Practicing smarter: how to get the most out of your practices

by Jeff Smith

With a shorter season and fewer practice hours than most other Chicago-area clubs, Serve City's volleyball players and teams must overcome a training-time deficit to keep up with our opponents.

How can our athletes and teams compensate? By practicing smarter, not just harder. Here are five ways to accomplish this.

1. Arrive early

As the military saying goes, if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time. Imagine if you arrive 15-20 minutes early to your next 20 practices and use that time to hone your skills. That's 300 extra minutes of work you could invest in your passing, setting, serving and other areas of your game. Consider how much you could improve with an extra five hours of training.

Then do it.

2. Set goals for each practice

Setting goals is like using a map to plot out a trip: It helps you know where you're going. As a volleyball player, you can set two or three specific goals for yourself for each practice. These goals will allow you to concentrate on areas of your development during practice that need your focused attention.

For example, let's say you're a setter who has been occasionally finding yourself arriving slightly late to the ball in the setting zone when transitioning from right back on defense. For Monday's practice your goals are to work on your footwork when moving to the ball and to improve your reaction time in transitioning from base defense to offense. Maybe you've also wanted to learn how to serve the short zones better, so your third goal for practice is to serve more effectively to zones 2 and 4.

After practice, take a quick minute to review your goals. In a journal or in a simple word processing app on your phone, note one thing you improved on and one thing you need to keep working on at your next practice.

By goal setting you'll be following the habits of pro athletes. Beach volleyball player Geena Urango discusses using goal setting in her practices in this video.

3. Seek out quality and quantity touches on the volleyball

Coaches cringe when they see a group of six to 10 girls form a circle and do circle passing before a practice or match. If you're doing circle passing with seven other players, in one minute you're probably touching the ball three or four times at most. By comparison, if you pair up with a partner you could get 25 to 30 touches in a minute.

Of course, developing your skills requires more than just a quantity of repetitions. You need quality as well. Motor learning science teaches us that the most skill acquisition and skill transfer from practices to matches occurs when volleyball players perform skills in a game-like drill setting.

At the risk of getting too technical, it's otherwise known as the law of specificity. Basically, specificity teaches that, to become better at a particular skill, you must perform that skill as closely to how you actually execute that skill in a game as possible, avoiding gimmicky drills that don't transfer well to actual games.

In volleyball, this means ...

  • If you want to get better at hitting live sets, the best strategy you can use is to work on improving your technique and timing by hitting live sets, not tosses from a coach or balls in a hitting machine.
  • If you want to grow into a more consistent serve receiver, the best way you can do this is to sharpen your skills by receiving live serves in game-like situations.
  • If you want to develop your back-row skills digging hard-driven jump attacks, your best choice is to practice digging up actual hard-driven jump hits from hitters who receive sets from live setters, not artificial hits from a coach or teammate tossing balls to himself and hitting while standing on a box.

4. Push yourself

Six-time NBA basketball champion Michael Jordan was famous for many reasons, including his passionate practice habits. His Chicago Bulls teammates and coaches called him the most competitive practice player they ever encountered. Whether shooting free throws or playing a scrimmage, Jordan went all out to win every drill and game of practice.

Treating every drill and practice like the Hall of Fame guard did is a good habit to build, constantly stretching yourself and your skills in the process.

5. Enjoy every moment

More than anything, the attitude you bring to each practice will affect your work ethic, growth and how much you get out of each training session. If you see practice as an opportunity to not only develop your skills and understanding of the game but also to play a sport you love, you'll be more motivated to pour your best effort into every practice.

In short, have fun! This doesn't mean goofing around, wasting time and disrespecting your coach and teammates. It does mean relishing the chance to play, compete, learn and improve with the other members of your team. When you love what you do, you'll enthusiastically do what you love -- and your game will get better as a result.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

The secret to becoming a good hitter? It starts between the ears

by Jeff Smith

Jessica varsity libero covering hitter.jpg

A few years ago my former club's 18U team had only six players available for a tournament. This meant everyone would need to play all six rotations around the court, including our libero.

Some liberos would cringe at the thought of playing on the front row. Our libero relished the opportunity. As much as she enjoyed passing and digging, she loved hitting even more in spite of her small stature. In practices, she seized the chance to hit any time she got, sometimes even asking me if she could play a couple of rotations at outside hitter. At the tournament, she didn't dominate by any means but delivered several timely kills, finding ways to terminate hits against much bigger blockers.

The team went on to win the tournament, and the libero's fearless attitude toward hitting on the front row was a key reason why.

Over the years I've trained hundreds of athletes, ranging from fourth to 12th grade and from about 4 feet 2 to 6 feet 2, how to hit with varying degrees of success. Yes, learning the technical skills for hitting is important. But, the most critical skill of all to becoming a good hitter is mental. Developing the mindset of a hitter is what separates great and good hitters from those who are sub-par and mediocre.

What does a standout hitter "look like" mentally? Here are four traits that are essential to hitting success. You'll quickly notice that none of these characteristics has anything to do with height or size. I've coached numerous tall athletes who couldn't become successful hitters because they couldn't develop the traits below as well as some players of a "smaller stature" who grew into some of the better hitters on our teams.

1. Love for hitting

Enjoyment of hitting can be an acquired skill, but in many cases it never happens. Some athletes never love hitting, even if they eventually develop the fundamentals to hit well.

Every good to great hitter loves to hit. This love for spiking is what drives them to work feverishly at improving their hitting. They love the feeling of pounding a high line shot or cross-court kill that bounces off the floor or knocks over a helpless back-row digger. And this love for hitting sometimes takes years to nurture and grow.

2. Unafraid to make mistakes

This will sound crazy at first, but it's true: Great hitters have no conscience. What I mean is they don't feel bad, sorry or guilty about belting an attack out of bounds or getting stuff blocked at the net. Good hitters have bad memories; they don't give a hitting error a second thought, quickly moving their focus on to the next rally and another opportunity to hit again.

3. Attack mentality

Great hitters are like an aggressive quarterback who loves to fire passes downfield looking for touchdowns instead of settling for shorter, safer passes, a baseball pitcher who looks for the strikeout or a boxer whose first instinct is to go for the knockout. When they receive a good or even decent or average set, they want to convert that set into a kill. They're not interested in safely delivering a roll shot to the middle of the court to keep the play alive; they approach, jump and swing hard and fast, then ask questions later.

And, before you ask if that perspective only applies to the best, most polished hitters, it doesn't. Three years ago I coached a small, wiry 14-year-old hitter who never met a set she didn't try to pulverize with every ounce of her 98-pound frame. From the first day of practice, Zoe swung at set after set as if the ball had personally insulted her family.

Initially most of her hits either landed 10 feet beyond the end line or violently shook the net. But, with a couple of tweaks to the contact point of her hitting hand on the ball and a slight adjustment to where she was set (sets farther off the net is ideal for shorter hitters), Zoe became not only one of the top hitters in the conference but one of the league's most effective jump servers as well.

It all started with Zoe's attack mentality.

4. Fearless approach to the biggest moments

Great hitters don't change their methods based on the score of the match. Whether it's 1-1 or match point, if they receive a quality set and the opposing blockers give them an open line to hit to, they swing with confidence and assertiveness every single time. If they're facing a tall double block but their coach tells them to pound the ball over, around or through the block, they don't think twice: They go for it. If their team trails 24-23 in the decisive set and they receive a good set, they attack the ball with zeal, even if their last three hits were blocked, went out of bounds or taped the net.

Some coaches believe hitters become fearless in big moments by building their confidence through success in such moments. Other coaches believe hitters develop fearlessness by forming the habit of hitting fearlessly all the time (with the consistent and constant encouragement of their coaches to hit fearlessly): in practices, scrimmages, warm-ups and throughout every match. Some call it a growth mindset and others refer to it as the pursuit of excellence -- the gradual result of always striving to do better.

This fearlessness can be learned at a young age. One of the best hitters I ever had the privilege to coach was Gigi Crescenzo. Even in eighth grade, Gigi would approach, jump and pound cross-court and high line hits with the same force no matter the score, earning the nickname G-Force from me. Early in her career she would occasionally tip or roll shot a great set near the end of a match, but after a few disapproving looks from me she quickly ditched that habit and developed an "assassin's" attitude.

This past fall she led St. Charles North to its first trip to the state finals, crushing kills over taller blockers throughout the season, a practice she began four years earlier.

5. Consistent steps forward

Great hitters keep pushing themselves. They're never satisfied with the status quo, always looking to take the next step in their development.

Once they learn and refine their basic hitting technique, these hitters work on hitting specific locations on the court (also known as lines of power). Once they are able to run (approach) and hit in a straight line (down the sideline, cross court, sharp angle), they work on mastering their hand placement on the ball. They figure out that hitting the bottom of the ball gives them loft for hitting over blockers and hitting the top of the ball drives the ball downward. Now they are able to control the height of their hits.

Then they work on how their hitting hand finishes, specifically "thumb down" and "thumb up." If they hit from outside and are right-handed, finishing their arm swing with their thumb up enables them to cut the ball down the sideline; finishing thumb down cuts the ball across the court to the corner or even the short angle. Now they are able to control how to hit the ball off their line of power to the left or the right.

Hitters then learn how to look one way and hit the opposite direction to fool the blockers and diggers, and the process continues for the hitter who wants to be great.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Patience: the virtue that coaches, parents and athletes all need to practice

by Jeff Smith

January 23, 2016 was one of the toughest days of my 20-year coaching career. It was the second tournament of the season for the Serve City Elgin 14U team I coached. Most of the girls were new to club volleyball, and all but one were actually a year or two young for this age level. But because one of our players turned 14 that year, our team had to move up from 13U to 14U.

The combination of inexperience and youth was a recipe for hard knocks. Our first tournament went relatively well as we were competitive in every match and finished 2-2. But our second tournament featured not only all 14U opponents again but national teams to boot.

Needless to say, we played the part of the Washington Generals while the national teams were in the role of the Harlem Globetrotters. We lost eight out of nine sets, and in at least half of those sets we didn't score in double digits. One team beat us 25-5, 25-7, and ironically it wasn't really that close.

By day's end we were like punch-drunk boxers staggering back to our corner wondering where we were and what day it was. The honeymoon phase of club volleyball was officially over for our new players. Some of the girls looked on the verge of tears. As for me, the previous year I had coached for an 18U national team. Now I was on the receiving end of other coaches' insincere "Nice job, Coach!" pity comments in the sportsmanship line after matches.

Keep working

After the last match of the day, I dug deep to offer encouragement to a downcast crew.

"Girls, remember that we're a young team playing up an age level and we're almost all new to club," I remember saying in our post-game huddle. "We're going to keep working and getting better. Someday we'll look back on this day and realize how far we've come because we're going to grow into a much better team down the road. It's just going to take time, effort, support for one another and a commitment to improve each day, but we're going to get there. I really believe it."

Truth be told, I wasn't completely sold on what I said, but I did believe this group had it in them. Most of the girls were high-character kids who loved volleyball and would work as feverishly as it took to develop their skills and understanding of the game. These kids practiced with passion. They were driven young athletes who pushed themselves hard. They would just need to keep training, be patient and trust the process.

Signs of growth

Our next tournament didn't go much better, but by mid-season we started showing signs of growth. By season's end we reached the finals of our last two tournaments and even briefly led 14-13 in the first set over a national team that had pummeled us twice in January.

The next season most of the girls returned to the team and, now competing on an even playing field age-wise, the tables were turned. We won nearly 80 percent of our matches, captured two tournament titles, reached the finals or semifinals of nearly every other tournament we entered and grew into the kind of team that we knew was within our grasp.

