may never see again and are in an impossible situation of frustration, depression and living out the fear of prison, violence and even death.

She decided a few months before she left to combine her love of helping people and volleyball. She envisioned a clinic in one of the camps long before she even arrived. “I just think sports are an international language.” She’s experienced. “I’ve been overseas several times before doing volleyball clinics, with refugees in Palestine. From there, I came away with the idea that you don’t need to know the language in order to play a sport if you’re trying to relate to people, if you’re trying to connect to them, if you’re trying to get to a place of trust. You put a ball on the court and everyone will understand what’s going on to some degree.”

“It just builds friendships in a foreign country. In this case, refugees who happen to be in the biggest crisis since World War II.” She says solemnly.

She took the steps to make her vision happen and enlisted the help of USA Volleyball. A call was made to get some balls and nets to Thessaloniki. Brian Swenty, an American  teacher and volleyball coach for a High School in an army base in Germany answered the call and sent down volleyballs, nets and even some knee pads and uniforms.

Next, Sara needed a place to set up a net. In one of the four camps she works during the week, a space was freed up when a school inside the camp was closed. It was a cemented warehouse corner with a door, metal side panels and steel girders surrounding it.

In a two day window in mid August, having just been there a month, Sara’s vision started to become a reality. Her aid team got together and first looked at the space. They decided that instead of one net, they would combine the nets, make a longer thinner space and engage more players. They fixed one side of the net to the hinges of the door and the other side to one of the steel girders that rose up from the floor. The middle of the net sagged but a piece of rope was tied around a water bottle, which was tossed up and over the steel rafters in the ceiling and the net was now held up in the middle. 

The third net was put to the side of the newly designated court and a smaller “kids” court was built with a net strung lower between two of the steel girders.

The next step proved a learning experience. Of the balls that were donated by Swenty’s high school program, half were brought out to begin play. Within minutes, all but two were gone. With little to nothing of their own, a volleyball was a birthday morning kind of event. The kids took them and ran leaving just two balls for the rest of the three courts.

Undeterred, Sara and her team pressed on. They got a few of the men in the camp to come out and play over the net. Soon more joined in. Younger boys played and even a few of the girls came out to the court. “Within the Islamic culture there is the norm where it’s male dominated but in a well educated Islamic culture there are people that do fight for female rights so they are not belittled.” Sara stated. “The stereotype is a male dominated Islamic culture but I’ve seen where a woman can be uplifted.”

Part of Sara’s vision was to be able to bring a sense of value to the women of the camps and yet another part was just to offer these refugees a distraction, if even for just a few hours, from a life without purpose, of uncertainty and a chance to forget.

“Ultimately, male or female, I long to bring dignity and to use my gifts and talents to restore and heal hearts.” She says smiling brightly. “To bring back to life what has been stolen. In this case, family members have been killed, Dads have been lost, Mothers have been lost. I just talked to a guy my age who’s Mom was killed a year and a half ago in Syria. Here he is, by himself, trying to figure out how to get to Germany or somewhere up north. Today, he got to play volleyball and have fun and enjoy himself. I thought he would be there for just a few minutes but he stayed for an hour and a half. I was so surprised. He speaks amazing English and told me yesterday, ‘I’m tired of translating for everybody.’ So today I told him I’m not going to bug him. I’m just going to let him enjoy himself and be a kid at heart and play. He wasn’t the best but it didn’t matter. He enjoyed himself.”

After 4 hours on the first day, the nets were taken down and the team began to throw other ideas around for the next day. Only two balls were brought out, the kids were given the court first followed by the men later. Sara played the entire time with the men on their court. In Syria, this would be taboo but she is trying to tackle some of these cultural biases. Not by knocking walls down, but by making holes in them to see what’s on the other side.

“The sport here is futbol, or what we call soccer, so volleyball is a new and not a known sport but it’s an understandable sport; they know the concept of it. That allows me to come in and me being a female playing against all these men allows me to earn their respect in a future conversation or a future decision. It allows me to share my faith and encourage them to be more receptive because we are using a sport as a platform.”

Sara saw the men on her court embrace her play and even seek her out when new teams were picked. The men in camp played for two hours. “I thought that was great but I saw that as more of a long term development today and yesterday.” She said after the second day. “My original idea of camp was to speak to a people group that I can’t speak with by using the sport of volleyball, which I absolutely love. I don’t know their language so I am using volleyball as a vehicle to love on, to give dignity, to humanize these people because they are so dehumanized and so depressed and so sad.”

