Sunday, December 21, 2014

What is it Worth to You?

With a Tambre Nobles serve that scraped the top of the net and trickled between three BYU defenders, Penn. State added to its trophy case yet another National Championship, one for each day of the week now, and the 2014 College volleyball season came to a close last night.

As Club starts to get its engines firing, are you as a coach content with your coaching knowledge? Can you ever afford to take a day off from learning? Great coaches, by definition, are lifelong learners and just because the volleyball season is over at the High School and College levels, a place where many of us coaches learn and gather info from, are our resources dried up until next fall?

At the end of every season, UCLA Coach John Wooden would find something that he felt his team wasn’t as good at as it should be or something he felt he was lacking as a coach. This was back before the Internet and cell phones and google at the touch of a key, so Wooden would buy books and magazines, call and interview other coaches that were better at things than he was. He would ask questions, take notes and over a few weeks would get the answers he wanted to help his team succeed.

A recent survey by Sports Coach UK, in England, of 1200 coaches asked the question what sources of learning have you used in the last 12 months to further your professional development as a coach?

The number one answer, at 87% was talking to other coaches followed by observing and working with other coaches at 85%, reflecting on their own personal coaching sessions at 79% and using the Internet at 71%. The lowest was formal distance learning, or taking online classes of some type at just 7% and just ahead of that was Coaching Qualification classes, not unlike IMPACT and CAP for USAV members.

Wisely, a second question was asked of the 1,200. What source of learning made a significant impact on your professional coaching development? The number one answer was the Coaching Qualification Classes (IMPACT and CAP for example) at 68% significant followed by observing and working with other coaches at 66%, talking to other coaches and reflecting on their own personal coaching sessions, both tied at 62% and finally mentoring at 60% significant impact.

While they are less available, coaching clinics are a great way to energize and reevaluate what you are doing as a coach. USAV offers CAP clinics around the country and in Dec. of 2015, the Arizona Region will offer up their biannual clinic. Gold Medal Squared offers up a yearly clinic in January in Az. and there is also the Art of Coaching Volleyball clinics that are available around the country in the summer.

What is the worth of asking a more experienced coach in your club to take an hour or two out of their week, come and watch your practice and give you some feedback on it? Maybe a coach you respect or admire from another club WITH the Club Director’s blessings of course!

Have you filmed any of your practices or matches and broken them down point by point so you know where your team’s strengths and liabilities are and used that to gauge practice going forward? Is it worth putting together a season long practice plan to follow and guide you through the club waters ahead?

Grand Canyon University has a Men’s program that is quickly becoming a National power. Is it worth a phone call to the Coaching staff to ask permission to come watch practice, learn some new drills or feedback you can carry over into your own coaching?

Sooner than later, spring volleyball training will be upon us. Is that a time you can call a coaching staff and ask permission to attend some practices, scrimmages or tutoring sessions? Is it worth a drive away from where you live to hear a different coach perhaps? Flagstaff, Tucson, Prescott? Maybe even Southern California to watch the USA Team’s train in Anaheim? As an American citizen, that is your team and you are welcome to attend practices. What about a club practice from another Region on your next trip out of town or vacation?

Many great coaches also read a lot of books, articles, etc. Is it worth an e mail to a coach you admire or like asking them what’s on their reading list or any books they could recommend to you; Maybe a movie or documentary or magazine article or YouTube video or podcast?

There are a lot of learning resources online that we have asked you to check out. Is a few minutes out of your week worth what might be gained from them?

Train Ugly

The Coaches and Trainers Facebook Page

The USA Volleyball Coaches resources

The Talent Code


FIVB Education site

The U.K. study ends with this: “A coach should never be afraid to ask questions of anyone they could learn from.” A little time, imagination and some gumption is all a lifelong learner needs to stay in coaching relevance to his/her team and more importantly, to themselves.

What is it worth to you?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Summer Vocation: The Volleyball Gods Giveth.....

My summers in the past years have been filled with travelling the country doing high school camps for a business I work for. I absolutely love it for so many reasons. The opportunity to travel, to work with coaches and athletes of different parts of the country that are rural or inner city, to coach different styles and types of athletes and to figure out how best to get a team to “buy in” to what I am trying to convey is just four days or less. It’s the best training ground I can think of for coaching and despite the “long haul” of it, some days sleeping in airports or all day spent on planes or trains or airports with nothing but vending machines, I wouldn’t trade any of it and will hopefully do it till they fire me or I die, whichever comes first.

Last summer was my penultimate. The numbers when I finally sat down to figure them out were a bit ridiculous. In 16 weeks I was home for two days, 114 days away from home from end of May to mid September. I did 26 clinics and camps in 14 different states and two countries, (a week in Canada!). In all, 32 different stops and over 21, 600 miles travelled by airplane, train, and car and yes, even boat!

You develop relationships with coaches as you see them year after year, even some players you remember because they are amazingly talented or hard working beyond the norm. You meet new coaches that surprise you, make you scratch your head and teach you much about our profession, both good and bad.

What I never lose touch with though, is the mythical volleyball gods. The ones that allow that let serve to dribble over your side of the net on match point, or the one that allows your tiny defensive specialist who has to play front row because you are out of subs to get a kill at the end of a match. The volleyball gods can be both cruel and generous and during my summer vocation, I saw both sides in abundance.

In Hastings, Nebraska, (the birthplace and museum of Kool Aid), I met Coach Dave and his family, staying with them during his team’s camp. Dave had two cochlear implants and was one of just a thumbnail of people in the world that scientists have shown a clear genetic propensity in his family lineage for hearing loss, making him a subject for bi annual testing in Southern California. Despite this, he is a great communicator and is quick to point out that when the world gets too loud, he just unplugs. I thought about how tough life is some days for all of us, but to grow up deaf and still be a stellar athlete (basketball) and then to coach and be a husband and father, it made me proud that Dave was in the volleyball brethren. The gods smiled upon us that week.

The next week was a camp in Garden City, Kansas with a coach from St. Louis, a coach from Oklahoma and one from Southern California. We had met at the local Sonic to rehash the day and make plans for the next when a loud siren signaled that the work day had come to an end. The So Cal coach and I questioned why a loud siren would go off at 8 p.m. when the Oklahoma coach said, “That’s not for work, look.” She pointed to the sky and we saw a slow whirlpool of clouds to the south of us with colors unable to be recreated on a palette. “We gotta get out of here,” she said somewhat panicked and we all climbed into her car and she drove: not unlike Grand Theft Auto III, till we got to the house where she was staying. The family’s TV was on and we saw bright red clusters heading toward Garden City. I stepped outside never being up close to the clouds and smell and look of a tornado, making some jokes along the way till I saw the panicked look in the family’s faces. They had been through this before and seemingly not with good results. We stayed in their living room for 90 minutes till we saw the storms had passed over us, touching down in some farmland but leaving the community unhurt. We went back to our host families. The gods once again smiled upon us.