We now could look back at January 23, 2016 and laugh about it. We had developed into almost a totally different team.

A virtue in short supply

I think the most important trait to the team's transformation was something that few of us, myself included, likes to practice: patience.

Patience is a virtue that seems in short supply in this age of Snapchat, instant messaging, text messaging, Instagram, mobile technology in general and most everything else coming to us in a matter of seconds. I believe the vast majority of families and coaches at Serve City don't really fall into this category, but lack of patience, and accompanying perspective, can be an issue in any club:

  • Coaches expecting their teams to come together quickly and play championship-caliber volleyball from the first tournament of the season onward.
  • Athletes expecting to play at an elite level after three weeks of practices, let alone three years.
  • Parents expecting their daughter's team to beat opponents loaded with more experienced and talented national team players after a dozen practices under their belt.

Patience seasoned with perspective is critical to our athletes' and teams' development and enjoyment of the game. Take the Elgin 14U team as an example. If the players had decided after our early-season and mid-season drubbings to just give up and go through the motions the rest of our season, we wouldn't have continued improving throughout the season. Most of the girls would have quit club after the season came to a close. Then, they would have missed out on an amazing 2016-17 season and all the strides we made and the successes, relationships and good times that followed.

There are countless other examples of how patience contributed to eventual success for a team or athlete. The Chicago Cubs sure come to mind!

Change of perspective

The biggest key to developing patience as a coach, athlete or parent is constantly reminding yourself why you're involved in this sport. If you only coach or play volleyball because you want to win, then you're in this sport for the wrong reason. If you're only content as a volleyball parent if your daughter or son's team is winning, then you need a change of perspective.

Yes, you should practice, play and coach to win and congratulate your child whenever the team does win. But, more importantly, you should practice, play and coach out of enjoyment for volleyball and a desire to keep learning, growing and becoming the best player or coach you can be for your team.

And realize that your involvement in volleyball is a marathon, not a sprint. Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better. Becoming a great player doesn't happen in the first tenth of a mile or the final tenth of a mile. It takes place in the 26 miles in between.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

What a Serve City practice looks like

by Jeff Smith

Our club's training philosophy looks different at a 12U practice than it does at an 18U practice for obvious reasons. But the same general principles should be evident at any Serve City practice regardless of the age, experience levels or skill development of the athletes.

Besides our last blog post about our training philosophy, the best way to explain this philosophy is to show it by walking you through a detailed description of one of our practices. Here is the Wheaton 18 Blue team's January 16 practice as an example. I substitute coached that practice for our 18 Blue coach, Coach Cody, that day. Four of the 11 players were attending the shoulder risk reduction clinic hosted by our partner Olympia Chiropractic and Physical Therapy, so I wasn't able to use the coach's pre-written practice plan. Instead I crafted a practice plan that met the needs of an 18U team of seven players.

Here's what we did from start to finish.

7:00 p.m.: 2v0 cooperative split court

In this warm-up drill, two players deliver the ball back and forth over the net using three contacts each time (all passing and setting), running quickly under the net to track down the ball and keep it alive. Our emphasis was passing the first contact high and off (away from) the net. Great drill for improving ball control, warming up and conditioning while playing volleyball.

7:05 p.m.: two groups of 1v1 and one group of 1v1+1 cooperative split court

In 1v1, one player is on one side of the net and her partner is on the other side from her. Players passed the ball back and forth to each other using one contact for one minute, then using two contacts (pass to self, set over the net to your partner) and finally using three contacts (pass to self, set to self, hit the ball over the net to your partner). Our emphasis was passing the first contact high and off the net and staying in balance.

In 1v1+1, two players are on other side of the net as passers and a third player is the rotating setter; she runs back and forth under the net to set the ball for each of her teammates, with players continually delivering the ball over the net in three contacts. (Cooperative refers to the players working together to string together as many consecutive three-contact series as possible instead of going for the kill and winning a rally, which is a competitive drill.) The emphasis was on conditioning and controlling the ball with the platform and hands.

7:15: 1v1 competitive split court

With their shoulders and bodies now warmed up, we played halfcourt rallies of 1v1. Each rally began with a serve. Players were playing solo against their teammates, so they were allowed and encouraged to use three contacts, passing to self, setting to self and then hitting the ball over the net. If a player won a rally, she moved to the serve receive side of the court. If a player lost a rally, she moved off the court and grabbed another volleyball while awaiting her next turn to serve. The emphasis here was on looking across the net before delivering the ball over the net to spot the open areas that you could attack.

7:20: 1v1v1 competitive split court

This is a terrific game for passing, bettering the ball and conditioning. One player is on either side of the court with a third player setting. One player serves to the other player, who passes to the setter. The setter sets back to her, and she attacks the ball and then runs quickly under the net to become the setter for the player on the other side of the net who was the original server. This same pattern continues as the player who delivers the third contact over the net is always responsible for then running under the net and acting as the setter for the other player. Points are awarded to whichever player ends a rally with either an ace or a kill.

7:25: Bjerring split court tournament

Players were divided into three teams of two and one team of one for three different rounds of 2v2 (doubles) or 2v1 when the solo player was playing. Scoring methods changed for each round. For round one, teams could only use forearm passing and overhead passing so the players could work on delivering aggressive free ball "attacks" into the opponent's court.

For round two, players were only awarded points if they won a rally off either a service ace or a kill off a standing or jump hit. For round three, players could only score points by winning a rally off either a service ace or a jump hit for a kill. The latter rounds encouraged an aggressive approach to serving and offensive play using back-row, front-row and free-ball attacks instead of playing it safe.

7:40: 15 Queens full court

Players were divided into two teams of two and one team of three and played full-court Queen of the Court, which especially stretched the serve receive and defensive abilities of the two doubles teams. One team served to a second team while the third team waited behind the end line to serve next as soon as the rally ahead of them ended. The serve receive team stayed on its side of the court if it won the rally. The serving team ran to the serve receive side of the court if it won the rally, and the waiting team then quickly took the court to serve next.

Fifteen refers to the total number of points a team needed to score to win the game. For points 1-5, a team could only win a rally using forearm and overhead passing or an ace. For points 6-10, a team had to win a rally only using a standing attack or an ace. For points 11-15, a team could only score a point off an ace or a jump hit for a kill.

We also worked extensively on zone serving in this game. Servers looked to me before each serve to signal what zone, or area, of the court they were to serve to. I gave each server a wide range of different zones to target, so the players got valuable experience zone serving to a variety of spots.

7:50: Corners Queens

This is a game I recently devised. It is played as Queen of the Court except with a couple of challenging twists. All serves had to be delivered from zone 1 (right back) or zone 5 (left back) to either zone 1 or zone 5 on the serve receive side of the court. I gave players their zones to serve from and serve to. If they hit their zone they earned a bonus point for their team in addition to earning a point for winning the rally.

However, there were two catches. The first catch was they could only earn a point for winning a rally if they delivered the ball to zone 1 or zone 5 on the opponent's side of the net. The other catch was that, if they served the ball to zone 6 (middle of the court), their team would not receive a point for winning the rally. The reason for this rule was to emphasize serving and hitting to zones 1 and 5 instead of safely to zone 6, the easiest zone for teams to pass to their setter in serve receive and on defense.

8:05: Hitters vs. Defense

We were able to play about 12 quick-paced rounds of hitters vs. defense. This game featured a back-row passer, one setter and one hitter receiving free balls and converting them into pass-set-hit opportunities while the other four players played defense and attempted to prevent the hitter from recording any kills. Everyone played at least one round as a hitter. One setter hit from right back for one round to work on back-row attacks, while the other setter hit for one round as a right-side hitter, and the setters alternated setting on the hitter side and defending on the defensive side.

The other five players hit for two rounds apiece, with the outside hitter who was at practice hitting one round at outside hitter and one round hitting a new gap quick set, 41, we worked on for a few minutes. The middle hitter who attended practice hit 1s (quick sets) from the middle as well as the 41 gap quick set for a few minutes, and our libero and two defensive specialists each hit from middle back and left back to sharpen their back-row attacking skills.

This was a good drill for working on numerous skills at once, another staple of this training philosophy (multi-skill drills vs. single-skill drills): defending against front-row and back-row attacks, hitting a variety of shots from different positions on the court, setting a range of different hitters and types of sets (high sets, back sets, quick sets, gap sets, back-row sets) and even hitting to specific areas of the court. (The middle hitter was instructed to work on her wrist-away shots to zone 5, and the outside hitter was asked to only attack the ball cross court and to the high line.)

8:30: 30 Before 10

Since we were shorthanded that day, I volunteered my nearly 50-year-old shoulder to alternate serving with one of the other players at a team of six players on the other side of the net. The goal of the team of six was to deliver 30 pass-set-hit series over the net and into the court before the  two servers reached 10 service aces. Missed serves counted as a point for the side of six. The two servers served aggressively to make the side of six earn every point. We played three rounds of this game, with three different players joining me as servers. The team was able to receive roughly 140 serves in less than 20 minutes, a high volume of serves that sharpened their serve receive skills.

8:50: Zone Serving Queens

We finished with a fast-paced round of Queen of the Court with two teams of two and one team of three and the servers looking to me for their serving zones. In 10 minutes everyone served at least three times, and I gave them a wide range of different zones to serve to, particularly the short front-row zones (2 to right front, 3 to middle front and 4 to left front) so the players could get practice serving the short zones of the court.

9:00: dismissal

Thanks largely to the energy and efforts of the players, this practice met the four criteria of our club's training philosophy:

Gamelike: Every drill and game took place over the net and, in most cases, each rally started with a serve, or at least a free ball or standing attack. Nearly every rally was played out until the ball was dead, too.

Random: No rallies began with a pre-determined toss from a coach or teammate. Most rallies started with either a serve or a standing attack delivered randomly to different players. Athletes had to read, plan and execute the proper skills instead of receiving an easy toss from a coach or digging a hit from a coach standing on a box that required no reading of an opponent's actions.

Competitive: To increase the competitive nature of this practice, we scored everything and kept a competitive cauldron. Players earned 1 point for every game or drill in which they finished with the highest score of their teammates. For example, the hitter who finished with the most kills in Hitters vs. Defense earned a point for winning that game. Then, at the end of practice we added up the scores and determined which player won the most games and drills to win the competitive cauldron.

High energy: Each drill and game was performed at a fast pace. The only stoppages in play were to explain a game or drill beforehand, detail the scoring methods and rules for games and drills and occasionally to offer feedback and teaching points or ask questions as needed. By my rough estimate, the average player in this practice got well over 900 touches on a volleyball along with over 1,000 different reads of the opponent on the other side of the net; the latter of which is one of the most under-taught and under-emphasized skills in our sport.

The practice also stretched the players in many ways, introduced them to a few new concepts and was a lot of fun to play and coach.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Producing 'feisty, prepared players': the purpose behind our training philosophy

by Jeff Smith

Shortly after Serve City Lifezone 15 Blue had captured first place at the United Invitational on January 20, we received a text from a parent of one of the 15 Blue players. The end of the message read, "All the girls were going for the ball, and it’s clear that the Serve City coaching philosophy is resulting in feisty, prepared players who overcome a talent/size gap."

volleyball hitter for Facebook.jpg

That parent had just provided a great summary of Serve City's volleyball training philosophy.

Random, game-like, competitive

Serve City teams don't train like the typical volleyball club. Players who join Serve City from other clubs take a little while to adjust to our different training approach. I coached 18U, 16U and briefly 15U at another Chicago-area club prior to coming to Serve City. Although this previous club was beginning to dabble in the newer training philosophy, the coaches largely embraced the old methods of training. My ideas on training, learned from the science of motor learning, were seen a bit skeptically.