“They’re in their tent, all day every day for the last 6 months. These last two days, we were able to go into a little area and play volleyball for four hours and sweat and compete and laugh , and get kids playing. Mainly it was boys which was somewhat unfortunate.” She says. “It’s a man driven culture and so automatically girls aren’t allowed to play because the boy’s took the courts over. I took so much excitement when one or two girls would show up. I want all these boys to know that this girl is important, she is amazing and no matter what she does in this moment, she is going to be praised. They were screaming and yelling at this little girl. I was telling them in Arabic to stop it and this little girl, Fatima, got to hit a ball three times. She saw me at the end of the day and ran up into my arms, ‘Sara! Sara!’ She’s a Kurdish little girl who’s probably about 6 years old and the Kurds in Syria are looked down upon and depreciated and super devalued and here she is in this camp, pushed away by these kids and in that moment I get to praise her and love on her and who knows what she’s been through but she’s the most excited happy little girl.”

The kids are in an impossible situation. Most crave school but don’t have many options. Most will grab a soccer ball and go out into the asphalt parking lot to play between trash cans. It’s all they have and Sara was adamant that volleyball be a vehicle for them in particular.

“You don’t want these kids to lose that sense of joy and excitement. I feel like they are losing their childhood minute by minute so having a volleyball camp, or in this case, ‘beautiful chaos,’ created a 3 to 4 hour window of just being a kid. What do kids do? They play. These kids got to play. Yes, they play soccer all the time in the camps but that’s just one sport and not everyone can participate in. You’ve got your top 15 guys that play every single day and no one else can play so this created a new avenue for whoever to come by. I even saw some of the soccer players come by and they didn’t know how to play and they were too shy to get on the court and show off because they weren’t capable of it. So that’s just a couple of things I noticed over the past 48 hours.”

“In talking with a lot of the guys they asked me, ‘Are you coming back tomorrow?’ I said no, I’d be back next week. I had to go to another camp and work on clothing distribution but I’d be back. And they said, ‘Okay, you call me when you come back.’ So just to see these men have so much fun and they said, ‘you’re a good volleyball player. Am I good?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, you are a good volleyball player too.’ I just see it happening. I have to put a net up. I have to find a way to keep doing this, even if it’s as simple as passing a volleyball around, with the girls or at the other camps.

Sara made a few contacts in her two days at the camp. The next week, she took the nets back. “I feel like this experience is about risk and stepping out and not expecting perfection but expecting something to happen. It’s so hard to talk to people in the camp because I’ll say, ‘How are you, what did you do today?’ They did the same thing they did yesterday, they sat in their tents again all day long. So that’s the extreme that I want volleyball to be; a gift, even if it’s just for an hour or 30 minutes.”

“My heart and my hope is that through everything I do, usher the presence of God through his joy in the most accessible way. It’s loving the person in front of me, it’s stopping for the one. Today I got to stop for many in a court, with a volleyball over a net; ‘beautiful chaos.’ I got to hold so many kids and got to play with so many girls, got to converse with men and give them respect. I got to congratulate people when they did something amazing. Congratulate people even when they messed up, you know? Do it again, don’t give up. When my heart enters a court, my heart comes alive. When I hold a volleyball or see a net, my heart comes alive. I don’t want to ever, ever keep that to myself. That’s a gift that God is giving me and it’s just been a saving grace for my own life.”

And so for two incredible days under the hot August sun in Thessaloniki, Greece, one woman’s vision came together. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen but I knew it was going to happen. It was very unique; nothing like it in the world. We were in a warehouse. That area that we played in was a school and it had gotten taken down. So last week that area became free. It was awesome. We used steel as a knife to cut the rope and we tied a rope to a water bottle to toss it over a high beam to hold the net up in the middle. Together, we made a court. We had a court and it was amazing. You can’t play volleyball without a net.”

Every day in the lives of the refugee camps, curve balls are the only norm. Friends that are made are shipped out. Sara is bracing for 1000 more families to come into the four camps she services in the next month. Her team is working with the Greek government to overcome visa issues. With all this over her head, Sara continues to do her work: meraki.

A life changing experience like this can only make a coach better, no matter the athlete. “My philosophy doesn’t change. I want to coach the heart. The heart is the least coached muscle in the body and I am determined no matter which athlete is in front of me, they are going to leave my hour with them, my 15 minutes with them, my minute with them knowing that I loved their heart well and they’re going to love themselves more. It adds onto my tool belt as far as experiences. Here you have people who have absolutely nothing; they have the clothes on their back, they have no money, everything has been taken away, they’re stuck and depressed. Here I have an opportunity to laugh with these kids, to laugh with these guys and these ladies and to enjoy this game and see their hearts come alive day after day and when I go back it just continues on. Every human has a heart, every human has dreams and passions and I want to help bring those back to life in whatever way it looks like.”

There is fittingly an ancient Muslim saying that translated is: ‘Do good, then throw it into the sea.’ The idea being your good deeds may be counted by your better angels but they are not recorded, not spoken of or bragged about. They are done and then quietly you move onto your next.

