Saturday, March 8, 2014

California Adventures- Riding the Wave

It’s a tent, a big tent, big enough to hold three volleyball courts under its vinyl walls and pipe masts. It’s a white ship off the distance from the I-805 tucked inside tall trees and tennis courts. It’s the kind of structure that Revival meetings would be envious of.

Tonight, it is the home to the USA Women’s National Training team. The Wave Volleyball club, wanting to show it’s younger athletes a few of their alma mater with white names on the back of navy and red USA jerseys, set up this scrimmage and what started out as a trickle became a packed tent within the hour. They love their volleyball in Southern California.

Head USA Coach Karch Kiraly held a mini coach’s clinic before the festivities began. He was deliberate in his speech and presentation and thoughtful in making sure he answered everyone’s questions, which ranged from how to address confidence issues on the National Team to what to do when your 14-4’s team is having a rough serving day. He spun a small white board around and at once he started to coach. Written at the top, numbered 1 was:

Job One- Growth Mindset
     Athletes and Coaches
          Be Examples
          Foster in Gym

He started here. He referenced Carol Dweck’s amazing book “Mindset” and told the coaches and now several parents about the difference of a growth and fixed mindset. He said he was careful of making sure the girl’s coming into the USA gym knew and understood this. “If a player isn't a lot better in 8 weeks they won't be coming back.” He said matter of factly. He tells the players, “What got you here isn’t going to keep you here.” And he talked about how he and his coaching staff have to embrace and be the best examples of this growth mindset as they are setting up practices to make sure the players are constantly growing.

Assistant Coach Jamie Morrison took the reins for a minute. “We design our practices to look ugly and make them less ugly. Our mentality is make a mistake and fix it.” The word ugly was sprayed around a lot for the next few minutes, much to the discomfort of many a coach in the room. “Many of us think this ugly is a reflection of us as coaches, but it’s okay to train ugly.” Morrison said smiling.

He then continued into the second item on the white board:

Science of Motor Learning
     Transfer- maximize

Morrison talked about the three things they focus on in their practices: Quality contacts, a learning environment and a transfer of skill. He used the phrase “the efficiency of learning” which he described as getting the coach out of the drill. “We have to stop stealing contacts from our athletes” he pleaded, telling coaches to stop serving to start drills, let the athletes serve, or pass or enter a ball with a first contact.

Karch came back and spoke of the third item on the board:

Reading- Most important skill
     Teaching- promoting

Karch is the best example of this in the history of our game. This is not hyperbole, this is a fact. From playing on sand courts as a pre teen he learned and watched and recognized and has said many times he knew what was going to happen before it happened. He lamented how college players, who are in need of more reps and get limited training time due to NCAA rules constraints and so how as coaches do they get those athletes to read better? Karch smiled and said, his rule for reading was simple, “Don’t guess.” He used the phrase “Assess and act” and talked about teaching our players to get their eyes on the next action. This isn’t done by tossing one ball on the side of the net to one athlete at a time…play!

Well Rounded players
     All Skills
     We owe it to them, they deserve it

After finishing up a tryout a few weeks ago at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Karch and staff invited a few athletes from this tryout to come train for this 8 week block. He talked though how some of these athletes had never stepped foot in the back row. “As coaches, we owe it to them. They deserve it.” He said more than once. Six rotation players are what’s needed in his USA gym these days.

His last entry on the board was simple if not cryptic:

Just Good, not great
     What does that look like?

Athletes and coaches alike, Karch has set standards. It’s not necessary to be the greatest setter in the world, but you have to be good, really good to get invited back into the Coach’s gym harkening back to the phrase, “growth mindset” yet again.

He talked about how he wants all of his athletes jump serving. “A good jump float has two characteristics; flat and no spin or clean. We call it a ‘fleen’ serve.” The Crowd giggled. Passing should be a quiet activity with the least amount of movement, simple. So I want passing to be ‘quimple.’ He talked about how hard it is for athletes to change. “Risk is scary, but in our gym it’s okay to risk it. We want them to risk it.”

He added that for him, skills need to be mechanically efficient and with as little stress on the joints as possible. He demonstrated this by showing a baseball pitching motion in which the pitchers arm comes all the way through the pitch and one where he stops it after the balls release, putting the point across that the latter is an injury waiting to happen.

In wrapping up, Karch said, “We embrace adversity.” He talked about how it might be smart to duck the Brazilians until the 2016 games but he has scheduled a 5 match competition with the defending two time gold medalists in July. “We’ll see what we’re made of.” He said smiling.

An hour later, he was watching a “rough” scrimmage of new players, some playing out of position, some only playing back row, and at times…ugly.

Karch never wavered in his demeanor the entire 6 sets, each to 15. He coached, never yelling, instructed without demeaning, and smiled.

It’s okay to train ugly.

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