Many clubs are stuck in the same training methods they used 15, 20 to 30 years ago. Why? Because "it worked then and it works now," even though extensive research of learning methods in volleyball and sports in general clearly show that there is now a more effective training style available.

Motor learning: what science says training should look like

Our philosophy on player development is built on the science of motor learning: that volleyball athletes and teams learn and grow best when practices are structured around random, game-like, competitive, multi-skill drills and games.

What does a random, game-like, competitive drill or game look like? One of numerous examples is Queen of the Court. and its many variations. In game-like drills like Queens, players practice multiple skills at the same time under the direction of their coach. The game closely mimics an actual game of volleyball, and the athletes learn how to serve, receive serves, pass, set, hit, dig, read and anticipate what the opponent is doing on the other side of the net and make decisions on the fly in a challenging, competitive, game-like setting. No coaches stand on hitting boxes or toss easy sets to hitters, and balls are only received and delivered over a net, not artificially across the width of a court to a partner.

Feisty and prepared

This training approach helps players enjoy the most transfer from practices to matches (i.e., retain the most learning) and teaches players to understand the game and think quickly and creatively on their feet as they improve their technical skills, resulting in feisty, prepared players, as the Lifezone 15 Blue parent above noted.

Athletes in a club like ours especially benefit from this style of training. The "elite" athletes tend to migrate to the largest clubs that boast the highest team achievements, the greatest training budgets and the most on-court success. These top-level athletes then play for national, or travel, teams that practice 6-9 hours a week, receive 1-2 additional hours of private training and compete in 25-30 tournament dates over the course of a seven- to eighth-month season.

For Serve City to field competitive teams against these clubs, our athletes need some sort of edge, especially since our teams practice fewer hours a week and play a lot fewer tournaments than most other Chicago-area clubs due to our family-friendly cost structure and schedule.

In short, we have to squeeze the absolute most out of our training time.

Accomplishing more with less

That's one reason why many of our teams also run fast-paced practices. Our training philosophy lends itself to high-energy practices that pack large volumes of learning into shorter practice sessions. One dad, after watching one of my team's practices a couple of years ago, said to me, "You accomplish more in one practice than most coaches accomplish in two."

To be fair, that's largely out of necessity. Highly structured, intensely paced practices are designed to prepare our athletes as much as possible for tournament play against opponents who have the advantage of practicing more hours and with larger budgets than our teams do. We need to make our practices so challenging that our matches seem easy by comparison.

Following USA Volleyball's lead

We can't take credit for the randomized, gamelike training method. We have patterned our philosophy after the same training model used by the world's top volleyball organization, USA Volleyball. Our sport’s national governing body believes gamelike, randomized training -- not isolated, single-skill, blocked training (here is an example of a blocked digging drill) -- is the most surefire way of helping athletes develop skills and retain learning for the long term.

Not practicing to look good in practice

Game-like training can make practices sometimes look a bit chaotic, sloppy and ugly -- kind of like volleyball can look in an actual match in a sport where statistics show that 56 percent of all rallies are played out of system. But practicing these principles will ultimately help us develop better-equipped, more well-rounded and more competitive-minded players who are prepared to perform where it matters most: in the heat of a match.

Serve City teams don’t practice to look good in practice. We practice to improve and to perform well in matches.

U.S. women’s national team coach Karch Kiraly is one of the world's biggest advocates of this training approach.

“We are training to perform, not to drill," the three-time Olympic gold medalist notes. "All of the science tells us that we do the most learning when practice looks like an actual game – which is really random and not just super controlled. That governs just about everything we do in the gym. We’re trying to make every second count in our gym as much as possible to make the most transfer (of skills) we can get.”

I will unpack this training philosophy in greater detail over the next few weeks.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Is my child burned out on volleyball? Three tell-tale signs to look for

by Jeff Smith

My first season as a club volleyball coach was with an 18U team at a club in Aurora. Being new to the 18U level, I expected the girls on our roster would be the most driven players I'd ever worked with. I figured that anyone who still played club as a high school senior must be highly motivated and deeply love the sport.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The team's top player sometimes looked like she wanted to be anywhere but on a volleyball court. She was a senior who had signed to play volleyball at a local college but who frequently seemed disinterested in anything volleyball related.

After a few frustrating practices dealing with her on and off attitude, one day at practice our team was talking during a water break about another of the club's teams whose starting middle hitter missed practice because she had a conflicting track meet. "I wish I could play a second sport," Mary revealed to us. "Track, softball, even bowling. It'd be fun to try something new."

I later found out that Mary had followed her father's wishes and devoted herself to only playing volleyball since eighth grade. For some kids that isn't an issue at all. For Mary, though, it was a source of frustration. Playing the same sport year round for school, club and beach volleyball for five straight years had taken its toll.

Even though she was just months away from realizing a dream of playing in college, Mary was tired of volleyball. She still loved the sport but had grown weary of the grind of playing 11 months a year. As a senior, she now struggled just to maintain her focus for a full practice.

In short, Mary was suffering a classic case of burnout.

Mary isn't alone. Burnout is a growing problem in our sport due to the increasing demands on players, mostly at the national (travel) team level.

If you're an older player like Mary, or even a younger player who only recently began playing the sport for longer stretches, burnout is an issue that you need to be aware of. If you're a parent of a club player, it's important for you to recognize the tell-tale signs of burnout in your kids.

Burnout can show up in numerous ways. Here are three classic symptoms.

Chronic injuries

One of the biggest sources of burnout is the injury bug. An occasional or one-time injury is to be expected in any sport. But when an athlete begins suffering an injury or series of injuries that they can't seem to shake for months or that lingers and festers for years, such a spate of aches and pains can take its toll on the player's love for the game.

In Mary's case, she had a sore shoulder and a reconstructed knee that had undergone an ACL tear and resulting surgery the previous year. Her body had yet to fully recover from either injury.

Dr. Griffin Gibson, owner of Olympia Physical Therapy and Chiropractic in Bartlett, told me recently that year-round one-sport athletes are one of Olympia's most frequent clients. It's no surprise when you consider that overuse injuries are so common for athletes who play the same sport for nine to 11 months a year for years on end. The wear and tear of volleyball hitting or serving or blocking tens of thousands of times between August and April or May can lead to problems with your knees, ankles, feet, shoulders, elbows, hands or other parts of the body.

Dr. Griffin said chronic overuse injuries don't go away easily. In fact, he said the only way they are ultimately resolved is by taking months off from that sport. Otherwise the injuries and the pain and discomfort associated with them can have a debilitating effect on a player's enjoyment of the sport. A game they once loved can become drudgery as they struggle to deal with daily ailments and the medication, extra stretching and additional precautions required to prepare their body to perform.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Don't wait until your body is in pain to do something about it. Pain is the last resort, your body's way of grabbing your attention after other attempts were unsuccessful. Take good care of your body and give it the proper rest and exercise it needs to stay healthy.

Distracted mind

Concentration was a struggle for my former player Mary. As a national team, we practiced three times a week from November to June. Mary displayed a lack of focus that made it difficult for our team to have productive practices some days. She was the best player on the team, but sometimes 30-45 minutes into practice she seemed distracted and couldn't execute plays. She would be her old self for two or three drills and then mentally check out for the next two drills. It was annoying to her teammates and to us as coaches.

Sports is more mental than anything. In Mary's case, the cumulative impact of hundreds or even thousands of intense practices over 11 months a year for five years had worn her down. Whereas some athletes remain focused and intent into and throughout college, Mary's heart wasn't into the sport anymore, and her mind followed. She needed a break from the sport in order to regain her passion and focus.

Lack of motivation to practice, play or win

To help Mary find her inner drive for volleyball again, I tried making practices more game- and competition-based, setting up as much of our practices as possible to be competitive to make training more fun and game-like. This approach made little difference in Mary's attitude. Even scrimmages with other teams in our club barely registered a blip of excitement for Mary.

When I discussed Mary's struggles with our club director, the director said Mary used to be the most competitive-minded volleyball player she had ever encountered. "She was the kind of player who would dive for every ball, track down every errant pass and sacrifice her body for a point in a heartbeat," the director revealed. "She doesn't have that same drive anymore."

A few consecutive years of non-stop tournaments and matches in club, school and sand volleyball had sapped Mary of her love for competition. She had played in so many matches over the years that tournament day had lost its luster, as had the opportunity to compete in practice. You could see it in her eyes. While the 16U team couldn't wait to take the court against our 18U team whenever the two teams scrimmaged in practice, Mary didn't care. It was a case of been there, done that, and so she largely went through the motions. She was skilled and experienced enough that she could still more than hold her own even when sliding by giving maybe 80 percent effort. But she no longer left her fingerprints all over a game or match.

When I became girls club director at Serve City, I decided to apply two lessons from my experience with Mary when creating policies and procedures for our club that would help guard athletes against burnout.

1. Insert intentional down time in the club calendar.

This meant starting the club season the week after Thanksgiving so that our high school players have 4-6 weeks off to recuperate between school and club season and our middle school players have 6-7 weeks away from the game. I also implemented a nearly three-week-long Christmas break as well as a seven-day spring break away from the court. These rest periods provide the recovery time needed to keep our athletes healthy and fresh throughout the season.

2. Avoid over-scheduling.

My previous club's 18U team played a taxing schedule of 4-5 tournaments a month from January to June. A couple of months we played at least one tournament a week for the entire four-week period. Besides playing in a Power League, our team competed in 1-3 one-day tournaments each month. Some months we would play Saturday and Sunday, then the following Sunday, then the next Saturday and then the next Saturday and Sunday, not getting a weekend off for five weeks.

Most of the girls thoroughly enjoyed the competition, but by May and June it had become too much. Players were now dealing with overuse injuries; for one late-season tournament we were down to six healthy players and had to promote a freshman from the 15U team to fill out the roster.

At Serve City, our philosophy is to schedule no more than 3-4 one-day tournaments each month and sometimes only two tournament dates. Any more than three and the schedule dominates too much of the lives of the athletes and their families and crosses the line from fun and exciting to feeling like a job instead of a passion. It means our teams don't compete as often as most other clubs, but it promotes a healthy life balance and prevents the kind of burnout that can rear its ugly head if you're not intentional and careful.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Discipline: the overlooked key to excelling on the court

by Jeff Smith

At a Windy City Power League tournament on Saturday, I watched the pre-game warm-ups for the opening match of one of the 14U pools. During shared court time, one team was working efficiently on a blocking and hitting run-through and then transitioned quickly into a fast-paced ball-control drill. The other team lazily sloughed through the motions of partner passing, though it looked more like partner shanking; the majority of passes were off-target thanks to a mix of poor passing technique and halfhearted focus and effort.

You can safely guess the winner of the match.

The more disciplined warm-up team won handily. It wasn't solely because they warmed up more purposefully. They had the more experienced, more skilled and more talented team. But, just from watching their warm-ups and their performance on the court, it was clear they were the kind of team that probably practices with the same level of discipline they displayed in warm-ups and the match.

Their opponent, on the other hand, looked like it was playing at a backyard summer barbecue.

Good habits eventually lead to good skills and knowledge of the game. It might take months or years to see tangible fruit from your labor, but at some point positive habits will yield positive results.

And good habits take discipline. As our club's theme quote says, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

A similar quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better."

In the world of club volleyball, discipline can mean:

Taking technical skill development seriously, striving to continually improve and sharpen our skills in practice. Developing a fundamentally sound skill set is vital to long-term success in our sport. This kind of development requires discipline; it takes countless hours to hone your skills and expand your volleyball IQ without getting discouraged at the lengthy process this entails so that you can thrive on the court.

