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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Culture of Collegiate Volleyball - Things High School Athletes Should Know

As the 2014 NCAA Women's Volleyball season progresses, I can't help but feel excited for what the future may hold for our sport. I remember less than 10 years ago sitting in my dorm room, scouring the internet to find out what games I could find online. At the time, most schools didn't have the ability to webcast, and those that did offer it typically charged for it. Effort needed to be made if you wanted to watch a match without actually being able to go to the games.

Fast forward to today, and getting access to matches has never been easier. For example, this thread on volleytalk shows how often matches are now being broadcasted. It's good for our sport financially because the more people it reaches, the better chances companies will want to hop on board as a sponsor as they have a much better chance of getting a return on investment. However, the other impact it may have is to give families a better idea of where their high school athlete will best fit in.

I find that most families I talk to have little to no information regarding what the difference between divisions are, as well as how they work. Here are some of the topics I go over when giving my seminar on the topic of the difference between divisions:

1) Division I isn't just about being an elite player - it's about being an elite athlete!

I am currently in the works of contacting collegiate coaches conducting a study to put concrete numbers on this. The reality is, if you're touching below 9'6, getting looked at as anything aside from DS/Libero is VERY rare. While it is only a handful nowadays, some freshman are coming in touching over 11' feet - unless you're touching 10', the odds of having a competitive Division I school look at you are not great - and that's not even discussing the actual volleyball skill-set an athlete is bringing to the table.

2) Talent aside, if you don't enjoy the idea of working hard and dedicating your collegiate years to the sport, you probably won't enjoy the culture of Division I Athletics.

A lot of families I meet at look at the Division I Scholarship as the golden opportunity for their child to pay their way through college - yet they almost seemed surprised when I tell them about the expectations their child will have in the event that they were to make it. 6am weights, class, individual practice, team practice, training room due to the body being worked so hard, mandatory study hall, away trips that will conflict with classes - players earn every penny of their scholarship. The offseason is fairly strenuous as well, with planned workouts in order to keep the athlete in shape. For many, it will be more physically demanding than anything the athlete has done before. If they don't enjoy the grind, the odds of them lasting are slim and none.

Truth be told, I watched how our girls did their 30 minutes of Athletic Development at practice each day, and talent aside, I would say at MOST 5-10 had the true drive it would take to handle the expectations a Division I program would put on its players. A very simple way to gauge this: If an athlete conditions differently when their coach turns their back compared to when they're watching them, that's not someone that's going to enjoy the grind.

3) If every institution used every women's volleyball athletic scholarship they were able to (which they don't), only 1.4% of high school athletes would have the opportunity to obtain one.

I covered the numbers on this in my blog Scholarships By the Numbers - there are far more players than scholarships, and most players will not have the opportunity to play for an athletic scholarship.

4) Division III is not 'bad volleyball' - and being an athlete does give the student a stronger identity when applying at an institution!

Many athletes tell me they only want to look at Division I/II schools. When I ask why, they rarely have a specific reason. Furthermore, when I ask if they've ever seen a Division III match, they almost always said no! Remember: While it can be good to use other people for information/advice, realize they do not always have the same assessments that you will have - make decisions based on YOUR assessments, not theirs.

Very rarely do these conversations come from athletes that are head and shoulders above Division III. Here is a men's volleyball clip of Division III Volleyball, as well as a women's clip of Division III Volleyball. While the quality of athleticism drops off from the higher divisions, the actual volleyball can be pretty strong!

Some people will argue that Division III is inferior because it doesn't offer the athletic scholarship. However, being an athlete allows you to avoid being a "Stealth Applicant" (someone who applies without speaking to/building a relationship with someone from the school) - it allows you to build a relationship with the coach, and have someone to use as a reference for the Admissions/Registrar office. If Student A and Student B have the same GPA and test scores, but Student A plays a sport and has built a relationship with the coach, they have a much better chance of getting the merit aid their profile warrants. The school then has a better idea of what the person is like and if they'll be a good fit. The person shows that they work well in teams, and they'll be an ambassador for the school.