Sara Ramirez stares out over a hillside and sighs. It hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but there were well over 100 men, women and children who played volleyball those two days in August because of her. She smiles again, brightly. “It’s just awesome. I just love this world and I love people and I want to do whatever I can to give of myself freely and today and yesterday was volleyball.”

Listen closely and you can hear the splash in the Aegean Sea…

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In the lab...

First year Arizona State University Head Volleyball coach Stevie Mussie was there.

In the lab…

It sits almost in the middle of Pennsylvania, on the corner of Burrowes and Curtin streets in State College in the town known as Happy Valley. The Rec Hall: a 6800+ seat arena and practice facility where the experiments unfold daily from August to December and where those findings are unleashed onto the rest of women’s collegiate volleyball.

The head scientist in this lab is Russell David Rose, a few months from his 63rd birthday, a professor at Penn State and a published author. He’s also the Coach of the most successful women’s volleyball program in NCAA Division I history.

Rose’s Nittany Lions have won 7 National Championships, including 5 in the last 9 years, the last one being Mussie’s first year as an assistant coach with the program, 2014. He has lead Penn State to 35 straight NCAA tournament appearances and before this season began, had compiled a gaudy 1189-186 over his 37 years at the helm. He is tough, forward thinking and unrelenting when it comes to accountability; with his players, his staff and himself.

Stevie Mussie jumped at the chance to coach with Rose in 2014 and 2015 and will bring a lot of the lab from Rec Hall with her as she starts her tenure at ASU.

“It was only two years but it felt like 10 because of how much I was able to soak up and learn in that time frame.” Stevie says smiling. “It wasn’t a negative thing that it felt like 10 years, it was a great thing. Russ gives you so much responsibility and he doesn’t micromanage you. He gives you tasks or an end goal and you have to figure out how to get to that end goal. He’s not going to tell you how to do it.”

In 2005, Rose was asked to be the guest speaker at the USA Volleyball High Performance Coaches Clinic held in Colorado Springs, Co. He was funny, he was engaging but more than that, he was a prophet. He spoke about how the recent rule changes a few years earlier, with rally scoring and the libero added, would change the landscape of college volleyball. He referred to it as a sprint now, no longer a marathon and how coaches needed to adjust or they were going to be left in the dust. He chided that points were going to need to be finished quicker and that size and speed were going to be the direction the game was heading. He went deep into the laboratory.
Two years later, Rose’s Nittany Lions won their first of four straight NCAA National Championships.

While Mussie wasn’t there for that run, she has heard stories about the inner toughness and grit those athletes and teams had. “They said the Penn State groups were like that when they won 4 in a row. But those guys did it differently. They played against dudes everyday!” she says. “The practices were against male players and the stories are the girls never won a drill. So they were in there and it was hard, it was really, really hard to win and grab kills, anything like that.”

Rose’s lab is forever trying to find the edge: for his players in training, for his coaching staff looking at stat sheets and video and for a program that has aligned itself with the Mt. Olympus of our sport at the collegiate level.

The biggest lesson Mussie learned from her Penn State years? “I think the biggest thing is to coach to the player versus just having a system in place.” She says. “I think every player is going to be a little bit different and every player is going to have a switch you have to learn how to turn on and off. For me, that’s the most important thing to take away from that group and Russ specifically.”

Some years ago, Penn State was in Tempe scrimmaging ASU during a spring tournament. Rose was sitting court side but attending to his infamous book of stats he uses and pores over and letting his assistants coach. At one point, his outside hitter came to the coaches and asked, “What rotation are we in?” Rose, without turning his head to look up and see who it was simply said in a stern voice, “If you don’t know what rotation you’re in, get off the court.” The player hustled back and figured it out quickly. Rose’s eyes never lifted off the page.

Several of USAV’s National team players in the Olympic mix this past quad were from Rose’s lab. His athletes are admired for their ability to work hard, to overcome adversity and to know what it takes to get to the highest levels. Mussie saw that in her two seasons as well.

“When you’re playing with a lot of intensity and a lot of passion, good things happen and things that you wouldn’t expect to happen actually happen.” She’s observed. “Being in the gym at Penn State and seeing the passion and the fire and the laughs after someone stuffs a ball- just pure joy being out there and competing just says a lot for it. Also just being mechanically sound at all times and being able to cut loose a little bit.”

Rose is up early every morning. There is no rest in the lab. Just a week after being uncharacteristically swept out of the NCAA tournament in the third round by Hawaii last December, Rose signed a five year contract extension, one that many think will be his last. His commitment to Penn State, to his athletes and his staff demand his hard work and their success is a product of that work.

