Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Division III Women's Volleyball - Why Juniors Athletes Should Consider It

Many times when I sit down with high school athletes, they tell me they want to play Division I. When I ask why, most of the time the answer is that it's always been a dream or goal of theirs. When I ask them what about Division I makes it a dream of theirs, I tend not to get a straight answer. There are 2 situations that, in my opinion, warrant an athlete to play Division 1:

1) You are an elite athlete, with an incredible work ethic and passion for the game. You have the talent to get a full-ride scholarship.
2) You are a very good athlete, with an incredible work ethic and passion for the game. You do not have the ability to get a full-ride scholarship, but the coach is interested in having you walk on. Your grades are good enough to get enough scholarships/grants where it is a reasonable investment to attend the university.
2a) You are a very good athlete, with an incredible work ethic and passion for the game. You do not have the ability to get a full-ride scholarship, but the coach is interested in having you walk on. Your parents have more money than they know what to do with, and are more than happy to foot the whole bill to off-set whatever costs you may incur at that school.

(I'm only half-kidding about 2a).

I ask a follow-up question as well:

I think it's good to reach out to the coaches, to apply, to see what they'll offer you. The main thing I want people to do is at least look at a couple Division III schools even if they want to play Division I/II. Not saying this is how it always plays out, but a possible scenario:

You look at Division I/II schools. You find places that you can play at, but no scholarship is available. For two years of college, you look at anywhere from 50-100k of debt.

You look at Division III schools as well. You find a coach that is extremely interested in having you, and they assist you in the application process. Your debt is anywhere from 10-40k.

This is an honest question: Is the dream of playing Division I to you so important that you'd rather be a role player on a low/middle tier team vs. potentially being a pivotal part of a nationally ranked Division III program, while incurring an additional 30-50k in debt?

I'm all for athletes looking for the school that best meet their wants and needs, but also considering that the purpose of college is to build a foundation to set themselves up so that they have the opportunities they wish to have waiting for them upon graduation. The reality is, when people incur substantial amounts of debt, being able to pay off those debts become more of a factor in choosing our careers than doing what we originally wanted to do. It's why you see a lot of people working in industries outside of what their original hopes were.

Getting back to the main topic: Division III Athletics. It's staggering to me how many people write off Division III Athletics without seeing a single match. Many of those "Division I Dreamers" have never actually witnessed a Division III match. The truth of the matter is most high school athletes are not Division I caliber, and Division III can be VERY good volleyball.

The NCAA Division III Women's Volleyball Tournament kicks off tomorrow, and in 2014, we're lucky to have most of those matches (6 of the 8 regions are listing the matches - links are below!) streamed. High School Athletes: If you've never seen Division III match before, take a look at the links below and see the quality of ball that Division III offers! Make your decision based on what you see, not what others tell you. There are hundreds of schools with strong programs that offer a quality education that you unlock when you add Division III to your potential list of schools!

Good luck to all the teams playing!

Kenosha Regional (Carthage College) - link

Thursday, Nov. 13 - First Round Matches (Central Time Zone)
12:30 pm - Elmhurst vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater
3:00 pm - Calvin vs. Wisconsin-Oshkosh
5:30 pm - DePauw vs. Chicago
8:00 pm - Carthage vs. Dominican (Ill.)
Live Post Game Press Conferences will follow each match
Friday, Nov. 14 - Second Round Matches
4:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
7:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round
Live Post Game Press Conferences will follow each match

Newport News Regional (Christopher Newport Univ.) - link
(There is a link to Live Video on the Calendar for the below dates)

Friday, Nov. 14 - First Round Matches (Eastern Time Zone)
12:30 pm - SUNY New Paltz vs. Haverford
3:00 pm - Eastern vs. Salem
5:30 pm - Stevenson vs. Richard Stockton
8:00 pm - Christopher Newport vs. Gallaudet
Saturday, Nov. 15 - Second Round Matches
3:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
6:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

Springfield (OH) Regional (Wittenburg College) - link

Thursday, Nov. 13 - First Round Matches (Eastern Time Zone)
12:25 pm - Juniata vs. Franciscan
2:55 pm - Hope vs. Franklin & Marshall
5:25 pm - Washington & Lee vs. Mount Union
7:55 pm - Wittenburg vs. Cabrini
Friday, Nov. 14 - Second Round Matches
3:25 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
5:55 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

Hoboken Regional (Stevens Institute) - link

Friday, Nov. 14 - First Round Matches (Eastern Time Zone)
12:30 pm - Tufts vs. Springfield
3:00 pm - Clarkson vs. Hunter
5:30 pm - Roger Williams vs. W. Conn St.
8:00 pm - Stevens Inst. vs. Framingham St.
Saturday, Nov. 15 - Second Round Matches
3:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
6:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

St. Louis Regional (U of Wash. St. Louis) - link

Friday, Nov. 14 - First Round Matches (Central Time Zone)
12:30 pm - Millikin vs. Thomas More
3:00 pm - Emory vs. Webster
5:30 pm - Hendrix vs. Maryville (Tenn.)
8:00 pm - Wash. - St. Louis vs. Bluffton
Saturday, Nov. 15 - Second Round Matches
4:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
7:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

Williamstown Regional (Williams College) - link (No games currently listed unfortunately)

