Thursday, January 8, 2015

Patrick Kluesner: 30 years old!

When picking surgery dates, I had to choose between Tuesdays and Fridays. After weighing different variables, I decided to go with January 9th. After it was etched in stone, I realized I forgot one thing:

Patrick Kluesner's 30th birthday. Oops. Well, seeing that I won't be able to do much during it, the least I can do is tell you a little bit about the guy, and why he's literally (that word is overused a lot - in this case it's spot on) one of the nicest human beings I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Aside from being my roommate and business partner, Patrick Kluesner is as genuine of a person as you'll come across. In the two and a half years I've known him, I can't think of a time that he's said anything to anyone aside from exactly what he felt. He's always been one to try and help people. I remember the first time he came and watched me play a volleyball tournament (he doesn't play): He would jump off his seat to offer us high-fives at timeouts, telling us we were doing great if we were, and trying to cheer us up if we weren't doing so well. He asked if there was anything he could do to help us, maybe scout something the other team was doing or something of that nature. He may not have an interest in the sport, but he made it an interest because it mattered to his friends, and that's something I'll always appreciate.

He's a self-proclaimed "hugger" - again, completely genuine. It never gets old to me to watch people get startled when he goes in for the real thing, yet within a few sentences, you can see them realize that there was nothing more to it and any concerns about him are diffused. There's been a lot of volleyball players that have come over to hang out at our house, and not only has he welcomed them in, often he cooks something incredible on the grill for everyone. He plays the role of host better than me even when it's something I've organized without hesitation.

This New Year's Eve, I had my 10 year old brother over and Patrick joined us. He could have done his own thing, but he spent time with my brother and helped him learn how to play a driving simulator video game. I'd like to think I'm a decent coach: Patrick was so patient with him (which isn't always easy), and by the end of it, he had the hang of it. I can't say I would have had the same results.

He's as good of a listener as I've ever met. I can't pretend that there aren't moments where I catch myself listening to someone talk about something, and I already know my response before they finish. I'm working on that. In the last 2 1/2 years, Patrick has had the misfortune to typically be the first person I see after work, dates, events - and I have unloaded a ton on him. He's always listened with genuine interest, and when I may be spazzing out, he seems to always know the right thing to say.

I can count on one hand the amount of times I've seen him REALLY angry. The first time was because I was second-guessing myself and he wasn't having any of it. I've entertained the idea of what eventually became Progression Volleyball Consulting for years, but it was Patrick that really pushed me to go for it. He had heard my ideas (I like that word better than rants or tangents) enough and finally said "Let's do it." I'm blessed with many people that have supported my causes/ideas: Patrick went above and beyond to be a part of it. I can't say with certainty I would have jumped in alone, and now that things are in full swing, I'm so lucky and thankful that he did it.

Aside from all his good qualities as a person, he also happens to be a hard worker - if he sets his mind to accomplish something, I'll bet the house on him every time. He came into the house with no ping pong experience - Jerrod and I would lob balls to him and win 21-10. Years later, he regularly takes games off of all of us. That's a simple example, but the bottom line is, while he may not have a natural knack at everything that interests him, I've never seen him pick up an interest/hobby and not get the end result he desires. He's talented, but his determination to finish what he starts is second to none.

I could write a book on it, but for now I'll stop as there's birthday-eve celebrations to commence. Happy birthday buddy - here's to many more!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Switching Gears - 2 Weeks Until Surgery!

Hello everyone,

I haven't written on this blog for quite some time. It was originally started as a way to give updates to people back at home when I went off to play volleyball in college. After I graduated, I didn't find myself as motivated to write, and basically did one post a year in honor of Coach Dave. Once I started working with high school athletes at Top Flight, I decided it'd be a good way to educate people on various things they'd have to deal with as they began their college search process. I now have my website (Shameless plug - to use as an outlet for that. So what's the plan for this page?

Most of my posts for Progression speak as a coach - I plan on keeping this blog up and going back to writing from a personal perspective. 2 weeks from now I'll be having surgery on my shoulder for an extensive SLAP tear. It's going to be a long process both physically and mentally, but the surgeon/friends who have had the surgery have been very optimistic about the chances of a full recovery. There will be good days and there will be bad days, and I plan on writing on both. I'm not quite sure what other athletes may get out of it, but if it helps them with things they're dealing with or gives them something to relate to, perhaps it's worth it.

