The big mistake that coaches, parents and athletes make

by Jeff Smith

The scoreboard is the most fickle of friends. When you win, it treats you like its BFF. When you lose, it rejects you like it never knew you.

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Yet, despite its unfaithful nature, the scoreboard is entrancing to us. Players and coaches strain their necks to view the flip chart throughout each set. Parents ask the work crew to turn the flip chart their direction to see what it says. Teams' success or failure is determined by whether the scoreboard says they won or lost.

But should the scoreboard be the sole arbiter of success or failure?

The answer is an emphatic no.

This is especially true for club volleyball, where so many other factors are involved.

Your opponent matters

The scoreboard doesn't take the quality of your opponent into consideration. It merely reflects the score of your match.

Here's one example. Wheaton 18 Blue faced Ultimate 18 Gold in a tournament at Sky High March 3. Ultimate 18 Gold is in eighth place in the Super Open Division of the Great Lakes Power League. The Super Open is comprised of the 16 best 18U teams in the greater Chicago area. Every Super Open team is an elite national team. Ultimate is no exception. Five of its players will be joining Division 1 college volleyball programs in the fall, including one player who will play at the University of Illinois, one of the nation's top teams. By contrast, Wheaton 18 Blue features four sophomores, four juniors and two seniors and is on average about six inches shorter than Ultimate 18 Gold across the front row. This was a David vs. Goliath match-up.

Knowing all this while substitute coaching that day, my realistic hopes for Wheaton 18 Blue were to play aggressively and without fear. If 18 Blue did that, it would probably reach double figures in each set. The team met those goals, hitting with confidence, serving assertively, playing aggressive back-row defense and putting up a fight before losing 25-14, 25-13. Putting up a battle and losing to one of Chicago's best teams is a far greater achievement than beating up on a weak opponent.

Afterwards, most parents seemed to recognize the extreme odds stacked against the team. One or two might have thought it was a rough performance because of the margin of victory. But the scoreboard doesn't offer any deeper explanation behind the numbers, such as the strength of your opponent. It's why you should never rely on the scoreboard to tell you if your team was successful.

Your team's performance matters

Sometimes your team can play its best match of the season and lose and then turn around and play one of its weakest matches of the season and still win. Perhaps its opponent in the loss was simply more talented or played its best match of the season, too, and in the second match your opponent had an off day or was just an inferior team.

The scoreboard can't tell the difference between these issues. But coaches and players can.

All of us want to win and play to win. But at the end of the day, good teams care more about how they play than what the final scoreboard says. Good teams want to play their best volleyball every time they take the court. That's their primary motivation.

This is known as having a process focus over an outcome focus. Good teams and good players turn their attention to how they are passing, serving, setting, hitting, blocking, digging, communicating and making decisions on the court. They realize that, the majority of the time, if they play well it will be reflected on the scoreboard -- but not all the time. They may lose some matches where they played as well as they can play or nearly as well. They may even lose most of their matches despite playing at or near peak levels for them.

But, whether they win or lose on the scoreboard isn't their ultimate goal. They are more concerned about how they are playing on the court.

It's similar to a business. If a company is focused solely on the bottom line of making a profit, it won't be as effective as if it concentrates on delivering great products and services to its customers, and its work won't be as satisfying. Businesses that focus just on profit making will cut corners, short-change customers and produce cheaper products that cost less but also don't provide customers with long-term quality.

Your mindset and growth matter

Teams that don't play for the scoreboard are more interested in playing in such a way that their team and their players stretch outside their comfort zone to learn, grow and develop their skills. That won't happen if the team is focused merely on winning the scoreboard battle. They may even start playing too safe -- playing not to lose -- in hopes that their opponents will eventually make enough mistakes to give them the match.

The problem is that mindset will 1) stunt the team's growth, 2) cause them to play tight and nervous instead of loose and confident and 3) makes volleyball a chore instead of something fun.

You can usually tell a team's mindset by how they treat the last few points of a close set. Let's say the score is 23-23. How will a team play that is focused solely on the scoreboard? They won't take chances. They'll play it safe, resorting to tips, roll shots, free balls and two-handed pushes at their opponent. They'll wait for their opponent to make the error that gives them the point. It's because they see the score as a problem to avoid, specifically avoiding the problem of losing two more points.

How will a team play that is focused on its growth, performance, strategy and skills? It will play the same at 23-23 as it did when it was 5-5 or 15-15. The score doesn't matter to them. They keep playing their style and executing their game plan for serving, serve receive, offense and defense regardless of what the scoreboard says. They see close games as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

On Sunday Wheaton 14 Blue trailed Lions South 24-19. The next server was a player who just began jump serving the previous weekend. As Sammy prepared to serve, it was tempting for her to fall back on her standing float serve, which she was more comfortable with. But, to her credit, she stuck with her new jump float serve.

Seven points later, as her team celebrated a 26-24 victory, Sammy was glad she avoided the temptation to play for the scoreboard. It was a win for a growth mindset and for her team.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.