How to keep confidence high when your team is struggling in the win-loss column

by Jeff Smith

Losing a string of matches or the majority of your matches can suck the life out of your team … if you let it.

Fortunately you don’t have to. Here are three ways to keep your team’s confidence and energy high when your team is going through a slump in the win-loss column.

1. Setting and achieving goals outside of the scoreboard

Many times the scoreboard gets too much of a team’s or athlete’s focus. When you simply are playing strictly for the win, it can leave you with a false impression of how you or your team performed when you win and when you lose. For example, you might win a match while not playing as well as you normally do, or you may lose a match but you played one of your best matches of the season.

To avoid putting all your focus on wins and losses, get in the habit of creating goals for yourself or for your team to achieve during a match or tournament. Using different criteria to judge performance can be striving to accomplish a certain goal for a specific area of the game.

For instance, when I substitute coach for one of our coaches at a tournament, I like to set a goal for the team to reach in each match. For one of our teams, I challenged them to get double-digit kills in a match. The nice part of that goal was it required contributions from everyone, not just the hitters. The passers needed to deliver a lot of accurate passes to the setting zone, and the setter needed to consistently deliver hittable balls to the hitters.

Our team’s primary focus in that match wasn’t on the scoreboard but on reaching our goal. That way, if your team is struggling in the win column, it doesn’t tense up from an over-emphasis on winning. It plays loose, relaxed, confident and focused with its energy channeled to its performance, not the final score. Plus, even after a loss, you and your teammates can gain confidence in yourselves because you see yourselves meeting team and individual goals and making progress in your skills and overall play from tournament to tournament.

2. Share one or more positives after each defeat

Losing a match doesn’t mean you or your team had no success or made no strides or positive contributions in the match. In your post-game team huddle, find at least one positive from the team’s performance after each loss and share it with everyone.

If you’re a coach, open the floor during your post-game huddle and ask your players to share two positives from the team’s play and one area where the team needs to grow. The reason you should share two positives and only one negative is so your team gets trained to think positively and to look for the positive in others around them and in themselves.

This is one reason why we end our multi-team (master training) practices by giving out the excellence, relationships (best teammate) and love for the game awards. After spending two practice hours largely working on improving the weaknesses or weaker aspects of our skills, tactics and strategies, we like to close practice focused on and celebrating successes.

3. Never accept unacceptable practice habits or a “what-does-it-matter” attitude

When teams suffer a string of losses or a losing slump, it can become tempting to develop sloppy practice habits caused by a change in attitude. It’s almost akin to giving up on yourself or your team, believing practice no longer matters because “we’re just going to lose anyway.”

Good, dedicated athletes and coaches refuse to let that mindset take hold. They realize that allowing that perspective to creep in will mean they’ll never be able to turn around a losing season and they’ll stop growing as a team and as individual players and coaches. They’ll also lose their love for the game. Instead, they support each other, remain committed to constant development and hold each other accountable to continue pushing, striving, stretching and growing.

And make sure your practices are focused on growth. If your team is struggling in serve receive, spend large portions of practice time working to develop the serve receive skills the team needs to succeed. If your setters are having difficulty executing certain types of sets, work with them on those skills and give them opportunities to practice those skills with lots of game-like repetitions and helpful feedback.

Don’t forget to keep your team’s strengths sharp with regular training as well and to continue stretching your athletes outside their comfort zone so they’ll keep improving in new areas, too.

4. Be a light during darker stretches

Long losing streaks can sap the joy out of athletics if coaches and athletes aren’t careful and intentional. Whether you’re a coach or a player on such a team, commit to being a beacon of hope for your team.

Don’t let your players or your teammates perceive that you’ve lost hope in the team or given up on them as you endure a rough stretch of matches. Be relentlessly optimistic about the next practice, the next match and the next tournament. Find the positives in your team and teammates as you go through a losing streak.

Yes, you will sometimes have to look more closely to find those positives. But the effort is always worth it.

It keeps your team’s and teammates’ spirits up.