In a weird sense, I'm really excited for my surgery. To give a little backstory: The Summer of 2013 was a breakout year for me, finishing top-3 in various Open-level tournaments throughout the Midwest. I was battling some back issues towards the end, but pushed through it and did the necessary rehab to get it back in shape that fall. I was playing with a new partner in 2014, and we had secured a sponsorship that would take us all over the country to play in various AVP qualifiers. I had worked the last 9 years for this opportunity, and couldn't wait to see what was in store.

I began experiencing some shoulder pain in December of 2013, but as I had spurts of tendonitis flare up before, I figured it would go away with a little rest. January started well, and my new partner and I won the first Open level tournament against a team who I had lost to about 14 times in a 3-year span. By February, my arm began to get worse and I wasn't able to snap a ball the way I normally did. I was doing PT two to three times a week, but it wasn't getting better. I shot my way through the next two winter tournaments and shut my arm down for the month of March, doctor's orders. After 4 weeks of not so much as down-balling at my team, I began playing again, but the pain was as bad as ever within a week. I was beginning to think I wouldn't be able to play this summer.

I went to get a second opinion from a friend, and immediately I felt an improvement. The only problem was he said it'd take about 8 weeks of rehab to fix the impingement issues I was dealing with, and the first tournament started in 3. He said I could play this summer, but it would be a matter of pain tolerance and I'd have to do the 2 months after the season.

I worked my tail off for 3 weeks, and from May to early June I actually felt pretty good. By late June, my arm started to get weaker - I couldn't snap a cross-court hit from the right side which was a big part of my success. I could still jump serve, but didn't have nearly the velocity and due to the pain, I didn't have the range of motion to fold or slice the way I normally do to mix up the angles I was hitting. On paper, we didn't have a terrible season, but I knew I played poorly for what I was capable.

After the season ended, the pain was starting to get worse. By October, my arm had locked up and I couldn't raise it above my head - simple tasks such as grabbing a glass or putting shoes on became some of the worst pain I've ever experienced. I went in for an MRI and the tear was found.

What's the plan moving forward? I've told people I'm probably done traveling and competing. People have tried to tell me I'll be able to be back, and the support is appreciated - the decision isn't based on if I can as much of do I want to.

The amount of hours I've put into training in the last 10 years is substantial. When I dislocated my pinky, I took 4 days off before starting to play with one hand (Not smart, don't do that). I would guesstimate that I've taken 5-6 different one week breaks in the last decade. Aside from that, I've been on the court anywhere from 3-7 times a week throughout my entire twenties. I enjoyed the grind, but I sacrificed a lot of other things in the process.

This year was by far the most difficult in terms of preparation. I never found a comfortable balance between training as much as needed to stay sharp, while not overworking my arm as it fatigued really easily. I never felt comfortable playing multiple days in a row. Most nights I'd toss and turn because laying on my arm the wrong way would wake me up. Mentally, I'd have to push through those moments at tournaments where my arm would go numb and focus on the things I could control. The travel was fun, the experience was great and I'm thankful/lucky to have had the support I had - but 2014's season, I felt I was playing more to not let my sponsor/partner down than actual enjoyment (and more often than not, while the effort was always there I rarely felt like I gave the performance of which I was capable less than a year before).

Would I like to make another run in 2016 if my body allows? It's hard to tell right now. Luckily I don't need to make that decision. For now, I take it one day at a time and focus on what I'm doing now. Lou Holtz always said, whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability, and I'm working on doing that in other aspects of my life. It's been great getting the business up and running and I'm excited for what the future holds. I've already got some people that I'll be coaching this summer, so I'll still be around the local tournaments. I've been reconnecting with a lot of great people who have always been there for me, yet I've been hard to socialize with due to how I've focused on playing. I thought I'd miss it more than I do. That being said, it's easy to feel that way now: We'll see what happens come sand season.

Hope everyone had a great Christmas - until next time!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Game Film: A Recruit's Best Friend/Worst Enemy

I recently worked with a junior college transfer that was interested in playing at the Division I level. Their grades were good but didn't separate the athlete from the pack. However, they have a good skill-set and I felt if they could find the right fit, perhaps they'd have an opportunity to land at a middle/lower tier Division I school.

They reached out to various schools, and we found one that on paper was a good fit: They had one athlete at the same position and they'd be graduating that season. Her grades were in range with the typical applicant. They emailed the coach and got a prompt response. The coach asked the athlete for film, and the athlete said they'd send it by the end of the week.

