Thursday, December 6, 2018

"I"m the best coach I've ever been..."

He's the Dean of Volleyball coaches in the state, having been at the University of Arizona for the past 27 years. This year he led his Wildcats to his 20th NCAA appearance and their 14th 20 win season with a 22-11 mark, and 11-9 in arguably the toughest conference in the country, the PAC-12. Along the way, he earned his 500th win putting him behind only UCLA's Andy Banachowski as the winningest coach in the PAC-12 conference. 

At a gaudy 512-320 over his almost 3 decades, David Rubio has stayed consistently competitive with the rest of the conference AND country but has personally seen his coaching style and culture change considerably.

Coach Rubio sat down with us on the morning before his last regular season match v. ASU at a Mesa Sheraton coffee shop. (Our apologies for the background noise!) His team was preparing for a serve and pass practice after the interview and he was confident that his Wildcats had done enough to earn another trip to the NCAA tournament, which as it turns out, they did.

In this frank and comprehensive conversation, Rubio talks about his changes as a coach, what kind of athletes he recruits and his expectations of them, some former and current players and his vision for the future of the Club system that he is now also a part of.

Rubio is engaging, honest and doesn't hold back as he talks about his biggest influences coming up as a player and young coach, the "old" Dave Rubio v. the "new" one and advice for players, parents and coaches.

Enjoy Coach David Rubio's insights, opinions and experiences, taken from one of the best, most consistent and experienced coaches in America.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Rise and Falls of Culture- Installment II

The last couple of posts are from Coaches and Athletes on culture. The culture of their team that went from one direction to the other, and more importantly, why they thought it did.

We will keep the schools, coaches and players confidential. It is not the intent to embarrass or glorify, it is to see the different components of a culture and how they were perceived by these contributors.

A big thanks to those Coaches and Athletes that took some time out of their busy days to give us their insights.

A Player:

"Last season was to put it bluntly absolute trash. We didn't ever connect as a team and there was INTENSE cliques last year which were detrimental to our team. This year we kind of worked with them. Last year our captains were both seniors, which I am not saying is a bad thing. The only problem is that we had two other seniors who had played for my school longer and were not selected. This caused a power struggle for the entire season which led to our Libero, who wasn't a captain, screaming at my teammate and me to 'play harder, do you even want to win?' And we were not even on the court at the time. This was the last game of the season for us, and it was not a fun experience for anyone."

"This season was just different. Maybe it was the mental condition coach that was hired who was supposed to help us with breathing and serving routines, but ending up becoming our outlet for when we had problems with coach or each other. You can't tell coach I said this but making me a captain was a huge mistake. I am a junior, our best player is a senior. For most of the season it was our best player and I until he finally decided to fix the problem. I know what you're thinking 'where is the issue?' Our star, all-tournament,all-region, all star all around great person middle blocker who is a SENIOR, was NOT selected for captain which caused animosity between her and I. It was resolved after the first game, but not because of coach. The team was just a lot closer this year so we all worked together to overcome these coaching errors. I think if the team has a coach they can connect with then the team thrives." 

"It isn't like that with coach. Not because we didn't want to but because HE didn't want to. We could've made it to the third place match, but instead we crumbled in the quarter finals because honestly nobody cared anymore. We took a set off of the eventual Region Champions, but couldn't beat a team with literally ONE good player. We were all kind of done. Last season, I was excited to start fresh with a new season after such a terrible one. This year, I don't even know if I want to play volleyball anymore. To summarize, you need good captains and good coach/ player relationship to have good culture." 

A Player

"Well, number 1 is that this coach isn't always on her phone like the old coach. #2 we scout every team we play, and know where to hit, and who is getting the most sets on the others side, etc. #3 Our new coach has more spunk and excitement, and wants us to take risks where our old coach always wanted us to play it safe."

Our coach now is more personal and dedicated. She makes sure we get enough sleep, and always checks if we are eating healthy or not. The practices are more meaningful and we get pushed more. After matches at the next practice, we go over what we did well at, or what we need to work on using a stats system."