It fuels your team to continue competing hard and supporting one another.

It stretches and strengthens you as a coach, a player, a competitor, a teammate and as a leader.

It reveals the kind of character you have.

It lays the groundwork for future success for you and for your team.

I can especially attest to the last statement. A few weeks into the 2017-18 club season I took over coaching one of our 14U teams when their coach resigned. It was an inexperienced squad comprised mostly of first-year club players and even four or five players who had never played competitive volleyball of any kind. We had our share of struggles, occasionally humbling losses, lessons to learn and growing to do, but we kept pressing forward.

At season’s end we advanced to the finals of the power league divisional playoffs, losing to the top seed by two points in the title match even though we were one of the bottom seeds in the tournament. The next weekend the team made the semifinals of a tournament almost exclusively made up of national teams. Capping the season in an upbeat fashion was only possible because team members remained positive in the midst of negative win-loss results.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Fearlessness: the key to becoming a great hitter

by Jeff Smith

The other day I was assisting one of our middle-school teams at a tournament when one of the outside hitters made a fast, aggressive, confident three-step approach, jumped and pounded a great set with even greater speed and power, with the ball landing about three feet beyond the end line in a deep corner of the court.

As the head referee awarded the point to the opposing team, the outside hitter rolled her eyes and put her head down, frustrated that she attacked the ball out of bounds. Then she looked up at me a bit bewildered, like I had a third eyeball indented into my forehead.

That’s because I was clapping for her and told her “Way to go for it!”

One of the challenges of club volleyball is that we can all become so laser focused on winning the match that player development can take a back seat. When it comes to learning the art of jump hitting — and it is an art form, one of the toughest volleyball skills to master — growing into a good or great hitter requires going for it.

And going for it will sometimes result in hitting errors, especially at the 14U, 13U and 12U levels and even at the 18U and collegiate levels. Stanford All-American outside hitter Kathryn Plummer had 13 hitting errors in the NCAA championship match in December.

If a player wants to develop into a standout hitter, she has to learn the proper technique for hitting, from her transition to her approach footwork and her two-footed jump through her arm swing mechanics. And then she has to work on using those fundamentals in one big, fluid, all-out package while hitting countless sets in practices and matches.

And whether she’s 11 or 18, that hitter needs to work on those skills at full speed.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a time and place to swing safely, or tip instead of use a full swing, or pound the ball to deep zone 6 (middle back) instead of attacking down the line, cross court or at a sharp angle. Or use an off-speed shot (roll shot, cut shot) instead of an assertive full attack.

But those off-speed shots and safe full swings should be the exception, not the rule.

That’s why most coaches cringe when they hear a spectator yell “Just get it in!” after a young hitter pounds a ball out of bounds. Yes, there are times when merely keeping the ball in play is a wise choice, such as when the set is poor — too tight to the net, too far off the net, too far inside the court for an outside hitter or opposite (right-side) hitter or too far outside the court.

But, when the set is good or even decent and the hitter can better the ball (improve the quality of the set) by their footwork and mechanics (technical skills), the hitter needs to hit assertively with a specific purpose in mind. For instance, that may mean hitting down the line when the opposing blockers are trying to take away the middle and cross-court angles, or hitting to the deep cross-court corner when the blockers are trying to defend against attacks down the sideline.

But, for our 12U, 13U and 14U hitters who are just learning the art of hitting, discernment — quickly evaluating and making a split-second decision on how and where to hit based on the quality and location of the set and the defense they are facing — comes second.

Learning to hit with an assertive, fearless, attacking mindset comes first.

This is especially true for fifth- to eighth-grade hitters for a simple reason. The #1 skill they need to master above everything else is fearlessness. Coaches who teach their young hitters first to “just get it in” are doing those players a disservice.