I continued up the open heart surgery scar of the United States, going to North Dakota and then South Dakota. I stayed on a farm with Coach Nora and her family. A few days after we left, tornados down the interstate from her farm destroyed 23 houses and uprooted countless families.

A few weeks later I was in Lynden, Washington working with a team for the third year in a row. A very talented player named Kat was dominating and the talk of the gym was a magical State playoff run with seniors in some important positions and some good youth filling the lanes. On the last morning of camp, I pulled Kat into the coach’s office and we talked for an hour about what she needed to do to get recruited. She was the best hitter I had seen so far this summer and she was a D1 player if her grades were okay and she continued to progress. Five minutes before lunch, she went up for a swing and as I watched her, she came down and her knee buckled. She fell back and panic swept her face. She began to pant, “My ACL, my ACL, oh no….” The team gathered round and began to cry with her. We chased them and helped her to her feet and started the process of finding out what it was. She came back in the early afternoon and it was in fact a torn ACL. Coach Julie and I spent time with her all day keeping her involved and in the mix but it was the cruelest of fates for this athlete. The gods, so generous the first month, showed us their ugly side.

Early July I met Coach Ann whose team of farm girls and daughter Haley were one of the hardest working teams of the summer. Lamar, Mo. Is the birthplace of Harry S. Truman but it’s now an economically disadvantaged town that has lost the furniture factory in recent years, sending unemployment sky high. Yet these athletes plodded and produced, getting better for a coach who told me repeatedly she had to start learning new things if she was going to be successful. She displayed an amazing growth mindset and it filtered throughout her team. Former NAU Assistant Coach John Napier, now the head coach at Missouri Southern State agreed to come down and work with the girls for a few hours, making their camp experience more memorable. The gods were once again on the plus side of the ledger.

That weekend, I did a camp in Fawn Grove, Pa. for a former Coach and good friend of mine. It was a two day camp mixing all ages throughout two courts. I am apt to jokingly refer to girls, in a funny sarcastic way, as “bad spandex” or “little red” if they are a short auburn haired libero. On this first day, there was a young girl there wearing goggles to protect a previous sports injury. She became, in good fun, “goggles.” I referred to her as “goggles” the entire day and she smiled and giggled with the rest of the court. On the second day, she didn’t come to camp. She was a no show on day three as well. A few days after the camp, Coach Jim forwarded me an e-mail from her Mom saying in essence, I had embarrassed her daughter and she didn’t want to come back. At first, I was filled with anger and wanted to fire back a note to Mom telling her daughter to “toughen up” and how no one else had taken exception to the fun names I had thrown around. But in deeper thought, none of that mattered. I had hurt the feelings of this player and she turned her back on an opportunity to play because of it. I had just committed the cardinal sin of coaching and the volleyball gods turned to demons on that dark day of self reflection.

Off to Weare, N.H. where I met a Coach Jeff and stayed with him and his family in a house that dated back to the late 1800’s. The girls were fun and worked hard. On the third day of camp, I got an e mail from a dear friend who said his fiancĂ© had died the Sunday before. I was completely stunned. I had just seen them together a few months before and he talked about her often. I called him and we talked for 30 minutes. I could feel the weight of the sadness in my hand holding the phone and it took everything I had to hold back my tears. I don’t think I helped much that day but if he’s reading this, I hope he knows he has so many more friends like me in the world there for him when he needs us. The gods were becoming a black cloud and I needed to shake them off.

I took the bus from Concorde, NH to Boston; a 90 minute trip. I had a free weekend and had never been to Boston. As I arrived and figured out the subway to get to my hotel, I kept hearing that the fireworks were going to be tonight; July 3rd instead of the 4th because of the expected rainfall from hurricane Arthur. Knowing I would never have a chance like this again, I threw my bags into the room, took a quick walk around Harvard and headed to downtown and the Charles River, a jigsaw puzzle picture in itself. The news kept repeating 10:30 the fireworks would start, over and over. At around 9 p.m. the police began to walk the river walk to change shifts and positions when a spontaneous round of applause started to follow them along their walk. People shouted “Boston Strong” and the officers were clearly choked up by the display of respect and affection. At 10:03 exactly, the first booming salvo was released. 10:03 I thought to myself? Why would they start so early? I suddenly realized that downtown was about to be hip checked with hurricane winds and rain sooner than later. I dug in and watched the colorful extravaganza for another 25 minutes then jogged to the train, encountering angry Bostonians who had been told 10:30 but were hearing the booms as they ran from the trains to the Charles. Back in my hotel room, I turned on the TV and saw downtown, right where I had been just 20 minutes before, being deluged. Perhaps the gods had given me a glimmer of a rare rational thought on that night, or maybe I was just lucky!

A few weeks after Canada, I spent a weekend in Springfield, Mass. I went to see both the basketball hall of fame and the volleyball hall of fame. They were light years apart in both presentation and funding but both were invaluable as they brought me back to the days of youth, remembering players and moments in both sports.

I went next to work with Coach Kathleen in Mendham, NJ. I had worked with her 4 years before and was excited to see her again. She had a libero named Kat, (I know!), who was a splitting image of a young Logan Tom. They could have been twins. I sent her picture to several coaches and USAV people I knew just to make sure I wasn’t crazy and nearly all came back with “Logan!” Coach Kathleen’s team was a mix of youth and seniors but were trying to find an identity. They did! Despite losing a ton to graduation, they girls came alive late in the season with a couple of dramatic come from behind upsets and wound up getting to the quarterfinals of the State playoffs despite a very low seed. Coach Kathleen never gave up on them, held them to a high standard and didn’t let them hear or believe the idea that they were in ‘rebuilding” mode. The gods might have smiled upon her, but in this case, she was her own destiny.

In early September, another dear friend sent an e mail out. Her husband, who had been battling blood cancer for the past year and who was in a hospice most of December, was cancer free. It was unexpected, and a glorious ending to a chapter of a long novel filled with pages of hurt and heart, sacrifice and resurrection. I was beaming when I got the e mail and figured the gods were going to end the summer grinning.

A few days later, I got a call from my daughter that my grandson had crashed his bike and cut his heel right around the Achilles tendon, requiring 14 stitches. I hated being so far away when they needed me but he braved through it and despite 6 weeks of a boot and crutches and bandages, he and my daughter both showed their inner strength and got through it. The gods were testing us still!