A Player:

"My first 2 years of high school volleyball wasn’t taken very seriously. Don’t get me wrong, we had tons of fun but that was just it. We had more fun messing around rather than thriving to get better at volleyball and wanting to become the best in the conference/state. We settled for the fact the our little high school volleyball team would never be district champs, win state or even make it to state. Volleyball at my school was the 'fun' sport that every girl in the school tried out for every year cause it was easy. No one ever came to volleyball games in the student section because we were boring to watch. But they aren’t wrong. It was easy and relaxed. Sure we did some summer workouts but we alternated between the same 2 workouts every other day; no weights, just running. My first two years were hard knowing that not everyone was there for the same reason I was. I wanted to be district champs. I wanted to make it to state and place. My sophomore year I was nominated captain because everyone could see the love and passion I had for this sport! I can remember playing my sophomore year and a girl on my team, who was super good at basketball, swung her arms and passed the ball completely into the stands. everybody laughed and thought it was the funniest thing ever. On the other hand I was furious. I’m a competitor! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like my first 2 years of high school volleyball was hell, it just wasn’t taken as serious as i wanted it to be."

"Priorities lacked and winning was just a plus. At he end of my sophomore year our coach called us all into her office and told us she was done coaching. The team was crying but not necessarily because we were losing a great coach but because we were losing one of our friends. That was another big issue. She became more of our friend than coach."

"Going into my junior year I was anxious to find out who the new coach would be. When I heard who it was, I was super excited yet really scared. The difference between these 2 coaches is HUGE. I knew our new coach was gonna make workouts that would make us throw up and push us to our limits. Yet I found a sense of excitement in that. I was excited to see how my teammates and I pushed each other and motivated each other to get through these trials. It was a different type of team bonding. My first year with her and her other coaching staff didn’t just change me as a player but also as an individual. Never would I have thought that I would have the potential to play college volleyball, nor did I even know who to contact or make how to make film. She gave me a sense of confidence I never had. She pushed all of us to be the best player and person we could be. From throwing up at summer workouts on the track to making memories that would last forever on our retreat, there was never a dull moment with her."

"Everything was sharp and crisp. If we were slacking, she could tell and would call us out. I love that competitiveness about her. We started running a faster offense. I started jump setting. Our team was doing things we never thought we were actually capable of. We became a competitive family that would give anything to win a state title. We loved each other like sisters. We made goals around a campfire at our retreat together. All this little team ever dreamed of was beating our cross town rivals and having a chance a districts, and making it to state if we were really lucky."

"My junior year we had ups and downs. Not the perfect season but ended up making it to districts and making it to state for the first time in years. It was an unforgettable feeling. We were this little school that had nothing to lose going into state. We were just glad to be there. We ended up peaking at the right time and defeated a very good team in the semis to make it the big championship game. The joy I had in my heart for my team and coaches was unreal. I had never felt anything like it. All of our summer workouts, 5 AM practices every Friday finally paid off. We played one of the biggest rivals in our conference in the big game. Our outcome wasn’t what we hoped for but we were all so thankful for the opportunity given to us. We never thought we would be in the state championship."

"After that season I started talking to her about possibly playing volleyball in college and with no doubt she was all for it. She helped me put a profile together to contact coaches, send my film out and was a stable resource for me. If it wasn’t for her I would not be going on to further my volleyball career. Getting second place my junior year made every single one of us players and coaches work extra hard to go back to State and take home that gold ball. We wanted to make school history and knew we could. She was a constant support system for each and every one of us through this journey. Senior year, winning the district championship and playing in the championship game again was an unforgettable season. It was the hard work, commitment, love, joy and perseverance she instilled in all of us that got us right where we wanted to be."

The Rise and Falls of Culture- Installment I

The next few posts will be from Coaches and Athletes on culture. The culture of their team that went from one direction to the other, and more importantly, why they thought it did.
We will keep the schools, coaches and players confidential. It is not the intent to embarrass or glorify, it is to see the different components of a culture and how they were perceived by these contributors.

A big thanks to those Coaches and Athletes that took some time out of their busy days to give us their insights.

A Coach
"I think the major difference from having an exceptionally successful year and a just a good year comes down to the players. The major components are player buy in, trust, accountability, and selflessness. When players buy in and trust the process and the program they will peak at the right time, work hard everyday, and truly love to be there."