5) There are 1500 schools out there - don't look for a school that "I can play volleyball at" - find a school that meets your wants/needs!

Of all the mistakes I see families make when looking at schools, it's that they don't narrow their scope of what their athlete wants from an institution - I made this mistake myself. There are so many schools that student-athletes have no idea exist. Many players try to get information on them by sending a profile out with a recruiting agency hoping that one of these schools will contact them. There are thousands of those profiles online - you have to separate yourself from the pack, and that means doing some basic research on your end! Before you even start looking at schools, having an idea of what you want from your learning experience is crucial. Do you have a geographic location that you prefer? What about a field of study? Do you prefer a specific school size? As an athlete, would you prefer to be on a team you could start for as a freshman even if they were a single digit win team, or would you be more comfortable being on a team competing for a conference/national championship even if it means more competition for playing time? These are things that people should assess before they start their search. Don't wait for schools to find you - in 2014, it's never been easier to go online and narrow your list of schools specifically to your personality - and contacting the coach directly will have a bigger impact than having a recruiting agency contact the school on your behalf. Find a school that will help you grow as a player/person over the next 4 years and will appreciate having you as part of their institution - it's out there!

This isn't even discussing the NAIA, Junior Colleges, Club, and Intramurals. There are many opportunities for people to play in college! Contact me at if you'd like me to look at your profile and help set up a plan of attack to find the right school for you! Also, if there are specific topics you'd like to see more information on, feel free to request it. My goal is to provide as much information as possible where people need the most help!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An Open Letter to Youth Sports Parents

I went to local 7th/8th grade championships yesterday to support various players that I've had the pleasure of coaching over the last couple years. I was very disappointed in the behavior I witnessed in the stands last night, to the point that I felt the need to write the principal to address it. I also wrote a letter that I told him he was welcome to share with the parents should he be interested. Below is that letter (I removed the intro/ending). I am confident that the staff will handle the situation as necessary, but I hope moving forward our schools/clubs continue to hold parents accountable for their behavior so these situations are prevented. While this was directed at a select few, I think a lot of the information should be given to all parents before their child begins to play youth sports.

Some statistics you should know: According to a 2012 study, there were 418,903 girls that participated in their volleyball program, and 25,165 that participated at the collegiate level. Roughly estimated, about 6% of girls who participate in high school will play in college, and maybe 1% will actually have some sort of athletic scholarship. 0.3% of Collegiate Women’s Volleyball players actually go on to play professionally. It is a safe assumption that most the girls in the gym last night will not be playing the sport to make their living. Furthermore, studies indicate that winning is not what drives young kids to play sports – a recent one broke it down into 81 specific statements, and winning came up as 48th (here is a link to that article if you’d like to read it).

Sports, to me, is unique because for many humans, it is their first experience with dealing with failure. Your conference has eight teams. All eight teams can work hard and try their best to win, and only one will leave the final match with a trophy. I moved to coach juniors not for wins and losses, but to teach kids lessons that transcend volleyball – after all, most of them will go on to do something else with their lives. It teaches them how to work well with others. It teaches them how to have to deal with adversity. It teaches them that sometimes, you’ll do everything to the best of your ability and it doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve your end goal.

It also teaches us about dealing with external circumstances – a statement I use as a coach is controlling the controllables. Because there will be games where your child physically has a bad day. There will be days where the refs make bad calls (and believe me – you’ll also get calls to go your way as well from time to time. I don’t envy the job of being a referee, it’s not as easy as you may think it is). Sometimes, your coach may make or not make a move that you disagree with – but you can’t control that – all you can control is how you do your job – either being engaged at the task at hand on the court, or supporting your team on the bench.