I ended my summer in Northern Washington, doing a camp for the second year in a row in a sleepy seaside town known as Port Townsend. I wrote a blog about Coach Nettie last year and the job that she is doing there. Again, with destiny in her hands, she guided her team to a 12-5 record. Remember, this was a team that two years ago didn’t win a match! Nettie’s team bought into her and her work ethic and the former punching bag of the conference because the slugger. The volleyball gods ended the summer on a high note.

There were many other stops, many other stories. 21, 606 miles later, I am a smarter coach, a better person and carry with me memories that could fill another 20 blogs. Those 16 weeks, while sometimes so tiring and trying on both physical boundaries and patience, were the best training this coach could ever gather. The volleyball gods giveth and they taketh away, but they are always active and present if you are willing to engage them.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Roses, Tea Cups, Trees and Terps

Last Night, the University of Maryland volleyball squad finished their regular season with a 3-2, (15-13 in the 5th) win over Northwestern in the XFinity Center in College Park. It was a huge night for a couple of reasons: it was Senior Night and for the Terps of Maryland, wins have been as easy to come by this season as parking spots in front of a Target on Black Friday.

Steve Aird is the first year volleyball coach at the University of Maryland. To say Aird has had a memorable first season would be the Himalaya’s of understatements. Usually when someone says memorable first season, there are visions of upsets and unexpectedly deep runs into the NCAA tournament. Nope…this memorable is the kind that those with vision will look back on in five years, when they ARE pulling upsets and going deep into the NCAA bracket, and smile about fondly.

“We’re going to lose way more matches than we win this year.” Aird said back in August. “If I had a crystal ball, we might win 8, 10 matches this year.” The Maryland Terrapin volleyball team finished the season 10-21. They started the season 6-0 in an admittedly soft preseason then went into their inaugural Big-10 conference season, a graveyard for mediocre programs, and won just three of their next 20 matches. They played 14 ranked teams in their Big-10 schedule and did it with 5 of their scholarshipped players, including their best player, out from injury throughout the year and went to battle with a platoon of underclassman. It’s the recipe for coaching ulcers and hair loss.

There are a lot of volleyball programs in the country: college, high school and club that have seasons where wins are tough to come by. But the difference here is that Aird never once gave up on his vision. “People are looking and saying wow, you’re losing all these matches but they’re missing the trees for the forest.”

He’s constantly working on that a vision of what he wants Maryland to be and all of his energy is toward that goal. He stressed working hard, worrying about the next point and most of all, to compete; battle and fight and claw your way through matches despite being outsized, outmanned and outgunned!

“There’s no sense in saying to them we have to win a match, we have to have this. I told them we’re not going to win. We’re not going to win a National Championship; we’re not going to win the Big 10. You’re going to lose more matches than you win but what’s your approach going to be? Are you going to be a victim? I see that a lot on teams that know that the other team is better so they just don’t compete. They’re getting paid to play so to me, it’s their job to show up and represent their school as best as they can. It doesn’t mean they have to be better than the top recruiting class but you better fight like hell because you owe that.”

“What you tell them is that it’s just about the next point, just about the next match and you’ve got to fight like crazy because that’s the person you’re becoming; the player you become and the person you become.” He says unapologetically. ”A lot of life is like this: you think you’ve got stuff figured out and then you get curve balls and the ability to really battle and grind and fight is a great life skill. So it’s going to be a tough year in a lot of respects but I’m pretty comfortable with it. I think I keep coming back to the pillars of what this program is going to be and it’s going to be about how hard you compete, how much time and energy in the team and if you invest in it and you can’t be results based because a lot of that you don’t have control over.”

“It comes back to my philosophy that the wins and losses are fairly irrelevant at this point. It’s easy to fight and compete and be upbeat when everything is perfect. I think what they are learning is that who you are as a player and who you are as a competitor shines through when things AREN’T going well. It’s a program that when I got here, 9 of the 14 kids were hurt and we’ve lost our best player and we’ve got a lot of young people playing who don’t have any experience playing in this kind of spot light but that’s the beauty of it. I think anyone that plays us in 3 or 4 years is going to know it’s going to be a competitive situation. I want all the kids in the program to compete like crazy.”

Aird is also adamant about honesty. “I think people always want to coach to make people feel good.” He says. “You want to teach them how to win but it’s not real. There are 324 teams that start the year and some of them think they can win and some of them can win. But some of them can win but don’t think they can. I want to train them without giving them a false sense of confidence. Confidence comes from knowing you can do something so the drill doesn’t work or you don’t have the skill to finish the drill, that’s okay. You’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll work to get better at it. I think that’s a huge component of the growth of what has to happen because if you lie to them and you say don’t worry, we’re going to be fine and you get into a match and get your ass kicked, they’re looking at you like, you aren’t honest. We aren’t good enough. I keep telling them this but that’s okay because I’m focusing on getting better.”

Aird’s training and practices follow this mentality as well. He’s careful not to overload his athletes. “I think when a lot of people coach, they over coach. I see a lot of stuff in the country where there are 12 hitters in line and one setter and they toss a ball and you’re the 12th kid. I think what I have learned is it has to be game like: the game teaches the game, that’s an expression we use a lot and I agree with that. I think as long as the feedback is quick and it’s meaningful. I tell my coaches too, don’t over coach. If you have something to say, tell them quick and get back in the drill and get the reps going. We don’t have enough time in the week. I think if you are in Club and you practice twice a week, you don’t have 30 minutes to discuss concepts. You have to pick your spots about what you’re going to get better at. There’s a 100 things that we can get way better at. I’ll only have the opportunity to only fix 5 or 10 of them by the end of the year and that’s just the truth. I could pretend to coach my ass off and get better at all of them but we don’t have time.”

“Everyone has a certain capacity for learning or capacity for information. So a couple of kids on the team, if I was to tell them, ‘Hey, you have to block low seam and you have to land and get off the net and your footwork has to be this and your arm swing this and you’re late…’ There’s just too many things that are wrong but I can’t give them that much because it’s like a tea cup. My tea cup and someone else’s tea cup might be different sizes but as soon as you put a certain amount of information into it, you can pour liquid into it but it’s just overflowing down the sides. Your job as a coach is to try to make their tea cup bigger and bigger so they can take in more information. In life, I have some really smart kids in school but their volleyball IQ, their tea cups aren’t very big so I have to be careful about how much information I give them.”

Aird has worked with many great coaches in his career but none have had the impact that his Penn. State mentor Russ Rose has had on him. “Russ has obviously been my biggest influence over the past 17 years. Other than my family, he has had the biggest influence on how I go about my business.” He says.

