Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lessons Learned, the Az. Edition...

In the last of our series on what lessons coaches took from this past season, here are Arizona coaches, who agreed to have their lessons made public so we can learn from them as well.

"The lesson I learned from this season is the importance of mental toughness. The successful players are those that keep pushing forward even when they think they can't. That will find a way when it seems like there are none. That will keep competing and fighting when the odds are stacked against them. Training the mental side is often overlooked but so many matches are determined by a such a small margin of two points, the successful players stay mentally tough until the end. This is a skill that should be trained starting at the younger ages and have the power to take a player to the elite level."

Megan Taylor, Grand Canyon University

"The landscape of collegiate volleyball is ever changing. Student athletes who transfer from one institution to another have the opportunity to fill gaps in a team's roster that might otherwise rely on an unproven player. That is exactly what happened at Arizona this year. It was a transitional year for us because we lost six starters from our 2015 team. We were fortunate to get a transfer opposite and two defensive specialist. All three played significant roles on their previous teams. Instead of relying on the inexperience of freshman we were able to fill those position with two seniors and a junior. The addition of those three players and the development of our current returning players helped power us to a NCAA Tournament bid in what would normally be a transitional year."

David Rubio, University of Arizona

“For me, our past season was one of high achievement coupled with a sudden re-grouping due to two significant injuries. No season goes as you expect. There are always issues and concerns that present themselves that you can’t even imagine. The level in which you coach has little to do with the challenges we as coaches face. So as our season progressed and our team re-grouped, our coaching staff, in particular my assistants, played a significant role in helping our team and me. You need to have good people on your staff. You need to be able to relate and rely on them. I’ve known that as a coach – we all do. But it’s not until you get challenged as a program, do you really see the significance and impact having good people around you has on you and your team. I’m so very thankful for an outstanding staff and great assistant coaches.”

Jason Watson, Arizona State University

"This season's lesson: The importance of time off. The longer I coach, the more I firmly believe in the importance to time off. I know a lot of coaches believe in the 'no time off' philosophy. However, over the years what I have discovered is taking time off not only has enhanced my coaching, but has also helped my players stay fresh and eager. The cycle of volleyball has become unforgiving. Kids go straight from their high schools seasons to club within a week or so. Club season runs for nine months and then it's summer camps and clinics and again back to another high school season. The kids never get a break. By the time these players enter college, many are tired, lacking a love and passion for the game they once had, and many are dealing with chronic overuse injuries. I have learned that sometimes 'less is more' and that a day off here and there, can have greater benefit than any drill or practice. Chances are, if you are needing a break, your players are feeling the same."
Lisa Stuck, Glendale Community College

"This year I was reminded that how you teach players is just as important as what you teach them. Confident, relaxed, optimistic players are capable of great things. One of the best things I can do for a team is to help them keep this mindset through the stress and adversity of a season."

Ken Murphy, Northern Arizona University

Thank you Arizona Coaches for your input and we hope you have taken some lessons from the last few Coaching blogs.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Lessons Learned II...

To continue our conversation about what coaches learned from this past season, these are from High School and Collegiate Coaches from around the country. What can we learn from their lessons?

"There is an old saying, 'You can't push spaghetti, you have to drag it.'
When selecting a team, carefully choose people who have desire and heart. Cut the rest. I would rather work with players whose skill level may be inferior in the beginning, but their attitude and work ethic is great. It may take longer, but in the end you will be able to accomplish much more."

"When we listened to the kids talk about the 5 things they'll miss most... only 1 listed had to do with volleyball. So, here we have perhaps our most talented kids yet...and they love to compete, but they're here for the ride and all the team building, etc too. One of their favorite memories was our film&fun "practices" when after film we did things like play reverse charades and made cookies. So while these kids...some of our best yet....LOVE volleyball and LOVE to compete...even they remember everything else first too."

"Each season is a learning lesson for me, as I am the constant student of this game. So for me, this season was about what defines success and/or a successful season. And even though we missed the playoffs, I found myself proud of our progress this year. With such a large group of freshmen; 8 of 12, I really focused on the individual and group successes on and off the floor. When we watched film from our first match, and then film from our last match, it is night and day. This team dealt with adversity by working harder and bonding together. This team also demonstrated tremendous growth as young women off the court. So, for me, this season taught me to look at more than wins and losses for what dictates success; and to broaden my view to see the bigger picture that is in play."

"This season I learned to swallow my pride and remember that simple is better. I have always hated single blocking and considered teams who did it to be 'poor' teams. The old adage 'if one blocker is good, two is better' has always been our mantra. I pride myself on being a coach who isn’t afraid of pursuing innovative things. We took on swing blocking and jump serving at the high school level before other teams in our area had even heard of it. This year, however, our team was very small: 5’4, 5’5, 5’6, 5’7 with 5’10 and 5’11 in the middle. A few matches into the season, it was clear that our smaller kids were not getting touches on the block, and we were getting killed on tip defense because our back row was getting hammered. Our two middles are young, but they have very good timing and technique on the swing block. The little people on the outside and right side were just in their way. We decided to pull them off for defense and let the middle just swing from pin to pin. Our team this year had MORE total blocks than last season! Our MH2 had almost as many blocks as our whole team did last year. While I still hate the 'idea' of single blocking, I learned that sometimes, simple is more effective and practical scores points. We have to cater our offensive and defensive strategies to the athletes we have, not the other way around. Of course, a small part of me is still hoping our small kids will grow and get mad hops so that we can double block next year like 'real' teams and a voice in the back of my head is screaming, 'What’s next? Middle-up defense? What is this, 1985?!' but I know that my swallowing my pride and letting go of my own personal biases allowed our team to go 29-4."

"This season I learned that as a coach you need to allow your players the freedom to play well. I think too many times we as coaches are too critical about things that definitely don’t matter in the moment and today’s athletes really let that affect their confidence and performance. We had a way better second half of our season this year because I just a lot of things go and let them be them."

"I don't think I really learned anything new this year but certainly reinforced certain philosophies. No matter how good or weak my team is, hard work every day and commitment to the 'team' needs is critical. Take nothing for granted and earn it. And we can and will continue to learn and improve...even going into the practice before the championship. My team embraced this and I respected their commitment to improving everyday."

"A lesson I learned this past college season is to coach to your team’s strengths more than spending too much time on your team’s weaknesses. In the past I have been guilty of spending too much practice time and coaching emphasis on coaching to our next opponent also. This year we focused primarily on what our team was good at and how do we use those strengths to score more. Of course we spent some time on improving our weaknesses and scouting opponents but it was only about 25%-30% of our practice time. During spring season we will devote more time to improving our team’s weaknesses but during our competition season we will spend the majority of our time working on what we do best on the court."

"Patience was the #1 thing I learned from my HS experience. I get a mixed group of players from different levels of the game and many with a less diverse club experience. I do my best to keep things simple in HS and do my best to challenge players individually but don't have huge expectations of them. My goal is to make kids better in HS and do my best to make sure they have a positive experience. I held my players accountable and wanted them to achieve in everything they did, but was always realistic of what they were capable of. When we competed against powerhouse programs, I reminded them that we were not expected to win, but it would be awesome to upset!"

"Team chemistry does not guarantee wins. Winning without it is undeniably difficult but having it is not a promise of success. My
team this year was easily the most physically and athletically gifted
group of young women I have ever had the honor of working with. Mentally, we struggled. By the end of the season I knew I had missed something in the training process that as a coach I should have provided. We are taking steps now to ensure we address those issues early for next season. The girls got along amazingly well. They truly enjoyed the company of their teammates. I even had a parent tell me that her daughter told her that this was the first team she had ever played on where she got along with every one of her teammates! All of that is great but at the end of the day, we need to win games. Which we did. More than any other season in many years;14 wins. However, the team did not meet its goal of making it into the playoffs and therefore, as a program, we are disappointed with the season.
Despite the team chemistry and all the girls truly enjoying playing
together and spending time together, we still pulled away from each
other when our opponents put pressure on us during the games. This is
where our lack of mental toughness and discipline would show up.
Instead of trusting in the ability of the team to perform as a unit, we
tried to take over the game as individuals. In the end, I realize that
I designed a preseason plan that created opportunities for the team to
develop some chemistry on and off the court. I got the outcome I
wanted. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of creating mentally
strong individuals that could hold themselves together emotionally
during the toughest times of a competitive match. I have to hold them
more accountable and put more pressure on them in practice. I have to
train them to the point where they trust not just their own skills and
abilities but the skills and abilities of their teammates as well. I
also need to teach them to hold themselves and their teammates
accountable for their actions. I will have a veteran team of seniors
next year who will be highly motivated to succeed. Finding a balance
between giving them control of their team and doing what I tell them to
do as the coach will be a critical piece to our success or failure."