"Accountability with themselves and their teammates is another big component. If it always comes from a coach there will never be any progress or desire to raise the level. The last and most important component is selflessness. When you have players that really want their teammates to be successful, even if it means they sit, then it is something special. Humans are selfish by nature so it takes special athletes to celebrate their teammates and truly want good things for them. A true team first mentality and that idea that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves."

"Talent is important but it is by no means everything. The intangibles often take a team to the next level and we are seeing more programs that are player centered and driven and that allows for success beyond what a coach can do."
A Player:

"Last season, teammates were saying that other teammates weren't good or messed up too much and things like that, and coach made a lot of people get in their heads about their play because of when he yelled at them and made people mad because he would keep saying 'that's what happens when you lose'."

"This season had less people thinking they should have other peoples spots, so it made it more fun to play with each other because we were all supporting each other and getting better together. Also Coach asked us about what we thought more so it made it seem like we were more involved in what was happening, not just do what you're told to do and don't ask questions like some other teams."

A Coach

"So this is going to go on a tangent a little bit from gym culture to leadership which I think is intertwined in a lot of ways. So I always knew that leadership on a team was important and there can be a lot of different kinds of leaders within a team. I've always pushed that every player on the team has the potential to be a leader in their own way and as much as I think that is true I think there are definite needs for a leader within your program in order for you to improve and get better."

"For five years I had the ultimate leader. I had the kid who was going to come in every day and work hard and be a leader by how she played on the court. I had the vocal leader the one who was on the court talking through every play encouraging her teammates to do better to get off of the next ball and I had the leader who's going to hold her teammates accountable when things got tough. I didn't realize how good I had it until you don't have that leadership..."

"Last year I had no leadership and therefore we were stagnant and probably actually went backwards a little bit. There was a definite divide throughout the team over a few different people who were trying to be leaders but really didn't know how and really hadn't earned the respect from their teammates. This year through the graduation of three teammates who did not allow their younger teammates to step up and lead, we had kids who were able to fill few of those rolls. I actually have two kids who step up and lead by how they play on the court with 100% effort day in and day out. I have two kids who stepped up and we're both the leaders, though very different vocal leaders. One was vocal in that she provided the energy and enthusiasm and constant positive support to her teammates and the other was vocal in the fact that she talked nonstop through every play every game. I believe that this team has not been able to reach their ultimate potential because we still are lacking that last leadership part... the leader that holds the team accountable when things get tough."

"I feel like last year the culture in our gym suffered because we had too many kids on our roster and each one did not have a definite role. We had kids fighting for positions every day, all year. So instead of supporting each other they were fighting against each other. This year the top 7 kids in my program emerged and we defined definite rules for those kids within the varsity team. We had to revisit those rolls with a few of the kids throughout the year as they tried to overstep or became unhappy with their role on the team, but ultimately each kid knew that role and they knew what they had to do for this team to be successful. I think this was important for a team this year as it allowed the girls to learn to compete together rather than against one another and push each other to be a little bit better every day."

"Next year I have 3 out of my four l back. I have my best two players who go out to compete a hundred percent every day and I have my vocal leader who provides energy and excitement and positivity to our team. But I am continuing to lack the person that will hold the team accountable when things get tough. They are friends and they don't want to hurt each other's feelings or make each other feel bad, so how do you overcome that and teach them that it's not personal when someone hold you accountable, it's pushing you to be your best. Also my current leaders feel that they're holding people accountable by being passive aggressive and making comments about their ability which really is just making that individual feel bad about themselves rather than pushing them to be better. We talked about leadership we talked about holding people accountable and appropriate ways to do it but how do you put that into action. Leadership starts at the top and maybe I need to find a way to hold the girls more accountable every single day."

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Zen Murphy...

A former player described him saying, "With few exceptions, he never gets rattled." She has given him the nickname: Zen Murphy.

But Ken Murphy, wrapping up his sixth season at the helm of the Northern Arizona University volleyball program hasn't always been the cool and collected coach he displays on the Lumberjack sidelines match after match. He admits in the interview he still works hard at it and he has changed a lot since his early days as an assistant coach at Colorado State.