Friday, Nov. 14 - First Round Matches (Eastern Time Zone)
12:30 pm - MIT vs. Rivier
3:00 pm - Bowdoin vs. Regis
5:30 pm - Babson vs. Colby-Sawyer
8:00 pm - Williams vs. Sage
Saturday, Nov. 15 - Second Round Matches
2:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
5:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

Thousand Oaks Regional (Cal Lutheran) - link

Friday, Nov. 14 - First Round Matches (Pacific Time Zone)
12:30 pm - Pacific Lutheran vs. Colorado
3:00 pm - Claremont-Mudd Scripps vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor
5:30 pm - Trinity vs. LaVerne
8:00 pm - Cal Lutheran vs. Whitworth
Saturday, Nov. 15 - Second Round Matches
3:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
6:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

St. Paul Regional (St. Thomas) - link (No games currently listed unfortunately)

Thursday, Nov. 13 - First Round Matches (Central Time Zone)
12:30 pm - Neb. Wesleyan vs. N'Western St. Paul
3:00 pm - Cornell (Iowa) vs. Ausburg
5:30 pm - Wis. Stevens Point vs. Saint Benedict
8:00 pm - St. Thomas (Minn) vs. Coe
Friday, Nov. 14 - Second Round Matches
4:30 pm - Match 1 - Second Round
7:00 pm - Match 2 - Second Round

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When Fandom Goes Too Far

Some people may eye-roll at this piece, and everyone's entitled to their own opinions.  I just found this topic itching at me after the last 72 hours.

I am a Chicago Bears fan. I watched every minute of that 55-14 blow-out loss against the Packers on Sunday night. It was what I refer to as a 'Murphy's Law' game - the Packers played out of their minds, and the Bears couldn't do anything right. As I watched, I watched my Facebook newsfeed explode with angry Bears fans - 9 out of 10 posts I saw were all about their performance (or lack thereof).

They should fire staff members before halftime. This is 'embarrassing' (we'll come back to this statement in a second). These players suck. I'm turning this off - when does Cubs season start? (As a Cubs fan, I thought this was extremely ironic). These were some of the less volatile quotes I saw. The last three days have featured pictures making fun of Bears players and coaches.

It was the worst performance of football I had witnessed at the professional level that I can remember. I understood where people came from, but it saddened me for a couple reasons.

The execution for the Bears on Sunday was atrocious - but no one that was freely criticizing the athletes that day actually were at the practices the previous two weeks. They have no idea about the amount of preparation that was put into place. They don't truly know why things didn't go well. Yet, some Bears fans went as far as to tweet the head coach's daughters threatening their well-being. I can't help but feel like we criticize them as athletes/coaches, and completely disregard them as human beings. If it was our child/sibling/significant other on that field, would we be so free and vicious in our criticism?

As a fan, I find myself critical of those I watch at times. When I see athletes that scream at their teammates, take plays off, celebrate arrogantly when they simply did their job (typically while their opponent is in the lead) - there are a laundry list of things that gets my blood boiling. However, having a bad performance happens to teams at all levels. It's disappointing when they don't perform well, but remember that these athletes have worked their entire lives to get to where they've gotten.

If the Bears right the ship this season, what a valuable lesson that would be for young athletes. Everyone loses at some point. Some losses can be blow-outs - even for the world-class athletes. It doesn't mean we didn't put the preparation in, and how we respond to them is what matters the most. There is a difference between disappointing and embarrassing. Embarrassing is when a team didn't put the work in for the task at hand. Disappointing is when a team does everything they can to prepare and still fall short. You will be disappointed at times and that's OK - but put the time in not to ever feel embarrassed.

Of course, the internet won't explode in the same manner if this happens. Social Media loves to crush the defeated and praise the victor. So why is it shocking to us when juniors athletes play tentatively, more afraid to make mistakes than they are willing to try and make the successful play? 

We can't expect 12-18 year olds to watch ESPN or go online and watch people critique world-class athletes that have a bad game and then go to their competitions without nerves of the same judgment happening to them. I talk to kids all the time that I coach and ask them about what they feel when they play, and the amount of kids that are more afraid to make mistakes FAR outweighs the amount that are excited to compete. They're afraid of judgment from their parents and peers. And as Karch talked about in his webinar, one of the best pieces of advice he received was in regards to not being afraid to look stupid and not being afraid to make mistakes.

Kathy DeBoer just wrote a piece on the state of Division I Women's Volleyball - I close with one of her own statements as I share the same sentiments she does on this topic: "I often wonder if sharing my worries with you in this column serves any purpose beyond "getting them off my chest." I do so because I think our collective though about our game and its future is bound to be more lucid than my individual hand-wringing. I also believe that what happens with volleyball is up to us..."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Interview with a Legend: Karch Kiraly Webinar Recap

Last week I had the privilege to listen to Karch Kiraly speaking about his experience as a coach/player for 2 hours. For those who don't know, Karch is a 3-time Gold Medalist (2 indoor, 1 beach) and is the current head coach for the USA Women's Volleyball team. Some would say he's the Michael Jordan of Volleyball: At the risk of fellow Chicago residents rioting at my house, Michael Jordan was the Karch Kiraly of Basketball. Winning professional tournaments across 4 decades, he is arguably one of the most successful athletes in the history of sports.

He covered topics of all subject matters - from strategy used with the Women's USA team to his experience as a parent watching his son play for his high school. I wasn't able to record the first 15-20 minutes, but from that point on I did my best stenographer imitation and took notes on everything he was saying. Below is a  cliff notes' version of the interview that I felt would be beneficial for people involved in juniors volleyball. I have included my own notes in ()'s.