“Russ is the best manager of people I have ever been around. If he was a baseball manager or a CEO of a company or a soccer club manager or whatever, he would be successful because of how he can manage people. I try to emulate it but I can’t recreate it. He’s just too good at it. He’s been coaching Division I volleyball longer than I’ve been alive. To put that in perspective, he’s got a pretty nice wealth of experience.”

Aird talks about how Rose treats individuals and the group, not only the team but also people around the program including administration and boosters. “That’s what I think I’ve learned the most is how to manage a program and how he does it is extraordinary because so many people want his time.” Aird says admiringly. “When we get better here and it starts to develop, I think it will be more and more like that. I know it’s not really volleyball but I think it can relate to club and high school: it’s how you manage the group. The goal is how do you make the group get to a place collectively that they wouldn’t get to without you and you get them to work hard and not be catty. It’s all of those things.”

Rose is also about honesty and Aird, being the Penn State assistant coach the last two Championship seasons has seen it firsthand. “I think Russ’s best skill was he would say some devastating things in practice: to an individual or to the group. When you would hear it, you were like whoo…that’s a really harsh thing to say and the kid could be really, really down but with one sentence he could pull the kid back up.”

In an early August practice, Aird’s best player Adreene Elliot was struggling in a 6 on 6 drill. He called her out and tried to get her to push herself. She continued to not play aggressively and finally Aird took her out of the drill. “In today’s practice, Ne is in full blown tears at the end.” Aird says after that practice. “We come together as a group and I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a pro. You’re our best player and you’re going to be a pro. I owe it to you.’ And she hears that she’s going to be a professional and all of a sudden she’s back. So part of that is psychology, part of it is honesty. I want her to feel uncomfortable. She’s always been a pretty good player but she’s nowhere close to where she could get. I think that’s the secret sauce.”

For Aird, his season is over but the days ahead are full. There is no down time for the vision at Maryland and Aird is the Coach to make it happen. “I am unapologetic about who I am,” he says. “I guess the most important lesson is to be you!”

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

151 Years Ago Today...

One hundred and fifty one years ago today, Abraham Lincoln offered up the greatest 272 words in American History. Only 139 days before, the largest battle in the Civil War, and in the history of North American before or since, saw catastrophic losses at the battle of Gettysburg. The final great battle of the war produced 23,043 Union and 28,063 Confederate casualties.  As the two sides rode off after three bombastic days, on July 4, 1863 toward reinforcements and impending encounters, the citizens of Gettysburg, only 2400 strong, had to deal with the aftermath and bury nearly 4 times their town in battlefield dead.

Seems strange to bring up the Battle of Gettysburg in a coaching blog, but some unmistakable coaching moments can be gleaned from this tragic time in American History.

Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart had taken his troops through four major battles in the 16 days prior to Gettysburg, having travelled without proper rations and literally no sleep for his men for two and a half days when they arrived. After being beaten back repeatedly, Stuart’s men were the last to cross back to the Potomac in retreat and were described as in “"wretched condition—completely worn out and broken down.

Out of the Box Thinking:
The Union forces held high ground and waited for an expecting charge from the Confederate Army on the third day of the battle. At 1 p.m. the Confederates let loose an artillery barrage that was meant to soften up the Union’s foothold on the high ground. The Union cannons answered back. After an hour though, the Union guns fell silent and the Confederates took this silence as they had knocked out the North’s artillery options. They had been fooled. The North wanted to lure the South into charging them and was saving ammunition. Only 5,750 Union soldiers defended the onslaught of over 13,000 Rebels but as the Southerners charged, they soon realized they had been duped. Northern canons once again fired and cut through the onslaught, taking out many of the Rebels in the first few minutes of what would now be called, “Pickett’s Charge.”
A good soldier could reload and fire his rifle 2-3 times in a minute so the Union stacked their infantry 4 deep in straight lines to ensure as one infantryman fired we went to the back of the line and reloaded so a continuous spray of fire was slowing the Southern forces.

Humility and Humanity:
General Robert E. Lee, carrying an air of invincibility of both himself and the Army of Northern Virginia into Gettysburg after repeated successful campaigns while heading north,  made some disastrous decisions based on sketchy intelligence, especially on the third day of the battle. Lee met his men on the field, beaten down and surrounded by bodies and carnage as they retreated, telling them, “All this has been my fault.” His men and historians considered this to maybe be Lee’s finest hour, displaying humility and his concern for his men. “He told one of his Generals, “”Upon my shoulders rests the blame.”  Days later, he wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis and again took responsibility for his army’s defeat saying, “It is my fault. I asked more of these men then I should have.” The Confederate Army would never recover from Gettysburg and had to fight a defensive war the last 21 months before Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9th in Virginia.

Simple is Better:
President Abraham Lincoln, suffering from the onset of smallpox, stood by attentively as Edward Everett, a popular orator and academic delivered his 2 hour, 13,000+ word speech at the dedication of the National Memorial Cemetery on the Gettysburg battle field. Then, a weak and pale Lincoln removed his trademark stove pipe hat and in 2 minutes, had encapsulated what Everett had spent two hours explaining. The crowd was stunned by its brevity and many in the days immediately after panned it but it stands now as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Gettysburg is now an American icon. Travel to the town and enjoy lunch at the Blue and Gray Bar and Grill or the Lincoln Diner. You can buy Civil War replicas of uniforms and weapons on the City’s streets but the true history is sadly just a few blocks from downtown, in the National Cemetery that Lincoln dedicated with his Address.

Coaches can look so many places to find inspirations and lessons about how to be better at what we do. They usually come without a big price tag and certainly without body counts. On this day though, President Lincoln, perhaps the greatest “Coach” in our Nation’s history, said it so eloquently:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Monday, October 27, 2014

Civility 269 Years Later...

At the ripe age of 13 years old, he sat down, quill to paper and began to write and when he was done a few years later in the last 10 pages of marked journal entries throughout his childhood, George Washington, the Father of our Country, had penned “Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”

(Note: Capital letters and spelling are taken directly from the text of the book)


Many are dated and to be quite honest, while perhaps relevant at the time, we now look back and giggle:


7th. PUT not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.

9th. SPIT not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.

16th. Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips to open or too Close.


Silly perhaps, but Washington’s seeming penchant for premonition when it comes to later day civilization is uncanny. With this blog seeped in youth sports, the following fill the pages of a 13 year olds journal but also, a scene in desperate need at times of some structure and civility.


1st. EVERY Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.


This seems like a no brainer but back in the mid 1700’s, but there was a social heriarchy that we would find distasteful and perhaps offensive today. Washington’s offering refers often to “those of Greater Quality” or “They that are in Dignity” and “Men in Business.” But as you read through this document that was published in 1888 by J.M. Toner M.D. you find that some of these rules hold on to relevance nearly 270 years later and some even speak directly to Coaches and Parents in Youth Sports!


