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.