On watching his son play in high school:

The first year was tough for the boys. Most of them had no experience playing, but they worked hard. The parents wanted them to win just one set SO badly, and they came close a few times but were unable to do so. Their record was something like 0-93. After the season, I asked to help.

(Parents: this is arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. Note how he didn't blame people, he didn't criticize the coach - he and the other parents supported the kids, appreciated their work ethic, and at the end of the season ASKED if he could help. I was impressed by this as if there was any parent on the planet that had a right to offer their critique, it's probably the 3-time Gold Medalist!)

On a disappointing finish at the 2014 Grand Prix:

"It was disappointing, but we did get an extra week of training out of it. We went back and worked on some things that needed fixing like footwork for pin hitters and jump float serving.

(I love the fact that even at the world-class level, he's spending time fine-tuning things that I think are overlooked at the juniors level. A pet peeve of mine is hearing coaches say "They should be able to do x". Karch put it simply: "Coaching is teaching". If players aren't doing things correctly, help them fix it!)

What suggestions do you have for coaches and players to be their best in big events for them and overcoming anxiety?

Every time we put the USA uniform on, we treat it like a gold medal match. We play every Friday night to assess where we're at and how training that week translated. By the time we stepped on the court against Japan, that was our 82nd "gold medal match".

You wrote "big events". They're ALL big to us. We don't build any match bigger than others. This helped our whole program acclimate to playing deeper into the tournament against tougher and tougher opponents. Our approach was the same as when we were having these Red-Blue matches. When they're all big, they're all the same.

On being a "Volleydork":

I am a total Volleydork. I get total goosebumps from things people think are corny. A beautiful forearm pass from a tough float serve when they've been working on it. Things that people call little, they aren't little to me. They're big when you do them well and they're huge when you don't.

What did you do to get better as a coach when not in the gym?

By being a learner, by not being afraid to ask questions, by not being afraid to make mistakes. Job #1 for our players is to BE A LEARNER. If you're afraid to make mistakes in front of others, it's going to hold you back from taking risks, it holds us back as learners. A good example of this is anybody you know who has picked up a second language - it HAS to be a learner. One of the hallmarks of being a learner is not being afraid to try it.

When I was in Italy playing, I carried a dictionary with me, and I asked my teammates all the time about Italian so I could get a bigger deeper experience. I got a simple book on Italian from a University of Washington bookstore. So I was trying stuff, I had some funny moments where I said completely the wrong thing - when you jump in and make mistakes you learn from them. If you don't, you won't pick up the language. It's the same for anything else. If you're afraid to make mistakes you'll hold yourself back. We have to be models for that. We have to be willing to try new things. If I'm asking that of my athletes, it's the least I can do for them to do the same.

(Again, pretty inspiring to have one of the greatest players of all time talking about holding himself to the same standards of his players instead of 'flexing his muscles'. One of my favorite quotes that relates to this is "Leadership is based on inspiration, not intimidation" - Coaches: Do you take this approach when working with your athletes?)

Do you have any superstitions or must-do pre-competition rituals as a coach or for your players?

I played for lots of coaches who were not big on 'rah-rah' pumping people up, emotional super-passionate fiery pregame speeches. Our players have enough adrenaline already because they're playing a gold medal match every time they put the uniform on. They don't need me to get them 'over-activated'. Our sports psychology discusses this: If you're essentially dead/catatonic you're at a 0 level. if you're about to have a heart attack, you're at a 10 on the activation scale. We want people to be at a 5 - that means different things to different people. We don't want to be overly-activated. We won't have the motor control we need to be great. So it's a pretty calm environment. They have rituals, they have music they play before I step in and they talk together on their own. I'm sure they have their own things. I fight superstition, so I tried to do something different every single time. My superstition was to fight superstition!

The reason we have superstitions is the fact that it's scary to go lay it out there on the line and risk losing. I admire people who do it over and over again. And people in the program do it, so I admire our athletes. It's scary because: 1) You can do everything right and still lose - there's a chance that can happen. 2) We don't ultimately have full control over the scoreboard, over making it finish our way and getting a win over a defeat. So we try to control things by having these elaborate routines/superstitions to make things happen our way. 3) Losing - the emotional difference between winning and losing is huge. Losing hurts. Ultimately, the best way to have control over the situation is to forget about the scoreboard and to focus on what we need to do not to win the next point, but all we can do is maximize our chance of winning the next play. The more we do that consisitently, the more we have a chance of influencing the scoreboard the way we want to.

(This was one of my favorite parts of the webinar. Very John Wooden-esque!)

What was the best piece of advice you ever got from a coach/teacher?

Be a learner. Don't be afraid to ask questions, don't be afraid to look stupid, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Usually the ones that people think are the dumbest questions are the best questions - we encourage people to ask questions. People are hesitant to ask still, but if you want to know why we do things, ask! Lots of people have told me that. I hope that I never stop learning until my heart gives out. It has to be a continual learning process. If you're not afraid to make mistakes in front of your team, you're going to be a better coach. We tried it, it didn't work, I'm sorry - It's OK to apologize. The ones that are more willing to fess up and laugh at themselves/acknowledge it will have an easier time setting up an environment where people can make the mistakes comfortably.

Tell us more about your advice in a timeout - it's almost unusual compared to many coaches.

