Thursday, June 20, 2013


Jessica is 16 years old. In many ways she is a lot like other 16 year old girls. She likes country music, talks a lot with her friends and she loves playing volleyball.

Jess is an outside hitter for her high school team set a small rural community in south eastern Washington. Her family owns orchards; thousands of cherry trees….thousands! Jess is one of 11 children and her summer days are spent playing and practicing one of her sports; softball, basketball and volleyball, then configuring rides and schedules of friends and families to make getting through the day most efficiently.

With a strawberry blonde pony tail that sways behind her every step, Jess is relaxed and comfortable on the court. At 5-9, she isn’t overly imposing and her build does suggest someone who plays several sports but she has the ability to put a ball down. In one drill, she passes 5 perfect 3’s in serve receive. When the coach calls the team’s attention to the accomplishment after the drill, Jess is visibly embarrassed. She is humility defined.

Jess is 16 years old and has a checking account. She has had to pay for the volleyball camp she is attending. She has to pay for the college camp she wants to go to in a few weeks. She earns her money working for her family in the orchards. Camp ends at 2 p.m. on a Thursday and Jess will go back to her family orchards and begin to pick sweet cherries, by hand, off the trees until her basketball game at 7 that night. She will get up early Friday and spend the day and the weekend picking fruit and plotting her schedule for the upcoming slate of games ahead.

Jess’s high school team just won the Washington State High School 1A softball championship. At a party celebrating this fete, she and her team mates are choosing championship rings. Jess’s ring is modest because if she wants it, she will pay for it herself and also because Jess herself is modest in her abilities and accomplishments.

As humble in life as Jess is, she is relentless on the court. Quiet but focused and coachable; she wants to get better for her team. She is usually on the outside, but the coach also throws her into the back row, and then on the right side. Jess nods and goes, gives it everything she has and plays at 100% the entire time. At the end of camp, she is soaked in sweat and tired.

Jessica talks to her teammates in the hallway at lunch. She never has a bad thing to say about anyone and never complains about anything. She appreciates the help she receives from her friends and family and her teams and is always first with a please and a thank you.

Jessica has a new coach this season. Her coach is someone she has known for a long time; the upshot of a small town existence. Jess listens to her coach’s feedback and makes changes, keeping her mind open. She wants to get better for her team.

Jess is 16 years old. She has just finished a drill where she hit 11 balls from the outside, 6 of which were for kills and no errors. She had the highest hitting percentage of any of the hitters in the drill yet she seems uncomfortable. After the final few hitters finish, she walks up to the coach and tells her she missed a hitting error. She wasn’t perfect, her hitting percentage in the drill needed to be adjusted lower.

The coach, knowing that it was important to Jess, made the adjustment on the white board in front of the team.

Jess almost seemed relieved. She finished practice with the same intensity and fire as when she first stepped on the court. She takes off her shoes after practice, shoes she paid for herself, and gathers the three team mates she will give rides home to. Then she gets home, changes and heads out into the trees. She’ll help her family in their business, help her checking account along the way and further solidify a work ethic that makes coaches hearts race.

Jess is 16 years old. She wants to get better for her teammates.

Athletes aren’t always able to be picked out of a crowd but you sure know them when you meet them.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Coaching Your Own: Blurring the Lines

It was loud and venomous.

The gym was silent and you could hear the coach unleashing his anger, his disappointment, his sense of being betrayed by one of his own on his 18 year old opposite. The rest of the team stood huddled together, far away while he railed on his right side, the one who had just missed her blocking assignment after just being reminded about it moments before.

Her father sat in the stands, dying inside: dying because he wanted to be there for his daughter, to help her. He wanted to stop this coach from making his daughter feel badly, from making her feel worse.

But he didn’t. He knew. He was a coach; a coach and a father, THE father. He knew from experience, from seeing other parents first hand, that she had to fail once in a while, he had to let her fail and with failing comes the consequences. It was part of being an athlete, part of being a grown up. It was also part of being a parent.

So he said nothing, did nothing, dying inside.

After the match, he hugged her. They had spent a tumultuous half season together the winter before…together, on the same club team.

He questioned himself often coaching his own flesh and blood: was he too hard on her because she was his daughter? Too lenient? After a few months, it was obvious to both of them that he couldn’t find the right balance and after she accepted a scholarship to a local college, they both sat down and agreed that the best thing for her was to go work out with her college team the rest of the season. It was hard for the coach; he hadn’t been able to find the right mixture of coach and dad.

But he knew it was what was best for her, and as a father, he was more than okay with that.

The blurred lines of coaching your own child come with a price. Sometimes it’s a broken relationship, sometimes it’s a sport a parent holds so dear to them that they eventually force their kids away from it Either way, it’s a delicate balance that can be a great experience, a nightmare but usually something in between.

Barry Goldberg is the head coach for American University in Washington D.C. He has been at the helm of the program for a quarter century. Barry is also a club director and has seen the best and worst of parents but knows when it comes to your own kids, it’s a different ball game.

“My kid plays lacrosse” Goldberg muses. ”He sits the bench half the time and I’m thinking, about the coach: are you crazy? The kid is the best player on the field.” Goldberg chuckles. “It’s not like I don’t get it, I just have to make sure that my facts are correct. Now it’s completely my opinion that he’s the best player on the field, it’s not my fact. It’s the coach’s opinion too and that’s what counts.”

The USAV Director of Sport Development, John Kessel has played and coached the game of volleyball at every level. He also has a son playing volleyball at Princeton and a daughter playing at Bowdoin College in Maine. He has raised both as a single Dad and has coached both of them at one point or another in their careers.

“In high school, I coached Cody. Now that he’s in college, I just talk to his coach about things in general. The same is true for Mac. In high school, I would just talk in general. I did not really think that the coach was making bad decisions, as I don't train them 5 days a week, he did.”

Kessel wrote a terrific blog on this exact subject which you are encouraged to read.

Club Director Goldberg understands parental frustration because he, like so many other coaches, has it with his own children. So he understands what drives Parents to their behavior at times.

“Two days ago I had a parent in my office saying she has invested all this money into getting her daughter a scholarship.  Well, there’s no way this kid is going to get a scholarship. She’s a little club player and if she makes her high school team we’re going to be really happy. I told this mother she was playing for the wrong reason; that we are here to really just educate your daughter in the sport and if she gets something, great. I told her, ‘Your daughter might struggle to get something; I can see the level of where she’s at right now; it’s going to be difficult for her. You should be preparing to cover her schooling. If something comes up, tremendous! Don’t invest in this to get your kid a scholarship and don’t put pressure on your kid who’s thinking I’ve got to save the family by getting a scholarship. She’s going to pull her hair out, she’ll go crazy.’ She walked out of here angry with me, I’m sure.”

“It’s parents, it’s kids. I’m blind with my kid” Barry confesses. ”I’m blind with my wife, I’m blind with the things so, so important to me. It’s hard, for all of us.”

“Parenting, coaching, and teaching  others, but perhaps most importantly, yourself, sometimes known as learning,  all follow the same principles” Kessel contends.” Since I love to compete, on the court when things are in my control, I know what I can control in learning, but that learning includes a lot of errors along the way. When I take it to the other roles off the court, the principles don't change, just the methods. I teach still, or just celebrate watching, as I love to watch people I care about, play this wonderful, lifetime, team game.”