Thanks to these wonderful coaches who shared their lessons learned with us to help us get better. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lessons learned...

Lessons learned. We spend our seasons worrying about the little things, the big things and even the things we cannot control. But in the end, we learn. 

We asked coaches from around the country to weigh in on what lesson they learned this season past. 

This is what they learned...

"I always learn a lot but I would have to say that I realized no matter how or what is going on with parents or players I need to stay true to myself and my coaching style, coaching philosophy and mission. In the end people come and go but I have to live with myself."

"Easy question--go back to what's important--loving children, loving the game, and keeping life in perspective. Sounds simple, and usually is. However, when life took over last year, as hard as I tried to stay focused I couldn't see the forest for the trees. We always want our kids to let go of everything when they come into the gym, but I struggled doing that very thing. The harder I tried the worse I did. Funny how that works sometimes. This summer I realized I needed to be true to myself and my kids. My responsibility is to serve them and be committed to their success. I could care less what anyone thought. Thank goodness my girls are so unconditional. They just loved me through it and forgave me without hesitation. We had a great year, made wonderful memories and are looking forward. Life is good. Everyday is a blessing. I am so lucky to be able to have the job I have and enjoy these kids. Life doesn't fall apart--it falls into place if we just let it. It's a great time to be a Lady Tiger!!!"

"The most important thing that I learned this year for my 9-11th grade 'B' team was it was important to let them play through their mistakes to gain confidence rather than sub them out."

"I think I learned that towards the end of the season it is more important for the kids just to play and that we aren't going to make any HUGE changes in their skills-just let them play 3 on 3, 4 on 4, 6 on 6 drills and make it fun. I knew this before but it was really reiterated this season when we had 2 weeks between our last game and Region tournaments. The days I tried to focus a little more on passing or hitting fundamentals were a bust and the girls did not enjoy practice or get much out of it because they weren't invested."

"This season I was reminded that the most important things my volleyball players will learn from playing volleyball has nothing to do with volleyball. We tried something new this year and had a weekly discussion called 'Monday Moments' where we discussed different aspects of what it means to be healthy. Some weeks I had the girls come prepared with short presentations, we discussed the different character traits in John Wooden's Pyramid, we talked about confidence, we discussed the importance of sleep, time management, etc. This started out as a way to use time while we waited for the court, but became an amazing bonding tool. The girls referenced the things we discussed multiple times during matches and games. It was 15 minutes once a week, but they really looked forward to it and taught each other so much."
"Every time they bring something up from our discussions, it reminds me what it's all really about. Keeps me from getting too caught up in the competition and from forgetting that I'm dealing with people. Amazing young people. They may not always be volleyball players, but they'll always be people who I got to have an influence on for a short time, so my goal is to make it count."

"The most important lesson I learned this year was to trust my assistant coaches more. I am very stubborn in my ways especially when a game is going on. My assistant coaches are watching the girls more than the game itself and can see when they are having a bad day quicker then I can. Usually they will tell me to take someone out for another girl and I was quick to say they are playing fine and no sub is needed. Early in the season it didn't burn my team at all to leave the girl in but I always noticed on film the girl struggling and remembering my assistant coaches telling me to sub one in for her. As the season wore on I would trust my assistant coaches and their judgement more because of this early season lesson I learned. It helped us more than it hurt us to listen to them and use their judgement. I wouldn't always listen to them but they were right more times then they were wrong."

"I learned that through injuries and adversity you need to remain steadfast in your beliefs and positive to a fault.  We struggled all year and could have thrown in the towel on a less than stellar season, but kept coming to work each day and talking about a team goal that could still be reached.  Focus on what lies ahead and do not dwell on things of the past.  We were able to play our best volleyball down the stretch and win our district for the 3rd year in a row.  We also managed to get to 10 wins when at first it looked as though we'd remain in single digits.  Keeping positive and focusing on energetic practices and improving on areas we could improve on each day kept the team together and working towards a very reachable goal at seasons end.  Also, not being afraid to take days off late in the season to allow kids to rest and recover both mentally and physically kept them wanting to come to practice."

"I learned the hard way this season: one player who is NOT invested can and will be the downfall of the entire team and its mission. In three seasons, I had established a culture at my high school and a theme that had been our foundation: 'Heart and Hustle.' We don’t have big kids or a big offense, so we’ve had to rely on our defense and our 'never let a ball touch the floor' mentality. I lost my setter this year because of concussions, so I was in trouble at the beginning of the season. When I got word that a 5’10” senior setter AND her 5’10” freshmen OH/MB were moving in, I thought my prayers were answered. They weren’t. This kid became our biggest nightmare because of her moodiness and her lack of commitment to what my other seniors had been working towards for three seasons. They didn’t understand – and I couldn’t seem to coach above this kid’s attitude. I had no other setter, so I had to have her on my court. While we still finished third behind the #1 and #2 teams in our state, we didn’t make it out of our Regional tournament, and for the first time in 3 seasons, didn’t make the state tourney. It was a tough lesson to learn, but the old adage is certainly true: you’re only as strong as your weakest link."

"The most important thing I learned from this season is the power of a true 'Team First' atmosphere. One of our mottos for this season was '14 Strong!' We had 14 girls on the roster, and we called on each and every one of them to make big plays on our way to our first league championship in 23 years. As an example, during one of our matches versus the eventual 2nd place team, we were down 5-9 in the fifth set. My libero was struggling and had a bit of a breakdown. I called on one of my outside hitters (who hadn't played at all during the first 4 1/2 sets) to come in as a defensive specialist for her. My outside hitter came in and did AMAZING. She made amazing dig after amazing dig. We ended up winning the set 15-13. This type of thing happened several times throughout the season. Every one of the girls stepped up in different ways at crucial moments."
"This example shows the power of the team. My bench worked very hard to maintain a positive attitude, even if they weren't playing, and to always stay ready to come in and contribute in whatever way they could for the team. As a team, we celebrated each other's successes and all the girls made sure that they were never bitter or negative if someone they were directly competing with for court time was finding success on the court. We were able to compete and win because we were '14 STRONG' all season long."

As you can see, most lessons weren't on court lessons but lessons about people- trusting, getting them invested and enjoying the process, the 'ride.'

More to come....stay tuned!

Friday, November 27, 2015


Our Netflix and HBO Go accounts are full of movies that we watch when we have a down night, when practice gets cancelled or you just need a few hours away from the world. We use them to escape, we use them to gain knowledge and a lot of times, use them to just kill an empty 2 hours in your week.

So how about giving up one of your movies in the next few weeks to get better at our craft. As we say here often, we shouldn’t expect our athletes to get better if we won’t do the same.

Let’s take the time of a motion picture and work at growing our coaching mind and resources.

First, let’s tackle just being better at our skills with others: our athletes especially but how about parents and fellow coaches as well:

Brene’ Brown on Empathy


How much can we learn from those great coaches who go before us?

John Wooden: the Difference between Winning and Succeeding

Anson Dorrance: Grading Character

How to understand the science in our sport better...

...and realize sometimes we just need to be 'the pat on the back.'

How sometimes we should see size in a heart, not a body.

How through empathetic eyes, we can work through what our parents do.

Why you should always skip your kids baseball games

And even how to do our job better with simple tools.

Making White Boards on a Coach’s Salary

You have probably seen many if not all of these videos, but in the time it would take to watch Adam Sandler's new release or rewatch "The Hunger Games" we can maybe get a little better at what we are passionate about in just a shade under two hours.

Popcorn is of course, optional.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Be a Shark...

Imagine that as a coach, you got this e mail from your 6-1 outside hitter on Thursday afternoon around 4:45 p.m.

“Hey Coach, sorry I can’t make practice today. I have to do this research paper that is due tomorrow. Our stupid teacher assigned it like two months ago but didn’t remind us about it until this week. I know what I’m going to write about so it should be easy. I just need to get a C or better on it to keep my C in the class so I don’t have to spend that much time on it but still, I have to miss tonight.
I will of course be there Saturday to play.
By the way, me and Kayla skipped out on weights Wed. We just shuffled around the bleachers and the weight coach didn’t even know we were missing. We stayed in the snack bar playing ‘Candy Crush’ until Kayla’s mom picked us up. She asked why we weren’t even sweating and Kayla just told her we finished earlier than the other girls. SO funny!
Anyway coach, I know you understand. See you Saturday.”