8th.  AT PLAY and at Fire it’s Good manners to give Place to the last Commer, and affect not to Speak Louder than ordenary.


Even in the Pre Revolutionary War times, people were asked to manage their fervor and have a good word for those that enter the arena.


20th. The Gestures of the Body must be Suited to the discourse you are upon.


Not sure if the “finger” had been used at that point or not but…..


22nd. Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.


The cheers of a missed serve or an error can ring in an athlete’s ears from much longer than the game lasts yet the only time we seem to notice that is when it’s OUR athlete.


38th. IN visiting the Sick, do not PRESENTLY play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.


In our IMPACT classes that our Coaches have to go through, much is brought up about making diagnosis without any medical training. Just because we have all seen a sprained ankle doesn’t mean we should be allowing kids to “walk it off” or “play through it.” It’s WHY there are Emergency rooms and Orthopedic specialists.


40th. Strive not with your Superiers in argument, but always Submit your Judgement to others with Modesty.


When it comes to our athletes, there is no “your side.” It’s MY side or MY side. We see it in coaches and officials, Parents and Coaches and even athletes and athletes. Taking the word “Superier” out of the equation, know that we all understand you will fight for your athletes, but understand you aren’t always going to be right.


44th. When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.


In a world of win at all costs and “winning is the ONLY thing,”  even back in the 1700’s a pre teen George Washington realized that someone who gives it all should be recognized for that effort.


49. USE no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.

88th. BE not tedious in Discourse, make not many regressions, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse.


Parents, coaches and yes, even players could take this to note. Too many times things said out of the heat of the moment are too far gone to take back and cost us respect amongst our peers and teammates.


50th. BE not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.

65th. SPEAK not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.

73d. THINK before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly and Distinctly.

79th. BE not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. IN Discoursing of things you Have heard Name not your Author always A Secret Discover not.



Hard to imagine Washington had any idea  250 years after writing this, a wave of social media that was at once instant and unchecked would dictate our days news and events. Only those that have been targets of these kinds of attacks know their pain but in essence, don’t believe everything you see/read/post and think about what you are about to tweet, post or blog.


66th. BE not forward but friendly and Courteous; the first to Salute hear and answer & be not Pensive when it’s time to converse.


Athletes are asked by their choices in life to be outgoing, be leaders, socially responsible and good communicators. When Parents step in on that role and ask coaches about playing time and issues that most certainly arise anytime young athletes are involved, isn’t that squandering the opportunity for that athlete to grow into this role? Too often Parents will run interference for their athlete and even the best players in our sport head into their college careers unsure of how to approach a Coach and communicate with a team.


82d. UNDERTAKE not what you cannot Perform but be Carefull to keep your Promise.


Commitment is a complaint a lot of coaches talk about with their teams and athletes. Some clubs demand their athletes ONLY do volleyball and no other sports. Some demand complete practice attendance or playing time in tournaments is off the table. It seems that commitment in the world of so many options for our athletes, which we have worked so hard to gain for them the last 50 years, should have a middle ground somewhere.


The last two entries are, 269 years behind us, as revealing rules for athletes, coaches and parents as can be imagined.


109th. LET your Recreations be Manfull not Sinfull.

110th. LABOUR to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.


Washington used these 110 rules as a General, a Father and family member and even as President of the United States, holding his staff and soldiers to the high standards he wrote about years before.


Two hundred and sixty nine years between, Washington’s rules are as important and relevant today as they were in the Colonial times. Coaches, Parents and athletes all can read and heed the rich advice given by our Nation’s first president when it comes to the landscape of Youth Sports. How nice would it be to hear the words “civility” and “decent behavior” mentioned at our next tournament?


Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Fairy Tale at the DMV....

Let’s get this out of the way; this ISN’T a fairy tale.

I was selling my car to a private party last week. We went to the bank, I signed the title in front of the bank’s Notary and the car was no longer mine. I begin to search for a new car.

A few hours later I got a call from the people I had sold it to. They were at the Division of Motor Vehicles and there was a big problem, could I come there. I was actually pretty close so I headed over.

I got to the DMV and was told the relative I had sold my car to earlier owned the car I was selling and that I still owned the car I had sold them from before. I was the only person in the whole scenario without a car and yet I was being told, at the moment, I had TWO!

The phrase “long story, short” would be very appropriate here but futile. It goes something like this: I had bought the car I was selling from a relative and sold my old car to my daughter. Both vehicles were the same year. In addition, both vehicles were being sold to the same last name. Add to that the fact that both parties came into the DMV within a two day period. Now add to that the fact that the vehicle identification number (VIN), by pure chance, had the same last three digits except for the last number which was one number off: 445 and 446. My guess was that the car I was selling was accidentally put into my daughter’s  name and that car had never been put in her name because they put this car in her name instead!

Need a breather?

We started to rationally explain what we thought had happened to the nice lady behind the counter. She listened and kept saying she was sorry, but in order for this sale to go through, she needed this and this and this to happen. Frustration was welling up inside all of us and finally a supervisor came over. We went over everything with him, what we thought had happened. He took the documents we had, went to the backroom and printed out about a dozen more. He came out twice asking who each of us were and how we were in the scenario, who the other relatives were and finally went back to HIS Supervisor’s office..for 25 minutes!

He came out with her and we all girded up for an epic battle. We were ready to go to war right now. Blood pressures were raging, faces started to turn red before he even got up to us and he leaned in and said:

“Wow, did we screw this up!” 

I almost choked on the gum I had just swallowed.

“Yea”, he continued, “I see where we made our mistake, well, a bunch of them actually. I’m really sorry. We’re going to get this fixed right now.”

And they did. All the titles were taken care of, I went from owning two cars to none and everything went to plan.

Why should we have been so surprised? They DID screw up but it was still a shock to the system that they would admit it? Why should that be?

How hard is it for us to say “I don’t know” or “I was wrong,” in modern society anymore? We make excuses, we deflect, we pretend.

In their new book titled, “Think Like a Freak,” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner devote a whole chapter to the three hardest words in the English language: “I don’t know.”

As coaches, we are EXPECTED to know everything about what we coach…EVERYTHING. We are told to watch one swing of a 10 year old server and then told to “fix her.” We are asked why someone keeps hitting in the net without ever watching that player and comment on what she’s doing wrong. We put together elaborate drills that when they don’t go smoothly, the athletes obviously didn’t do it right!

The thing to ask though is, as coaches, have we gathered enough information to make those determinations? As a new coach, do you have information to help you make the decisions you need to make? Are you basing your middle blocker on the fact that she’s the tallest person on the team and the libero because she’s the shortest? When the drill isn’t going as well as you envisioned, is it the athletes or is it something you hadn’t thought about that’s making the drill lag?

