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.

Friday, July 13, 2018

High School and Middle School Coaches....PLEASE DON'T!!!

It makes you nauseas, just the thought of it. The amount of sleep you’ll lose because of it, the angry and hurt e mails and phone calls soon after. The looks into the eyes and the awkward meetings ahead; it’s a Greek tragedy playing out right before your eyes and it’s ALL under your direction.

Welcome to High School and Middle School tryouts!

They are right around the corner and most coaches who have overseen programs and teams at these levels know what we’re talking about. Years ago, it was a list posted on the wall of the gym. Then Parents and accountability came into play and coaches had to stat tryouts, have a reason as to why a kid wasn’t chosen for the freshman, J.V. or Varsity programs, write letters or have individual meetings so no athlete could be seen reacting to the roster. Never mind they showed up in skater vans and cut offs and walked to the baseball field having no idea what was ahead, coaches need to give reasons why now. Parents wanted to know why their daughters or sons didn’t measure up. Why did this coach HATE their child?

There is no formal study or data to be found but it wouldn’t be out of the sphere of plausibility to say that volleyball loses thousands of players in the months of August and September after tryouts take place. Kids that are cut, that once may have gritted their teeth and worked harder to get on the team next year, walk away and try another sport or activity. or sadly, nothing. No one can live through being cut TWICE from the same sport, right?

Perspectives are odd things. Big schools having to cut dozens of athletes from their younger teams, some of them club players who feel ripped off that they spent the money to get better training but didn’t get their pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. Other’s feel none of this because their school is just 150 kids and a total of 18 girls has to play all four sports throughout the school year. Some kids come to every open gym, play rec and city leagues, YMCA or beach! Some others play 3 other sports before their tryouts begin. All body shapes and sizes are represented, all kinds of mental processes at work. In the end, there are only enough uniforms, only enough coaches and resources and if there are too many kids trying out, subtraction is put into effect.

However here is an idea that might help with the phone calls, the e mails, the hurt feelings, the angst and agony of being cut


Don’t make cuts. Your school has resources it uses for the teams you have: coaches and gyms and volleyballs and nets. So let’s use them to make those kids that didn’t make the cut to keep playing. Yes it’s more work, yes it’s more time but the advantages are overwhelming.

First, imagine a tryout where you were going to have to make cuts with this proposal: “You aren’t going to be named to our school team at this time however we’d still like you in the program to see how you develop. We’d like to offer you a Sunday every week for just a couple of hours to see if you are a hard worker, coachable and wanting to improve. Would you be willing to be a part of a very low cost or free program like that?”

Now the onus is on the kids and their parents. They haven’t been told they aren’t good enough, they’ve been told they aren’t good enough YET! Some kids might say no and walk away. But some, and in fact hopefully for your program, MANY might come back at you and agree. What’s in this for you?

First, simple math: if you have 50 kids in your program as your base of talent and you field three teams from them after tryouts, you can be pleased OR you can have 80 kids in your program and take three teams worth. Would the teams be different? Would the one with the talent pool of 80 be higher?

Secondly, what do these names have in common: NBA Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, Lionel Messi, future Baseball Hall of Famer Orel Hershiser, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Jordan. Okay, the last one gave it away but yes, all of these players were cut from their high school teams!

Sure, one could say that is a small sampling of the millions of high school athletes and for the most part, coaches probably DO get it right. But how many of those kids that were cut might have been a USA National team player if given one more chance? Of course, sadly, we’ll never know.

Facts are these: according to the Centers for Disease Control, “During puberty, you may experience a ‘growth spurt,’ or period of fast growth. Most girls start their growth spurt between ages 9 and 11, reaching their full height between the ages of 15 and 18. Some girls grow as much as 4 inches per year.”

Freshman tryouts for these “normal” bodies put their growth spurt at or around freshman tryouts. How would YOU do at any sport, knowing what you know now as a coach, if you tried out for a sport before you hit puberty full force? You may not be where you are today if someone had limited your options back then.