I doubt any coach would get this e mail and be okay with what this athlete is saying, doing or the behavior she is displaying. As her coach, DO you understand?

The Region got this e mail a few weeks ago. “I am the club director for XXX Volleyball and a long time coach in Arizona. I was just taking the IMPACT course online and they said that the certification was a lifetime certification. I am hoping that it would be possible to petition to have a vote brought about to remove the 3 year renewal requirement from the AZ region. Thank you!”

And still last season, a coach sitting in an IMPACT class, when asked what he hoped to get out of it responded, “I want to do the least I can to be able to coach in the Region.”

Hard to imagine sometimes how our athlete’s get their ideas to do just enough to get by...

The Sport in America survey found that coaches are the leading positive influence on today’s youth.

So what kind of influence are we on our athletes when we tell them, either through our words or actions, that we don’t need to get better at what we are doing. We are fine just where we are?

This blog has talked a lot about growth and fixed mindsets. Coaches will stress it to their athletes and then do the absolute least they can to coach those same athletes. Isn’t it time that double standard dissolves?

How about making small efforts to become better at your craft?

This is a terrific podcast (that you can listen to on your computer or phone) with Karch Kiraly on his upbringing, his philosophy and why he coaches the Women’s National team the way he does. It’s an hour. How much time did you spend scrolling instagram, snapchat and facebook today?

The Kansas City Royals just won the World Series. Have you thought about how good of a manager they must have had to navigate a 162 game regular season, the playoffs and then win the World Series? Thank goodness this New York Times writer did. It’ll take 10 minutes to crack it out. How long were you in the Starbucks drive thru today?

One of the great coaches in the world, one that you probably have never heard of, talks about A B C’s: “You Assume something through analysis. Believe nothing and go out and Confirm it.” He also says he tries to simplify everything for his athletes and even his own coaching which he says simply, “Make sure we get better at what we do.” He is a coach named Steve Hansen and he coaches the world’s best rugby team known as the ‘All-Blacks’ because of their uniforms. Google him and read some of his interviews instead of finding out what Brad and Angelina said on the Today show this morning…

Interested in how the San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich builds and manages his team? Check out his blueprint of success, another 10 minute read which might keep you from your daily TMZ fix for a bit.

On You Tube, check out this impassioned 17 minutes North Carolina Women’s Soccer coach Anson Dorrance conducts about character and how he treats his team who has won 22 of 24 National Championships.

Social media has made learning a click and a scroll. No more books or reading for hours and hours. It's fast, it's visual, it's immediate. You just have to go look for it.

Like a shark, coaches have to move or die. Coaches that spend their lifetimes coaching their teams and athletes the same way they did 10, 15 or 20 years ago will struggle to connect with this generation and ultimately, no matter how deep and impressive the resume’, will lose them.

You expect every athlete you have to give you their best: at practice, in matches and hopefully off the court as well.

Don’t we owe them exactly the same thing?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bamboo and a Better Self....

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”- Mother Teresa

We’ve become so engrained with how indoor volleyball should be: nice gym floors made of wood or tile with shiny red or blue poles surrounded by thick padding and pristine black and white game nets in use because the practice nets might have a small tear in them or seem dingy. Uniforms splashed with color and screaming the name of the player underneath huddled around pre and post match acreage of food and snacks and more water and Gatorade than can be consumed by 12 players in a month. 

Inclement weather; hot, cold or rain affording everyone a chance to tell their stories of what a struggle it was to get there and get set up. Officials smartly outfitted with navy blue pants, white shoes and colored shirt of the day overseeing score boards and deflecting the parent heckling of their miscues, whether real or imagined. Players tossing a ball aside because it’s “too hard” or doesn’t feel right. The court living and dying with each point; mistakes magnified with gasps and catcalls and winners given rousing ovations from the crowd and bench alike. Players meandering through team cheers that seemed much more clever at the beginning of the season. 

Finally a match ends and one side, gripped with disappointment and anger, the other with jubilation and relief. A quick meeting with the coach and then on to the next one; an assembly line of recreation with the grandeur of a college scholarship at the end of the rainbow for some, and often a torrent of disappointment and excuses for those that fall short.

Two coaches from the world described above went across the globe and found another world. Seventeen hours into a calendar day disappeared and they arrived in the Philippine Islands: Manila to be exact. It was a discovery wholly unexpected but the kind of sojourn that can help define a person’s make up going forward: a recipe for maybe finding their better self.

These are the lessons of that journey. (video)

They landed in a world of indescribable poverty: a place where most of us would only be aware of because of pictures in a National Geographic or an ad in Us magazine asking for a donation. Small children being bathed on the street in a bucket, cardboard boxes used as building materials on a roadside or on the banks of a river keeping the relentless rain or merciless sun off a family or two…or three. Small children putting blank faces onto a car window at a stop light begging, their blank eyes looking through you and neighborhood after neighborhood built out of corrugated steel panels and makeshift wood and mortar. Many sheds in American backyards are constructed more soundly.

The journey began with many lessons to be learned for these two American coaches. They walked into their first clinic onto a high school campus and realized how Dorothy felt leaving Kansas. Two large security doors opened up and upon driving into the campus, students were busy: some heading to class but many sweeping the grounds, picking up the leaves and branches from the storm the night before, hauling trash and helping with the day to day workings of the school. There was no janitor, this was the student’s school and they were expected to keep it tidy. The gym was a metal roof supported by four beams, no walls. The volleyball net was intact but held up by the resourcefulness of a school PE teacher and fancy knots, affixed to metal poles sitting in a rounded piling of cement that made it easier to roll on and off the concrete basketball court. Fifty students, male and female were seated quietly awaiting a chance to forget, if only for a few hours, some of the struggles their daily life presented them, by playing volleyball.

The coaches quickly learned that a gym doesn’t’ always need walls to make it a sanctuary for aspiring athletes and for some, a home. These students, who had to apply, write a paper and take a test for the chance to be part of this program, listened intently to the instruction given. English was spoken here but it was fragmented and oft times misused. The coaches out of necessity spoke less, showed more and kept the group moving, rep after rep. They realized that a simple rope strung across the court lengthwise and tied to basket supports and tape helped to untie the traditions of only playing over a “real” net and afforded all fifty students an exposure to game like reps.

An afternoon thunderstorm that would lead the local news in some parts of the country was a shrug and an inconvenience when the ball would roll out from under the roof and a player would wipe it dry with their hands and shirt and get back to their team. The heat and humidity was stifling at times but it never slowed anyone down: coaches or athletes. At the end of the clinic, the students would play: 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 across the rope and with every point would do a cheer which morphed into dances, songs and celebrations of pure happiness. From the first clinic, in a foreign land, two coaches had learned a most valuable and universal commodity: the power of play.

They took to heart how much everything they did was appreciated and not one minute, not one, was wasted or taken for granted by these student athletes or their teachers. The coaches brought an enthusiasm with them that mirrored that of the athletes they were helping and the reciprocity was a conduit for electric coaching and teaching moments. As the energy drew down a bit, the coaches thinking the athletes had hit their wall, were once again blindsided by a fact that permeates the poorer parts of Manila. School starts at 7 a.m. and goes until 1 p.m. and then another shift of students comes in from 1 p.m. till 7 p.m. The players weren’t tired.

They were hungry.

They hadn’t eaten for 6 hours or longer. The program the coaches worked for fed every player and or coach at the end of every clinic. There was never anyone asking for more, no one taking two of anything. The meals/snacks were sandwiches and a banana and water. One clinic was a hardboiled egg and a banana. No one took cuts in line, no one left trash behind. It wasn’t so much a treat but a necessity for many.

The week went on: two clinics a day, sometimes three. It was never a grind for the coaches, they summoned more and more from those they were with. One day was spent at a facility for girls who were abused, had issues with law enforcement or were trafficked. That word was used far more in one week than should be used in a lifetime but it is a stark reality in the Philippines where some daughters are sold into slavery for $20 U.S. by their parent. The sheer cliff of emotion that must be faced every day is simply unfathomable. The facility, called appropriately “The Haven” was another outdoor gym with a roof that echoed the afternoon rain. With over 100 girls on the court in two different sessions, over 200 in all, the rope and inventive games were used to get the girls engaged and playing. Again, hunger became an issue as some faded toward the afternoon but the coaches saw an amazing array of human spirit and fortitude. Looking into the eyes, the faces and imagining what horrors these young women between the ages of 10-24 had been through, the coach’s souls were bruised a bit but their hearts grew outside themselves.