We are human. We make mistakes. We don’t always know the answers and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

That isn’t an excuse for not continuing to find the answers: coaching clinics, reading books and articles, watching video, analyzing statistics. We owe that to our athletes, our sport and ourselves.

Next time a drill you concocted isn’t working, pull the team together and admit, “Yea, that one is a clunker. Let’s do this instead.” It’s not a sign of weakness but athletes will understand better that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them when a role model or coach admits it as well.

While younger players should have a chance to play all positions, as they get older and are put into specific positions,  use their athletic skills and positive to help choose their place on the floor. Height is helpful but not always the best predictor. What other drills, games and skills can you observe and evaluate to help you put your players in their best position(s) to succeed.

I don’t know. I made a mistake. They aren’t the vocabulary pariahs they have been made out to be.

They are a sign of being human….

Friday, August 29, 2014


When you drive into Holyoke, Massachusetts, you are greeted with this sign: “Holyoke, the birthplace of volleyball.”

How can you not want to stop?

Holyoke is buttressed against the Connecticut river next to Springfield, Mass; the home to the Basketball Hall of Fame, a free standing building with three floors of inductees, interactive exhibits and memorabilia for the old and young fan alike. In the middle is a court with 8 baskets and from the moment the doors open, the courts are filled with kids, parents and grandparents shooting hoops. Exiting through the busy gift shop you feel like you have a better grasp of the sport and the people who made it great.

The Volleyball Hall is, much like our sport, in modest surroundings. It is being temporarily housed in the green belt of the Holyoke Heritage State Park. The Volleyball Hall shares a building, fittingly, with the Children’s Museum off of Dwight Street next to a canal that was once used to haul lumber and cotton. 

When you enter you are greeted with huge pictures of Karch and Flo Hymen on the front windows. You walk into the foyer and see the flags of the world above you and two glass cases celebrating the women in our sport and the Collegiate champions of the past decades. The three dollar entry fee seemed like a steal for a volleyball fan. Upon entering, the one level one room space is packed with exhibits and in looking around in offices and storage, one would think the need to find bigger quarters is upon them faster then they may have thought.

There is a half a volleyball court with a net against the wall for photo opportunities and a Gold Medal visitors can have their picture taken with. On the left of the entry is all the inductees’ plaques. You can see our history in these inductees, since the Hall was founded in 1978, there are over 120 and their stories and contributions fill the air and trickle over into the other exhibits.  The inductees are listed in four categories: players, coaches, officials and leaders. 

William G. Morgan was the first inductee since he invented the sport in 1895 IN Holyoke and he has an entire section of photos and memorabilia given to that historic moment. Reading the early rules of the game called Mintonette is funny when you look at where the game is today.

There are several beach volleyball exhibits and pictures but something that could catch the eye was this exhibit: The spectacle of beach volleyball that we know today, started with a kiss 57 years ago.

While there are several Americans inducted into the Hall, it is very much an international offering. Signed volleyballs from historic matches in college and the Olympics are around the room and a small gift shop, with just a few shirts and trinkets are there for modest prices as you leave. 

If you are a volleyball fan you will enjoy your time at the Hall. If you are a fanatic you will revel in the history and memorabilia throughout the room.  It’s well work the time and the three dollars and hey, help them out with a donation as you leave or click on their website and donate at

Oh yea, the kiss! Almost forgot…

On the beaches of Santa Monica August 10-11th of 1957, the game of beach volleyball became big time. The top two players at that time, Gene Selznick and Bernie Holtzman saw that they needed to promote their sport in order to see the sport AND the prize money and participation grow. The game itself had very few big hitters or blockers like today, so points were long and drawn out, pass after pass after pass. The two knew they needed something.

Enter a friend of theirs, promoter Jack Backer who had discovered and was promoting a blonde bombshell  of an actress named Greta Thyssen and asked her to come to the tournament to be the Queen of the beach and give a kiss to the winners. 

Selznick and Holtzman continued to build the model for what would become the AVP later on. They enlisted volunteers to work the tournament; they put up a sound system and an announcer who would break up long rallies with announcements and anecdotes about the players on the other 26 teams in the tournament, anecdotes supplied by Holtzman. The tournament was a rousing success and in the end, Greta Thyssen gave a kiss to the champions, Selznick and Holtzman that was covered by newspapers and magazines alike. Beach volleyball was born.

You can find this and many more stories of the pioneers and the best our sport has to offer at the Hall. Check out their website or plan a trip to visit. Chances are you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reaching for walls.....

Fort Pulaski sits quietly now on Cockspur Island surrounded on the north and south by the Savannah River across from Tybee Island. If Georgia was a profile of Homer Simpson, Fort Pulaski is the belly button.  Rebuilt three times, it stood as is, being built in 1829 at a cost of $1 million using 25 million bricks and taking 18 years to finish.

Two weeks after South Carolina had seceded from the Union starting the Civil War in late 1860, the Georgia militia was ordered to seize Fort Pulaski and it became part of the confederacy once Georgia seceded on January 19, 1861. President Abraham Lincoln ordered blockades of the southern ports and by the end of the year, with economic woes confronting them, the Confederates receded and gave up some strategic points of which to launch an attack on the Fort.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, knowing an attack was inevitable, wasn’t concerned however; walls nearly 8 feet thick of solid brick with massive masonry piers was only part of the Fort’s defense. One U.S. Official speaking of its impervious  reputation said, “You might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains!”  It was a mile away from the closest attack point, Tybee Island. And since Union guns could only muster rounds that could travel 700 yards, Lee told the Fort’s commander, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead that the Union guns could, “make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”

What Lee didn’t know was that the Union had experimented with a new weapon: a rifled canon that used grooves on the inside of the canon barrel that caused the bullet shaped shell to spiral, gathering both distance and accuracy. The new rifled canons had a range of almost 8,500 yards. A new science was about to make a difference.

On April 10 of 1862, responding to Olmstead’s rebuttal of surrender began an assault on the fort. Shells from the rifled canons slammed into the walls of the fort shaking the landmark’s foundation. Shell after shell slammed into the Pulaski’s eastern facade, putting chunks and finally holes into the thought to be impenetrable fortress.  One shell went through a hole in the wall and skated across the Fort’s infield and settled just feet from the powder room where all the rest of the ammunition was stored. Had the shell gone a few more feet, the fort would have been leveled by its own firepower.

Col. Olmstead surrendered in 30 hours and the world was stunned at how quickly Fort Pulaski had been taken down. A new technology had seen to it’s demise and ushered in a new wave of artillery that is still used today.