Once a player has had it browbeaten into her that she needs to approach slowly and swing cautiously and safely, that habit becomes ingrained in her and is difficult to break. Unfortunately some coaches teach to just hit the ball safely in-bounds. I’ve coached against those coaches in matches. Sometimes those coaches’ teams win a lot of matches, particularly at the middle-school and grade-school levels, because their opponent is working on teaching their players how to play the game the right way so that their players learn and grow in the sport.

I’ve also inherited players taught by the “safety-first, only-winning-matters” coaches. Those players sometimes end up getting cut or moved to other positions when players who were taught how to actually hit with good technique and an aggressive approach beat them out for roster spots.

It’s much easier for a player to learn — and be encouraged by her coaches and parents — to make her approach quickly, jump explosively and swing fast and free. Establishing a growth mindset and an aggressive attitude will help hitters grow much more in this skill for years to come.

It is very challenging to take a player who has been taught for years to hit meekly and safely to the middle of the court with a safe, moderate-speed arm swing and then try to get her to approach, jump and attack with fearlessness and assertiveness — and only occasionally with select use of off-speed attacks like tips and rolls.

Sadly, many players can never break the safety habit enforced on them in middle school.

Hitters are much more likely to be successful in high school and beyond if they’ve been allowed to and encouraged to learn and apply the proper hitting fundamentals with a let-her-rip attitude.

Sure, it can result in short-term pain for those hitters, their coaches, their teams and their parents as they watch them spray balls out of bounds and in the net some matches. But, if those young hitters remain committed to learning to hit, they’ll reap long-term gains.

An outside hitter I coached in seventh and eighth grade at Serve City was a great athlete with springy legs whom I converted from setter to outside hitter when she showed nice potential hitting from the left pin. Her seventh-grade season she was hit and miss. Some matches she would reel off seven or eight beautiful kills. Other matches she’d rack up more hitting errors than kills.

But she heard the same basic message from me to swing free and focus on performing her mechanics assertively with rare exception (the “third-set-of-the-tournament-finals rule” where it’s OK to sometimes hit off-speed to win the championship, though even then I want my hitters to be in attack mode four times out of five).

In eighth grade she went from inconsistent hitter to one of the top 14U outside hitters in the area, even developing a nasty back-row pipe attack that gave us 3-4 kills per match alone. Her freshman year she made her high school varsity team and started at outside hitter.

The key for her was that she took what she was taught and in practices and applied it in our matches, swinging fearlessly even when her hitting was awry or the score was tight. Her short-term pain in seventh grade became a long-term gain in eighth and ninth grade, and her club teams rang up 37-11 win-loss records largely because of her hitting prowess.

So yes, learning the technical skills for hitting is important. But the most critical skill of all to becoming a good hitter is mental. Developing the fearless, assertive mindset of a hitter is what separates great and good hitters from those who are sub-par and mediocre.

And great hitters keep pushing themselves.

They're never satisfied with the status quo, always looking to take the next step in their development.

Once they learn and refine their basic hitting technique, these hitters work on hitting specific locations on the court (also known as lines of power).

Once they are able to run (approach) and hit in a straight line (down the sideline, cross court, sharp angle), they work on mastering their hand placement on the ball. They figure out hitting the bottom of the ball gives them loft for hitting over blockers and hitting the top of the ball drives the ball downward. Now they are able to control the height of their hits.

Then they work on how their hitting hand finishes, specifically "thumb down" and "thumb up." If they hit from outside and are right-handed, finishing their arm swing with their thumb up enables them to cut the ball down the sideline; finishing thumb down cuts the ball across the court to the corner or even the short angle.

Now they are able to control how to hit the ball off their line of power to the left or the right.

Hitters then learn how to look one way and hit the opposite direction to fool the blockers and diggers, and the process continues for the hitter who wants to be great.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.

4 sports lessons from a friend who left a lasting legacy

by Jeff Smith

A friend of mine whose daughters I coached in seventh and eighth grade about 18 years ago unexpectedly passed away this weekend. I’m still stunned by the news. Ron kept himself in phenomenal shape and was one of the most active people I know. It’s really true that man knows not his time.