After the 200+ girls at “The Haven” were ready to head back to their dorms, they delighted the coaches and program hosts with a show. Several of the girls danced hip hop, another sang beautifully and a few others donned traditional costume and danced, making their ancestors proud. At the end, a giant hip hop parade with almost all the girls commenced and the “whip” and the “nene” took over the cement court. Looking at the scene, it was a clip from a movie a parent had taken 100 times on their iPhone at a local club tournament starring their daughter and her friends. While this was on the other side of the world, it still seemed so familiar but both coaches felt what the girls felt at that moment: they were home.

The Americans took a flight mid week to the island of Cebu and got a chance to work with students studying to be PE teachers. The coaches saw a chance to open minds and showed them sitting volleyball: not only as an option for schools without a volleyball net or poles but also an option when their students hadn’t had enough to eat and needed a fun game that required less cardio tolerance. Next up was Smashball and showing the teachers how to let their students hit a ball first and fall in love with the game, then add the skills as they went along. Finally, once again over a rope, they played. They laughed and just like the kids they’ll teach soon, they danced on points won, strategized on points lost and showed pure effort and passion with each serve. At the whistle, they stopped: labored breathing through toothy grins and smiles. The coaches cajoled them to remember what they felt at that moment: the power of play.

Toward the end of the week, the coaches spent time at an orphanage for kids once again abandoned, abused or trafficked by a parent. Like many of the other stops along the way, a group of the students sang the coaches and program folks a hello song, welcoming us to their home. The head of the site spoke and as she did, the remnants of the typhoon that had soaked the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines the previous day cleared to blue, promising skies. The coaches unleashed the entire school onto yet again another outside court and watched as the younger and older kids mixed together all over the grounds, practicing their passing and attacking and serving. Some set for their friends and got to crank balls over a real net while others were content playing off a wall with a friend. They were finding their own path. The coaches, helping where they were asked, did what worked the best. They got out of the way.

The last day with coaches and players was a brutally hot and humid outing into a southern part of Manila. The youth coaches in the morning session took in all they could from the two Americans and learned not only skills but drills to effectively raise the amount of contacts in an overfilled but understaffed gym. They learned how to set up drills that the kids ran themselves so they got to do what their name tags said: coach. They learned more sitting and smashball and how a rope can be a liberating piece of equipment. In the afternoon came the players of many of the morning coaches. They once again learned skills and played, ran drills and played, and played and played. If smiles were the currency by which the American’s were to use that afternoon, they were rich beyond their wildest dreams. With pictures, hugs and tearful goodbyes, the week was over; the coaches were heading to their home but felt like the entire week they had been there all along.

One thing through the eight days stuck out to both coaches: the people. Manila is a city of 22 million of them in a country of 110 million. Pollution, poverty, traffic that makes the 405 look like a bike lane in Houston and hot humid weather should have been a point of contention the entire week, but neither coach noticed…because of the people.

One of the programs directors told the coaches upon their first meeting that the Philippine people are resilient and unbreakable, just like the bamboo that blankets the islands. Those few words described every personal interaction the American guests had all week. Throughout all the humidity, the hunger, the rain and the overpopulated courts, not one complaint was uttered, not one player cried or took umbrage to someone else’s abilities or success. Often times, the older athletes helped the younger ones with no one asking. Often those that struggled looked to their peers who would stop what they were doing to help. It was the people; the beautiful, gracious, charming, polite and humble people of the Philippine Islands that were the success of this story.
Two American coaches came to the Islands and left; humbled by what they saw, humbled by what they were able to be a part of and most of all, humbled by the resiliency of the human spirit displayed daily to them in the eyes and faces of those they spent the week with. These two grateful coaches were lead to their better selves over the week and will use it to make those around them better. It’s in the wind, between the bamboo stalks; humbled smiles.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Looking a little deeper....

They’re out there. Sometimes they’re easy to find, sitting on a bench beside their players, sometimes in their offices surrounded by shiny metallic fruits of their labor and sometimes they are out in front of you sharing their knowledge with the room, or the arena.

Great coaches are out there. Sometimes they are found in obvious places, sometimes you have to look a little deeper.

Six wooded miles east of I-49, just 40 minutes north of the Arkansas border in the town of Diamond, Mo. is a monument to someone most of us associate with the peanut. George Washington Carver’s National Monument, the first National Monument dedicated to an African American in US history in 1943 by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As you stroll the grounds of the house GWC was brought up, there are markers of quotes attributed to GWC. One on the right at entry is telling: “The further anyone gets away from themselves, the greater will be their success in life. You can’t get very far in life if you don’t get away from self…and see a richer and broader horizon.”

Coaching is about education. Coaching is about earning trust, gaining buy in and staying educated in what you are teaching. Coaching examples are found all around us if we look a little deeper.

He was born into slavery in 1864 but his mother and he were kidnapped when he was an infant. He was found and returned to his original owners, the Carvers, dying of whooping cough. His mother was never found and he never knew who his father was but once slavery was abolished, he was raised by the Carver family as one of their own. His frail health allowed him to be freed up of the daily chores and he began to explore the forest and grew an appreciation and a self education with plants and crops.

Being poor and black in the South in the late 1800’s was adversity defined for so many but GWC saw education as his way out and despite his skin color, he went around, over and through walls to get educated.

He was an exceptional painter and his art was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair. He was the first African American to graduate and the first to earn a faculty position from what is now Iowa State University. He was appointed Director of the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School in Tuskegee, Alabama where he stayed for 5 decades.

What Carver probably didn’t know at the time is much of what he did going forward is what coaches today strive for. In 1898, he began publishing a series of Bulletins for farmers knowing he couldn’t meet or talk with as many as he could with this tool. His first was titled; “Feeding Acorns” and he continued to publish them for 45 years until his final entry in 1943 titled simply, “The Peanut.”

He knew however that many farmers couldn’t read nor had access to those who could read in the family and he continued to work to get his message to his audience. He teamed with a philanthropist to develop the Jesup Wagon: an education on wheels that travelled the south in May of 1906 teaching farmers about crops, rotation, tools and better ways to utilize their resources. The wagon had visuals and hands on demonstrations of what he was teaching and for 8 months Carver would bounce on dusty, dirt roads going miles at a time, every day to share his secrets, his passion and his education with those in need. In November he went back to Tuskegee to teach and the successful idea of the Jesup Wagon continued through the south manned by others.

In the coming years of Carver’s life, he would dissect the peanut into hundreds of different uses making it a simple but valuable cash crop for farmers in the south. He did the same with the sweet potato and earned a reputation that saw him address the United States Congress, council President Theodore Roosevelt and educate India’s Mahatma Gandhi on agricultural issues. For all of his inventions and ideas he rarely patented any of them, calling into how long it took for the process when they were needed immediately and as he so eloquently said, the ideas were a gift from God and should be free for others.

Carver was a master educator who saw the benefit of visual teachings, who tried to reach a wide audience and helped word of mouth spread his ideas to help thousands of farmers profit from his ideas. Carver died in 1943 after falling down the steps of his home but his inventions and ideas are still around us on a daily basis.

In a letter from 1922, Carver wrote a thank you to a student who had given him a fountain pen for Christmas. In the note, he talked about his Eight Cardinal Virtues which constitute a lady or gentleman:

1. Be clean inside and outside

2. Who neither looks up to the rich or down on the poor.

3. Who loses, if need be, without squealing.

4. Who wins without bragging.

5. Who is always considerate of women, children and old people.

6. Who is too brave to lie.

7. Who is too generous to cheat.

8. Who takes his share of the world and lets other people have theirs.

It’s almost as if Carver was writing a coaching manual in the letter.

The great thing about history is that there are examples of great coaches throughout time. Battle tested coaches, inspirational coaches, honest and tough and humane coaches. It’s our job to look for them, to find those qualities that are in both great coaches and historically great people like George Washington Carver.

As he said so eloquently, “No individual has any right to come into this world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.”

Just stop and look around. They aren’t as far as you think. Just look a little deeper.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reclamation and Scars....

Off of 20th street in a section of Joplin that is both deserted and revitalizing all at once, it stands tall but stark: “The Spirit Tree.” It is the skeletal remains of a once thriving shade tree that has been through literal hell and back. The bark shredded off it, its leaves and smaller branches pulled away. It has been painted by local folks from town to resemble a Native American “Spirit stick.” But what it symbolizes is much more.