I have ran countless tournaments both for adults and juniors, and the behavior I saw from some parents yesterday would have been more than enough to remove them from the facility. Walking out from the bleachers screaming for the coach to call timeout (they had already motioned for one before this happened) is unacceptable behavior. Screaming sarcastic remarks when they make certain moves so that everyone can hear it is not acceptable either. Profanity loud enough that people 5-6 rows up can hear, especially with younger siblings of players in near proximity - it is extremely disappointing. But the worst infraction in my opinion came after the third game that was played in order to get more kids the ability to play (both teams had over 12 players). The final point had landed, and not a single clap or cheer was made for the kids commending them for their effort.

Immediately, I heard parents speaking with their child attacking external circumstances. I didn’t hear anything about giving their best effort, or about things they individually could build on moving forward. I didn’t hear about how it was a great season and 2nd out of 8 teams is still respectable. There were some great lessons to be learned last night, and I felt many of them were lost in a mixture of anger/frustration because there was so much emphasis on winning/losing.

As a parent in the stands during a match, you have one job – to support the children in a positive manner. These are 12-14 year old girls learning how to compete the right way. Should you want to ask questions about decisions or offer your input, writing something the day after is the most constructive way you can relay your concerns to the appropriate staff.

I realize that most of your frustrations are because you simply want what’s best for your child. I am sure you know from your own experiences that you won’t be able to protect them from disappointing results from time to time – they are going to have their bumps in the road. What you can do is help them learn to bounce back from those experiences and work that much harder for when the next opportunity arises. I watch a lot of matches and constantly see coaches make/not make moves I do not agree with – I also see kids not engaged on the bench, kids pointing fingers at each other instead of themselves, and many other physical/mental miscues that they can improve on. Unless a child gives their absolute all to the match physically/mentally (that includes on the sidelines), then they shouldn’t be focused on what their coaches, ref, or teammates did or didn’t do. If they focus on this mentality, it will give them the best chance of being successful – both on and off the court.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Culture of Club Volleyball and What Organizations That Profit From it Won't Tell You

(This will be a 2-part blog - Part 1 will deal with "Why have we not educated our families properly?" and Part 2 will then go into the reality of what the culture of college volleyball is truly like).

With tryouts for most juniors volleyball clubs only days away, I figured I'd write a little bit on a topic that I think most families should be aware of, but only a very small percentage actually understand (not due to anything they've done - it's just more of an elephant in the room. Allow me to introduce that elephant).

In the past month, I've been speaking with countless people in the volleyball community - from juniors players to their parents, to club coaches/directors, all the way up to USAv/AAU/JVA/AVCA members. It's been interesting to hear a lot of different perspectives regarding the culture of junior volleyball and the wants/needs for it. Between my experience as a college coach and eventually a college liaison, as well as my communication with all these people, I've come to the conclusion that
most parents/players have not been properly educated on how college volleyball REALLY works for various reasons:

1) Some clubs (understandably from a business perspective) are afraid to tell the 99% of families with a child that will not play Division I the hard truth as they risk losing that family to another club that will tell them otherwise. Sadly, player success sells a lot more than player development.

2) Some families simply don't want to hear the truth. I've seen a ton of articles online with hard facts about how most parents should curb their expectations about their children being an elite athlete littered with a comments section of proud parents with a "you're wrong about my kid, you'll see!" remarks. #3 and #4 will play on this.

3) Marketing tools are horribly skewed to give false expectations. This in my opinion is the BIG one. Before all my friends that work for/run clubs get upset, know that this isn't a shot at their programs as much as the culture of club sports for kids. When you think large girls v.olleyball programs in my area, there are three that stand out above the rest. Their top teams indeed are some of the best in the country, and I see players from their clubs at some of the best college programs in the country.

I went to all three of their websites, and the first thing that pops out on all three websites are the words NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS. One of them takes a small scroll to see that they are #2 in the nation for players that are currently playing at the collegiate level, and the other has the # of 2014 recruits that are going to play at college. These are statements that are valid... but it doesn't paint the whole picture.