One week later, we had this conversation via text (A little language, but leaving it as it's important for discussion):

Athlete: Well they just got back to me after seeing sh*tty film. Not a scholarship athlete, she's looking to fill the position but we can discuss walk on options.

Me: I have a question for you and I'm asking for an honest answer :) You told me playing Division I was a dream of yours. You had the opportunity to present your case to a coach who was interested. So why did you use what you yourself describe as "sh*tty film" to make your first impression?

Athlete: Because it's all I had

It's a difficult lesson for the athlete, but a valuable one: Game Film is something just about every coach wants to see in 2014. For an athlete, it can be a way to show their potential in a positive manner, or a way to eliminate your chances to play for a school. Luckily, this athlete will a) have the opportunity to walk-on b) can fine-tune their footage to make a better impression for other schools.

When I was coaching college, I saw just about everything: Slow motion montages, players hitting on nets a foot too low, excessive special effects, videos where the parent zoomed in our their kid and followed them around on the court, a player's first highlight being them sailing a ball long or hitting it into the net - Even if they weren't what we were looking for at the Division I level, they still could have shown themselves in a much better light.

So what are some ways to create a good video? Here are a few things I always stress to my athletes:

1) If you could only show a coach 30 seconds of highlight footage, which clips would you use? ALWAYS start with that portion.

Even the coaches that would like to watch every minute of every film don't have the opportunity to do so. There aren't enough hours in a day to go over every piece of film sent our way. That being said, you don't get a second chance at a first impression, and if you don't catch the coach's eye in the first thirty seconds of film, odds are they're going to move on to the next video. Show the coach what you're capable of as soon as you can to grab their attention!

2) Use camera angles that make it easy for the coach to see the whole court.

While running juniors tournaments last season, I would see parents recording their children and grimace at some of the angles they were using. Sometimes they couldn't see the other side of the court at all, which makes it impossible for the coach to know if the ball's landing in or out. Parents hold the camera and move it as the play continues in a manner that makes it hard to follow and is borderline dizzying. Others would be too zoomed in and I couldn't get a gauge on if players were transitioning from spot to spot correctly.

Below are a few examples of camera angles: To me, the ideal spot is for a non-moving camera to be behind an endline on the same side as the athlete. If possible, elevate it to make it a bit easier to see the other side of the court as well. The more we can see the entire court so we can see how the athlete moves in relation to everything going on around them, the easier it is for us to assess how they're reading the game.

In the first photo, we can't see where the ball lands, or how players on the primary side are moving in relation to ball movement by their opponents. The second and third photos are better, but we have corners of the court that we still can't see due to the camera being too close/zoomed in too much. The fourth and fifth photos are ideal - while the fourth one is missing a small portion of one of the corners, it's minimal and we should be able to see the ref's call on anything that lands near it. The fifth one gives us the opportunity to see the entire court and how all 12 players are moving at all times. While parents may not be able to get a camera up that high, the close we can to this angle the better!

3) The easier it is for a coach to navigate, the better!

Last season I had an athlete ask me to review their game film. They sent me a YouTube link and I was blown away - it was incredibly well-organized. The beginning was a 5-second picture that had the following information:

Year of Graduation
Block Jump Touch
Approach Jump Touch

Followed by a video that broke down skill by skill - Hitting, blocking, serve receive/passing, and serving. Each skill set had a button on top that allowed the coach to easily navigate the video to go exactly where they wanted to go. It was an 8-minute video, but the coach had total control on seeing exactly what they wanted to see.

Each coach you send your video to can have different things that they're looking for. Make sure you make it easy for them to find what's important to them, otherwise you may miss your opportunity to catch their attention!

4) Understand that coaches don't just see your good habits and analyze your video accordingly!

A male 6'5 setter with a 10'9 jump touch recently asked me to review his recruiting video. In his mind, it showed his strong points (soft touch to the ball, good location, wrist strength to be moving one way and flip the ball the other). All these things were on display. It also showed him jogging to balls he should have sprinted for, not squaring his shoulders up on every set, and telegraphing a couple sets. Coaches use your film to see your strengths AND your weaknesses.

Some questions you should consider before sending off your video (ESPECIALLY if you send a full match):

* Do you move as fast as you can while staying low/prepared to move?
* Are you standing around watching when the ball isn't coming to you, or are you loaded and ready at all times?
* Does your video show positive interaction with teammates, even when the other team may score a point? (To be blunt - do you sulk when things aren't going your way?)

Game film can make our break you when trying to catch a coach's attention - make sure you use it wisely!

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!