On Sunday, May 22nd, 2011, Joplin, Missouri was under a tornado warning, not an uncommon occurrence in the Midwest in the summer. Twenty minutes after the warning, at 5:34 p.m. Joplin was leveled. An EF5 level tornado, (described in the movie ‘Twister‘ as “the finger of God…”) dove into the city’s midsection a mile wide and devastated the earth for over 22 total miles taking property and lives at numbers the United States had never seen before. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and a Pepsi plant were demolished. The nine story St. John’s Medical Center was spun completely off of its foundation..

In the days that followed, the sheer ferocity of the tornado’s wrath became historic. One hundred and sixty two people lost their lives and 1,150 more were injured. Almost 7,000 homes were destroyed and countless other homes and businesses were in need of major and minor repairs. To this day, the path of the violence is landmarked with new buildings and bare cement foundations, new trees and “Spirit Trees.” The city of Joplin continues to rebuild.

Three miles north of downtown Joplin is the expanse that is Missouri Southern State University. On that day, just before the tornado touched down, the Joplin High School graduation finished up there. Had the graduation been at the high school, the body count most surely would have been higher.

The volleyball coach points out that the tornado was toward the campus of MSSU but for some inexplicable reason, veered sharply right into the aorta of Joplin. That coach is John Napier.

Napier is a name many of you in Arizona might know. He was at Northern Arizona University for many years as an assistant coach. He also coached club in Flagstaff and recruited for the school. He is a retired Air Force Major after 22+ years and brings that to a resume’ that also includes a stop in Akron early in his career and an assistant ‘s position at Boston College before he got the head coaching gig in Joplin, Mo.

Two and a half years after the tornado, Napier was hired. He listened to the stories, toured the site of the devastation and was touched by how many people he now worked with or coached that had lost someone, friends or family injured or had their homes damaged or destroyed. He admired their grit. Twenty two years in the military: Napier knows grit. And it’s what he is using to bring back his volleyball program: a rebuilding in the shadow of a city’s reclamation.

So many coaches love the idea of having their own college program but Napier is quick to point out that every program is beset with their own issues and idiosyncrasies that dictate how a coach goes forward. “When you are recruiting at Northern Arizona for example, it’s a beautiful campus and you can play some of that into the recruiting.” Napier says. “Here at MSSU, you are dealing with a lot of Division I schools within 30, 40, 50 miles and for some kids they only want to play Division I, Division II is not an option. My challenge here is to make Division II an option. We’re in a conference now that is maybe one of the toughest DII conferences in the country. I’ve coached Division I and the quality of players is definitely at the mid major level of Division I and that’s how I recruit these kids: it’s great competition and you’ll be playing against some of the better kids in the region.”

He’s had to reach out of the area to help his program get better faster. A recruit from Wisconsin is coming in this season and possible recruits from Colorado and Mississippi the year after. “These first couple of years I may have to reach out and bring some kids in from a greater distance and build a program that way but by 2017, I really want us to be an option for the kids in Missouri and all the surrounding states. For our school to be an option for those kids, it’s going to take years, 2017…2018 is what I’m thinking.” Napier predicts.

He’s helped his brand at MSSU by doing free clinics in the surrounding areas, talking to high school coaches and selling himself as well as his institution which has started putting more money into the athletic facilities. “We’re slowly branching out and getting to meet more potential athletes from the region.” John notes.

One of the things that separates Napier from his contemporaries is a military background. But it’s surprising how he uses this to help his teams get better. He explains:

“Twenty some years in the military and you think I’d have all sorts of rules but I’ve learned if you just let kids go, they’ll do amazing things. That’s kind of my mantra this past year: just let em’ go. We'll do what we need to do in practice but once the match comes around, I tell them I won’t even call a timeout in this match unless I see panic in their eyes. If not, go out there and learn this game, learn how to come back. They have to be free and independent thinkers and that was the main thing we did last year.”

Napier learned this lesson in officer basic training where he was in charge of training up to 30 cadets for two summers. “You have to do all that yelling and screaming but you realize that stuff doesn’t work. The first summer I was really interactive: yelling and screaming and really getting on them and I don’t think they performed well. I did the complete opposite the second one and just let the kids figure thngs out on their own; just let them go, stepped back and evaluated their potential.It was a much different and improved performance by those cadets. So I employed that approach this past season and whether or not it was the reason for the little successes we had, I’m not sure. Five conference victories was a big deal for us after two previous seasons with NO conference victories, we doubled our victories last year from the season before and we had the number one blocker in the nation. I doubt that’s all from the philosophy I was talking about but still, just let these kids go. Give them the information and let them figure things out, ask them guiding questions along the way and they’ll answer their own questions instead of me telling them. You know, ‘Why did this work’ or ‘Why didn’t that work’ and they have to think through it. That was my philosophy last year, it may change this year...who knows?”

When it came to on court things, Napier decided that simpler was better. “We looked at the numbers and started with the basics. Our service errors were pretty high. Our serving errors to aces ratio was not good so we worked on serving, one of the simplest things out there. Before I got here, the team had so many unforced errors but if you look at this past year, our ball handling errors went down, our blocking errors went down, our serving errors went down and our offense went up a little bit. We just reduced errors and I think that came from just simplifying the game and not overthinking it too much.”

Napier is patient and knows that he doesn’t have a Penn State or Nebraska under his guard, so he realizes things will be in small steps. “I don’t expect immediate huge improvement because I know it’s going to take time. This year our goal is to make the conference tournament which takes the top 8 teams out of 12. I want to be the 8th seed if I’m being realistic about what we’re doing. We need to defeat our rival too. We beat them twice last season which I found out was a huge deal. After we beat them the second time, I was just thinking ‘it’s just a volleyball match, come on guys.’ But being new, you don’t know the significance of it. I thought I was going to get a key to the city and be elected Mayor the next day in the office.”

Along the way, players that don’t buy into what a new coach is doing will likely not be there at the end. “I made some roster changes to kind of help us get to the culture we want.” Napier says somberly. “You’ve got to buy in academically and you have to buy in to what we’re doing athletically. If you aren’t on those pages, you’ll probably find yourself playing for another school or not playing."

Napier has spent his first season tackling recruiting, a team’s philosophy, selling himself and his program, figuring out opponents and creating a positive culture. He is on his way to that rebuilding but it is hard work, hours both thankless and countless: but it’s HIS program. He loves the challenge and employs the grit.

John was asked what advice he would give to those who were looking at their first college coaching job and again, his answer was surprising. “I would say diversify what you do. Do other things besides coaching, go do something else. I was fortunate to be in the military and I learned a ton about leadership and followship. I've blended what I've learned into what I do now.If you ever get a head coaching job, bring whatever you learned outside of coaching and bring it into your philsophy. I see coaches who have been coaching all of their lives and they do some negative things to people that you couldn't even get away with in the military. I consider myself to be a positive coach, I don’t yell and scream on the sidelines but I have seen the coaches that do and thjey have been in this profession their whole lives. You would think being in the military I would be a yeller and a screamer but I've learned that stuff doesn’t work. Maybe for three days or so but then they check out and it goes in one ear and out the other.” John smiles and says shaking his head, “Just do something else.”

On the wall of the MSSU Lion’s volleyball locker room is a poster of a lion that has seen obvious battle. On the poster, the quote says: “Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.” It is attributed to “Unknown.” In this locker room, in this gym and in this wonderful town of Joplin, they all know scars, they all know grit and they are all rebuilding: programs, houses, families and lives. It may seem crass to compare the rebuilding of a volleyball program to that of rebuilding a city scarred by Mother Nature, but one of the things that comes from all of this is the sense of community; people helping people. It’s what will help John Napier realize his goal of making MSSU a factor in collegiate volleyball in the Midwest. It’s what got so many through those days in May in 2011 and continues to help people get through the memories, the scars. They are all in this together.

“…you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Cup of Hindsight...

A day after the country celebrated our day of independence, the United States Women’s World Cup Team and their coach, Jill Ellis, earned theirs. The team defeated Japan 5-2 in the Finals and put to rest the three weeks of online and print haranguing that follows coaches into big series and events. But along the way, Ellis’ ability to look past the noise and focus on the signal (Thank you Nate Silver for your great book) helped keep the team leveled and working hard.

How would you feel if this was written about you along your last Club or High School season?