My wife describes it well as she watches other coaches out there who have a look of frustration/exasperation, or kind of a frowny face/rolling eyes/raising hands. Lots of coaches out there make their body language exhibit the statement "What are these stupid people doing ruining my perfect plan". I don't think that's the best way to get good performance out of a group of anyone on a team. I'm not an eye-roller, I'm not a put-your-arms-out and ask "WHAT ARE YOU DOING??" coach. I have a lot of trust and belief, total trust in this group and I'm fortunate and blessed to work with them. I have an amazing staff. I played for some fo the best coaches I could possibly imagined. It was not about berating us on what was going wrong. We know what's going wrong. So we don't need to dwell, let's focus on what we're going to do starting right now.

I like the rhythm of our timeouts. Acknowledging that other teams are going to make great plays, as well as that we'll make great plays as well. That's part of the back and forth when playing against good teams. People would get bored if they won every time. People are going to put together stretches of good ball against us. That's good - that's facing adversity. Jamie Morrison is our master planner for defense. In an effort to focus on the positive, we plan to finish our timeouts with me turning it over to Jamie, we focus on the next play and have a specific plan in place on how we'll score the next point. Al Scares was the master of instilling in us to move forward no matter how good/bad things looked. Maximizing our chances to win the next point.

(LOVED this. I think of everything he covered, this was the most useful piece of information for juniors coaches.)

Suggestions to communicate on reading or spotting the "Hinkey"? What should a player be seeing?

How do we make the most of the minutes to transfer things from practice to games? We don't 'drill' volleyball - we compete/play. The more you make it look like a game the better. If it's a coach on the box or a coach serving or a coach hand-tossing/feeding to start the play, there's not going to be as much transfer. If I get a little bit more transfer in my gym than you do in yours, that's going to add up to a big advantage over time. We have to get people seeing live hitters. If we don't give our defense the opportunity to see this, we're robbing them of thousands of reps to see this and begin to develop what I call a "Visual Encyclopedia". You kind of flip through your mental file cabinet and start to narrow greatest possibilities. But we have to give our players lots and lots of chances to do this, otherwise they're going to be learning slower than the other team.

Hinkey is a term I originally learned on the border patrol. When you're standing there waving car after car through, at first you have no clue as to what you're doing. If you're a new firefighter, you just don't have the experience of seeing hundreds/thousands of situations. As you see more and more, it becomes a sixth sense. You can't put words to it, but that's ok - it's a visual/perception thing. After seeing 9,000-10,000 cars go by, you start noticing things that aren't right. Maybe you see one riding lower, maybe you start seeing one lower on one side. Maybe the driver is sweating a little more than they should. Lots of times the border agents can't tell you what it is, they just know something's fishy or 'hinkey' about that car. Same thing with firemen. Get your people out of there before the building collapses. They can't tell you what it is, but something's off. As a volleyball player, if a hitter doesn't get their feet to the ball, if a setter in the front row drops an arm, they're going to dump it. We have to see those situations a lot to see the 'hinkey'.

What are your thoughts about punishment, physical or otherwise, in your gym?

Marv (Dunphy) did his doctorate on John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches who's ever been a part of the sporting world. Discipline is not something you do TO someone, it's something you do FOR someone. We don't have punishment per-say, but if we didn't go for a ball or didn't do something and exert effort on a play, then we do what is called a "OTI" - Opportunities to Improve. If you didn't go for that ball, that's simply not what we do. So I'll throw a few balls all over the gym, you have a chance to chase them, then go back to work. If we hit out of bounds when we HAVE to aim 2-3 feet inside, we do an OTI. A few tosses, a few chances to improve, then we go back to work. It's not a punishment. It's holding people accountable, giving people the opportunity to do what they need to do. We have small consequences for winning/losing. Diving and sprawling on 3 different lines if we lost a drill. We want to get better at sprawling anyways. But there's not beration/denigration. We're trying to get better, so we're holding ourselves to high standards.

How have you evolved as an international coach?

(skipping to the point he talked about that had the biggest impact on me)

We're still getting better at teaching and setting up the best environments to teach. At the World Championships, we were using the term 'block straight', and it wasn't working. They asked us to adjust. When we changed it to 'block area 6', it made it easier for that group to learn. A good question was asked, and a change was made. Some learning was done.

(Coaches, how willing are you to adjust YOUR teaching approach in order to compliment the methods of learning that work best for your athletes? I found it impressive that a National Team coach was so willing to adapt specifically for his players.)

What skills should always be practiced?

We have to spend time on serving, we have to always spend time on passing. We have to make those as game-like as possible. You can't always do that fully, because most game-like would be server on the service line, five people on that side of the net, and six people on defense. We can't have that many people standing around. You can't always be perfect with that, but we have to spend a good chunk of time on serving, especially at younger age groups. A team with a good serving group has a MASSIVE advantage. They can have a lot of success without great blockers/hitters. So we have to spend a lot of time at those skills, and we do it every single day. We have to do things like volleyball with a serve/pass/set/hit. We try to have blockers and limit the amount of times hitters hit on an open net as much as possible.

One last story - The way you treated the two players who were up in the stands (for the World Championships) but not playing on the roster. Can you talk about how you made a very tight team? (They won the World Championships this year - the first World Champion the Women's National Team has won in 62 years).