In this candid and engaging interview, Ken discusses how he has evolved and how his culture has helped change the direction of the NAU program. On the white board in his office, he has written the core of his program's culture and talks at great length about it in the interview.

NAU is the winningest Division I program in Arizona over the last 4+ years and Murphy is knocking on another Big Sky Division title the weekend this was recorded. 

After the interview, hours before a three set sweep of Idaho, the Lady Jacks bounded into their hour long pre-match serve and pass with smiles, energy and purpose. This late in a college season, the vibe in the gym was impressive and contagious. Ken strode around the court, pulling aside a player here and there, giving them some feedback, a chat, asking about their day. But make no mistake, this serve and pass was driven by the players. It's a tenet of Murphy's culture you'll hear about; autonomy.

Take a few minutes and enjoy Ken's views on culture, recruiting and advice for coaches interested in getting better.

A quick epilogue to this blog, days after NAU disposed of Idaho in their final home match of the season, Ken was named Coach of the Year by the Big Sky Conference.  His Lady Lumberjacks also took down all three teams in the Big Sky Conference tournament and won a ticket to the NCAA tournament. Congratulations to Ken, his staff and the NAU Lady Jacks!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A short entry...

This is a short entry.

Close your eyes and see what we see. A cement court; cracked, uneven, unpainted and also unforgiving for those defenders that choose to sacrifice the skin of their knees, elbows and hips upon it to save a point.

A sweltering 95 degree day with humidity to match. T shirts soaked after just a few minutes, sweat the common currency of the moment. Mercifully, a corrugated tin roof sits atop the court allowing some relief during practices through the pressing heat or the sudden thunderstorms that are commonplace on the island.

Young men, loud and aggressive, playing a game that has captured them. And two young women, just wanting to play, competing, sweating, siding up with the fellas to show what they have in a sport that separates boys and girls too often like eggs in a cake recipe.

And it is on. Some skill work, some attacking lines, some 6 on 6 game play. A visiting coach giving the boy's team some ideas on new games, scoring, drills, etc. They are grateful for the time on court, for the chance to get better and compete, no matter the outside conditions. They want to play.

At Don Jose National High School in Santa Rosa City in the Laguna province of Manila in the Philippine Islands, these exceptional young men and women aren't concerned about something that weighs heavily in our country these days: what they don't have.

A coach.

The school cannot afford a coach. For the women's team either. School budgets are a yearly 'Jenga' game of putting funds where it will affect the most children. At the moment, volleyball is not one of those areas.

So the Don Jose High School boys and girls teams schedule practices around the times the school isn't using the 'court' for other sports, dances, entertainment and classwork. They figure out transportation to their games and with the help of a math teacher who is not a coach and they progress through a season.

For some of us, this might seem too hard. Too much effort, too much extra work just to play the game of volleyball. But for kids in poor areas of third world countries, with no idea oftentimes if they'll have something to eat later on in the day, this IS something that propels them.

The game.

This is a short entry because there is not much else to say when you see a group of young people so taken with our game that they figure out how to make a season work with all odds and circumstances against them. They do it for a school that can't reciprocate. They do it for each other.

They do it because it's the game. Their game. Our game.

Look at this link to see the Don Jose National High School boys (and a couple girls) team practice.

Monday, October 1, 2018

...The first and last song...

Think of the last concert you were at.

What do you remember about it? What was the opening number or two? Was it a completely new song that you had never heard before or was it something you could sing along with, dance to; something familiar?

Think of how that show ended. Again, was it with a song you didn’t know or was it something you were again familiar with? In fact, was it one of if not their biggest hit: the encore?

We go to concerts to hear our favorite singers and bands play not only our favorites, but also listen to their new songs from their newest releases. Sometimes we like to hear them play another bands song in their unique style, and sometimes they will even improvise the music or lyrics of a song.

Check out this set list for the Beatles; first US show in Washington D.C. in 1964. You will probably recognize most of these songs but imagine at the time as the curtain opened and the Fab Four started into Roll Over Beethoven…one of their staple songs and they finished with the year’s #2 and #1 hit songs, “She Loves you” and “I want to hold your hand.” 