On March 9th, a full 3 months before the World Cup began, Iceland Head Coach Freyr Alesandersson said after his 20th ranked team held the second ranked United States to a 0-0 draw he’d be “very unhappy” with his team had it played the same way. “We forced them to play the long ball since after watching their first two games; we saw that when they get under pressure they tend to resort to the long ball. I don’t understand it because they can play the ball on the grass. I would expect a team 20 seeds (ahead of us in the world rankings) would trash us.’’

World Cup begins on June 6th.

Soccer blogger Sarah Gehrke wrote for Slate on June 8th before the USA’s first match, “Ellis has focused her experimentation primarily on tactical formations…. Ellis’ tinkering has yet to yield any measurable progress, and the team finished 2014 and began 2015 on uneven notes, losing 3–2 to Brazil and 2–0 to France before eking out a 1–0 win over England. Performances, however, have yet to bear out any of those talking points. It’s never a good idea to read too much into friendlies during the buildup to a major tournament… but the U.S. has looked like a team with plenty of work to do if it is going to capture the trophy the program has been doggedly pursuing for the past 16 years."

June 8th, the USA 3, Australia 1.

On June 9th, Nate Scott of USA Today wrote, “This style of play will work against a team like Australia, who were missing two starters and couldn’t compete physically all over the field with the Americans. But it won’t work against the world’s best, and if this is the way the United States is going to play this World Cup, they will not win. It doesn’t matter how good Hope Solo is–the United States can’t win if they play like this….There is a ton of talent on this American team, and some creative and exciting players who aren’t afraid to try things on the offensive end. Ellis has to have the confidence to let her players play the game.”
Kevin McCauley of SB Nation also wrote after the Australia match, “But this team is not good enough to win the World Cup right now, and the problems are patently obvious. They're the same problems everyone who watches their games has been screaming about since Ellis took over, and she hasn't done anything about them yet. More likely than not, she'll persist with this team or some slightly altered variation of it; her substitutes suggested that she doesn't recognize the problems.”

June 12th, the USA 0, Sweden 0.

June 16th, USA 1, Nigeria 0

On June 17th, McCauley of SB Nation wrote, “It was just the latest in a series of events where Ellis' comments and in-game actions do not match up. The words that she speaks almost never align with what happens on the pitch, or what players she selects for her team.”

June 22nd, USA 2, Colombia 0

On June 22nd, former USA Men’s National Team player Eric Wynalda suggested that Ellis’s tactics were too conservative in a post game interview. “The performance was pathetic, and it’s not the players’ fault. We have plenty of players who can go at teams, plenty of players who can score goals, but the reins have been pulled on them.”

Michelle Akers, who helped the United States win World Cup titles in 1991 and ’99, questioned Ellis’s personnel decisions and lineups after the match.“Some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable. When I say, 'Hey man, I'll take an ugly World Cup win,’ I'm dealing with the now. And the now is, we don't have all our pieces together, we aren't performing at our best, some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable. If [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our US team, you know what I'm saying?"

June 23, Jeff Kassouf of the Equalizer Soccer blog wrote, “In the end, as Ellis said, a win’s a win. But the Americans haven’t yet put together a fully convincing 90 minutes at this World Cup, often coming alive in the second halves of games. And against Germany and France, especially Germany and France which finally showed up in the Round of 16- flat starts just aren’t going to cut it.”

On June 24th, Andrew Keh of the New York Times wrote, “To some critics, the direction from Coach Jill Ellis has been precisely the problem. There has been little passing flow and apparently little effort to correct that.Concerned voices emerged strongly during and after the game Monday, in which Colombia, a much less accomplished team, seemed to control the pace of play for long stretches despite playing almost half the game with one fewer player.”

The Equalizer’s Kassouf wrote again before the June 26th China match, “Should it all come together, the US is capable of beating any team in the world. That much has never been in doubt even before the tournament. The talent is there but the execution needs to match it. Thus far, it hasn’t. Friday is another opportunity to change that.”

June 26th, USA 1, China 0

June 30th, USA 2, Germany 0

After the win against China and the big upset win over Germany, the tide most expectedly turned into Ellis’ favor. 

Kassouf wrote, almost reluctantly, “The United States women were spectacular on Tuesday, putting in a convincing 90-minute performance that most outside of their bubble wouldn’t have thought possible the way they played early in this tournament. But Tuesday was vintage United States, back to the days when the Americans took the initiative, pressed teams and shoved the result down their throats. The United States is finally playing its best soccer, peaking at the time when they told everyone they would, even though the evidence was slow to materialize. Ellis, for all the criticism she takes – even if she is truly oblivious to it – deserves credit for making the necessary moves to get this team going over the past five days, even if it did take a while to do.”

USA Today’s Scott, who stated unequivocally three weeks before that the USA “would not win” if they played the way they had been playing, added his two cents with, “It took a World Cup semifinal against the No. 1 team in the world, but USWNT head coach Jill Ellis finally got her starting lineup right.”

Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times wrote the day before the World Cup Final under the headline, ‘Early criticism of Jill Ellis turns to awe as U.S. reaches World Cup final’, “Two weeks ago, Jill Ellis was anything but a genius. As her U.S. team struggled through group play at the Women's World Cup, the coach was being called unprepared, uncreative and unresponsive. And those were the compliments…. But now, with the unbeaten U.S. in Sunday's World Cup final, the criticism has turned into praise, and Ellis is being hailed as a genius. Yet all of it, both the struggles and the successes, were part of the same blueprint.”
The USA Today’s headline simply read, ‘USA, coach Jill Ellis silence doubters with trip to World Cup final.’

July 5th, USA 5, Japan 2, World Cup Champions.

Thomas Floyd of the Goal soccer blog wrote, “The U.S. National Team looked like it was in a fog for the first four games of this Women's World Cup. But when it mattered most, Ellis delivered three straight master classes of coaching.”

The Wall Street Journal’s headline simply said, ‘U.S. Women’s Team Gels around Jill Ellis.’ and Baxter of the L.A. Times wrote, “But the victory might have been most satisfying for coach Jill Ellis, who believed in her game plan even as the U.S. stumbled through group play. It’s a confidence she learned from her father, John, a former national team coach who sent her daughter the same text message every day during this tournament. It says: ‘Three deep breaths and keep going,’ Jill Ellis said. ‘I know he’s there with me in spirit.’”
With the accolades flooding in, Ellis shied away from the completely justified, ‘I told you so' rhetoric with a gracious post match interview saying, "It’s not how I operate. It really is about what’s in front of me, and I said from day one, the day I took this job, I’m off Twitter, I’m off, because I know, I knew where my focus had to be, and I needed no distractions. I said to the players we have to continue to believe in our process. It's not vindication, validation," She added. "It just feels really, really good. And I couldn't be more proud of this group of players and this staff. I knew they had it in them, they knew they had it in them, and I'm just so happy the world gets to see it."

Critics always have the advantage: they have the benefit of the outcome but most aren’t usually in the room when coaching decisions are made, they aren’t in the huddles and they sure aren’t on the field. They sit back and judge, as they are paid to do so we will read and watch and listen to what they have to say, as experts, so WE can sound better informed and start conversations with.

Parents, other coaches, officials and even players will look at your substitutions, your lineups, your schemes and will always want to Monday morning quarterback your choices with the inevitable, “SEE!” But sight is so much clearer from behind the decision. Rear view mirrors can make anyone look like a coaching genius.

So put your hands together for Jill Ellis: who kept her cool, didn’t engage in any extra virtual sparring with critics and coaches and did her job, and in this case, to perfection.

The United States Women are Champions again. Let’s all toast with a Cup of hindsight please…..

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Your Purpose, Your Passion....

"If you can't figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose." T.D. Jakes

Peter van der Ven is an unassuming chap if you were to see him at a volleyball match or a coaches meeting. He is a handful under six feet tall and his brown mop of hair perpetually disheveled on his head is starting to turn gray. But what is catching about Peter is his eyes: they are dark and always looking past what he sees, as if he is a step ahead of you constantly.

Peter van der Ven is a coach (referred to as a “trainer” in most of Europe) from Zeeland in the Netherlands. He is a level 4 volleyball trainer which allows him to coach up to Professional teams and National Youth teams in his native country. He used to play but realized as his body started to buck, his newest contribution would be on the coaching side of things.

When Peter’s daughter Iris started to show an interest in volleyball in 2009, he says he “dove” back into it. The Netherlands has their youth start with sports at a young age and swimming is the first sport taught, but a TEAM sport is next and that tends to grab a hold of the Dutch youth. There are very few individual sports to which the Dutch have made an impact. But in team sports, they are threats in soccer, volleyball, hockey, basketball, etc. The young are taught at the youngest of ages the value of team and it shows.

