By Jeff Smith
At a recent tournament, one of our coaches was standing at the scorer's table after their team's first match had ended when the tournament director approached.
"What did I do wrong?" the coach thought. "Forget to turn in our team's insurance waiver?"
Fortunately the director had something nice to say. "You know, I've never seen a girls team with as many jump servers as yours, especially at this level (middle school)," he said. "That was neat to see."
At Serve City, that's one of the greatest compliments anybody could pay our teams. One of the most important philosophies that we strive to instill in our athletes is a growth mindset -- a rock-solid belief in their ability to learn and grow, even when others say "You're too short, too thin, too slow, too young, too (fill in the blank)." From the first day of practice, our desire is to create a training culture where our players eagerly stretch themselves outside of their comfort zone in order to learn and develop new skills that they thought were beyond their reach.
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly said it more eloquently than I ever could. "Job number one for all of us is to be learners and embrace the growth mindset," the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball coach said. "We have to be in a constant state of learning and creating a safe environment to do so.”
While our coaches play a significant role in encouraging a growth mindset in their athletes, their efforts are futile unless reinforced by their players' parents and other family members at home.
Here are three ways that you can help your child embrace a growth mindset that impacts their learning curve not only on the court but in the classroom and other areas of their lives.
Accept -- and encourage -- failure
Learning new skills is risky. It's easy to stick with the status quo of what we already do well. In fact, at the 12's, 13's and 14's levels, playing it safe pays off in the win column more often than not, especially when competing against teams that are trying to learn new skills.
The biggest risk of all is knowing that acquiring new skills takes plenty of time and lots of failure. The jump serving team referenced above has lost a few matches where its jump serves cost them points due to errant and inconsistent serving. Some of their players took weeks and even months to hone this craft. One girl in particular "failed" again and again in her efforts to master this skill. In one match she missed three consecutive jump serves.
When this happens, it's inevitable to hear someone in the crowd yell out "Just get it in" or wonder why the athlete doesn't just resort to a safe standing serve and plunk it carefully into the middle of the opponent's court. It's our human nature to react this way.
But, when our athletes are encouraged by both their coaches and their families to stretch themselves, keep at it and refuse to give up or give in because they believe in the athletes' capacity to learn and grow, these kids receive the fuel, confidence and belief they need to succeed, even as they make mistake after mistake in the process of learning.
So, when it's tempting to tell our kids to stop pursuing X or Y skill in order to protect them from the disappointment of failing, we do our athletes a much larger favor by applauding every missed jump serve, jump attack, quick set and any other new skill they're learning. I dare you to do this at your child's next tournament. If she blasts a back-row attack five feet beyond the end line, stand up and clap for her. Give her the freedom to learn, grow and fail along the way.
Let them be uncomfortable
A growth mindset requires athletes to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Learning new individual and team skills, strategies and tactics isn't easy. Besides failure, it can make an athlete look awkward and silly and feel frustrated and defeated as she makes one error after another. But, if they push through these feelings and ignore the temptation to return to the safer skills they already have acquired, the discomfort slowly goes away as they steadily improve. It's a case of short-term pain yielding long-term gain.
The jump server who missed three straight jump serves at an early season tournament is the perfect example. Her coach never wavered in his commitment to helping her jump serve, and neither did she. And at her last tournament this same athlete racked up 15 service points in a row for her team ... all scored with her now nasty jump float serve.
Focus on process over outcome
If we're all fully honest, we'd all admit that the scoreboard has a hypnotic power over us. We can't help but continually check it to see the score of each set of each match.
That's another reason why a growth mindset can be so difficult to grasp. When Big-Time Club is beating our team 22-8 while our 13-and-under athletes overhand serve one ball after another out of bounds, or our 15's players pound so many quick sets and shoot sets into the net that everyone expects the net to collapse from so much force, the scoreboard seems to grow to the size of the jumbo-tron at Soldier Field.
But our focus at Serve City is on process over outcome. This simply means teaching our athletes to concentrate on playing the game the right way as they're being taught and not worry about the score of the match. Sometimes that process looks downright ugly. Two weeks ago, my 14's team committed 27 -- yes, 27 -- hitting errors in one two-set match along with 13 service errors. That's 40 points that we gifted our opponent, some of which came as we tried to stretch outside our comfort zone and execute new, riskier, more aggressive hitting plays that we'd been working on in practice.
Full disclosure: It took every ounce of my self-control, and a couple of quickly muttered prayers for divine intervention, to avoid telling my athletes to stop jump attacking and "just get the ball in the court." Let's face it: None of us wanted to lose. But we ended up learning a valuable lesson. How? By staying the course, continuing to attack and keep focusing on the process of developing our aggressive new offensive skills while eking out a sloppy but satisfying victory.
And, with each time we choose to continue pursuing new skills over playing it safe, our once messy-looking efforts become more and more polished like a diamond forming under intense pressure. It just takes a commitment to taking our eyes off the scoreboard and training them instead to focus on our performance and execution. It won't happen overnight. In fact, most of us will never completely shake the desire to scoreboard watch. (I still do it, though not nearly as often as my early years of coaching.) But, a growth mindset can help us grow in this area, too.
Jeff Smith is Serve City volleyball region director.