Ron’s passing got me thinking about our relationship and the things I learned from him as a sports parent in the early years of my coaching tenure.

1. Support the team and the players

Ron wasn’t the type of sports parent who got on my case about his daughters’ playing time or how I coached them. He never once even talked to me about anything coaching related. I even asked him after we lost in the finals of a tournament if he was scratching his head over any of my coaching decisions, and his reply stuck with me to this day: “I honestly never think about your coaching. I just focus on enjoying watching my daughters and their teammates play. It’s such a blessing to get to be at their games.”

Blessing was a word Ron used often.

Ron was an excellent athlete. He played four years of college basketball. Yet in four years of coaching his daughters I never once heard him question anything I did as a coach even though I certainly was not a perfect coach and made my share of mistakes. He was always supportive and encouraging.

His background as a collegiate athlete helped. He understood how difficult coaching can be. I jokingly call it teaching in a tornado as you find yourself teaching kids while in the pressure cooker of a match or tournament with spectators watching your every move or an intense, important practice the day before a game. I needed and appreciated the slack he gave me as a young coach.

Ron loved watching his girls play. He made it to nearly every event, and I don’t remember him ever berating the referees or me. He was supportive to a fault.

2. Focus on effort and attitude over the scoreboard

As a former college athlete, Ron wasn’t shy about expecting his daughters to always give their best effort in matches or practices. I remember seeing him give his girls a hug after a game and, win or lose, tell them how proud he was of the effort they played with. Occasionally he’d show up after a practice and play for a couple of minutes with one of them so they could get some extra reps in on a particular skill.

His younger daughter’s eighth-grade season, we lost in the finals of our home tournament. The girls played with great energy, but we were just out-classed by a better opponent that day. Sometimes our best simply isn’t good enough, and that’s totally fine.

I felt bad not being able to lead them to the championship, but Ron told me afterwards how proud he was of how the girls played all season and how much he enjoyed watching the team. Seeing us lose didn’t bother him at all. He saw sports as an opportunity to connect with his girls, watch them enjoy athletics and learn valuable life lessons along the way.

Once, when he thought his younger daughter had gotten too frustrated on the court in a game and let her emotions get in the way of her performance, I remember him quietly talk to Sarah off to the side afterwards for maybe 30 seconds to a minute, then walk arm in arm with her out of the gym after a teaching moment with her.

His perspective was refreshing and encouraging.

3. Be thankful

When I coached Ron’s younger daughter our team went on a huge winning streak capped by a championship at a big tournament in Elgin. Ron was one of the first parents to congratulate me after the finals concluded. Yet he was also one of the first parents to encourage me after we lost in the finals of our home tournament that concluded the season. In fact, he thanked me for coaching the team and his daughters probably 50 or more times over four years.

Coaches are hired to do a job, and it’s not necessary for parents to express gratitude to them so often as Ron did. But most coaches truly appreciate the gesture even if some act like it wasn’t needed. Coaching can be a very draining profession, especially working with the younger age levels. You give out a lot of your time and energy and don’t always get much back in return, which can leave you depleted emotionally sometimes.

Ron’s encouragement meant a great deal to me, especially since I had just started coaching in the late 1990s. In a world of givers and takers, Ron was a consistent giver.

4. Support the whole team

I think the quality I remember most about Ron is how he cheered enthusiastically for every player on the team. He didn’t just verbally support his daughters. He cheered just as much for his daughters’ teammates and for the team as a whole. That sent a positive message to all the girls and was a terrific example for the other parents to follow.

He saw volleyball and basketball as team sports where everyone’s contributions were important, not just his daughters, and he treated all the players with dignity and value. His actions helped create a selfless environment at home and away matches where everyone was pulling for the team above all else.

Ron was a special guy. He left an amazing legacy for his kids to build on.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

What to do if my daughter is struggling in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

Volleyball is the most popular girls sport in America.

It’s also one of the most challenging and competitive, in large part because of its phenomenal growth.