As Peter saw the Dutch volleyball clubs around him, he noticed that very few boys were playing; it was mostly girls that were taking up the sport. He asked maybe one of the most important questions of his life at that point: “Why?” He talked with other coaches and officials from the NeVobo, the Netherlands Volleyball Federation and even players to try to find an answer. And he did.

The Dutch volleyball model was predominantly technical training and development and Peter saw this as a deterrent to boys who want to PLAY! He wanted to develop a game that got boys playing right away with less emphasis on technique and more on what will bring more boys into our sport: the attack. “Boys want to learn by game play.” He says.

Smashball was born.

Peter, working together with NeVobo, developed the rules, a playing field and put the skills into four levels. He saw this as a way for boys to play each other, even with different skill levels. He designed a ball special for the sport that is lighter but with a hard cover and extreme graphics that catch the eye of a boy from across a gym floor. Part of the genius of Smashball is the speed to which boys are playing. In a recent clinic he did at a local athletic club in Eindhoven, his court was playing Smashball in 11 minutes…ELEVEN minutes! He refers to stage one of Smashball as the “At once” stage. Get them playing and they get hooked. “By using a training model that entails drive, movement and competitions, boys will thrive and find affiliations with the sport.” Peter says confidently.

The net is lowered to the wrist height of the smallest player on the court. The ball is played initially with a bounce. Skills are added as the players progress up the levels, all moving up as they succeed in a set of skills. In a fairly short time, boys AND girls are passing, setting and attacking on the lower net. As they progress and grow, so does the net height.

At a recent Smashball rollout in South Dakota, the kids were so taken with the new discipline that they asked for days after when the next Smashball clinic was.

Peter oozes passion as he speaks of Smashball. Spending a few hours with him is an infusion of energy and expertise. He is the supreme trainer of a sport he played an important role in inventing but the ease of which it’s able to be played and advanced through makes it a viable training tool for both boys and girls and is starting to spread into the United States where the boy’s game continues to be a source of frustration for USA Volleyball and the Region’s alike. It’s time to look at other avenues and Peter van der Ven has posted a street sign.

The numbers are proof enough. Since the inception of Smashbal in 2010, boys volleyball in the city where Peter worked in the Netherlands has grown over 500% That kind of growth makes it a volleyball variant to “dive into.” There are 1100 volleyball clubs in Holland and over 150 offer Smashball. Over 13,000 kids in the Netherlands are playing Smashball in PE classes and NeVobo now points to over 4000 boys playing volleyball in Holland with 400 new members just this past season. The Az. Region has less than 400 boys playing club all TOTAL!

The passion to which Peter speaks of his new life’s mission is the kind of stuff we all wish we had in our lives. Our kids, families, sport, and occupation: Peter has melded them all together into Smashball. His garage is full of boxes of shirts and Smashballs, his kids participate and model the sport and his wife is a beam of support. His office is replete with books he has written in several languages (that you can order here) and he continues to grow Smashball through clinics, seminars and training sessions at clubs throughout Europe.

Passion in our sport is sometimes misplaced with winning and ego. And then there are people like Peter who use their passion for growing the sport in places it needs it. He is to be applauded and admired.

Smashball- it’s coming to the Arizona Region and a gym near you SOON!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Finding the Fire.....

"The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire."

— Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch

Many of us get into volleyball because it’s a passion. Like so many people in our sport, our parents played, our older brothers and sisters or our daughters wanted to play and so we learned the sport, sometimes from the ground up. But it was the passion this game holds that kept us there, wanting more, learning more.

Last month, two coaching clinics were cancelled because of a lack of attendees. Both featured heavy hitters in the college coaching ranks but as we heard more than once, “It was right after the club season ended and so many coaches were fried…”

Finding the passion of the sport is one thing, but how do we sustain it?

Chase Nuttal is a former boy’s player in the Region who also coaches and has a passion for beach volleyball. Noticing that there was a lack of events and opportunities for high level sand players in Phoenix, Chase followed his passion and started one. Like he did the very first tournament, Chase still wakes up pre dawn on tournament days and heads from his west valley home to the Tempe Beach Park where the courts are doled out on a first come, first serve order. He lays lines and sets up the courts and then usually plays the entire day. The participant list has grown substantially and the AZB tournaments are routinely now seeing 60-80 players per tournament. The website is a simple but layered and thought out way to get into the tournaments that Chase will admit, he makes little to no money on and he could care less. It is a passion, and Chase’s passion has made it possible for dozens of other players to follow theirs!

Last fall, Melissa Wolters, coach of the University of West Florida Argonauts came out to Arizona to see her brother after a difficult season in which she admits she didn’t even know if she wanted to coach anymore. She came to see her longtime friend Lisa Stuck coach her underdog Glendale Community College Gauchos in the NJCAA National Championship game. When the Gauchos came back from 0-2 and won the National Championship, Wolters came down from the stands to congratulate her friend with tears in her eyes. “This is great,” she kept saying. She admitted it reenergized her. She saw the possibilities; she found her passion through this exciting match.

Sometimes it IS a coaching clinic that gets your passion back. Listening to a coach you admire, watching a practice of a program you follow. Even a small thing like an e mail from a coach or mentor can re stoke the passion furnace. Two weeks ago, the Arizona Region was fortunate enough to get an interview with one of the great coaches our sport has ever known. Two time Olympic Gold Medal winning coach Marv Dunphy who has coached the Pepperdine Men’s team for the last 32 years, talked with the Region for almost 40 minutes about John Wooden, where the game was going and what he thought coaches should think about going forward. Dunphy is still as passionate about the game today as he was when he was a player in 1970-74. He continues to look for ways to improve, watches hours of tape, reads and talks to other coaches who do things better: all following in the footsteps of his mentor, Wooden, who was as passionate about basketball as Dunphy is volleyball.

One of Dunphy’s athletes on those Gold Medal teams was a guy named Karch. Karch is now the head coach of the USA Women’s National team and his aura beams with his passion for this game. He also was kind enough to give the Region a half an hour of his time to talk volleyball and coaching.

Joe Trinsey is currently the assistant coach of Dunphy’s Pepperdine program and is also a technical advisor for Karch’s USA Women’s National team. Trinsey is a numbers guy but his passion for the sport is palpable. He does clinics, talks to those who visit the National Team practices and despite working and talking volleyball sometimes 12-15 hours a day, he started the Volleycast, a podcast about volleyball for not just fans of the sport, but coaches as well. It’s a free flowing 40 minutes with his cohort at Pepperdine, assistant coach David West. The two banter, tell stories, explain philosophies and strategies, but listening to it, you can feel the passion Joe and Dave have for the sport. Trinsey is from a volleyball family and describes himself, somewhat proudly, as a “volleydork.” But Joe loves the sports and loves to give back. He’s even created his own app for coaches to use in charting matches. Volleydork or not, Trinsey’s passion is infectious.

People like this are all around us. In the coming weeks in this blog, you are going to read about a few people from across the Atlantic that have changed the lives of players and coaches around them with their passion.

In the meantime, if necessary, find something that will rekindle yours. What can you do to get re inspired? Who can you talk to, go watch? Listen to? They are out there, those people and things you may need. Most of all, you are a vessel for those athletes you coach: younger to older, first weeks playing or last weeks of a career. Those players deserve a coach that can show them the passion that they, as a coach, once got from someone.

And maybe, just maybe, you will be theirs!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Let's Get Better...

As the regular season comes to a close, it’s easy to look back and generalize on a ‘good’ year or a ‘not so good’ year. Maybe injuries, chemistry, parents or just odd circumstances kept you from reaching the preseason potential you had for your team.

While it’s time to maybe reflect, it’s also an opportune time to gain valuable feedback as a coach.

End of season surveys can be incredibly valuable, perhaps painful to read and understand and perhaps of no value at all but there aren’t very many opportunities for coaches to get feedback directly from athletes and parents in a short and relevant window like the end of a season.

There are some surveys already built. An effective and very comprehensive download can be found at ‘USOC Coaching Effectiveness Tool.’ Within this one document is an Athlete section, an NGB or in the case of club volleyball, the club or the Az. Region, and finally, a coaches self evaluation. There are other surveys you can download from other clubs, other coaches or even coaching programs dealing with youth sports.

Another is the USA Volleyball Pre/Post Season Evaluation Form which is a generic form that can be filled out by athletes, parents, club personnel and even you!