What you don't see is the number of kids that have gone through their program in that age group in the last 5-6 years that aren't going to play in college. You don't see the number of kids that may go to college to play but are relying on their academic scholarship/grants to help pay their way. You don't see the difference in training that the 'elite' players get vs. the kids that are either brand new to the sport or develop at the speed that I did as a 5'5 95-pound high school freshman. And you don't see the fact that, due to the reputation they've built and aggressive marketing, they get more of the physical outliers / naturally gifted athletes to come to their tryouts, which is why they SHOULD be where they're at (Even John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches of all time that won 10 NCAA National Championships in 12 seasons and was all about fundamentals/effort, admitted that the #1 thing you need to win was talent). Give a trained eye an hour at 10 different clubs for their tryouts at their "top" court, and that eye will be able to give you a pretty close assessment to what teams will have the most success 7 months down the road.

Due to all of this, all the other clubs have to resort to similar marketing tools - I agreed to work for my club because they have built a culture that cared about the PERSON, whether they were going to be an elite athlete or they just had a love for the sport - but you won't read that on our front page. Scroll down and you will read about our National Championships though!

And from a business perspective, why wouldn't they? Parents want their kids to go to successful programs, and sure enough, these clubs have the biggest tryout numbers year after year without fail.

4) We have decided to skew tournament results so that everyone feels successful. Part of this is to soften the blow to our kids that not everyone is created equal, another part of this is to make sure parents (and to an extent, lower/middle level clubs) are willing to pay the $ it takes to travel for these National Championships (our sport isn't generating a lot of money at the professional level - but you better believe that the business of juniors volleyball is THRIVING financially).

Let's look at a 18's Division for a National Championship from last year. There were 222 teams that participated. They were broken into four groups: Classic, Club, Open, and Premier (very clever how they don't use a naming system that would differentiate to a common fan what's best). There were 44 teams in the 'lowest' division. After a couple days of play, teams are 'tiered' to play with other teams that have had similar results. One team did not win a single game - they were 44th out of 44 and in a sense, 222 out of 222. But you know what those kids/parents will say? "We took 5th in the Green Division!". 222 teams, and they all get to leave saying they finished in the top-10 of x division. 

The intention of that is not to criticize that team, but the system that doesn't give parents and players a fair assessment on where they fall in the big picture. The system only bolsters it - because most families aren't paying thousands of dollars to spend a week in Florida to take 200th+ place.

I want to give people this information not to ruffle feathers, but because families NEED to know this. You can skew statistics all you want in a letter to a college coach about your team's results, but when the coach sees the athlete play, they will know where they stand. A club name or tournament results may get a coach to look at a player, but if the player can't perform at the level they're looking for, they will not play for that coach's school. It's as simple as that.

You may be thinking "With all of that sunshine you just dropped on us, what are we supposed to do???" - Part 2 will talk about your options - And you have them. Club has a purpose and value - the development of your athlete. That value is in the practices/education, not the playing time at tournaments, not at finishing Xth place in the Y Division at Nationals. Any kid that truly has a passion for the sport and has played it for multiple years has an opportunity to play after high school - with many of them being able to use it to their advantage when applying for a college.

I will speak more to this in Part 2!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Are Kids Afraid To Fail? One Theory.

The following thoughts are simply my opinion based on what I see on a regular basis - I would love someone to do some research on it to give it a little more validity. My question is this: How does the media's constant praise/criticism of world-class athletes affect youth sports?

From 1st-8th grade, I had a routine before school. I would wake up early each day and watch a full SportsCenter on ESPN in order to follow my favorite teams and see the results from competitions the previous day. I loved keeping up-to-date with my favorite players/teams and never missed a day of it.

Twenty years later (Really??? 20? When did that happen...), I still like to listen to ESPN Radio or have the television on in the background while I work. I may change this routine moving forward though, as while the stories change, the tone of the conversation remain the same.

