Obstacle or opportunity? It's all in your perspective

by Jeff Smith

In 2014, Reid Priddy's dreams of playing in a record fourth Summer Olympics appeared to crumple to the floor when the U.S. volleyball standout landed awkwardly after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a pro match in Bulgaria.

Doctors had to remove the tendon from his left knee to fix the torn ACL in his right knee. Few in the volleyball world expected Reid (the guest speaker at Serve City's 2017 banquet) to recover enough to earn a spot on an extremely talented 2016 U.S. men's team.

"Not many people thought I would make it this far," Reid admitted in an interview with NBC Sports.

But the most important person of all still believed he could do it: Reid himself. And he did, overcoming daunting odds to make the team and help the U.S. squad earn a bronze medal.

The biggest key for Reid's recovery was his perspective. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he saw the injury as an opportunity to test his character and his love for the game and to even make himself better than ever: better conditioned, better skilled, stronger physically and even stronger mentally. His strategy worked, and he even led the U.S. to victory in the bronze medal match when he came off the bench to spark a huge rally with his hitting, blocking and passing.

I thought of Reid's story while coaching two weekends ago. My Serve City team was down to five players for our March 25 tournament in Rockford due to spring break vacations and an emergency surgery for one of my players. We needed to borrow a player from another Serve City squad just to have enough girls to field a team, and half of the kids had to play new positions on the court as a result of so many absences.

But instead of seeing this as an obstacle and mentally checking out, we looked at it as an opportunity to learn new positions, get better, gain plenty of playing time and, most importantly, come together as a team and "shock the world," as Khalid El Amin famously said after his University of Connecticut squad upset Duke in the 1999 NCAA men's basketball tournament finals. The girls rose to the challenge, won six straight matches without dropping a set and took the tournament title without the benefit of any subs.

The best moment of the tournament for me was watching our 5-foot-2 setter register a stuff block in the semifinals. Anna had never played middle hitter due to her short stature. Seeing her reaction of shock that turned quickly to glee after blocking an opposing middle hitter was one of the highlights of the day. That play, and that tournament run, became possible because the girls viewed the tournament as a window of opportunity and not a worst-case scenario.

Serve City's 13 Blue team adopted that same opportunity-over-obstacle mindset this past Saturday. Like my team, at the last minute they were faced with having only five players for their tournament at Energy Volleyball Club, but their situation was even worse, as they didn't have time to find a sixth player and had to forfeit their three matches. Fortunately the tournament director allowed them to play one set each against the three teams they were scheduled to compete with that day, but it was still a difficult challenge. They had to play each set with only five players, leaving one position open on the court, and win or lose they couldn't qualify for the playoff bracket.

But, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the 13 Blue players and their coach, Sydney Vischer, approached each set as a regular match and put forth their best effort. They even took their last opponent to the brink before losing 26-24. Afterwards, they walked off the court with smiles on their faces. The scoreboard said they lost three sets and went 0-3 on the day, but that was far from the complete story. The girls gave it everything they had, grew a bit more in their skills and had a great time playing the game they love. It's a cliche, but those five girls were true winners that day, and it all started with an opportunistic perspective.

That same day at Energy VBC, our Ravenswood 15 Smack team had to play a 16 national team in pool play. Our 15 Smack squad is comprised mostly of eighth-grade players who are a year younger than this age level, so to say this match was daunting was an understatement. But one 15 Smack player in particular caught my attention. At about 4 feet 10, Maya was anywhere from 12 to 16 inches shorter than the front-row players on the opposing team and had to play outside hitter with the team missing three players. But Maya didn't back down from anyone. She dug up powerful serves and hits, hustled to track down shanked passes and even served three straight aces in the second set. Her all-out effort and energy was contagious, motivating her teammates to battle hard as well. Ravenswood lost the match in straight sets, but Maya came away from the games with more confidence and determination and the admiration of her teammates and coach and probably the opposing team, too.

So, what does that perspective look like with the club volleyball season coming to a close? It could mean:

  • A 12 Smack player playing volleyball games of 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and on up for hours on end this summer to progress the skills she's learned this club season. The more touches on the ball the better she'll be.
  • A 13 White or 13 Smack player getting tips and drills from her coach and then working feverishly in the off-season to develop her setting skills because she's always wanted to be a setter. Current U.S. Olympic women's setter Alisha Glass would spend countless hours setting to herself in her room and setting off a wall in the gym to train her hands. She didn't let anything stand in the way of her development.
  • A 14 Smack or 14 Blue player deciding to learn a jump serve and training at it throughout the summer with the goal of jump serving during high school team tryouts and the high school season.
  • A 15s or 16s player choosing to play sand volleyball this summer to develop her all-around skills and improve the weaker aspects of her game, such as serve reception or hitting.
  • A 17s or 18s player participating in a challenging week-long summer camp and then applying what she learns to her game during the summer in order to make her varsity team or give herself the chance to crack the varsity starting lineup.

The right perspective makes the impossible possible.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.