We are very fortunate to have such a deep team, and that depth was critical for our success in Italy. Every athlete played important roles for USA, which made us into a fresher team in the semis and final. Also, we got huge contributions from more than just the six on the court at any given instant; more than just the twelve we were allowed to suit up, and more than just the fourteen who earned the right to travel. We had more than fifty people wear a USA uniform this year, and they ALL made a real difference in our group effort, along with our fantastic staff who dedicate so much time and energy to this effort.

(I think this is a HUGE thing we need to drive home to our juniors teams. Players/parents get so hung up on playing time - we need to convey that for a team to be successful, it takes more than just the starters, and every player has an important role on the team).

If you'd like all the notes I took, feel free to email me at and I'll send it to you. I know I took a lot from this interview, hopefully it helps you too! Special thanks to Karch for his time and John Kessel for setting up the webinar.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Power Of Fear In Youth Sports / How We Can Address It

I recently joined an online group with a substantial amount of volleyball coaches. It's a great environment, where coaches can share positive/negative experiences, offer advice, and get feedback. One common theme I see on a regular basis is this: "My team is playing well, then after a few mistakes they completely fall APART - I don't like to punish my team with running, but it's one of the few things that work. I'm running out of ideas - help!"

Does anyone else see the common bond between performance and what the kids respond to? FEAR.

To address the question, I go back to a meeting I had to call with my 15's team last season. The girls had hit a mental block, and it was affecting their ability to play hard at practice/matches. I asked the girls questions - they answered. Sometimes, if I saw them hesitate, I made them all close their eyes, at which point I asked the question again. It's amazing how kids are honest when they don't have to be afraid of judgment from their peers. Here is the list of facts we created:

1. Everyone wants to do their best.
2. No one makes mistakes on purpose.
3. Every single person makes mistakes.
4. No one wants to let their teammates down.
5. Everyone wants their teammates to do their job well.

The sixth one, is where we began to address the problem:

6. When our teammates make mistakes, we let it frustrate us.

When that comes into play, it compromises the other five. We stop caring that they didn't make the mistake on purpose, we forget that we're capable of those same mistakes, and that our teammate has the same goals we do. On top of that, we struggle to do our best because we become more paralyzed with the fear of letting our teammates down instead of simply doing the best we can.

In a calm environment, my girls all could see this. As the season moved forward, they were much better for it. The more they focused on competing instead of winning, the more loose they played and the better they performed. However, there were games that they regressed. When their body language showed frustration/fear instead of competitive drive, that's when our worst games occurred.

I wish I had an equation to give to coaches in order to fix it, but we all know that's not the case. Even at the world-class level, we constantly see teams get hot and cold - if elite athletes that make their living playing their sport have these meltdowns, are we that surprised that youth athletes are capable of these same slumps?

If you want to avoid the self-destruction, keep your kids focused on the process more than the results. Tell them they're going to make mistakes,they will have bad physical days, they will lose matches, and that's OK. What's not acceptable is beating yourselves because you didn't give your all when things got tough. When things get tougher physically, they MUST be tougher mentally. It doesn't change overnight or guarantee victory, but I can tell you it's a lot easier to accept the mistakes when I know it's because they're trying to make the play instead of trying to not screw up.

That being said: This is a tough mentality to have when you have teammates/coaches/parents that do not measure success in these regards. Each Fall, I spend time trying to make as many middle/high school matches as possible to watch my athletes play at their schools. Watching the players get to reap the benefits of their hard work is an enjoyable experience. I can't help but notice the way people in the gym respond to matches. If the team they are supporting is physically playing well, they are loud and supportive. If they're not physically playing well, they are just loud. I have watched parents yell at coaches, parents yell at players, coaches yell at players, players yell at each other, and everyone yell at the refs. You can feel the tension in the bleachers as parents assess how the players aren't performing well. We get stuck on the WHAT, and don't address the WHY, or HOW to fix it.

Remember the six points above, and let's try to create an environment for young athletes that allow them to comfortably try to make the play instead of avoid the mistake! 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I Hope Your Child Has To Sit On The Bench.

Collegiate sports can be a rude awakening to a lot of athletes that have been big fish in small ponds most of their life. One of the toughest things for coaching a collegiate program is you're going to have 12-16 individuals that were most likely some of the top players for their respective areas. They come from different backgrounds/philosophies. Some were coddled, others had coaches push and push, but all were typically successful in some form. These athletes now have to work with a completely new group of players, with a new coach, and buy into a common philosophy - adjusting some of the things that helped them get to this point. It's a very tricky process, especially when many of the athletes that will be on the sidelines don't have much experience with it.

I have recently been visiting practices/matches for a women's volleyball team at a local school. They are nationally ranked in their respective division. I see many good things going on with the program, but I continue to flash back to two specific moments. The first one involved a player announcing within earshot of many of us that she didn't want to go to the weekend tournament as she probably wouldn't play. The second one was when one of the girls proceeded to tell the coach they were quitting after not getting to play during a match. That match, they upset the #1 ranked team in the country after losing to them their first two meetings.

I'll repeat that: A player quit her collegiate team after they had upset the top team in the country because she didn't get to play.

I admit my first reaction was pretty harsh. However, I started thinking about my experience as a college coach, and I felt less distaste towards her decision. I actually felt bad for her. If a player plays 5-10 years without ever having to spend time on the sidelines, how can we expect them to know how to properly handle it once the opportunity comes? Furthermore, as I thought about it, I realized I was guilty of a similar experience...