Getting to practices on time (and even early -- if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time) so you can use your team's full practice time wisely. (I still vividly remember attending a team's practice in an earlier season as a guest coach and watching as most of the players arrived between five and 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to start, then took another five to 10 minutes to change into their knee pads and volleyball shoes. To no one's surprise, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.)

Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and reached the Final Four in 2017. One of the hallmarks of the program is its attention to detail. The coaches and players work diligently on every detail during training. The spring before the Cardinal's last national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from zone 1 to the deep corner of zone 5 in every training session involving serve receive. Their goal was for the players to become so adept at serving deep zone 5 that, when the fall season began, they would serve teams out of system with this one simple strategy.

Their plan worked; Stanford was one of the top serving teams in the nation that season.

Practicing with passion. The other day I substitute coached for our Wheaton 18 Blue team. One thing that impressed me was the level of energy the players poured into training. The players competed in each drill with competitive zeal. Whether performing a simple 2v0 drill or competing in a serve receive game, the athletes were fully engaged. They approached practice with the same drive that you witness in the playoff round of a weekend tournament. It brought to mind the axiom to "practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice."

Taking care of your body. Proper sleep, a healthy diet, plenty of fluids and regular fitness and exercise are instrumental to preparing our bodies to be at peak levels of performance in practices and matches. We can't expect to be at our best if we don't properly care for ourselves. How we treat our bodies before a tournament also says a lot about our level of commitment to our team.

Maintaining the right conduct on the court. Studies show that our mental approach to competition has a large bearing on our performance as athletes. Keeping an upbeat mental attitude, delivering positive verbal affirmation and words of encouragement to teammates and maintaining confident body language and tone of voice on the court are crucial to success. All of these traits take discipline to incorporate into our on-court demeanor.

Successfully riding the highs and lows that come with sports competition. Wild swings of momentum are common in volleyball. One minute your team has a 12-3 lead. The next minute your opponent has tied the set at 14-14. Discipline is essential to having the poise, confidence and grit to be able to overcome the many challenges thrown our way in this sport. It takes practice to develop the habits necessary to be able to weather any storm on the court, from your team playing shorthanded one day to falling quickly behind and needing to rally from a large deficit.

Training when you don't feel your best. This doesn't mean coming to practice with a 103-degree fever. But it does refer to pushing through the minor aches, pains and illnesses that lesser athletes lean on as excuses to avoid practicing and instead showing up to practice ready to get "3-percent better" even when we don't feel like training.

Individual improvement is largely a choice. We can either choose to only practice when we feel great and miss out on opportunities to truly grow, or we can commit ourselves to the process of player development even on those days when we're sore, tired or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline, and, like a muscle, develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Is your daughter interested in playing college volleyball? Here are 5 keys to achieving her dream

by Jeff Smith

It's a hard truth: Few high school volleyball players go on to play in college. In fact, the latest statistics show that just 5.8 percent of four-year high school players continue the sport collegiately.

During a break between high school clinics on January 5, one of the players asked me what I thought she needed to do to earn a college scholarship. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability. Tens of thousands of high school and middle school athletes dream about playing volleyball after high school. Perhaps your daughter is one of those athletes -- or you are a high school or middle school player who dreams of competing in college.

With fewer than six out of every 100 high school volleyball players moving on to the college ranks, it takes much more than passion to turn this dream into reality. I've personally coached only about a dozen athletes who went on to play collegiately, so I asked coaching colleagues what they would tell young players who want to play at the next level. Most of the coaches who responded are current or former college coaches.

The coaches' words of wisdom fell into five categories:

1. 'Out-work everyone'

Work ethic was the coaches' clear-cut No. 1 piece of advice. The competition for spots on college rosters is fierce. To stand out from the crowd, "Be in the top three at every practice for work ethic and intensity," one coach said. "You may not have the best practice, but out-work everyone each day."

I saw this first hand with the handful of players who went on to play in college. They not only exhibited an excellent work ethic in practices and matches but honed their skills and volleyball IQ outside of club and school.

One of the most recent college players, Taylor, was always one of my shortest players. She peaked out at 5 feet 3 as a sophomore in high school. But Taylor was a relentless worker. Even during school season she would go to a local volleyball facility and play four or five hours of open gym games on weekends. When she picked up Taylor from practice on Mondays, her mom would tell me how Taylor was at open gym the whole afternoon on Saturday playing one game after another.

Taylor loved volleyball and was driven even then to play collegiately. Today she is a starting libero at a university in Tennessee. Her persistence, perseverance and several years of passionate practice paid off handsomely.

2. 'Be an elite learner'

One college coach mentioned that character matters greatly in the recruiting process. One of the main characteristics that coaches look for is a teachable attitude. Volleyball is a deep and complex sport. Even at the highest levels, there is always something new to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you still have to learn.

A voracious appetite to continually learn is essential to developing into a college-worthy volleyball player. Learn as much as you can from coaches at each practice. Participate in camps, clinics and classes outside of club and school. The day you think you know it all is the day that your game will start to stagnate or even back-slide and other players your age who keep learning, grinding and striving will eventually pass you by.

One coach put it this way: "Be an elite learner. Ditch your ego. You're 15; you aren't a finished product. Working hard, being versatile, being creative and other qualities don't matter in my opinion until you have a kid who's truly ready to learn and grind."

3. 'Be the best student they can be'

For obvious reasons, college coaches strongly prefer signing student-athletes who excel academically. Several coaches mentioned academics as a key quality they seek out when recruiting.

"If she wants to play here, work hard on the court and work harder in the classroom," one coach said.

"Be the best student they can be," another coach commented. "Get good grades, nail the SAT and research financial aid opportunities. Get exposure by attending Math Camp and Mock Trial and other academic events."

4. 'Don't get pigeon-holed into a single role'

Specializing at one position is typical, especially at the high school level. But don't get too tied to one spot on the court. A lot of players end up moving to different positions in college. A right side moves to the middle. A middle moves to the right side. An outside hitter becomes a libero. A setter transitions to defensive specialist.

"Don't let yourself get pigeon-holed into a single role," one coach said. "You never know what the college coach needs or sees in you."

Another college coach said coaches at his level are always in need of one type of player in particular: "If you can pass and defend well, you can play at a lot of places."

5. Promote yourself to college coaches

Most college programs have limited recruiting budgets. Unless they are a top-level Division I program like Nebraska or Penn State, they don't have the resources to unearth hidden gems and diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail.

If success in real estate is about location, location, location, success for athletes in the recruiting game is about promotion, promotion, promotion. From videoing your matches and uploading them to YouTube or other websites to provide easy access for college coaches to contacting coaches at the colleges you're interested in playing at, you'll need to take initiative if you'd like to grab a prospective college's attention.

"Start telling college coaches they are interested in their programs," one coach said.

Another coach recommended, "Be persistent. Email and contact coaches on a regular basis where you'd like to play. Make sure to always put a link to your playing video in the emails that you send to coaches."

Bonus tip

One long-time college coach left one final piece of advice for young athletes who want to play beyond high school.

"If playing volleyball is the only concern, there is a program for everybody," he said. "If money or the quality of the education or the (school size) or the competitiveness of the team factor in, that will limit your options. But there is a program for anyone who wants to play. I used to coach one of those programs."

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Fearful or fun? It's all in your perspective

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by Jeff Smith

The first high school tournament I coached started promisingly. Our team finished in second place in our pool to earn a spot in the playoffs. In the quarterfinals we faced the No. 1 seed, which featured the most imposing player in the tournament, a 6-foot dynamo who dominated the net with her hitting and blocking and possessed the most dangerous jump serve in the field. No one expected our team to have a chance against the tournament favorites.

With no pressure on our shoulders and nothing to lose, our team played loose and free early, building a 19-13 lead in a single-elimination set to 25 points. But, standing just six points from a huge upset and a berth in the semifinals, our mood turned from fun to fearful. We began focusing on the scoreboard and took our eyes off the process of playing solid volleyball. Our performance suffered as a result. Our six-point advantage quickly disappeared. Trailing 24-23, one of our team's most reliable servers fittingly ended the loss by shanking a serve into the net.

Afterwards, we went home kicking ourselves for letting our mood suddenly change from footloose to foot in the mouth in a matter of seconds.

Have you or your team experienced this kind of defeat? You're not alone. Most teams from the professional ranks down to recreational leagues go through this same thing at some point. It's commonly referred to as choking or "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Even the world's greatest athletes have had infamous moments where they've tightened up and lost a game or match they probably should have won.

The age-old question is how do you avoid the so-called "gag reflex"? Here are five lessons I've learned, and re-learned, while coaching -- and occasionally choking -- over the last 20 years.

See each game as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

Whether you're playing in the finals of a tournament or against a higher-seeded opponent or in a single-elimination match, your perspective influences your performance more than anything. If you think of what you could lose out on if your team is defeated -- losing the championship trophy, getting ousted from the tournament, squandering a shot at the playoffs -- you're more likely to experience a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But if you focus instead on the possibilities in front of you -- winning the championship trophy, advancing in the tournament, earning a shot at the playoffs -- your whole mindset changes.

  • When we play a tougher opponent it's an opportunity to see what we're made of, learn how much we've progressed as a team and test our skills against a strong foe.
  • When we compete in a single-elimination tournament, it's an opportunity to experience the thrill of winning elimination games and display the heart, character, talent and unity that we know we have as a team in an exciting format that brings out the best in teams like ours.
  • When we participate in the finals of a tournament, it's an opportunity to show our stuff, experience the highest of highs and support and celebrate with each other on club volleyball's biggest and brightest stage.

Embrace the moment.

I used to dread close games as a high school basketball player. It showed in my play. My last game in high school I bricked a wide-open jump shot from the foul line with 10 seconds left in regulation that would have tied the score.

As a coach, though, with more maturity under my belt and a perspective seasoned by lots of last-second losses as a player, I learned to love and relish the excitement of a closely contested game.

When you go into a playoff match or the deciding set of a match with the mindset that what you're doing is fun and thrilling to be part of, it drowns out your fears and changes your whole point of view. You then control your emotions instead of your emotions controlling you, and the moment at hand brings out the best in you. You revel in these moments instead of fearing them.

As a coach, I tell my players often during huddles and between sets of a "big" match that "This is so much fun. I love these moments. Enjoy every point of this." It makes a significant difference to your players when they see and hear you embracing the moment.

Focus on the process, not on the outcome.

It takes a conscious effort to ignore the scoreboard and set your attention on the process of doing the best you can with your serving, passing, setting, hitting, blocking, digging and supporting one another. And it never seems to carry over from match to match. Once one game is over, you have to consciously tell yourself to focus on the process and not the outcome in the next game, too. It takes discipline and intentionality.

But it is very much worth it.

The more you do this, the more it becomes a trained habit. You'll find yourself so absorbed in a game that the scoreboard doesn't seem to exist or matter. My school team was playing in the conference tournament finals last fall. The match was hard fought for three sets before we made a huge run and won the championship. Funny thing is, my reaction to winning was different than my players. I didn't realize it was match point until seeing my players run to the middle of the court to celebrate. I was so immersed in the process that I hadn't been looking at the scoreboard.

This is more than ironic since, as a player, the scoreboard dominated my attention sometimes to my detriment. It took years of practice to develop this new habit.

Be relentlessly optimistic.

Due to my own insecurities as a player, I learned as a coach to establish a positive environment for my own players during high-pressure games. I knew from my own experience that some of them would be nervous heading into a championship match or important game. They didn't need me making matters worse by being too tough on them or berating them. They needed support.