Maybe those girls you just cut have not even started growing yet. Their eye hand coordination might be behind; their “athleticism” might be suspect as they try to find a sport. Maybe their financial situation precludes them from club or even buying a ball to practice with. We can look past all these things but should we?

What would it cost your High School or Middle School program to have a Sunday “league” where players got to play! Maybe your teams coach them for NHS hours or community service, or even more importantly, a better footing as a program? It might cost you some time and energy, but what are the payoffs?

  • A bigger base of athletes to choose from. 
  • A chance for your athletes to become better players by coaching.
  • A great opportunity for you to grow the game in your area. 
  • A restful night’s sleep the day before tryouts. 

Of course these ideas are flexible: maybe it’s Friday afternoons, maybe it’s a small fee, etc. But the premise remains: Don’t handicap your program by limiting its size and scope. Give kids a chance to grow into their bodies and talents. Give your school, neighborhood or area an alternative to just walking away from the sport.

If we can help with anything, please let us know at outreach@azregionvolleyball.org.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

"You may do that..."

Twelve years before that fateful day of December 1st, 1955, Montgomery bus driver James Blake had already gotten under this young woman’s skin. In those days, the city buses had two doors, one in the front of the bus and one in the back. Black passengers would come to the front of the bus to pay the driver, then get off and go outside the bus to reenter in the rear door of the bus. On this day, as the young woman named Rosa Parks paid and walked off the bus to re enter in the rear door, Blake shut the door and drove away. Parks never forgot that. 

According to a local historian in Montgomery, Alabama at this year’s Juneteenth Festival, a celebration that stemmed from the June 19th abolishment of slavery in Texas in 1865, Parks also was within her right to stay in her seat. According to Montgomery law at the time, if the bus was “standing room only” black people could keep their seats. As the bus began to fill up, the 10 seats at the front of the bus already filled with white passengers forced the bus driver to move the marker separating the white and black seats back a row, thus putting Ms. Parks in a “white seat.” When a white passenger came onto the bus and demanded that row of seats, three black riders moved the back: Ms. Parks did not. She politely moved the window seat. After threats, the driver was summoned and when he threatened to call the police if she didn’t move.

Rosa Parks said in quiet defiance, “You may do that.”

What happened in the days after this historic event is a glowing example of teamwork and the components of it. Here was a young “soldier” in Ms. Parks who through her actions found a rallying point. Once arrested, the black community of Montgomery began to force the action.

What happened was called the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Three days after Parks’ arrest, black churches began to spread the idea of a bus boycott and on December 5th, when Ms. Parks was found guilty in 30 minutes of disorderly conduct and violating a city ordinance, a fine of $14 was levied but Parks appealed and challenged the idea of segregation.

On the day of her trial, 35,000 leaflets were distributed around the city and a young minister was put in charge of the boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. This coach would mastermind a boycott of city buses that crippled the financial structure of the city of Montgomery. 

When black passengers needed to get somewhere, local black residents with cars would take them. When there weren’t enough cars, King’s church bought a dozen more. When businessmen in Montgomery pressured the insurance companies of these drivers to drop them, local black leaders got insurance policies on their own and covered the drivers. There were no black riders on Montgomery buses for 381 days! 

This kind of multi tiered teamwork is hard to imagine today. The idea that everyone is behind a common goal, this goal SO monumental in history, that it broke the back of corporate Montgomery and forced new legislation is an example of what CAN be done when there is 100% buy in. When the whole is greater than the parts. When a leader is able to rally and inspire his team and when a team can rally around a moment of intense or extreme hardship.

Rosa Parks, being a Civil Rights worker before her arrest, understood what she was doing and her bravery and grit have never been forgotten. Her museum in Montgomery is a busy tourist destination and rightly so. 

When Dr. King was asked about Mrs. Parks, he was candidly quoted, "Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'” 

Monday, May 28, 2018

"Black magic...!"

In this final installment of a special 3 part blog series, the Arizona Region talks to Sarah Sponcil after one of the most impressive weeks in a volleyball player's life!