By the age of 4, I was able to do long division. In first grade, we were given an assignment and I went home and did every problem in the entire book. I was way ahead of the curve for being able to work with numbers, and my whole life, everyone told me I would do something big with math. Math came REALLY easily to me, but not because I had a good work ethic, or trained myself in the craft. I'd see the problem, know the answer, and that was that. 15 years later, when I had the first class that I couldn't pass by going through the motions, I quit. I simply didn't have a passion for it.

Volleyball was a different story. I joined my school team in 6th grade, and we had seven boys on the team. I was the bench guy all three years. However, I stuck with it, and while it was a SLOW climb up, I continued to play and work at my game - it didn't feel like work to me, and that was critical for my development. Every adult team I've joined, I started as a reserve - but within a year I was starting, and that was because I embraced the opportunity to work and earn my role on that court.

Above everything else, it taught me not to look at the bench as a bad thing - it simply meant I had to work harder. If you're sitting on the sidelines thinking "I should be in", then you will most likely stay put. It's the athletes that ask the coach outside of matches/practice "What can I do to work my way into the lineup", then take the feedback and work relentlessly towards it that have the best chance of getting on the court. 

If I have a child and they decide to be an athlete, I hope they have to sit on the bench. I hope they learn how to deal with adversity, how to start something behind someone on the depth chart and have to outwork them to play catch up. I hope they learn what a difference they can make when they're cheering their teammates on versus standing with their arms crossed pouting because they aren't on the court. I hope they learn to be the 7th player on the court, use the chance to study what the other team is doing as the match progresses, then run up to the court ready to use that information when the opportunity presents itself. Should they earn a starting spot, I hope they take that time on the sideline to remind themselves that playing time is a privilege, not a right, and not to take it for granted when putting work in at practice or on their own time.

If you or your child are not getting the playing time you feel they deserve and you want to change it, have the athlete ask the coach what they need to work on most. It doesn't guarantee playing time, but it's your best chance to get an assessment on what needs to be worked on. If you don't feel your coach will give you an honest evaluation, find someone whose opinion you do respect - but make sure the focus is what the athlete can change, not external circumstances!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Does The Culture Of Youth Sports Create Helicopter Parents?

Someone shared a blog written by former NBA player Keith Van Horn that discusses "Delusional Parent Disorder". In the last 17 months, I've ran a juniors sand program with 170 participants, oversaw over 20 juniors tournaments, and been on the coaching staff as either head or assistant for four club teams. I've probably had as much parental interaction as anyone else in this timeframe. As a college coach, I'd hear horror stories about the "helicopter parents" we've all dealt with. I have had a handful of parents who knew their child could do no wrong, and anyone that didn't see it was an obstacle. However, I really haven't had that many negative interactions that have festered past our initial conversation. The more I communicated with parents and looked at the way things are set up, the more I wondered if we don't take enough liability on our end of things.

A small excerpt from KVH's blog:

"We need to make sure that we are not that mom or that dad.   We can avoid getting sucked into that black hole of parenthood that is filled with terms such as “Sports Scholarships,” “Top Team,” and “Nationally Ranked (at 13 years old!).”  By curbing our natural instinct of being a delusional parent and having potentially unrealistic expectations of our children’s athletic prowess, we can provide our children with a more positive sports experience and set them up to benefit from lifelong lessons they can learn from their youth sports participation."

Below are some things that can 'break' parents:

1) The concept for club sports for juniors athletes is flawed.

Club volleyball is a crucial part of a players' development. There are many high school coaches that have a background in the sport, but there are far more with minimal experience coaching, or in some cases a staff member of that school who never even played the sport! When I talk to parents/players and ask how their season is going, three out of four of them give me an answer with this equation: "It's frustrating because , but we can't wait for club season!". 

The biggest issue that gets discussed is always PLAYING TIME. Every team I've coached, I've given the same speech to parents before my team steps foot on the court. "I do not promise playing time. The reality is, they won't be guaranteed playing time in high school and they certainly won't be guaranteed playing time should they decide they want to play in college. Where you will get your money's worth for club is the practices. We spend far more time at practice than we do at tournaments, and you have my word that every single athlete on this team will get my attention. If they work hard, they will get the development you're hoping to see this season. I will teach them the physical/mental aspects of the game, and I will teach them to compete. I don't worry about wins/losses, I focus on effort, and I find that when we put our best efforts forward day in and day out, the results take care of themselves".

I've stayed true to my word, and my parents have never pushed me on this. However, I don't think this is a product/philosophy that all clubs/coaches adhere to. The IMPACT certification that is needed to become a club coach is thorough with do's/don'ts with moral/ethical conduct, but the actual education the coaches get on teaching the game is minimal. I was lucky to work at a club where we shadowed our new coaches for a couple weeks of practices/tournaments until they were ready to go on their own, but constantly I see coaches at tournaments that turn in lineups and yell at their kids the entire match - even though they have them in a bizarre serve receive system and people don't know where to move in transition. When many of the coaches aren't actually teaching, why wouldn't the parents who are spending thousands of dollars voice their displeasure?

2) For many clubs, there is a difference in development between the 'star' athletes and the athletes that are just starting out.

The more successful clubs get, the more kids they get to tryout. The more kids they get to tryout, the more teams they can field. The more teams they can field, the more money they can make. The more teams they can field, the more coaches they need, and typically the weaker they get as you move down the food chain.

I had a parent from a club that's constantly winning national championships with their elite teams tell me that her daughter was a starter on their 14-1's team. They were extremely happy - lots of attention from the directors/coaching staff, good education, great treatment. Her daughter tore her ACL, and the next season she was on the 15-3's team. The difference in attention and even response times to calls/emails was night and day. Again, for a 15-year old child.