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For a long list of possible reasons, your daughter could be finding this club season to be difficult for her. Perhaps she’s new to club volleyball, or competitive volleyball. Maybe she’s struggling to learn a new position on the court. She might be learning how to compete at the club volleyball level. She could be fighting to earn playing time on a deep or talented roster or just feeling lost in the shuffle. She might be an introvert on a team of mostly extroverts, or an extrovert on a team of introverts.

Perhaps she is overwhelmed with too many activities in her life or a tougher-than-usual academic schedule or is having a hard time making friends on her team. Maybe she feels her coaches are pulling her too far outside her comfort zone as a player, or not enough. Or she thinks she’s on a team that’s not winning as much as she’d like, or only seems to care about winning, or doesn’t care enough about it.

She might even be struggling to connect with her team’s coach. Perhaps her coach is much different than her, or too much like her, or has a teaching style, temperament or level of expectations that she’s not used to, or is too used to.

The possibilities are seemingly endless … kind of like life in general, if we were honest.

The question remains what to do about it. Here are four pieces of advice to consider. Some will seem painfully obvious to some but not others, but sometimes the simplest answers aren’t always considered.

1. Talk on a deep level with your daughter

If something seems significantly wrong with her, this will likely require a conversation on a deeper level and at a time and location where you know your daughter is more likely to open up. It may even require a series of conversations, heavy on listening and light on solutions from Dad or Mom, to get to the root of the issue. She might not even know what the root cause is. It may take some probing and some nuggets of wisdom from an outside source.

2. Examine the situation objectively together with your daughter

One of my daughters’ former high school teammates had a trying season on her club team last year. The good news was she made the top national team at one of the area’s largest clubs. The bad news was she rarely played in tournaments. She sometimes stood on the sidelines not playing a single point for eight or nine consecutive matches. Ironically, her team finished near the bottom of the Great Lakes Power League 18U standings.

Rather than quit, at some point during the season they talked as a family, studied the situation their daughter found herself in, and concluded together that 1) she had chosen to try out for a larger club’s national team, 2) she had elected to accept their offer to join that team knowing the risks involved with being on a national team and 3) she would stick it out and make the best of the situation for her benefit as an athlete and as a young adult.

That’s just one specific scenario. There are dozens of different situations going on at clubs and school programs all over the country, and not just confined to athletics. But, no matter the circumstance, discussing it as a family, coming to conclusions as a unit and making decisions together can be very helpful to your daughter and to the family as a whole, and even beneficial to her team.

It also can aid in avoiding the temptation to make a rash decision based on emotion, which we’ve probably all done and regretted at some point in our lives.

3. If needed, talk to your daughter’s coach

If steps 1 and 2 above don’t resolve an issue and you realize the circumstance is something that her coach needs to be involved in or aware of, by all means reach out to them. Our coaches are hired to be helpful, and they care about their athletes as players and as people.

A few days ago I reminded our coaching staff to be the kinds of coaches that don’t end up being a player’s last volleyball coach. What that means is coach your athletes in a way that helps them grow in their love for the game, their skills in the game and their understanding of the game.

Three caveats here:

  • If your daughter is ready age-wise and maturity-wise, the best first step may be for her to talk to her coach at practice without a parent in tow. This is especially true for high school athletes.

  • Contact or talk to the coach at least 24 hours after a tournament or practice. Following this 24-hour rule will enable the coach to decompress and re-fill their mental and emotional reserves after what could have been a tough day of matches or a draining practice. Having coached 1,500 games and likely another 10,000 practices, camps and clinics since 1998, I’ve occasionally been contacted an hour or two after a match or training session and simply wasn’t ready to be broadsided by accusations of doing or not doing X, Y or Z to or for one of my players. Conversations held too close after a tournament or practice rarely go well.

  • Assume the best of your daughter’s coach. I know each of this year’s coaches reasonably well. They care about their players. They aren’t in coaching for the money (there’s a reason most of us drive “gas-efficient” used vehicles). They are sincerely trying to do the right thing nearly all the time. Yes, coaches make mistakes. But we all do. If you need to discuss something with your girl’s coach, go in with the perspective that the coach is an ally, not an enemy.

