4 ways your child can make excellence a habit

by Jeff Smith

No matter the sport, it's amazing to watch someone perform a particular skill with such excellence that they make it look effortless.

But, as we all know, it's anything but easy to sink a 30-foot putt like Sergio Garcia, drain a 25-foot jump shot with a hand in your face like Stephen Curry or pound a kill over two 6-foot-10 blockers like Reid Priddy.

U.S. Olympic setter Alisha Glass

U.S. Olympic setter Alisha Glass

Great skills take talent. But, more than that, they take excellence. And excellence, the third value of Serve City's three-pronged motto of Love, Relationships and Excellence, doesn't just happen. It takes years of developing and honing the proper technique and know-how in practices, games, individually and with a fellow player, a partner, coach or family member. As Aristotle wrote, "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Repeatedly training certain skills and techniques won't guarantee our children will begin playing volleyball at the sport's highest level. But it is encouraging to know that reaching a level of excellence as a setter, passer, hitter, blocker or digger isn't merely a matter of genetics, height, strength, speed or pure physical ability.

I just had the pleasure of watching my older daughter play with 17 Smack in the Diggin' in the Dells volleyball tournament over the weekend. She is a strong back-row passer and digger, but her game hits the excellence barometer with her out-of-system setting. As a libero, she consistently sets up her team's outside and opposite hitters with accurate bump sets from the back row when the team's setter has to pass the first ball received from the opponent.  Bump setting from behind the 10-foot line is a challenging skill to master. Countless liberos struggle to learn this. But, at the risk of sounding like a subjective volleyball parent, Jessica bump sets as well as any libero I've seen at the high school level.

The primary reason that Jessica's out-of-system sets are usually so precise is "training and habituation," as Aristotle put it. She has spent thousands of hours refining this craft between indoor school and club practices, matches and tournaments and sand practices and tournaments, not to mention playing sand doubles with family and friends and spending hours in the gym working on this skill with her sister and me. She's worked meticulously on her technique in practices, matches and individually until it has become habitually good.

Experts debate the theory that 10,000 hours are needed to master a skill, but in Jessica's case, mastering bump setting really did take a litany of hours of training. To her credit, she was willing to invest the time to excel at it, and for the last two years she and her hitter teammates and her sand partner have reaped the rewards.

So, what does it take to make excellence a habit in your child's volleyball pursuit?

1. You have to love the game.

Karch Kiraly, the three-time Olympic gold medalist considered volleyball's version of Michael Jordan, is renowned for his love for the sport. As a child and teen, he played sand and indoor volleyball year round, spending hours each day in pick-up games. Karch had no clear physical advantage over his opponents in terms of height, strength, quickness or other traits. But his love for the game drove him to play and practice it relentlessly. He practically lived on the beach playing volleyball in his youth, and his skills and knowledge of the game soared as a result.

2. You have to pour your heart into it.

Alisha Glass is the starting setter for the U.S. Olympic women's team and a former three-time all-American setter who led Penn State University to two national titles. But well before that success, Alisha was a self-described gangly and awkward middle-school girl who struggled to set the ball when she first began the sport.

But Alisha quickly developed a love for volleyball and especially for setting, and at her coach's urging began setting throughout her days. She described how she would set a ball to herself for hours while lying on her bed at night, sitting on the floor watching TV, hanging out in her backyard with a friend or family member and off a wall in the gym at her school and club.

Alisha worked tirelessly on her skills, and her investment paid off. This once "tall and overly thin string bean" grew into an all-state setter in high school, starred at Penn State and now is considered one of the world's top setters. All her accolades flow from the passion and effort she brings to her growth as a player.

"You have to train as hard as you can to be bigger, faster, stronger," Alisha told USA Volleyball. "Also, you have to train the mental game. You have to learn the game. You have to learn the opponent, learn yourself, learn your teammates. And so there so much to learn from it, you are constantly evolving. There is not a peak you are going to hit."

3. You have to make a commitment and then stick to it.

My daughter Jessica is in many ways a typical busy teenager. She takes AP and honors classes at her high school, is a student leader for one of the school's extracurricular clubs, plays volleyball for her school and club and serves in children's ministry at her church. But since she was 11 she has always made a commitment to do whatever activity she's involved in with all-out dedication. I marvel at her commitment level, particularly with volleyball. She has not missed a volleyball practice for her club or school teams since fifth grade. She has participated in practices with various injuries, with colds, the flu and a fever and on nights when she had four or five hours of homework waiting for her. Her perspective is that, if she's going to join a team or club or cause, she's going to strive to do it with excellence and devotion and not half-heartedly.

That's not to say our athletes should practice with a 102-degree fever or a broken leg or high ankle sprain. What commitment does mean is sometimes attending practice when it's not convenient for you. One way to look at it is this: When you aren't practicing, someone else is practicing, and they're getting better at their craft while you aren't. Every practice is a chance to improve, to grow and to refine and hone your skills. Seize every opportunity you can by making a commitment to your development and to your team's development, then fulfilling that commitment, even when you don't feel like doing it.

Athletes like Jessica have learned that, although there are days when you don't feel like practicing or it's hard to practice due to outside stresses or aches and pains or other issues, maintaining your commitment pays valuable dividends: short-term pain leading to long-term gain.

4. You have to be teachable.

One of my favorite quotes is "To stop learning is to stop growing. Always remain teachable." I saw one of the best examples of this demonstrated by Lebron James of all people. I once saw a program on ESPN that showed Lebron, one of the greatest NBA players in the history of basketball, taking a private tutoring lesson from Hakeem Olajuwon, a Hall of Fame center with the Houston Rockets. Lebron hired Hakeem to teach him offensive post moves around the basket to help him sharpen his low-post skills. Lebron is a three-time NBA champion and four-time league MVP, yet here he was asking a former player to give him pointers to improve his game.

If Lebron James sees the value in being teachable, then no matter how good you are at volleyball, you can take his cue and always learn something new and get better. Follow your coach's instructions and take their feedback to heart every time. Ask your coach questions when you don't understand something or you aren't sure you're doing something right. Seek out ideas and input from instructional videos online. Soak up knowledge and tips whenever you can. Realize that a teachable attitude is essential to excellence and embrace it.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.