So how do you go about putting together a great set list? In a guest blog written by Mason Hoberg for the website Tunecore, he offers the following when putting together your set list for the show. First, tempo. He says, “You shouldn’t have four slow songs followed by four fast songs. All that happens when you do that is that you cut the effect of every song in your set. Your fast songs don’t seem as intense, and your slow songs seem boring and drawn out.”

Next Hoberg says you need to know your keys. “Just like tempo, you want to make sure that you don’t play every song in the same key.” He follows that up by knowing your time allotment. “Knowing the length of your songs is super important because you’re never going to play a show without a set time slot. You’re generally going to have one to two hours at the most, and you’re going to want to make the most of them.”

Finally and most important, Hoberg says that, “90% of the audience’s impression comes from the first and last song. The harsh reality of being a musician is that the impression you make on your audience is made up of a million small moments. The most important of which is how they feel after hearing your first song, and how they feel when they feel at the end of your show.”

So now the inevitable question: What does this have to do with coaching volleyball?

Imagine tonight’s practice scripted like your favorite concert.

You open with something that will engage and energize the team: get the team rocking…consider it the ANTI-butterfly drill. Starting with some kind of game or mini tournament that gets their competitiveness drummed up and has lots of touches for the younger teams. 

Then waltz into the middle of practice where you may have to instruct and teach but they are in a good space: happy and IN 'the process'. Sprinkle your practice with some improvisation, mixing up the goals and focuses of a drill they know to keep it fresh, keeping score, competing and dancing in the process of getting better. Maybe adding video or station work or bringing in a guest coach to help share their expertise. Again, limiting slow drills and mixing with faster game like play. 

Finally, at the end of practice you unleash their favorite court activity: maybe a mini tournament or finishing the one you started at the beginning of practice. Maybe it’s just queen of the court or a 6 on 6 drill that brings out the beast in them all. The ‘encore’ of practice leaves them sweating, tired and excited for the next practice.

The U2 set list above has to encompass 30 years worth of music. Bands like Aerosmith are over 40 years of hits. Newer bands as opening acts may not have any hits and are just going on stage with the 12 songs they have been rehearsing and know they can play live. So it goes with coaches.

Experienced coaches have a plethora of drills and games and situations to pull from where new coaches will use the drills they used as players: productive or efficient don't matter, these are drills they KNOW how to do.

Like these bands, they expanded from their limited opening set lists in those bars they played in when nobody knew who the "Feedback" or the "Hype" was, (both names preceded U2). They experimented, sometimes tragically, and found a sound that worked for them, that entertained and energized and engaged.

When putting together your practice 'set list,' reach beyond your self imposed limits and experiment. Sure, you'll have some clunkers of drills. There will be some that don't work. But there will be some that the team loves and a tweak here and there can make them part of your new set list.

Remember your favorite concert and use that as inspiration for your next practice. Chances are your athletes will find it music to their ears....

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

"...we're home."

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Matsuo Basho

If you look the wrong way, you can miss it. The sophomore setter with so much promise that her coach was ready to hand the keys of his program over to this 16 year old only to see her knee buckle playing freshmen basketball and put their plans on hold for months. To see her watching the rest of the team at camp, going through the motions she once did effortlessly and struggling just to move under the ball and set, her eyes knowing she would never take it for granted again. If you look the wrong way, you can miss those moments as the team wrapped her up within them and continued to get better with and without her. They expected nothing less from each other.

If you aren’t looking in the right places, you can shrug off the sophomore outside hitter who breaks down on the first day of camp because she isn’t hitting the ball with the pace she expects of herself. You look at the coaches coddling her and drying her tears and you roll your eyes at this ridiculous display of indulgence because that’s all you see. But if you listen and look past your confined judgments, you hear the story of two best friends getting silly one night and car surfing; one on the hood with the other driving. Only the best friend slipped off the hood and the sophomore ran her over. She clung to life for days with the sophomore mentally liquefying between best friend and the one who killed her. Broken bones, shredded skin and internal injuries were not the cause of the darkest pain. If you aren’t looking in the right places, you can’t see what you need to see; a sophomore that needed the sport to get her life back; redemption between white end lines.

