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.