Fort Pulaski sits as a National Monument today but it’s also a historic fable of overconfidence and hubris. It’s also a lesson in how new technology, when embraced, can make a difference.

The good folks at the Olympic training helm are constantly working on how to do things better: teaching our athletes from the mental, optical, physical and even emotional points of view. We, as coaches, need to embrace changes as they happen. A PowerPoint entitled ‘Debunking the Myths of Volleyball” has taken science and shown that some of what we have taught our entire coaching lives, is wrong. Are we as coaches willing to accept the fact that we didn’t know then what we know now and we have to change the way we train? At the very least, are you familiar with the science of Motor LearningTheory

Imagine an Audio Visual teacher in high school that started in the 1980’s and NOT keeping up with technology. They are threading the film strips and the reel to reel tapes while you are downloading the entire text book on a phone the size of the box of red pens on her desk.

A Chinese proverb states, “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.” As more and more information becomes available, are you, as a coach, embracing those ideas that are credible and easily adaptable to your team?

Take a history lesson. Embrace change. It can make a difference.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


In his remarkable TED talk called “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” Simon Sinek calls us to the attention of what kind of leaders are willing to sacrifice for the good of the unit/team/business.

Sinek points out it’s not just because they are better people but that if the environment is right, everyone can become this kind of leader; an environment of “deep trust and cooperation.” But these are feelings and not instructions.  He points out that going back to the earliest part of our civilization, with the dangers of weather and elements and  animals, they created a ‘circle of safety’ and built a tribe and it’s in that safety we felt a sense of trust and cooperation.

In a way, it’s the same thing in a team’s locker room.  Coaches have to make our athletes feel “safe” in order for them to trust us as coaches. As Sinek eloquently puts it, “When a Leader makes the choice to put the safety and the lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice their tangible results so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

 We have to make them know, not just think but KNOW, that we want what’s best for them; as athletes and more importantly as people. As SInek points out, the variables outside the tribe can’t always be contained but the “conditions inside the organization, that’s where leadership matters because it’s the LEADER who sets the tone.”

Sinek points out that “If the conditions are wrong we are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other and that inherently weakens the organization.”

Sound familiar?

Do we as coaches communicate at a high enough level with our athletes to make them feel safe and give them a sense of belonging? In some of the Region’s preseason Parent presentations, we ask the athletes to tell everyone what it is about Youth sports that disturbs them the most; about parents, coaches, officials, etc. Their number one answer about coaches is, “the coach doesn’t tell me anything when I get subbed out. What I did wrong or why? Why I’m not playing?”

How can an athlete feel safe if they aren’t given the most basic answers to being an athlete?

Men’s National Team Assistant Coach Andrea Becker, in a blog here a few months back, talked about making sure athletes feel safe. “They’re all athletes. They all want to be great and they all have different issues that they work through. So what I try to do is work with that person individually and figures out what’s best for them in that moment whether it’s the National Team level or the College level or even high school level. It’s just about figuring out what that person needs in a given moment of time and doing what helps meet those needs.”

She also mentioned substitutions as being a fragile element into athletes feeling safe. “What you might do is sacrifice a point in the short term to get what you want out of the athlete longer. Most coaches won’t make that sacrifice because they are so focused on the outcome: they want to win NOW. When you don’t fear losing you’re able to make decisions that are long term decisions instead of reactions in a moment. And that allows you to stay with kids and they’re not going to always be at their best and they are going to have an off day and it’s hard to build trust and confidence in them. You sometimes have to stick with them so they know in the end that you believe in them, and that’s important.” 

Joe Ehrmann is a former NFL football player and the author of “InSideOut Coaching: How sports can Transform Lives.” He talks about Coaches on two sides of a road. One is the Transactional Coach: the self centered coach, ego driven who uses intrinsic values to guide his coaching style and philosophy. The other is the Transformational Coach: the coach who is egoless, who works for others and is a mentor, using those principles to guide his coaching style and philosophy.

If athletes think you are coaching them in a Transactional way v. a Transformational way, how will you be perceived, not only by them, but by Parents and your peers? Can anyone feel safe in an environment where YOU, the coach, puts himself first?

Sinek asks the question that those CEO’s that are laying off people, those managers that are downsizing, would they react differently if those were their children? We do everything we can, (sometimes too much) to make sure our children are successful and are able to thrive in the world ahead. That is what Parents do.

So imagine that one player that gives you attitude at practice, the one that mopes on the sideline after getting taken out of the front row or the player that just seems disinterested at practice anymore. Would you, if they were YOUR child, just ignore them? Tell your assistant coach that kid is too much drama and I’ve taken too much time on them already?

USA Volleyball’s John Kessel makes a great point on the topic. “I think that you can identify how good a coach is by how he or she teaches the weakest player, the most challenging player. Anyone can coach the kid who comes early, stays late, trains extra and loves the game. What we do to make practice and training safe for ALL players matters, for after all leaders eat last.”

We want what’s best for our athletes and as Sinek says, “When we feel safe inside the organization we will naturally combine our talents and strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities.”

High school season approaches. Boy’s club season approaches. City and Rec programs, middle school programs are ahead. If you are coaching, how can you make your team feel safe?

What do you have to do to create that sense of trust and cooperation?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Lamar Experiment...

In a tiny Midwestern town called Lamar, Missouri, a wonderful experiment took place.

Lamar is 45 minutes south of Joplin, the city that was leveled by tornados just a few years ago. It’s a small town with one main road, one Mexican restaurant, one Chinese restaurant, a McDonalds, a Denny’s and a local barbecue place called Tractors.

It’s a place of southern accents and where people use the phrase, “We’re getting some weather” in place of “It’s raining.” The local furniture factory moved out two years ago taking most of the town’s jobs with it. Lamar is trying to rebound. They take great pride in their local High School football program that is a perennial State Champion. They hunt and fish and fix things around the house themselves.

It’s also the birth place of Harry S Truman.

None of this has to do with the experiment that took place in the Lamar H.S. gym.

The first morning of camp, the high school varsity and JV players were encouraged to warm up. They grabbed their friend, stood on one side of the net and began throwing and tossing and bouncing and finally peppering to each other. The energy was low, the voices hushed and mumbled. It was a chore, and the net was treated as if it were radioactive.

Later that night, a middle school camp came into the gym. Girls as tall as a haystack and some so thin you were afraid a tough serve might snap their arms, the girls ranged in age from 8-14.  Some had never been coached before; they were just trying the sport on. In Lamar, very, very few girls can play just one sport; too many sports and too few girls. Coaches share athletes like neighbors share a cup of sugar.