Club is a business. Parents want to go where their children will gain the most. Both Parents/Clubs get stuck on the concepts of wins/losses. Many parents will choose clubs due to this, and clubs will market their programs to boast about their success in wins/losses in order to meet this need. (I go more into detail about this in this post). I've had games where my team played so well, yet my parents were disappointed because we lost in three to a team that was physically superior to us. I've had matches where my team squeaked by a team they should have put away soundly, and my parents are content because they won. If the clubs aren't preaching development as much as results, why would we expect our parents to measure them otherwise?

3) Many Clubs and Recruiting Agencies Leverage Fear Against Families.

This is the elephant in the room that I don't think people like to talk about. Let's start with clubs.

I had the pleasure of coaching my club's Player of the Year last spring for her 18's season. She is currently at a nationally-ranked Division III program and couldn't be happier with the school and culture it's provided. She works as hard as any player I've ever coached, and her talent is undeniable. Yet, she didn't even try out for her high school her senior season and decided to train on her own. Why? Because her high school coach verbally abuses/breaks down kids that do not play for the club she is affiliated with. Multiple kids from our club and surrounding clubs have stopped playing for their high school due to this. Every time their Athletic Director is approached, they are able to find loopholes to claim otherwise and avoid punishment, but I have heard from enough people and seen her roster and where they play their club ball to know this isn't fabricated.

I have also heard time and time again from some of our top athletes that school teammates, parents, and even club coaches themselves (yes, it's illegal) come up and try to tell them they need to join their club if they want to take their game to the next level. Club becomes a youth sports turf war, where clubs are trying to get the best players to tryout, because the reality is the teams that are most successful are almost always the ones that have the most talent before they even step foot on the practice court, especially at the younger ages where the disparity between athletes is greater. I guarantee you if you look at the 'top clubs' in the area and the measurements for height/jump touch for their tryouts, you'd find that they coincidentally start with the best athletes.

The marketing is so aggressive, and it always highlights the accolades of their top teams - National Championships, Scholarships, College Placement - all the things that the majority of athletes won't experience. Then we wonder why parents set their expectations so high for what the season will bring them. We don't broadcast the team that only won a few sets all season, but was comprised of kids that had 0 volleyball experience going into it, and now have a good enough skill set to make an impact on their high school team. We don't talk about the team that lost over half their matches, but by the end of the season FINALLY caught that team that they seemed to run into every tournament and always fell short. We don't sell our clubs on the development, yet we expect our parents to put the expectations there.

Recruiting Agencies. I am extremely disappointed with the business practices we've allowed to seep into the youth volleyball world. Here's something to consider: It is illegal for a college coach to contact a sophomore to begin the recruiting process. However, one of the prominent governing bodies for juniors volleyball has a contract with one of the recruiting agencies. That recruiting agency now has the contact information for all of the young athletes that participated in the national championships for that organization, and is calling sophomores from my former club. The pitch is this: "You haven't done A, B, and C? You're WAY behind if you want to play in college! And we'll get you caught up - for a price". That price ranges from $750-$2,500.

I have no hesitation when I express my displeasure with recruiting agencies - I think they've put a premium price on a service that doesn't do the players/parents justice. They make highlight videos, put a profile together for families, and then spam emails to coaches, looking for some with common interests. It's far too expensive and isn't nearly thorough enough. Yet parents are paying for it, because they are afraid that if they don't, their child won't have the opportunity to play in college. I do think there are some families that have found a college they are pleased with through these agencies - I also think they could find these schools on their own with just a little research of their own and without the cost. I'll address this in my next entry.

Just about every governing body is now partnered with these recruiting agencies. Money talks. Juniors Volleyball has become extremely profitable, but some parts of how things work aren't made transparent to families. Yet we wonder why they get upset when expectations that we've influenced with our marketing haven't been met.

There are some parents that aren't going to change no matter what we do, but I do feel we can prevent creating a large pool of the helicopter parents with straightforward, honest information about what their experience will be when joining a program. The question is, are organizations willing to risk the financial hit they could take if families decide the culture isn't for them?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Happy Birthday Coach Dave

"... They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time" - Banksy

This was the first year that I didn't write a tribute to Dave on the anniversary of his passing. I remember sitting down at the keyboard and simply didn't feel up to it - I just wanted to reflect privately on everything. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't think about him. This year he's been on my mind even more, since I'm 29, his age when he was taken from us far too soon.

Today would have been Dave's birthday. I find it somewhat fitting that it is my last full-time day at my current job before I am fully focused on my new endeavors. My first reaction to his passing was pretty numb, but once I got back on campus, I was so depressed/angry. I found myself wandering the campus aimlessly during times that I'd normally be sitting in his office, talking about whatever topics crossed our minds that day. I couldn't understand how someone so young who was doing SO much for others could be taken from us. After awhile, I stopped trying to figure it out.

The reality is, I'll never have a concrete answer for that. Six years later, I still have those moments where I want to call him and tell him about something or ask him for advice. I will never be able to do that again. However, as long as I'm on this planet and can help people in the way he helped me, he's never truly gone. I am about to tell you my experience with Dave Hildebrandt, and why as long as I'm on this planet, I plan on being an extension of the lessons that he taught myself and so many others during his time here.