The problem I see is we live in a society that hails the victor and picks apart  the "loser". The Chicago Bears had a bad game Sunday and the media has CRUSHED them for the last 72 hours. The coaching staff, offense, defense, and special teams all have been getting blasted via radio/television, and I'm not even going to address Social Media like Twitter/Facebook. I realize journalists have a job to do and that's how they make their living, but how do we expect our kids to see society's reactions to athletic competitions and NOT fear failure and judgment from peers?

I went to a junior high match to watch a couple of the athletes I coach in the sand play earlier this week, and her team won a very close match. Both played extremely well - I ran into one of them afterwards and complimented her on how she played (including the only block of the match to win the match 26-24!). She was a beam of light on the court for her teammates when they made good plays, and kept players going to the middle after the other team scored. She served well, played good defense, and attacked the ball well beyond her years. She responded meekly, "I made a lot of mistakes...". I asked her if she gave her all physically/mentally and she said yes. I reminded her of the good plays and told her I was proud of her and to keep working hard. The player I found and the player I left were completely different, all because of a little encouragement.

I tell my kids the same thing time and time again: If you walk off the court knowing you gave your all physically and mentally every single point, that's all you can ask of yourself and you should walk off that court with your head held high, regardless of the outcome/mistakes that may have occurred.

I've coached players from age 5 all the way up to 50's - One of the biggest obstacles I face with new teams, young or old, talented or raw, is getting players to focus on making the play instead of fearing the mistake. Even parents with a limited education on volleyball can tell when kids "aren't moving" - their movements are hesitant, their bodies are tense, they look at their teammates any time a ball is between them hoping they'll go for it so they don't have to. Their mechanics become rigid and they don't give themselves an opportunity to succeed. I spend much more time at practices breaking this mindset than I'd like to because it's crucial for their development. My players know the quotes I drive home time and time again (most from coaches much smarter than me) - "If you're not making mistakes, you're not growing" "Whatever you're doing, do it to the best of your ability" "Focus on the process, not the results" "Be comfortable being uncomfortable" "When things get tougher physically you must be tougher mentally". When they finally buy into it, that's when we see the biggest growth. I make sure we're always pushing ourselves to raise the bar and improve things mechanically, but I also don't want them to become consumed by the results.

One of the first pieces I read this morning was about the Buffalo Bills quarterback being replaced by their backup, with the coach being quoted as saying they need more production from that position. I realize coaches have to be careful about letting the media hit nerves with them, but I'd love to hear a coach say something like this:

"Yes, we're making a change. Let's be clear about something: It's not a punishment to the former starter - it's an opportunity for the new one. We are an organization of world-class individuals competing against other organizations of world-class individuals - every single person that's a part of what we do has worked their asses off most of their life to be successful at what they're doing - and most of us will be able to live comfortably for the rest of our lives as a result. Every now and then, one player will not be producing and we'll look at another option, but they'll continue to work hard, we'll continue to evaluate their progress, and the team will move forward as one.

The reality is, every single Sunday, an amazing team is going to win and an amazing team is going to lose. Half of these elite teams HAVE to lose each week. If a player isn't hustling, is a negative influence on those around them, or is becoming individualistic and losing focus on the team and its goals, then we can criticize them. But if a player is giving their all and aren't at their best physically - and remember, we play a game where a matter of INCHES can be the difference between positive and negative outcomes - then I'm going to back my players/staff and do everything I can to help them be better prepared for the following week, because that's all I can ask of them".

I know it won't happen because people eat it up the way it is, which generates ratings/views, which generates advertisement opportunities with leads to $$$ - it's just sad that we are raising a generation of kids that watch us praise players when they're great one week and crush them the next when they don't perform. It shouldn't come to a shock to us when are kids make mistakes - why wouldn't they be concerned about judgment when you can't watch/listen to sports media for 15 minutes without seeing harsh criticism of some of the best athletes in the world? 