Mussie has seen it up close and personal. “People think it’s such an easy job. People think it’s so easy to recruit to Penn State, like you should get every one of the best players.” She says but she’s quick to warn, “It’s not for everyone. Coach wants people in the gym that want to be there, whether it’s staff or athletes or trainers. We have people in our gym that just wanted to come there to say they were there and coach wants people in there that want to be there. You’re bringing something every day you show up. You don’t realize how special that program is till you realize people will come in just to watch them practice. It was awesome.”

For Mussie, her Sun Devils head into her first head coaching campaign having lost their best player, having to play their first 14 matches on the road and with a team of 11 underclassmen. That might unnerve many a first year coach, but Stevie spent two years with a man who she just refers to as ‘Coach’ and has learned better how to deal with adversity.

She’s in her own lab now…

Thursday, August 25, 2016


They are 7300 kilometers, (4,536 miles to us Americans), and one week apart. They both train just under 250 athletes in a one week span. They both help those less fortunate and allow Parents to help to offset their child’s fees. Both camps are incredibly cheap considering it is a week long full day camp.

The other thing Leo and Brian have in common is “yes.” They say it often, they use it as a means of making things better and they entertain every question with that answer in mind.

It is the secret of their success.

Leo Van Dam almost died at last year’s Diggit camp. He houses his camp in the Saskatoon Soccer Center where the four indoor soccer fields transform into 16 volleyball courts with a day and a half’s worth of labor. But last year, wildfires forced many to evacuate from their outlying homes and the Soccer Center was used as housing for those evacuees. Leo scrambled and found another site with half the size. He brainstormed with his staff and came up with a way to train in waves at the new site. The staff moved everything over and Leo set up camp but the morning of the second day, he had a heart attack and was minutes from dying. His staff filled in for his looming absence and they got through the week with minimal issues.

This year, Leo’s health having returned, they camp was moved back a week into August and he saw the camp grow by 20% to almost 240 athletes. Back in the soccer center, the athletes were given instruction, played, fed two squares a day and the 100+ that stayed overnight in the upstairs offices and locker rooms on cots and padding got breakfast as well. Morning meetings were held and changes in the schedule were handled without argument or angst. The mood of the coach’s room was simple: We’re all in this together.

Leo helps out Canada’s First Nation population: many of the Native Canadians who can’t afford camp will get a deal from Leo, or a group discount. There are also other campers that have multiple kids in the family that play. He is a shrewd business man and he knows down to the penny what each camper costs per day in food and lodging and he loses money on many of the campers, but he sees the bigger picture.

Once the camp is up and running, Leo is a shadow. He is hoisting water bottles atop coolers so the kids can refill water bottles. He is pumping up balls, picking up restrooms, solving the 1000 small problems that come up daily for a camp his size and yet he is stealth in movement and presence.

He is given a problem and his first comment is usually, “Sure, sure. Let’s figure it out.” He has learned that nothing gets done when ‘no’ leads an answer. His camp grows, improves and flourishes with each passing year because he listens to everyone and solves problems leading with yes.

On a 10 hour trans Atlantic flight lies the Vilseck army base. It’s here where Brian Swenty teaches high school at Vilseck High. He also spends most of his summer putting together the ACE Volleyball camp for the children of American servicemen all over Europe.

His reputation allows him to take over his high school for a week. Campers sleep in classrooms and he secures every available court within a 30 km. radius. He has high schools from all over Europe attend in this, his 7th year doing the camp.

His capable staff evaluate campers and put them in their appropriate groups to get the best out of them for the week. They are long days for the coaches but he treats them well. The coaches are housed on base and this year, with the added military exercises on base the week of his camp, problems could have arisen. But they didn’t. And even if they had, Brian would have managed them.

He walks in one morning to the following: A box needs to be mailed out to Greece ASAP, a girl ordered lactose free milk but it never showed up and she didn’t have any for breakfast, some minor problems with kids roaming halls late at night, a schedule change, and all of this before 8 am. Swenty takes everything in stride, as a self proclaimed “army brat” himself, he knows what’s important, how to solve minor problems and how to reach these campers.

One of his Parents thought it would be a great idea to have the individual high schools that were attending run around the track, taking turns at holding a paper Olympic torch and then taking pictures under an Olympic rings made from metal and colored. He made it work, despite the extra time involved. He loved the idea in fact.

Later on in camp, he had been connecting with USAV's Denise Sheldon who was in Rio with the Women’s Olympic team and Brian thought about sending a Go USA message to the team from his camp, He enlisted a couple of coaches and the idea was fleshed out and executed within hours. The team saw the videos, from each high school group and loved them.

Things like this don’t happen when “no," “we can’t” or “I don’t have time for that” leads an answer.

Both Leo and Brian run successful camps and successful programs with that mantra. There are over 500 athletes in the world who are better volleyball players because of the attitude these two men have.

Next time you want to say no, stop yourself and just say yes. See where it takes you. Better yet, see where it’ll take your athletes.

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…