As the middle school girls started flooding in they started throwing the ball over the net trying to pass and serve and hit. They broke off and played two on two and three on three and one of the courts became six on six in less than 5 minutes.

This was all done BEFORE their clinic started and BEFORE a coach had said anything to them.

The gym was loud, the voices laughing and screaming and had a blind man walked in, he would have thought he had crashed a birthday party. It was the soundtrack of kids having fun.

The next morning, the older girls lazily oozed back in. They fitted themselves in shoes and knee pads and ankle and knee braces and began the drudgery of warming up. This time though, their coach stopped them cold. They were encouraged to grab a partner, or two, or three, or even four. Stop being afraid of the net, use it! Then the word was uttered that changed the gym’s mojo…


Confused glances shot around the group. They slowly backed up and grabbed a ball and waited for someone to yell, “Just kidding! Pepper!!!”

But it never came.

Two girls started a rousing one on one game, pass-set and roll shots back and forth in a confined space near the antennae. Beside them was a two on two game with one setter dipping under the net to set both sides, a game that started as a cooperative effort but quickly turned into a game of torture the setter as the action got faster.

A three on three game started on the other court and soon melded into a 6 on 6 game featuring a few girls on the same court that weren’t facebook friends! Imagine that!

The cacophony was the polar opposite of the lifeless gravedigger’s cricket chirp the morning before. The girls came out of their warm up sweating and smiling and laughing and ready for a long day of camp.

What did this show? The girls on the older court had been coached, for years in both school and club ball. They were told how to warm up, what to do, what the coaches wanted which was regimented and structured and controlled.

The middle schoolers were for the most part too young for coaches yet and did what kids do…play.

We continue, as coaches, to suck the fun out of our game. We talk collectively about how more touches are good but then limit the opportunities for more in something as simple as just playing as a warm up. Queens, speedball, dog house, mini tournaments, 10’ tournaments: they are fun because they are play.

If you ask your athletes which they would rather do, pepper or play, what do you think the answer will be? What would YOUR answer be?

Sunday, June 29, 2014


“It starts with Peter at the top, where he lets us do our jobs right down to the training room, the scouting area, the management, the whole deal. And everybody knows that, everybody in here knows they have a piece of this thing. But I’ve never been more proud of a team nor have I ever gotten as much satisfaction from a season in all the years I’ve been coaching. To see the fortitude you guys displayed   coming back from that horrific loss last year and getting yourself back in position and doing what you did in the finals, you’re really to be honored for that. I can’t tell you how much it means. Thank you very much for everything you’ve allowed me to do.”

With that, the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and their steadfast coach Gregg Popovich signed off on another Championship, their fifth in the last 17 years. His post game soliloquy wasn’t the stuff of Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it typifies the logic and the ideals of the man, the coach, Pop.

Why is he so successful?

NBA teams usually have two buses per team when going to arenas on the road. The first bus has rookies and bench players, who struggle to find minutes, riding on it 3 hours before the game and the starters and high minute players are on the second bus 2 hours before the game. Pop decided to buck NBA tradition, something he does quite regularly actually. The Spurs have just one bus. It’s how he thinks a team should travel.

A tenet of Spurs basketball is the idea of “Good to Great.” In it, Pop gets players to buy into the idea that great shots are better than good ones and players must train themselves to make the extra pass without any regard for their own statistics, egos, etc. Many a player has come and gone through the Spurs organization that haven’t bought into this premise but his team first mentality is how the Spurs won the NBA title last month.

Players describe him as demanding but fair. He doesn’t treat every player the same but he does treat them fairly. He is without filters and doesn’t warm to a media that trolls the waters of inane questions for the rare controversial sound bite. He is short and curt in many interviews and sometimes comes off on-air as a jerk. Something his wife chides him for but doesn’t seem to faze Pop. He is who he is, genuine, 100% real.
He is great with people. He remembers player’s families and spouses and details of their lives, something that players see and appreciate. Sure, he’ll get on his players at times, but there is never a doubt that Pop cares for his guys or wants what’s best for them, a palpable trust. “Relationships with people are what it's all about.” Pop says. “You have to make players realize you care about them. And they have to care about each other and be interested in each other. Then they start to feel a responsibility toward each other. Then they want to do for each other.”
In an industry of players going to the highest bidders and owners stockpiling talent to bypass the idea of player development, Pop and the Spurs front office have kept three core players together since MTV introduced ‘The Osborne’s’. Adding a smaller piece to that core makes it easier for everyone to adapt, which would explain why San Antonio has been in the playoffs the last 17 years in a row and has won at least 60% of its games every season over that stretch, the best run in professional sports over that time period.
Pop had to compete for playing time at the Air Force Academy and it bolstered his competitiveness and drive.  When he would point out to his college coach how well he had played in that day’s practice, his coach simply told him, over and over, “Shut up and play.”
He has tasted failure and knows what humble means, going 2-22 his first season as a college coach and losing to a team that gained national attention by dropping 310 straight conference games.
He took a sabbatical into his college coaching career to intern with Larry Brown at Kansas. He learned much from his time with Brown and his growth mindset is still a staple of what makes Pop so successful. He listened to his players when they approached him about their being able to fulfill other roles on the team and adapted his team, using those suggestions, to make them better. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his idea, it just mattered if it worked or not. In his coaching staff, yes men are not welcome and new ideas are encouraged and expected.
Current Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr told about his run in with Pop when he was out of the rotation and sulking. Instead of ignoring Kerr and yelling and screaming, Pop simply said, “Your body language is terrible. I know you're not playing, but you're a pro who's always handled yourself well, and now you're not. It doesn't look right, and I need you on the bench.” Kerr appreciated the honest wake-up call and returned to the bench, gladly.
Pop will also make the culture surrounding his team fun. “One of the ways you do that is let them think you're a little crazy, that you're interested in things outside of basketball.” He says. “Are there weapons of mass destruction? Or aren't there? What, don't you read the papers? You have to give the message that the world is wider than a basketball court."

He’s also an outside the box thinker in a sport where xeroxing the personnel and playbook of the championship flavor of the month is the status quo. The Spurs were the quintessential defensive equivalent of a wall through most of the mid to late 2000’s but a slew of international youth, surrounding his core, gave his team a chance to out run and gun teams the last few years. A bad one minute of basketball in game 6 of the 2013 NBA Championship cost his team a chance to repeat this year. He learned from his mistakes and let his horses run this year, played the bench more but never wavered in his expectations of them and they delivered in the most crucial time of the season. The San Antonio bench outscored Miami’s reserves by 76 points over the 5 game series; Trust and faith.

Why is Pop so successful? Because he is a coach, the kind of coach we should aspire to be with the responsibilities and attributes that the best in our profession hold up for us to follow.

Thanks Pop.