Sarah had helped her UCLA bruins with the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship, setting the championship ball for the win! A week later, she is teaming with Lauren Fendrick and this brand new upstart team gets to the finals in the AVP Austin before dropping a nail biter to April Ross and Alix Klineman.

Sponcil talks about the future Hall of Fame line up of coaches that have helped guide her as an indoor and outdoor player AND as a human being facing her future.

Enjoy this wonderful interview with one of Arizona's most decorated and notable players of all time.

"There's no gray area..."

In this special 2 part of a three part series, the Region interviews J.T. Hatch after his stellar career at UCLA and his appearance in the NCAA Men's National Championship match on May 5th. 

Hatch talks about his career where he attacked and played libero for the Bruins but most of all talks about his coach, John Speraw, (who also coaches the U.S. Men's National team) and offers insights into his coaching philosophies and decisions.

Hatch opens up on Speraw as the coach, the master tactician and the teacher. Enjoy this half an hour interview with one of Arizona's greatest men's players of all time.

"A lot of dreams can be crushed here, a lot of hearts can be broken....."

This is the first of a very special 3 part series for coaches, players and volleyball fans.

Part one is a half an hour interview with one of the most decorated and celebrated players in Arizona volleyball history: Madi Kingdon.

Madi talks about her record setting night where she scored 57 points in ONE match playing in South Korea. She also talks about her coaches along the way and what they taught her and what it takes to be asked and play in the hyper competitive gym of the U.S. Women's National team.

It should be noted that Madi did this interview with the Region in the early afternoon on May 7th and found out just a few hours later that she had NOT been on the final roster for the U.S. Women's National team entry into the FIVB Volleyball Nations League. Asked if she wanted to not go forward in publishing the interview, she said no, run it. "I need to get better."

Enjoy this insight into the world of Professional Women's volleyball, the National team and what it takes from coaches and players to get there.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

...Tiny keypads...

It's around our sport like oxygen. We talk about it, even yell about it. We use it, forget about it, urge others to find it and at times, say it's too much. The perfect balance may be unattainable, but we continue to search it out.

We are talking about communication. Coach to player, player to player, coach to parent; it never ends. Listen to coaches that are great communicators and you realize just how valuable a tool it can be.
Coaches that are in the ocean of life long learning, how can we as humans not continue to get better communicating with each other? And yet, with the advent of the cell phone, our communication skills have deteriorated as a society. Face to face has been replaced by text to text or e mail. Sticky subjects are handled awkwardly on tiny keypads as recipients read emotion into small letters on the 4" screens in their palms. How is this considered communication?

Watching this video, it's hard not to see how our communication or more importantly, our lack of it, has contributed to some of the ills of society. Recently, England appointed a Minister of Loneliness! Think about this for a second...loneliness has become such a social ill that the English Parliament made an office just for loneliness!

As coaches, how can we get better at this skill? Recently we came across a few resources that might help.

Julian Treasure's TED talk called, "How to speak to that people want to listen."

Along those same lines, check out Celeste Headlee's TED talk entitled, "10 Ways to have a better conversation."

Finally, one of our favorite coaching resources, Simon Sinek put out an article of his own on why leaders should talk LAST!

In the never ending coaching quest to be better tomorrow, can you pick up one communication skill today to get better at? Can we become better at HOW we talk to our team...WHEN we talk to them and even WHAT we talk to them about? Maybe even most importantly, can we become better listeners?

Put out phones down, look our athletes in the eyes and give them the attention they deserve? Nothing drives coaches more insane and annoyed when athletes don't look us in the eye? Turn their heads and look away? Look down or have their attention stolen by the smallest of things? It's maddening.

But are they to blame? Go to dinner and look at the restaurant patrons? How many adults are on their phones while their kids are on theirs or just sitting there? How many times has an athlete of yours wanted to talk to you but you were looking at your missed calls, texts and tweets while they talked to you? Don't they deserve the same consideration you are asking of them?