If you don’t look closely enough you can miss the resilliance of the young. How at a weekend camp in Shasta county, California, a young 9 year old with a bright smile and desire to play the sport puts behind her the fact her father was killed in a car accident just two weeks before and a Mom who is determined to get her daughter’s life back on track sooner than later. Or the quiet junior libero with superhero legs of steel that lost a sister to leukemia just two months before. She was less concerned with the school and town having rallied around her sister’s fundraising and Facebook campaigns. She’d lost her sister. But she played as though her tryout was taking place that weekend; focused and determined. Maybe if we didn’t look closely enough, we might not have noticed that resilience. It would be even more noticeable 45 days later when a brush fire started that would blacken over 100,000 acres, destroy 700 homes, take seven lives and put this same California community on edge for months.

If you don’t look past the obvious, you can miss the remarkable. You can miss the junior outside hitter who just a year earlier found her father in the garage, a victim of a self inflicted gunshot wound. Or the quiet senior DS who smiled, worked and encouraged those that were better and most certainly would play in front of her as the season approached. She, the innocent older sister of a family garroted by a father with a weakness that saw him imprisoned after a flourish of justified media attention and innuendo that would cripple the families’ ability to function in their small Midwestern town. Even changing their last names, they were always going to be the wife and kids of THAT guy. Yet she never let on that she knew everyone knew and she kept up a positive outlook and gutted through a tough week of camp, never once letting the outside in. The gym was her respite and she respected it. If we had looked past those girls, we might miss the heartbeat of a team playing for something much more.

If we don’t glance and judge and see these amazing young people for who they actually are, you can take the sport we play and use it for salvation. For the kids that live in rural areas and struggle with parents who are damaged by drug and alcohol addictions. Those kids that struggle with the same addictions, trying to recoup a life that they once deserved and a childhood they have robbed themselves of. If we just glance and judge too quickly, we lose our chance to salvage those that might just need another chance.

If we don’t open our eyes wide enough, we might miss the small details that permeate the journey. The small school on the edge of a 67 mile lake in middle America with such a sense of community pride and patriotism that they celebrate the Fourth of July with costume contests in the middle of their volleyball camp and made plans all week to see the fireworks only to be crushed when the local fireworks manufacturing plant blew up on the night of July 3rd cancelling all the shows in the small towns surrounding the lake. You might miss the line of bark missing off a tree behind your lake house where just a few days before a bolt of lightning stripped it from 60’ up to the forest floor. 

You’d miss the interaction of the sophomore setter who has a fun fact for every hour of the day, (hippos sweat red evidently) and her teammate who is a Division I caliber talent but will settle for a lower level to stay close to home. These small details might mean nothing to us as visitors glossing over them like the apps on our phone but can become so engaging and consequential to those young women we coach. Just 18 days after their volleyball camp, that same lake became a tomb for 17 people who drowned in a boating accident in rough weather. Those details are hard to ignore.

If you don’t pay attention long enough, you can miss those opportunities. Like the chance to reach out to the senior outside hitter who took a bottle of pills to admittedly get her father’s attention and just let her talk, or not. The chance to hear the incoming college freshman’s feelings of fear and inadequacy as she leaves the tumult of a violent broken home and puts it back together by herself under the steel roof of a college volleyball program. On a scale no less important, just the chance walk from the gym to the parking lot where the younger sister of a 4 year collegiate rock star who is struggling to find HER identity in the sport she grew up watching can vent and be appreciated by a pair of open eyes and ears. Maybe it’s just the random question during lunch about how a young woman with the deceitful self esteem of teenage life takes what her club coach said about her “never being a setter” and tries to reconcile that with her hopeful path into college ball. The limits that coaches put upon them: “you’re too short, you can’t pass, you can’t jump serve, etc.” come back to haunt them and often times, just a sympathetic ear can help them realize the idiocy of such coaching declarations. If we don’t pay attention long enough, we might miss those opportunities to change the way out athletes think of themselves.

Summer is almost over in most of the country. Volleyball tryouts have begun and summer camps become memories that will dissolve into a slide show at the end of season banquet. But there is so much in the journey to harvest, so much to learn about human nature, the amazing people on the courts and the sidelines that help define us as coaches every remarkable day and the investment it takes to be good at what we do and make these athletes better players and people.

Maybe to do it right, coaches are never on the sidelines.

And maybe then, and only then, we’re home.