As a teammate or coach, the more positive you can be with your words, your tone of voice and your body language (all three are crucial), the better off your team will be. If your teammate botches a key serve, be the first player to give her a fist bump or a word of encouragement. If your players start struggling in serve receive, give them a quick tip of what to do ("Remember: quiet platform") and, more importantly, a reminder that they'll be fine. ("We've got this.") If you shank a pass out of bounds, maintain a positive "I'll get the next one" posture; your teammates are watching you.

"We'll get it right back. Next one's ours" is one of my pet phrases; it communicates belief in our team and tells everyone to forget the last point and focus solely on the next one.

Get creative.

Sometimes you'll have to be creative with your optimism when your team is especially uptight about a game. For his team's biggest matches, a coaching colleague of mine gives his team a "term of the day." It's a silly term that he makes up and uses during the match to help keep his players loose.

I started using his strategy in recent years. Last spring at Diggin' in the Dells our team was missing our starting outside hitters but had won our pool and reached the crossover gold medal bracket match. I knew some of the kids would be nervous about the match, particularly the players who were playing new positions in the lineup, so I came up with the term "fuzzy noodles" as our motto for the match. Yes, fuzzy noodles is a dorky term. That was the point. When we broke from a team huddle, we chanted 1-2-3 fuzzy noodles. If a player was looking fearful, I just called out "fuzzy noodles" and it seemed to break the tension with laughter.

The girls ended up winning the match to reach the gold bracket in part because we played loose, focused, hungry and confident. I wish I'd known this lesson back in my playing days.

Remind yourself and your teammates that this is a game.

If all else fails, as a coach or player you can tell your players or teammates the bottom-line truth: This is only a game. It's not World War III or a final exam. It's fun. Let's smile, celebrate each point like crazy and enjoy the moment. We've got this.

That simple reminder can deflate the pressure of a close match and put your team in the proper mindset to play loose, focused, hungry and free.

What do you do to be at your best in a big game?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Are you living on the edge?

by Jeff Smith

Every coach has a pet peeve. Mine is the same pet peeve as Serve City's owner, Tim Maruyama:

Watching players continually play it safe.

As examples of this, I have to fight the urge to cringe or swallow my gum whenever seeing a high school player:

  • execute a standing serve when I know they are capable of a jump float or jump topspin.
  • hit a down-ball spike when the set warranted a three- or two-step jump attack.
  • constantly tip or push set (two-handed tip) the ball over instead of swinging at quality sets on the front row.
  • safely send a free ball to the opponent instead of delivering an out-of-system set and attack.
  • rely solely on high sets to the outside and middle hitters because the setter is afraid they'll make a mistake setting a quick, a shoot or even a back set.

Why do these things bother me? Because real growth only occurs when you're living on the edge of your abilities. And Coach Tim and I want every Serve City player from 12 Blue to 18 Blue to reach for and experience real growth.

No matter the age level, the primary point of club volleyball is the same: to learn and grow. And player development starts with you as a player being willing to learn and grow and extending yourself each practice to learn and grow.

USA Volleyball released results of a study a while back contrasting the training habits of good players with average to mediocre players. The study found that good players spent about two-thirds of their training time practicing the skills at which they were weakest. Average to mediocre players invested about two-thirds of their training time practicing the skills at which they were most adept.

The lesson from that study is clear. Players grow the most by spending the majority of practices working to turn weaknesses into strengths or mediocre skills into proficient skills.

It's studies like this on which Serve City has built our training philosophy. Serve City has established a training mindset that encourages coaches and their athletes to push themselves outside their comfort zone, creating a tiered system from 12U to 18U that sets high standards for what Serve City's teams will be striving to learn over the course of the season.

To be perfectly honest, training with a growth mindset is like swimming upstream. Many school coaches in particular teach their players to drive in the slow lane and avoid the fast lane of growth. It saddens me every time an athlete or parent tells me that their daughter doesn't jump serve because her high school coach prohibited it. I know why these coaches discourage jump serving: It's risky. Players are likelier to commit serving errors, which leads to points for the opponent and decreases the chance for a team victory. I totally get that.

But that's what team practice is for. Teach jump serving, or back-row attacking, or back setting, or quick sets to middle hitters and outside hitters, or other skills, in practice and let your players loose working on those skills in practice. Then the risk is reduced as they master new skills, and real growth takes place.

The most cringe-worthy moment of 2017 for me personally was observing my older daughter's first varsity match of the fall season. The team itself was a good, competitive team that I loved to watch. But it was disheartening to see only three players on the roster jump serving when eight of the nine players on my 7th- and 8th-grade school team were jump servers. Most of my daughter's teammates relied on safe serves that, although they almost always stayed in-bounds, were easily passed to the setter and resulted in some sort of an aggressive attack by the opponent.

By contrast, most of the opponent's servers were jump servers who pounded jump floats and topspin serves that frequently forced my daughter's team out of system.

Not surprisingly, the opposing team won.

The same goes with other skills. The most significant growth in setting skills, hitting skills, serve receive skills, digging skills and tactical and strategic skills takes place when coaches put their players on the edge of their abilities.

Is your setter proficient at high sets to the outside? Make sure she's spending most of her practice time learning how to set quicks and back sets and shoots or go sets. Does your team frequently struggle to pass to setter in serve receive? Invest lots of practice time teaching non-setters how and where to set teammates for out-of-system attacks. Is your team only skilled at hitting from the front row. Spend 30 to 45 minutes each practice working on setting and hitting back-row jump attacks. Is your 12U, 13U or 14U team too reliant on sending the ball over the net in one or two contacts? Set up scoring constraints in practice requiring them to always use three contacts in drills and games.

The nice part is, once an athlete or coach understands, accepts and then commits fully to playing on the edge of their abilities, or training their teams on the edge of their abilities, it eventually becomes a habit. Once you form the habit of regularly practicing and playing outside your comfort zone, you don't even have to think about it. You find yourself pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities all the time.

As a coach, what does living on the edge of your abilities look like? It means always pushing your team to get better. The other day I substitute coached our 18s team. Most of the girls have at least decent jump floats, so during serving/serve receive games I gave them zones to serve to with increasing difficulty. Once they were consistently hitting the back-row zones, I began signaling for players to serve the more challenging front-row zones. They missed the front-row zones more often than not, but by the end of practice some of them were beginning to figure it out. They were experiencing steps of growth and getting comfortable attempting something  that made them uncomfortable.

As an athlete, what does living on the edge look like? You work on a jump float or jump topspin serve during open serving at practice, or arrive early to refine it. If you already jump serve, you spend practice time working on improving it -- hitting it faster, flatter and with better locations on the court, such as ones 1 and 5 or the front-row zones. (I call it PTL: pace, trajectory, location.)

If you're an outside hitter, you invest time developing your ability to hit faster sets, or hit the perimeter of the court (high line, cross-court corner, sharp angle) instead of the safe middle, or learn or improve your off-speed attacks, or hit with more power by improving your technique of generating torque on the ball.

If you're a younger player, you decide you will no longer be satisfied with safely passing first contacts over the net and will work hard to deliver accurate first passes to your team's setters. Or you stop resorting to safely free-balling passes over the net from the front row and instead begin using your three-step approach that your coach taught you and jumping and swinging whenever you receive a decent set.

If you're a coach, you dedicate yourself to constantly pushing your team to learn and refine new skills, tactics and strategies. You remove the phrase "Just get it over" from your coaching vocabulary and look for opportunities to stretch your players' and team's skills and understanding of the game.

Will you immediately turn into a standout hitter, setter, passer, coach or jump server? Of course not. In fact, as players you will see yourself making more mistakes than ever before.

But mistakes are a good sign. It means you're stretching yourself, attempting new things and placing yourself on the path to real growth. If you're not making mistakes, you're not growing. It's that simple.

And as coaches, we need to applaud mistakes. That doesn't mean clapping loudly when Jane swings at a bad set that's six inches off the ground and pounds the ball into the floor. There's another little lesson called discernment that we need to teach our athletes, too. It does mean celebrating and encouraging aggressive, growth-focused mistakes.

Last summer one of the players in my 18U sand volleyball class was petrified at the thought of even attempting a jump float serve. But I made her and the rest of the class work on jump serving for five minutes each practice and occasionally required it during our games and drills. For weeks her jump serve erratically flew out of bounds or, more often than not, into the net. It took her hundreds and hundreds of repetitions, and plenty of feedback, but to her credit she stuck with it.

For a good six weeks or so she may have missed 100 or more of her jump serves. But by the end of the summer she had developed one of the best jump floats in the class. It's akin to developing a metal through the process of fire and refinement. The refining is painful and painstaking, but the end result is worth it.

So, for your next practice, go make some mistakes while learning new skills. Practice on the edge of your abilities. Strive to learn something new each training session. Soon enough you'll find yourself cringing whenever you see a player on another team stuck in no-growth safe mode. And you'll be glad you're no longer stuck in that mindset.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

One question that every volleyball player should answer about themselves

by Jeff Smith

Before you go to your team's next practice, answer the following question:

When your volleyball career is over, how would you like to be remembered as a player?

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The purpose of that question is to get you thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave as a volleyball athlete.

  • What qualities do you want to be known for as a volleyball player and teammate?
  • What accomplishments do you want to achieve?
  • What is your personal mission statement as a volleyball athlete?

Your answer to that question should drive your effort, attitude, work effort, passion, choices and actions on the court at every practice and tournament you play at this season and for as long as you play this magnificent, one-of-a-kind sport.

This question influences me every day that I don a coaching hat. I've coached volleyball teams for 20 years, ranging from 18-and-under to grade school, from indoor to sand, from national/travel to regional teams and from school to club. No matter if I'm working with experienced high school seniors or rookie fifth-grade players, my answers to the legacy question help keep me focused on my personal mission statement:


No matter if I'm subbing for a team or coaching a team of my own, I want my passion for the game to be clear and contagious. I still remember my first club coaching experience. I was coaching a 16U team on the first day. The girls started practice with a serve and pass drill, and I was standing on the sidelines near the back-row passers. Shortly after the drill began, I started doling out positive reinforcement with each quality pass they delivered, striving to be very specific in my praise.

"Way to use your drop step, Jane."

"That's how to hold your finish, Lisa."

"Great job of staying low in your passing stance, Mary."

At first the girls started peeking at me like I was some alien life form but quickly grew to enjoy the feedback. (Encouragement is indeed oxygen to the soul and provides a confidence boost that young players need to receive often.) Most of the coaches in our club only spoke to the players during drills to point out the mistakes they made and how to correct them. I think it's important to do that but is even more valuable to reinforce the positive decisions, habits and techniques that players exhibit in order to further encourage those very things and to create an atmosphere in your gym where good volleyball play -- and players -- are celebrated.

Volleyball gives coaches an opportunity to connect with kids and teens in meaningful ways, and it's nearly impossible for me to avoid getting emotionally invested in supporting their development as athletes and as people.

In short, anything worth doing is worth doing with passion.


I believe God has given me a love for volleyball and an understanding of how to teach the sport that I've been entrusted to share with athletes. I want to be a good steward of that gift and seize every opportunity to teach, inspire and help athletes grow. When I'm visiting one of our teams' practices, I usually warn the coach that I'll be jumping in at least once to teach a skill, tactic or strategy. I can't help myself in that regard, and I want to be purpose driven whenever I'm in the gym.


Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better. That's a statement I feel compelled to share with as many young athletes as I come across.

In today's technology-saturated culture, we are all used to getting things instantaneously. But volleyball doesn't work in that manner. The sport takes years and years of painstaking practice and mindfulness to develop the skills and understanding needed to excel. It's also a sport that you'll never master, never perfect and never stop learning new things.