This is especially difficult when the conversation or email exchange comes late at night after a full day of work and practice or a long tournament day. The coach won’t be prepared to thoughtfully respond when the problem is laid at their feet in this situation.

4. Sometimes time and patience is the best option

My younger daughter’s freshman year of high school she made West Chicago High School’s freshman B team. As a coach who knew her game well, I thought the coaches should have assigned her to the A team, but coaches coach and parents parent, and in my role as a parent it was my responsibility to be a supportive dad. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it :).

Making matters worse, Nicki’s coach was a basketball coach who had never coached volleyball before, and she decided to play Nicki as a left-handed middle hitter instead of at her natural position of setter seemingly because Nicki was fairly tall. It was a trying season for Nicki and for my wife and especially me as I watched some interesting matches unfold that season.

As much as I wanted to jump into the fray and improve Nicki’s situation, I “let go and let God” so to speak, praying often about it and staying out of it. It wasn’t a lot of fun for Nicki, but she survived, made a 15U club team, started at setter all club season, then made the sophomore team at West Chicago and started at setter that next fall. A season of playing out of position on a freshman B team didn’t kill her passion for the sport or her future prospects. It was a good life lesson and growth opportunity for her, and for me.

Sometimes circumstances warrant specific action. In other instances, time and patience is the right call to make. If a veteran coach can exhibit patience, there’s hope for us all to do the same :).

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

3 surprisingly simple lessons to learn from the University of Nebraska volleyball powerhouse

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by Jeff Smith

The University of Nebraska women's volleyball team is the New England Patriots of NCAA volleyball right now. The Cornhuskers have reached the Division I Final Four the last four years and a total of 12 times in the last 24 years while winning four national titles.

My daughters and I got to see Nebraska up close and personal in 2017. We sat court side to watch the Huskers defeat Northwestern in straight sets in Evanston.

If I sound obsessed with Nebraska volleyball, it's because I'm fascinated with discovering the secret behind this incredible college program's success. To be the best possible players, teams and coaches, we must learn from the best. And Nebraska offers plenty of lessons to learn from. I’m going to focus on three surprisingly simple keys behind their dominance of women’s college volleyball, all of which are things that the athletes and coaches of Serve City can incorporate in our own development.

1. Simple is repeatable

Nebraska's head coach, John Cook, is an instructor and ardent supporter for Gold Medal Squared, a volleyball teaching organization famous for its "simple is repeatable" training philosophy. In a day and age when volleyball instruction can be far too complex for athletes to learn, GMS is renowned for its basic teaching approach.

Cook has applied the GMS instructional style to the training of his players at Nebraska. Watching his team play while situated less than 20 feet from the court, I was impressed by the solid but simple fundamentals used by his starters.

For example, Cook’s outside hitters relied primarily on a three-step approach for jump hitting at a time when most college coaches emphasize a four-step approach. It clearly didn’t hinder his hitters. Year in and year out, Nebraska boasts one of the strongest hitting attacks in the country.

2. All-around skills

Watching Northwestern and Nebraska warm up before their match, it quickly became apparent that the two teams had much different training philosophies. Northwestern’s players spent most of their warm-up time working on skills directly related to their positions; middle hitters hit and ran through blocking patterns, setters set and did a bit of digging, liberos and defensive specialists passed and dug balls, and outside hitters hit and passed.

Nebraska’s warm-ups were refreshingly different. All of the Huskers’ players spent about 15 minutes working on passing, setting, hitting and digging with a partner, then they each dug up hits from a coach for another 15 minutes, including the middle hitters and right-side hitters.

You could see the benefits of this approach in the match. At least three times one of Nebraska’s front-row hitters stepped up and set a ball out of system to another hitter. All three sets were clean, technically sound and didn’t get whistled by the official for a double contact violation. This emphasis on all-around skills has also enabled the Huskers to field one of the best passing teams in the nation year after year.