I will try to keep the build-up short: I was a 3.5 GPA student in high school. National Honors Society, Athletics, Clubs - I had a profile that offered many opportunities for someone looking for colleges. From the age of 4 up until my senior year, I had been ahead of the curve in mathematics, and everyone told me I'd be something in math. As a kid, it was pretty easy to just go with that, and when looking for colleges I simply wanted to go somewhere with something math-related that'd turn into a lot of money. My counselor at school said Illinois State had a world-renowned expert in Actuarial Mathematics running the department, I visited on a beautiful sunny day, and signed up.

One year later, I came home with a 1.48 GPA, depressed and terrified as for the first time realizing I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I went to Harper College to get my bearings, where Bob Vilsoet jump-started my interest in the sport of volleyball. I began coaching alongside him for the women's team there, and started to play adult leagues/tournaments as well. Still, 2 years later I was working a dead-end job (it's amazing how $13.00/hour felt at the age of 19), going through the motions with no true plan in place in what I wanted to do with my life.

Enter Coach Dave.

"Brick Walls are there for a reason: To prove how badly you want things." - Randy Pausch

Dave Hildebrandt undertook the coaching job at Newbury in 2002 at the age of 23. I assure you they were looking for someone to just keep the budget in the black - the program was not built with the recipe for success. There was no gym on campus - we had to take a van a little over a mile to Hellenic College to use their gym. He had to work in admissions as well in order for it to be a full-time position. I believe his budget for his assistant was $1,000, which for the workload was barely enough to break even for the gas (a thank you to Coach Bob, Coach Aaron, and Coach Rob for your time - I have no doubt you had other opportunities to invest your time for greater financial gain - it doesn't go unappreciated). He inherited a Men's program that went winless in 2001 and 2002 and began to turn it around. After recording four wins in 2003, his aggressive recruiting coupled with a passion for the game and ability to get kids to see his vision for the program's long-term success began to bring in talented players. by 2005, Newbury was nationally ranked and the school's biggest pull for athletic events.

Before athlete profiles were common and social media rules had been put in place by the NCAA, I had put a little highlight video on my myspace profile (1. Yes, I was/am a total nerd - I had no intention of playing for a college and was just toying around with video editing 2. To this day, I can't bring myself to shut my page down. Here's a link to the video if you want a laugh). I can't remember if I had posted it somewhere publicly or how Dave got a hold of it, but he messaged me asking about my interest in playing in college, telling me he thought I'd be a good fit for the team. Once I confirmed that he wasn't some scam-artist (I'd be willing to bet there aren't a lot of people that used myspace to find their college), he came out from Boston to watch me play at an open gym, at which point he told me about his vision for his program. I flew out and visited the school a month later, fell in love with the culture there, and the rest is history.

The irony is, Dave wasn't a great volleyball player (in 3 years, he stepped on the court one time. He was so bad that the team went from "oh boy, let's take it to him" to "everyone cheer Dave on to do something good!" in the span about 3 plays). From a mechanical standpoint, he was probably one of the least knowledgeable coaches I've had. But he knew X's and O's, and he knew how to a) get the best effort out of a player b) how to get a group of very different personalities to buy into a common belief structure and work together towards a goal greater than all of us. The lessons he taught me will stick with me until the day I leave this planet.

Dave taught me about knowing when to build and when to break - He could crush you at a practice when you started feeling bad for yourself and demand you give your physical/mental all, and he did it in a manner than you knew he wanted you to do it for yourself. He also knew when you were reaching a breaking point and how to lift you back up, and he did it time and time again. He taught me you don't have to be the same personality in order to pursue a common goal. I can't tell you how differently we saw things. I was a bears fan, he was a packers fan. My sports idol was John Wooden, his was Dennis Rodman. We had very different philosophies on volleyball and the X's and O's, and we would sit in his office for hours getting into these heated debates, sometimes with me storming out, others with him giving me the boot "because he had to get back to work" (usually that happened when he didn't have a response). Yet come practice time, we put all that to the side and went to work on the task at hand. I will always have such a strong respect for him that he allowed me to be who I was and not hold it against me, and I hope he knew I gave him the same courtesy.

Above everything else, and something that came to me on the anniversary of his death this year, is Dave knew how to find what your passion was and steer you towards it. In my opinion, there's a BIG difference between TALENT and PASSION. I see mentors time and time again pushing people towards what they're naturally good at and not what their passion is for. It was easy to push me towards math because I was good at it. However, I can tell you (and I'm sure my teachers in high school would agree) that once we started to getting to concepts that I had to work to understand, I wasn't so interested. Dave and I talked a lot about life, and the more I reflect on the tone of our conversations, he was so supportive in going after what I wanted and not setting a ceiling for myself. Dave pushed me not to settle for B's when I could get A's. He taught me to not let others deter me from going after what I wanted - but to be relentless and work my ass off for it. Most importantly, he saw a kid going to class part-time with no real plan of attack for life and told him he could achieve bigger and better things if he was willing to work for it. It's that lesson that sticks with me in everything I do when working with kids - if a 5'5 95 pound high school freshman with confidence issues can get to where I've gotten, I firmly believe there's no limit to what others can achieve if they're willing to work for it.

I consider myself incredibly lucky that Dave found me and guided me to Newbury, but realize that many athletes aren't so lucky to have their dream school find them. Tomorrow, I get to fully invest my time in helping athletes in their quest to find their Newbury.

Happy Birthday Coach. Thanks for everything you did for us.