Becoming an excellent volleyball player is the gradual result of always striving to do better. I like to ask athletes to focus on getting "3% better" at volleyball each time they practice. It's akin to answering this question: How do you eat a two-ton elephant? One bite at a time.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave as a player five, 10 or 20 years from now?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Simple is repeatable: the most effective approach to volleyball training

by Jeff Smith

A coaching friend of mine conducted a fascinating experiment at a volleyball clinic last weekend. He was teaching a class of coaches some new approaches to creating a practice plan. After the coaches spent a couple of hours collaborating on a joint practice plan, my friend led them to a volleyball court to test out the plan. The coaches acted as players, performing the various drills, games and other activities they had brainstormed together.

For one drill, one of the coaches explained how the drill worked, shared the four or five teaching cues, or points, that the coaches had come up with for teaching the desired skill, then instructed the players to perform the drill. About 10 minutes later the drill concluded. The coach then asked the "players," most of whom were long-time coaches themselves, to recall the four to five teaching cues that he had shared with them.

Not one of the players/coaches could remember any of the teaching pointers that the drill was supposed to instill in them.

That's when my friend asked the group why they thought they couldn't recollect even one of the cues that they had painstakingly designed to help teach the skill they practiced in the drill. "There were too many cues for us to remember," one coach piped up.

"I agree," my friend replied. "So, if we can't remember four or five teaching cues conveyed to us by a coach when we're experienced coaches ourselves, should we expect the middle school and high school athletes on our teams to remember a list of cues taught by us in our practices?"

Everyone knew the answer to that question.

This is a lesson in reality that takes years for coaches, and educators in general, to truly learn. I still can look back and shudder at my first year as a coach, thinking that the more I talked and taught my players through long, in-depth explanations of how to pass, set, serve and hit, the more my players would naturally soak up my knowledge, learn and develop.

It didn't take more than a couple of months to quickly realize the fallacy of that philosophy. The kids' bored looks and inability to transfer a list of 10 teaching pointers into their performance on the court demonstrated to me that over-complicating things wasn't helpful to my players. I learned to pare down my instructions to a bare minimum.

It's ironic that, after 20 years of coaching, I talk and "instruct" less in practices today than ever before. Shouldn't it be the opposite? I know more about the game now than I ever have. I still read, discuss, study, observe and soak in new methods, techniques, ideas and insights, yet I've learned the age-old axiom of less is more.

In fact, like my coaching clinic colleague, I've gotten to the point where I try hard to limit my instruction to making one teaching point per drill or game. Research shows that attempting to impart more than one teaching cue at a time to students or athletes is fruitless and ineffective, so when I run a team through a ball control drill, I ask them to focus solely on one point or step in the process of acquiring or refining a skill.

It's the concept of "simple is repeatable." Simple movements are easier to achieve and put into practice than complex movements. If you wanted to learn from me how to spike a volleyball and I promptly rattled off the 10 keys to spiking success and then turned you loose, how would you respond? Would you start incorporating all 10 teaching points and begin bouncing kills in front of the 10-foot line? Or would you struggle just to remember one or two teaching cues and walk away frustrated by your lack of progress?

(It's akin to when I would cram for a final exam in high school and college. I might "retain" the mounds of material I basically memorized for a day or two, just long enough to ace a test. But I quickly forgot the information I studied shortly after the exam took place. Filling my head with dozens of details at once did me no good as a student in the long run.)

Yet coaches in volleyball, basketball, baseball and a host of other sports do this very thing, cramming young athletes' heads with information overload and complex concepts and then expecting them to digest it all and quickly pick up these skills.

Even some of the finest minds in coaching fall prey to overly technical and verbose teaching. I'm currently reading a book on how to build successful volleyball programs. One of the chapters covers the author's teaching philosophy on hitting. When he teaches spiking to his players, he gives them 10 cues -- and another 15-20 sub-cues -- to work on. That philosophy may produce results if you're coaching the outside hitters at Penn State or the University of Nebraska, but trying that approach anywhere else will leave you with a roster of confused athletes.

At Serve City, one of our training goals is to teach in a way that players can best grasp new concepts -- to emphasize simple movements that can be grasped and accomplished. When I was guest coaching at a 12-and-under team practice the other day, I ran the girls through a game of 4 vs. 4 in which I introduced them to three new skills. But, instead of trying in vain to teach the three skills at once, I introduced one skill at a time. I started by teaching them how to execute a side bump and gave them two pointers to practice: face the ball with their hips and shoulders and drop their inside shoulder in order to swing their platform toward the opponent. Even then I felt like I was providing too much detail at once, but, with the focus on just two simple points, these 10- to 12-year-old girls were pounding side bumps back and forth into the opponent's court within a couple of minutes. Simple was repeatable.

After a few minutes of working on side bumps within the context of a game of 4 vs. 4, I then used the same simple-is-repeatable approach to introduce how to back bump the ball: arch your back and swing your platform to your target. The kids did a terrific job of learning this new skill within a few minutes as well.

I saved the toughest skill for last: a drop step. I briefly explained and demonstrated the drop step move for passing balls that sail deep over the passer's head or shoulders, using three cues this time. I quickly noticed that the kids were struggling to put all three pointers to practice, so I began reinforcing just two teaching cues instead of three: face the ball with your shoulders and hips and shuffle step back to the ball. The girls figured out the other pointers on their own -- dropping the shoulder closest to their target and angling their platform to the setter, for instance. They just needed a couple of basic teaching cues to guide them in the right direction. And all the positive and constructive feedback I gave them over the next several minutes as they practiced this new skill focused only on those two teaching pointers, reinforcing the instances I saw them trying to execute the two cues correctly and reminding them of one cue or the other when they didn't try to perform one of the cues.

Next thing you knew, these fifth- and sixth-grade players were drop stepping to receive deep free balls and delivering passes toward their setter instead of standing in one spot, reaching high and swatting helplessly at the ball with their hands. They weren't executing perfect drop-step maneuvers each time by any means, but they were recognizing when to drop step and were striving to perform this skill when they needed to.

Whether the skill you're learning is how to create a platform, how to overhand serve, how to hit a slide attack or how to improve your golf putting, keep it simple and emphasize simple movements over complex movements so you can remember it, learn quickly how to repeat it and immediately put it into practice.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

What an excellent teammate looks like

by Jeff Smith

"Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates."

NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Magic Johnson's twist on the famous John F. Kennedy quote serves as a tremendous summary of what an excellent teammate looks like.


I personally saw an excellent teammate in action last spring at the Diggin' in the Dells tournament. The team I was coaching went to Wisconsin Dells shorthanded. Our two starting outside hitters and team leaders in kills were unable to play; one had another sports commitment, while the other, Maya, severely sprained her ankle a week before Diggin' in the Dells during the grass court tournament at Serve City's end-of-season banquet. (That grass court idea certainly didn't pan out for my team's fortunes!)

After Maya and her parents got the news that she would be sidelined, I assumed they wouldn't make the three-hour trek to the tournament for obvious reasons. But they would have none of that, bringing their entire family to the Dells, including one set of grandparents. As her teammates began warming up for their first match of the weekend, Maya hobbled over to the court, crutches in hand, and took a seat on the team bench.

"Let's go, girls!" she shouted after sitting down.

Even though she had to feel crushed to be stuck on the sidelines for the team's biggest tournament of the season, Maya shoved aside her dejection and showed no outward signs of disappointment on her face or in her body language, focusing her attention on how she could support the other players. In fact, as I headed over to the bench to grab my clipboard, Maya asked if she could help me keep stats. I handed her a stat sheet and pen, and she dutifully tracked stats throughout the next two days. Between sets, Maya talked to the team while I turned in the lineup sheet to the score table, and no one cheered harder during each of our matches.

When the team claimed first place in our pool and then won our crossover match to advance to the gold bracket, the first player to hop off the bench after match point and congratulate the other players on the court was, surprisingly, Maya, crutches in tow. She didn't pout or feel sorry for herself. Instead, she celebrated her team's achievement as if she had played a pivotal role.

Truth be told, through her presence, encouragement and enthusiasm, she really did play a pivotal role.

That's what an excellent teammate looks like:

  • Putting the team's needs ahead of your own
  • Celebrating others' success as if it's your own -- because, when one player succeeds, the whole team succeeds
  • Supporting your teammates whether you're on the court or on the bench
  • Serving your team however you can with whatever you have to offer at the time
  • Giving your teammates your best effort, even when limited by injury
  • Being fully present and wholly engaged at each practice and match
  • Encouraging your teammates through your words, actions and attitudes
  • Displaying consistent enthusiasm, even when your personal circumstances are difficult

How can you be an excellent teammate this week? This season?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Why practice is more enjoyable than a match

by Jeff Smith

I like practices more than matches.

No, that's not a typo. And yes, that opinion puts me in a solid minority. In fact, that is probably one sentence you've either never read or heard before. Don't teams practice for the glory of tournaments and matches?

In some ways that's true. I myself have coached nearly 1,400 games in the last 20 years. But even after all these years, I still enjoy practices over the actual competitions.

I love the thrill, excitement and intensity of tournaments and matches as much as any coach, but practice is the heart and soul of any team environment.

  • It's where teams are largely formed.
  • It's where the coach and players work together to develop the skills, tactics, strategies and systems necessary to compete.
  • It's where, in school terms, the teacher instructs their students in the classroom day after day on the road to graduation, or where a contractor and their crew work tirelessly to build a skyscraper.

In short, I relish the process of constructing a skilled, prepared, competitive, unified, enthusiastic, well-oiled team over the outcome of a game or tournament.

Over the last two days, I had the privilege of watching four of Serve City's 2017-18 girls teams practice for the first time this season. The teams spanned four different age groups -- 12U, 15U, 16U and 18U -- and a wide range of skill and experience levels, from first-time players to athletes who've played the sport competitively for eight years.

In observing each team, I took away several mental snapshots that reminded me anew of why I like practice so much.

Run, don't walk

While waiting for our Wheaton 12 Blue team's practice to begin, I couldn't help but smile as one of the young players "ditched" her mom and ran across the gym to meet her team and start passing a ball with one of her new teammates. The first day of practice is like that new car smell. Everything is fresh, and the future looks so bright. Watching this 10- or 11-year-old player scamper excitedly into practice was a great reminder of what a privilege it is to be part of a team.

High-five craze

As far as I know, there is no world record kept for the most high fives by a team in one practice. But if there was, that record might have been set by our Wheaton 18 Blue team. The players gave out high fives to one another throughout their practice Tuesday night.

  • High fives after successful plays.
  • High fives after mistakes.
  • High fives for teammates as they ran off the court during a drill.
  • High fives for teammates as they ran on the court for a drill.
  • High fives after winning a drill and losing a drill.

Most of these athletes had never met before Tuesday. So what generated these gestures of celebration and encouragement? Few sports bring people together as easily or create the kind of camaraderie experienced by teammates as volleyball does. Volleyball and basketball are the ultimate team sports. One ball, six teammates, a few different positions, roles and skill sets and one purpose on the court. Volleyball unifies a group of individuals like few other activities. It also unites people for a common cause and sets our hearts and focus on something outside of our own self-centered interests, something greater than ourselves. It also breaks down barriers between us. The next thing we know, we're high-fiving a new teammate whose name we didn't have a clue about 15 minutes earlier. That's volleyball.

Try, try again

During practice for our 16 Blue team in Des Plaines, coach Breann Reveley was teaching her athletes a perimeter defensive system that most of the girls were unfamiliar with. One of the players seemed particularly unsure of herself as she learned how to defend at right back in the back row. Jane (not her real name) kept getting confused about where to transition when the opponent would be setting the ball to the outside hitter. It was a whole new paradigm for her, and you could see by her facial expressions that she was getting increasingly frustrated with herself and doubting her ability to figure this out.