The essence of this exercise is simple: to get better. As coaches, it’s our job to get better; better at practice plans and managing relationships with players and parents, playing time issues and dealing with our administrations whether club or school. To sit pat, to not try to gather feedback makes you the same coach you were last season. The problem is that the game changes constantly, the players change constantly, social norms and communication outlets change constantly. If you don’t keep up, you’ll find yourself on the outside looking in.

Part of an end of season survey that is needed is courage; you are probably going to hear things you don’t want to hear. Criticism that you are apt to take personally but it’s no secret when dealing with 10-12 girls for a sport that only allows six at a time to play, you are not going to make everyone happy. That said, ask questions that YOU need answers to?

What do YOU want to know about YOU as a coach? What questions would you ask a coach that you were being coached by? What components do you want to hear about: practices? Tournaments? Travel tournaments? Is there parts of your coaching you would like feedback on specifically: communication? Professionalism? Feedback to players?
This is YOUR survey. Get the answers you want but keep this in mind. If you want honest answers, give the respondents a wall to hide behind. If they want to put their name on the survey, so be it but ask them to get them to you in an anonymous fashion to ensure a purer feedback to your coaching abilities.

Going forward it’s a good idea to give your team’s infrastructure feedback opportunities a few times during the season. Does that mean you meet with every parent and athletes one a week or once a month? Probably not, as time for everyone is limited these days. A mid season evaluation is easy and can give you some feedback early on to help head off problems that might be arising.

Either way, don’t be afraid of what will be said about you. Take the feedback as useful information to further your career. Use this tool to get better for your fall season. Watch other more experienced coaches at camps and clinics and see what they do well, and maybe what YOU wouldn't like if YOU were their athlete.

Let’s get better. Our athletes deserve nothing less than our best. We owe it to them.

"...A Good One..."

On May 1-3, one of the state’s unique volleyball talents will end her career wearing the blue and red of the University of Arizona.

Madi Kingdon finished up her indoor career at Arizona in December with a career match in the NCAA’s second round against a BYU team that went to the National Championship against Penn State. She is headed to Gulf Shores, Alabama next week to compete in the AVCA Sand Pairs Championships before calling her Wildcat career finis.

While there are many players who have left a volleyball footprint in our state, Madi’s is a bit deeper than most. She was the hammer for her high school coach Amber LeTarte. “Madi led her team to three State Championships at Sunnyslope High School, one of which had no seniors on the team.” LeTarte lauds. “She is one of the most determined, competitive, hard-working, intimidating, explosive and impactful players I have ever coached. A solid all around player, she strives to be the best and let's nothing stop her from obtaining that goal.”

Kingdon looked at several schools after Sunnyslope but saw something in Tucson and wanted to be a Wildcat. Four years later, she looks back on a career in which she played more matches and sets than anyone is school history and finished second in both career kills and digs for a storied Wildcat program. She ended her indoor career with a program career best 111 double digit kills matches including all 34 matches in 2014!

Her coach Dave Rubio summed up Kingdon this way: “There is a reason why Madi was one of top three players I have ever coached. She was the hardest worker in practice every day, had a sincere interest in being coached and she never put limits on herself. When your best player in the gym also happens to be your hardest worker; everyone else will fall in line!”

We sat down with Madi a few weeks before her U of A career was coming to a close and we let her talk about her successes, her future and everything in between, in her own words:


“I think I get my confidence from my Parents. My Dad is kind of quiet and stern and my Mom is very outgoing and comfortable with herself. They've always taught me to be who I am and don’t apologize for anything: you are who you are.”

“I started playing in 7th grade at Madison Meadows in their league and I was serving underhand. One of my friends was like, you’re tall, you should play for Madison Meadows on their team and I said okay, I’ll try and I was a middle and I played middle my first year of club when I played for Rob Recio. I played 16’s for Storm. Then I played for Terri (Spann) for three years on 18’s but I didn’t play my last year of club. I graduated early and came here. That helped me prepare for my freshman season.”

“I think when I got into high school and I made varsity. I made varsity all four years. I didn’t play much my freshman year; I was a right side at Sunnyslope. We got to the semi finals of state and I was playing and I thought wow, let’s see where the next three years takes us. “

“I think playing beach helped a lot. I also think just going out to open gyms and playing at the draw, like every Friday night during high school. My curfew was 10 p.m. but if I played in the draw I could stay out past 10 o clock. So I was just always playing volleyball and I think that helped out a lot, especially at the draw, playing against guys on a guy's net. I was used to balls being hard driven at me and I wasn't just playing against girls my own age. So I think that helped a lot.”


“I’d say my best coach was Terri Spann. She was really good at holding people accountable and she always taught me that there’s always someone watching. So if you were taking reps off or not doing your conditioning the right way, there was always someone watching. I think that really instilled a sense of work ethic in me.”

“I think Dave (Rubio) really helped me with my attacking all around and not just hitting every ball straight down like I wanted to when I first got here. So, throughout my four years I think I've progressed into a hitter with more range instead of just trying to hit the heavy ball all the time.”


“It’s the work you put in. I know that when it comes down to even the smallest things, like running a sprint or doing a little competitive game, I always have to win them. That’s just my competitive spirit. I’m also like the biggest trash talker because I always want to win. I think that comes from Terri and Margie Giordano. When I think about competitive or competitiveness, I always think about Margie. In the gym one day before club practice, we were playing this game and we were playing with Margie, it was her senior year at ASU, and she was talking so much trash and how we were the worst competitors and nobody wanted to win and I was like, I will never let anybody be more competitive than me or outwork me because of that.”


“My best memory would probably be my last match against BYU. I had 33 kills in my last match which was a career high so I thought that was pretty cool. In my junior year, we swept USC at home when they were ranked number one in the country. That was a pretty big win for us. Oh, I have one more. My freshman year when UCLA won the National Championship, we beat them both times we played them.”

“I've played beach at U of A for two seasons now. I would say last year as a whole was a highlight because it was the inaugural season and just being a part of that was cool.”


“I think that for a lack of a better team, players today are softer, you know the girls coming into the sport. The way that I was coached in club, we had conditioning and people would run until they literally were throwing up and you couldn’t complain about it. I think now the girl’s have a sense of entitlement and their parents are always sticking up for them. It’s just the way that girl’s are now when they come in their freshman year. I think the girls that don’t have that sense of entitlement are the ones that fight through it and get better because they've put in the work to be there and they’re not just handed things.”

“I would tell parents not to be as involved in what their kid is doing, not to talk to the coach and whenever their kid is having a problem, not to run to their aid. Let the girls take care of their own problems with the coach, I think that’s important. Parents are too involved now. Especially coaching club, I have realized that.”


“Most of my good friends are from when we played club together. I have a lot of friends here at U of A but most of them are volleyball players. It’s hard to make friends outside of volleyball when that’s all you’re doing. When I was in the indoor season, taking the minimum 4 classes, 12 units, you take the bare minimum because that’s all you have time for. My schedule would be 2 or 3 classes a day, if you’re hurt you have to go get treatment, then you have practice for 2 to 3 hours a day, then you have lifting and you have to travel on the weekends and you have to do homework and everything on the road or in your hotel. I think it’s good definitely for time management and for getting your priorities straight."

"I think the sacrifices I made for school and making friends outside of volleyball for my volleyball career, and winning, made that all worthwhile. I definitely think it was worth it.”

“I would do it all again. I definitely would have done my indoor career again.”


“I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I think I can appreciate what I've done but it’s just what I was expected to do. I feel like that was my job, that’s what I came here to do and that’s the kind of numbers that was expected of me to leave a legacy like that. I think every season I gave everything I had to the program so there’s nothing that I regret with my performance and you don’t always have the best luck of the draw with who you’re playing with or the situations you’re in. I think for what I was dealt, I did the best that I could.”


“I want to go play in Europe. I don’t know where I want to go. I am getting married next May in Arizona to Paul. He’s in the air force. I will come back and I think I will base whether or not I play again on my first experience. If it goes well, I think I’ll give it another shot.”

“I would go to the USA gym but I feel like I’d like to get a year of international experience first. I’d want to see where I’m at there so I could base it off of that.”

“In five years, I don’t even know where I’ll be but I think that’s kind of the beauty of it. I know I’ll be married and I know volleyball will still probably be a part of my life. I could see myself coaching. I’d be a good one! I really like the way I was coached by Terri so I think I would coach that way.”


“Anything else I want to say?”