We can't change what's on television or on the radio - but we have SO much power as coaches, teammates, parents, siblings. Players put enough pressure on themselves and know when they have a bad game - don't let our young athletes forget: It's not whether they win or lose, but how they play the game. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Controlling the Controllables - How to Deal with Rough External Circumstances as an Athlete

As we approach Club Tryouts, I have the opportunity to go support our girls as they compete for their respective high schools. After the game if they aren't chasing a bus to head home, I'll ask them how their season is going. Some have good experiences, but many club players struggle with the transition as the culture can be much different than what they're used to experiencing. Some things I hear on a regular basis include:

* The coach plays me at a different position than I play for club.
* The coach plays favorites with people from the club they coach at.
* The coach plays everyone equally so we're not as competitive as I'd like to be.
* The coach doesn't have a volleyball background and makes us do things in an unorthodox manner.

The last one is probably the most common - I ran an indoor camp for a week this summer, and when we were practicing serve receive, I noticed most of the girls were straight-legged with their cores bent forward. When I tried adjusting this, they said their high school coach yells at them if they do it any other way. As a 14-18 year old, I understand how frustrating it can be to have one coach teach one method, only to have another teach them to do it differently!

The one common theme with players' frustrations is that they are usually focusing on external circumstances. Unfortunately, players can't control who coaches them, they can't pick their teammates, and they don't have a lot of say in what their role will be on a team. But there are still SO many things that they can (and should) focus on controlling, even when they aren't in the ideal situation.

 Do not let the things you can't control negatively affect the things you DO controlThis is one of the most crucial pieces of coaching I feel we can give our young players.  Above everything else, I'm a firm believer that the game teaches the game - every repetition a player takes is valuable! It can be very easy for an athlete to become distracted regarding this. If they're focused on how the coach just yelled at them or how their teammate isn't doing things right, it will deter them from being able to do their job to the best of their ability. Every time they touch the ball is an opportunity to better themselves.

Whatever role your coach gives you, do it to the best of your ability! I remember in high school playing a different position each season - libero as a freshman, right side as a sophomore, outside as a junior and setter as a senior. It would have been nice in some ways if I could have focused on one position, but long-term I feel lucky that I worked on multiple aspects of my game.

I had a little video I put together which is how my eventual college coach found me. It was about 3 and a half minutes of hitting outside - with two right side hits. It was those two hits that caught his eye, and I ended up starting my first two years for Newbury as an opposite. The school was the perfect fit for me academically - and had I not been able to play that position, he may not have contacted me as we were already loaded at outside hitter.

If your coach puts you in at a position you've never played before, do it to the best of your ability. That's all you can control, and the coach is putting you there for a reason. Which goes to my last point:

Focus on the process, not the results! I tell the athletes this all the time, and it's easier said than done. 50 percent of teams win, and 50 percent of teams lose - winning doesn't always mean you played well and losing doesn't mean you played poorly. When we make a mistake and dwell on the result (missed serve, hit out of bounds, shanked pass), we lose the ability to use it as a learning moment - the WHY it happened and HOW to correct it. "Ugh, I missed my serve" will only make you more tense the next time you go to the line. "My toss was too low, I'll throw it higher next time" gives you the opportunity to better the next ball. 

Your team may not be as successful as you'd like. You may not be in your most comfortable position. You may have a coach that yells at you more often than not. These aren't ideal scenarios, but only YOU can decide whether or not to let them negatively affect your ability to perform. Remember: the teenage years are about building a foundation - and even negative environments will make it easier when you decide to look for colleges to play for in the aspect that you'll know what coaching philosophies/team environments you thrive in, and which ones you want to avoid.

Control the Controllables kids - never give someone else the power to make you give less than 100% physically and mentally - do it for yourself!

Good luck to teams as they enter the second half of their high school season!