But, after a string of mistakes, Jane successfully started in the proper position on the court (five feet behind the 10-foot line and five feet inside the sideline), shuffled to the correct spot on the sideline, stayed in her low defensive stance and dug up an attack to her setter, who set it to the outside hitter for a hit down the line. The proverbial light bulb was shining brightly now. Jane understood her role and could execute it now. "You got it," Coach Bre said to her, and Jane's expressive face showed a mix of relief, pride and excitement at learning something new. Jane's experience reminded me of the quote "Be humble, be teachable and always keep learning." Good life lesson wrapped up in a volleyball package.

The power of applause

During the 15 Blue team's practice at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines on Monday, the players were doing a split-court serve/serve receive drill. Two groups of players were working on serving and receiving serves on both halves of the court. One of the girls was delivering her serves consistently over the net for awhile, but then started missing. Soon she had missed several serves in a row. This happens from time to time with younger players. This server is a first-time club player and is actually in eighth grade, a year younger than many of her ninth-grade teammates.

Time was nearly up for this drill, so the team's coach, Briana Flanagan, called out "Last serve." This young player took a deep breath, held up the ball in her shelf (non-serving) hand and prepared to toss and swing at the ball when her teammates did something unusual and spectacular at the same time. The other group had just completed its last serve, so when one person yelled out "You've got this, Mary!" the members of the other group joined the other girls in Mary's group in spontaneously beginning to clap loudly, hoot, holler, whistle and encourage Mary on her final serve of the drill.

At first I figured Mary might get embarrassed and feel self-conscious about all the attention. Her teammates' cheering was so loud, it sounded like we were in the finals of a tournament, and Mary had just met these other girls about an hour before this moment.

But, instead of feeling silly or ashamed, Mary took this gesture for what it was meant to be: genuine positive reinforcement from a team that wanted Mary to succeed. Mary smiled, then regained her focus, went about her routine, tossed the ball in the air, and swung as aggressively as I'd seen her attack the ball all practice. The serve took off from her hand, soared high in the air, cleared the top of the net by a good five feet and landed safely past the 10-foot line; the serve receivers were too busy clapping and yelling for Mary to have time to pass the ball.

After the ball bounced off the floor, the entire team erupted in a full-throated cheer so loud that the 16 Blue team stopped playing in the middle of its drill for a couple of seconds out of curiosity over what had taken place. Mary accepted high-fives -- that volleyball staple -- from nearby teammates, and the rest of the team congratulated her as they huddled up after the drill. It was a spontaneous moment that lasted all of maybe 15 seconds, but I guarantee that Mary will remember that moment for the rest of the season, and perhaps even longer.

I bet you no longer wonder why I love practices so much or why practices are so vital.

Jeff Smith is Serve City girls volleyball club director.

The 7 habits of an excellent player

by Jeff Smith

Molly was your typical run-of-the-mill sixth-grade volleyball player. She was tall, gangly and rail thin for her age. (She was so skinny that I carried her off the court in my arms after she sprained her ankle during a game.) Her slight build prevented her from serving overhand or hitting with power, and her still-developing coordination made it a challenge for her to move quickly to the ball. She was a typical work in progress for her age.

But one characteristic made Molly stand out from her teammates: her passion for the game. Molly could not get enough of the sport. She was one of the team's most diligent workers in practices. What she lacked in refined skills she compensated for with all-out effort that endeared her to her teammates and coaches.

Molly was also always one of the last players to leave the gym after practices, usually either getting in extra serving reps or working on her hitting form. I still remember her father standing near the gym doors each afternoon patiently waiting while Molly snuck in "just a few more" serves or spikes.

Her enthusiasm extended to matches. A member of the school's JV team, Molly would stay for every eighth-grade match, sitting at the end of the bench cheering on the team and giving high-fives to players as they came off the court. She knew she wasn't going to play but wanted to be there anyway to support the team and to watch and learn from more experienced players.

Molly's dedication didn't make a tangible difference in her skill development in sixth grade; she was a nondescript 11-year-old player. But it began paying noticeable dividends in seventh grade, when she developed a strong overhand serve and helped the team to the conference finals and a school-record 23 wins. In eighth grade she became the team's best all-around player, equally adept at hitting, setting, passing and zone serving, and helped the squad to another 20-win season.

Molly's game exploded in high school. She finished as her school's all-time leader in kills, made the Daily Herald's all-area team and earned a full-ride scholarship to UIC. She went on to start for three years at outside hitter for the Flames despite having to overcome major surgeries on her hitting shoulder and ankle.

Molly was never the most athletic player on any of her teams. But the driving force in her career arc was her commitment to excellence each day. Of the thousands of youth I've coached over the last two decades, Molly was easily one of the four or five most devoted athletes I've worked with. In a sentence, she was relentlessly dedicated to pursuing excellence.

With the 2017-18 season about to begin, here are several lessons from Molly's career that Serve City players can apply on and off the court starting next week.

1. Strive to be the hardest worker in each practice.

In four years as Molly's coach, I can't remember a single practice where she coasted, goofed around or gave less than great effort. Excellence is a habit, and so is work ethic.

2. Go above and beyond what's expected of you.

I still remember that Molly was the last player to leave the gym even after her last practice as a 14-year-old player even though by then she was far and away the team's MVP. Her work habits rubbed off on her teammates.

3. Keep pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

Molly originally emerged as a standout setter, but instead of being satisfied with that role she then committed herself to learning to be a pin hitter. Her desire to extend herself paid off down the road in the form of a college scholarship at outside hitter.

4. Stay humble and hungry.

Molly won numerous accolades over a 12-year volleyball career, but the praise and awards she earned and the accomplishments she achieved only fueled her passion to keep bettering herself.

5. Be an amazing teammate.

Molly was one of those players that everyone loved to have on the team. If a teammate made a great or even solid play in practice or a match, Molly was usually the first player to acknowledge her with a word of praise or a high five. She was also one of the first players to offer encouragement when a teammate made a mistake. It's one reason that she was usually voted team captain in middle school, high school and college.

6. Compete for every point with all your heart.

Molly poured every ounce of effort she had into her performances in matches. She didn't take it easy when the team faced an inferior opponent, built a big lead or fell far behind. She played each point with the same focus, drive and determination until giving her best effort became second nature.

7. Remain positive in all circumstances.

Of all of Molly's attributes, this may have been her most glowing trait. I still remember going to one of her college matches and sitting in the third or fourth row near the net and hearing her consistently positive chatter between points, even when her team trailed by a significant margin. Her relentless positivity was infectious, driving her teams to keep battling and never give up even in the most dire situations.

What are some other qualities of an excellent player and teammate?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Excellence: the result of always striving to do better

by Jeff Smith

A few years into my coaching career, I coached a team that at first glance looked like it would be undergoing a rebuilding season. From the standpoint of experience and raw athletic talent, this was not a team that anyone would equate with excellence. All but one starter had graduated from the previous season's conference championship team.

What was left was a roster full of question marks.

But what this team lacked in experience it made up for in enthusiasm and desire. The team was led by three captains who loved the game, wanted to keep the program's winning tradition alive and were committed to doing everything in their power to make the new season a success, starting with preseason practices.

Each August morning they would arrive before the rest of their teammates to put in extra work on their skills. Some sharpened their serving accuracy or technique; others worked on their setting, hitting or digging. I got to the gym on day one at 8:25 a.m. for a 9 a.m. practice, and they were already inside waiting for me to unlock the equipment room so they could start practicing their serving. The next day I arrived at 8:20, and they were waiting for me again. On day three I got to the school at 8:15, and -- you guessed it -- they were in the gym ahead of me yet again.

The captains' dedication rubbed off on their teammates. Soon other players started showing up earlier and earlier for practices until, by day five, nearly every player was honing their skills 30 to 40 minutes before practice officially began. As a coach it was rewarding to see.

The players' devotion continued throughout the season. Led by the captains, most of the girls spent another two to three hours each weekend doing additional skill drills at home or scrimmaging in the gym outside of practice. We called the weekend skill work S-E-T for Success. S-E-T was an acronym for Spend Extra Time.

The players' commitment paid off beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The team went 27-4 to tie the school record for single-season wins, set the previous season, and four of the players went on to play collegiately. I don't compare teams to each other -- it would be like comparing one daughter to another -- but this was one of the fondest seasons of my coaching career thanks primarily to three dedicated team captains.

The team's success could be traced back to the players' decision to form training habits that went above and beyond what their coach asked them to do.

And that's what excellence -- the 2017-18 Serve City theme -- really comes down to. One of the most famous quotes on excellence says it best: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Excellence doesn't just happen, and it isn't something we're born with. It takes exerting ourselves to do things the right way over and over again until, over time, good habits produce the necessary skills, strength, knowledge base, conditioning and preparedness to thrive on the court. Excellence requires desire, motivation and the discipline to push ourselves even when it hurts, is inconvenient, we're tired or we just don't want to push ourselves that day.

Excellence also takes patience and perseverance. Five-time NBA championship coach Pat Riley said it this way: Excellence is a gradual result of always striving to do better. It's not instantaneous. It requires being satisfied with small strides, seeing "2-percent" or "3-percent" improvement in our skills -- slow and steady progress. The pursuit of excellence is a marathon, not a sprint.

Excellence also demands a consistently strong effort. Working hard some of the time won't cut it. We have to push ourselves to the brink of our abilities every time we train over a period of months and years if we want to experience excellence on the court (or in the classroom, the band room or the workplace). Excellence requires our best effort in every drill of every practice of every season over a period of seasons to reap the long-term rewards.

And excellence only takes place if we acknowledge, accept and seek out the wisdom and advice of others, particularly our coaches. When we're consistently open to our coach's teaching, trust our coach's training methods and strive to apply that teaching and training to our skill development, we have an opportunity to learn the techniques, tactics and strategies that make for excellent players and teams.

So, what does excellence look like at Serve City? Here are just a few examples of what we'd love to see happening in our practice facilities in Des Plaines, Wheaton, West Chicago, Carol Stream and West Dundee over the next few months:

** Setters arriving at practices 15 minutes early to do setting drills with a teammate, a coach or off a wall.

** Coaches sending their team YouTube videos between practices showing proper hitting technique while the team learns a new aspect of hitting.

** Players asking to train with another Serve City team on weeks when they miss a team practice due to another extracurricular commitment.

** Teammates leaving the gym after each practice feeling tired, sore and sweaty but with smiles on their faces knowing they gave maximum effort throughout their training time.

** A team's middle hitters getting permission from their parents to ask their coach if they'll stay 10 minutes after practice to work with them on their blocking skills.

** A player going to her family's fitness gym on Sunday evenings to perform 50 extra serves as she strives to improve her zone serving ability.

** A player doing strength exercises at home in order to serve and hit with more power.

** An overhand server arriving early each practice to get extra reps on a jump serve she wants to learn and use in tournaments.

** Athletes always stretching themselves to learn new skills and refine current skills.

The best part about the pursuit of excellence is, as we develop the habit of always striving to do better, we form a passion for the game of volleyball that makes training seem less like work and more like a labor of love.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball club director.


20 questions with our new girls club director

by Jeff Smith

I began working as Serve City's girls volleyball director August 15, but my journey as a club director actually was borne 32 years ago out of disappointment.

As one of the veteran players on our boys basketball team, I had high hopes for my senior season of high school, but our coach didn't share those aspirations. He didn't push our team to grow or excel. He was a kind man and cared about each of us on a personal level, but he wasn't driven to help us get the most out of our talent as individual players or as a team. Our practices didn't stretch us outside our comfort zone, teach us new tactics or strategies, train and extend us to be our best or prepare us well for games, either.

Not surprisingly, my senior season was a difficult one. Our team finished in last place in the conference, and my hoops career concluded on a dismal note. I still remember walking out of the gym following a lackluster season-ending loss thinking that, if I ever got the chance to coach my own team, I would push my players to reach their potential. I didn't want any athletes to experience the frustration and lack of development that marred my final basketball season.

More than three decades and nearly 1,400 games as a coach later, I start my tenure as Serve City's girls director ready to pursue the same philosophy that has guided my volleyball and basketball coaching career since 1998. I believe the most effective way a coach communicates that they value their athletes is by giving their players the best possible coaching they can each day. Conversely, I believe athletes demonstrate how important their team is to them by giving their team their best possible effort at each practice and match.

In short, excellence, improvement and realizing our dreams don't just happen. They take commitment, hard work, dedication, investment, enthusiasm, preparation and intentionality.

At Serve City, sweat plus sacrifice will spur on success.

I look forward to watching our coaches and athletes dedicate themselves to striving for excellence at each practice and match this season. The goal will be simple: to get "3 percent better" at their coaching or playing craft every day. If that happens, our athletes will experience significant growth in their skills and understanding of the game, our coaches will grow as leaders and teachers and our teams will make great strides throughout the season as well.

Few things are more satisfying in volleyball than to watch your skills and knowledge of the game improve as you pour yourself into your development as a player or coach.

We'll talk more about what excellence looks like in a practice setting in my next blog post. If you'd like to learn more about me, you can read the questionnaire below and visit my girls director page. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you in the gym this season!

20 Questions With: Jeff Smith

Coaching stops: Faith Christian (fifth- to eighth-grade teams), Illinois Heat VBC (18U, 16U, 15U), Harvest Christian Academy (middle school), Serve City (14U, 13U), Serve City sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Chicago Sand Volleyball (middle school and high school), Blaze sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Geneva Park District (middle school), Serve City Recreation (volleyball, basketball), (private volleyball and basketball lessons for 10U to 18U)

Favorite quote: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,  then, is not an act but a habit.

What I enjoy most about volleyball: It's the ultimate team sport, teaching amazing life lessons about teamwork, sacrifice, putting others before self and playing for a cause greater than yourself.

What I enjoy least about volleyball: when teams play not to lose instead of playing to win

Greatest accomplishment: watching my daughters play the game they love

The most important trait for athletic success is: a growth mindset

Favorite volleyball memory: each time I've gotten to help a team or an athlete achieve more than they thought possible

Coach I most admire: John Wooden

If I could change one thing about volleyball: award 10 points for kills off back-row pipe attacks! (my favorite play in volleyball)

Favorite volleyball skills to teach: jump float serve, setting, back-row play, hitting

Favorite volleyball moment: 2013 Aurora Central Catholic tournament championship (coaching my daughters' school team)

Most embarrassing volleyball moment: getting my glasses smashed by an errant serve during a tournament, which has unfortunately happened about a dozen times over the years

Best advice for athletes: There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.

What I enjoy most about working with youth: their energy and optimism

Biggest pet peeve in volleyball: athletes who think success comes easy -- you make "easy" happen through commitment, hard work, consistent enthusiasm, learning and a humble, hungry and teachable attitude

Favorite book: the Bible

Favorite movie: Duck Soup

Favorite musical group/artist: DC Talk

Favorite TV show: Man vs. Wild unless Big Ten women's volleyball counts as a show ;)

What's most important to me: my relationship with Jesus Christ

Three words that best describe me: committed, driven, thinker

Why a hitting machine won't help you learn how to hit

by David Cordes

Ten years ago, before I ever heard of motor learning, specificity or the most effective transfer of skills through game-like training, I built a ball holder out of PVC and a couple of pieces of pool noodle. The kids on my team loved it. Stick a ball in it, hold it up in front of the net and let the middle-school girls approach, jump, swing and hit the ball over the net. They looked great. They loved it, I loved it, the parents loved it.

Then we went to a game, and we couldn't hit a ball over the net to save our lives. We would pass, set and our hitters would stand there, watch the ball flying through the air until it got close enough to them so they could roll shot or shot-put swing at it. 

So the next week we spent even more time hitting off my ball holder. And the changes in my players were amazing. I felt like a genius.

Then we went to our next game. And we still could not attack a ball. No approaches, no jumps, lousy swings by kids that just stood there staring at the ball and waiting until it got too close to them to swing at it in any positive way.

So we went back to hitting off the ball holder even more.

Then a miracle happened.

I was holding the ball holder for a girl to hit, and another girl decided to practice her serving. She cranked a ball over the net and smacked the ball holder right in one of the joints and snapped it like a piece of cheap 3/4-inch PVC pipe. I didn't have anything to fix it with at practice, so I set it aside and started using my setter instead. (No, I didn't put her on my shoulders and tell her to hold a ball out there for them to hit. But I briefly considered it.)

For the rest of the season, the broken ball holder laid in my garage waiting for me to fix it. But I was busy. So we kept using our passers and setters to practice hitting. But it was ugly and frustrating, and we all hated it. Well, except the girls who were setting and passing at practice instead of standing in line waiting to hit.

Then we played our third game of the season. And we actually attacked the ball. Not a lot, but a couple of times each game I saw a girl actually approach, jump and swing at a ball that was set to her. The next week we practiced hitting off a setter even more, and we hit a couple of more balls than before in our next match.

After we won the next match, one of the parents mentioned that we were hitting a lot better. His daughter told him, "Coach built this great thing out of white pipe, and it is making us a lot better." Except that we hadn't used it for a while. It was broken.

In the end I never fixed it. I reused the PVC on some other project or my sprinkler system. And a couple of years later, I discovered why we didn't miss it, either. 

If I had a pile of money to spend on my program, an Accu-Spike hitting machine would be the LAST thing I would ever buy. Right after a serving machine. Sure, if I had one, I would use it a little, early on, to let the kids feel what it's like to jump and swing at a ball. I would be negligent to not try to use every tool available to me to see if it helps. But after a couple of swings at a ball hung on a stationary machine, I would take the machine away from them and make them actually learn how to hit a volleyball that is moving through the air. That's the best way to learn how to hit at any level.

David Cordes is a long-time coach and club director for Ridgecrest Starlings Volleyball Club.

What would Reid Priddy do? How to follow the four-time Olympian's example this summer

by Jeff Smith

Reid Priddy's speech at the Serve City Volleyball Banquet was inspiring and uplifting in numerous ways. One of my favorite takeaways from his story of how he grew into a decorated four-time U.S. Olympian was how his perspective on volleyball changed shortly after first being introduced to the sport in middle school.

"I began playing volleyball all the time," Reid told our athletes, families and coaches at the banquet. "I couldn't play the sport enough."

Reid's love for the game drove him to play volleyball every chance he got: in open gyms, his backyard, on the sand, at parks, during camps and clinics and on his school's teams. He continued this habit into and throughout high school, college and the professional and Olympic ranks.

Now that most of Serve City's girls teams have wrapped up their seasons, you might be wondering what your daughter (or your son) can do next to continue fanning the flame of their love for volleyball. Following Reid Priddy's advice, here are four ideas to help your child keep developing their passion for the sport along with their skills and understanding of the game.

1. Play the sport recreationally.

Reid's love for the game grew largely out of playing the game with his friends outside of structured team practices and matches. This is also where your kids will learn the game more than any other venue. Volleyball requires countless hours of play in order to learn how to read your opponent -- looking across the net to determine when your opponent is hitting vs. tipping, where they are going to hit or pass the ball to before they even contact the ball, where they are setting to and where and how they are serving. This massive amount of information can only be instinctively learned through game play.

Plus, playing pick-up games of 6v6, 4v4, 3v3, 2v2 and even 1v1 will refine and sharpen your daughter's or son's all-around skills and ability to make split-second decisions, the latter of which is a crucial skill in and of itself in volleyball. And, of course, playing the game will stoke your child's passion and appreciation for the sport.

2. Attend summer camps.

Participating in summer camps is an excellent option for a couple of reasons. It exposes your daughter and son to new coaches and different and fresh teaching methods than they have received during their club and school seasons. Camps also give your child new ideas on how to pass, set, hit, block, defend and execute other volleyball skills that they can then take home and work on when they play recreationally this summer.

3. Try something new.

After several months of club volleyball and possibly two or three months of school ball, your daughter or son may need a fresh take on the sport to maintain her interest and refresh her love for the game. A fresh spin may come in a few different forms:

  • Trying sand volleyball. Playing in the sand is a terrific complement to the indoor version of the sport. Sand volleyball is significantly different from indoor in terms of rules, skills employed and strategy and tactics, not to mention the venue. Taking part in sand can improve your son or daughter's all-around skills, quickness, leaping ability and the skill of reading your opponent across the net while providing a refreshing new angle on the sport they love. (If you're interested in sand volleyball training this summer, here is a subsidiary organization running sand volleyball classes in the western suburbs.)
  • Taking private lessons. Summer is a good opportunity for some athletes to train individually with a private coach, as they can hone in on specific skills they need to learn or sharpen and raise their level of play prior to the start of the upcoming school season.
  • Competing in sand and grass tournaments. Both outdoor versions of the sport are popular in the Chicago area.
  • Learning a new position. One of my former players at the club where I coached prior to joining Serve City decided to play beach volleyball one summer so she could expand her game. Due to her height and frame, she had been pegged by her club coaches as strictly a middle blocker, so she joined a sand program to work on her serve receive and defensive skills in an effort to grow into an outside hitter for her senior season of club. My older daughter did the same thing, hitting the sand to improve her passing skills the summer after eighth grade and transition into a libero in high school.

5. Pay it forward.

Has your daughter or son benefited from years of coaching, instruction and input through club and school teams? This spring and summer they can begin giving back to the game by volunteering their time. They could serve as a volunteer assistant with a YMCA or park district league or help out at local camps for elementary-school kids. Paying it forward will keep them involved in volleyball while teaching them the other side of the game and perhaps sparking a future interest in coaching.

Even if they don't take to coaching, teaching the game to younger children will help your child develop a greater understanding of the sport and improve their volleyball IQ for their next season as a volley athlete.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

Are you the kind of teammate your team needs you to be?

by Jeff Smith

A coaching colleague of mine published the best list I've read for describing in detail what it means to be an outstanding teammate. From #10 through #1, the 10 qualities listed below all have one thing in common: relationships.

Positive, successful relationships are essential to a thriving volleyball team. And these relationships must be built on strong character and a common set of core values that permeate the entire team roster, from the coach through every player on the squad.

Athletes, use the 10 traits below as a checklist to evaluate how you are doing in each of these areas.

Coaches, sift your team's culture, habits and health through the filter of these 10 traits.

Parents, examine this list and consider how your son or daughter fits these traits and where they need to grow -- and how you can play a part in that growth.

Athletes, coaches and parents: Be honest with yourselves in your assessment of yourself, your team or your child. This list can illuminate the areas where you come up short and create an exciting opportunity for you to stretch and develop in new ways as a teammate, leader or sports parent.


10. You’ll play any role necessary for the sake of the team’s success.

9. You’d rather play less and win than play all the time and lose.

8. When you score, you immediately turn and thank a teammate.

7. You love training as much as you do playing in games.

6. You respect your opponent, but do not fear them.

5. You listen to your coaches and they readily describe you as coachable.

4. You are quick to pick up any teammate who is having a bad day.

3. You go out of your way to help younger teammates get better, even if it risks your own playing time.

2. You learn from each mistake you make.

1. You are confident in your abilities, but never arrogant toward your team or opponents.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.