As a director and coach, I love Nebraska’s philosophy of training volleyball players, not just positions.

3. Sand volleyball training

A few years ago, Coach Cook felt that the program had hit a rut. They were still a winning program, but he thought they weren’t reaching their true potential as a team.

That’s when he made a key change in how the Huskers trained in the off-season. He began having his players spend much of their spring training season playing volleyball in the sand. He believed beach volleyball training would benefit his athletes in a few ways:

Improving their all-around skills — sand volleyball requires the ability to pass, serve, set, hit and defend/dig

Developing their quickness and explosiveness — playing in the sand strengthens the ankles, calves and thighs through excellent resistance training

Sharpening their volleyball IQ — sand volleyball improves players’ understanding of the game and their fast decision-making ability in a pinch

Giving the athletes a fresh and fun perspective on volleyball — playing sand volleyball is almost like playing a whole different sport, which puts a fresh spin on spring volleyball training

To be the best you can be, it’s great to learn from the best. And you won’t learn from anyone better in our sport than the University of Nebraska.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Are coaches human, too?

by Jeff Smith

We were playing arguably the best set of our season, and the scoreboard reflected as much. We led 24-16 and were serving for set point against the top team in our division.

It was all downhill from there.

A service error gave the Chicago Shamrocks the serve trailing 24-17. Nine points, two timeouts to ice the server and eight or nine futile exclamations of "We've got this!" later, the Shamrocks celebrated a 26-24 victory. Even after 20-plus years and over 1,400 games of coaching, dramatic losses like that can't help but shake you up a bit. It's like being offered a sporty new Corvette and then, at the last second, being handed the keys to a 2004 Ford Focus.

But, as I quickly wrote in the service order for the second set, I decided to project the appearance of calm, poise and confidence to the team before the second set began. I told the players not to give the first set a second thought because we had a blank new slate to look forward to in the next set. Play our game and we'll be fine.

Eight points later we trailed 8-0. So much for letting go of the first set.

Anyone who's coached more than two or three seasons can share a similar story from a match. The point I'm making is that coaching isn't for the faint of heart. I've coached 18U, 16U, 15U, 14U on down to 12U teams that have been on both sides of this story line as well as nearly any other possible story line you can think of.

Same with practices. Put a group of 10-14 players together with different personalities, attitudes, temperaments, upbringings, values, ideas, motivations, experience and skill levels, mindsets and even differing events and outcomes to their day prior to arriving in the gym. Unless your team has an amazing practice culture, a lot of unexpected things can take place.

One of the toughest challenges of coaching is trying to figure out how to teach, train, motivate, connect with and reach such a diverse group of players who also each have their own favored learning style. What works for these four players may not work at all for these other four players and only moderately well with those three players. These aren't cookie cutter athletes, and of course there's no such thing as cookie cutter coaches, either.

We're all human.

Ultimately, that's the point. Coaches are human. We make good decisions, and we make mistakes. We celebrate like crazy when our teams excel and sometimes want to cry or cry out when our teams struggle. Sometimes we offer amazing words of wisdom and inspiration to our athletes. Other times all we can muster up in a team huddle is akin to "What was THAT?"

Coaching is a lot like parenting. I've never met a perfect parent or perfect child. If I kept track of every parenting mistake I've made in the last 19 years, I'd be filling up my fourth notebook by now.

Same with coaching. It's a highly pressurized profession. Making matters worse, part of your job is done in public at tournaments and power leagues for all to see you in your glory, or lack thereof. Dozens of sets of eyes are on you scrutinizing your every move and gesture.

A couple of years ago, a team I was coaching was playing in the finals of a tournament at Top Flight. It was the fifth match of the day, and some of the players were tired. Near the end of the match, with the outcome and championship on the line, a softly passed free ball hit the floor between two of our players. The girls just looked at each other. Neither said a word or made a play on the ball.

I was so stunned that I dropped my clipboard. The sound of it clanging on the ground was like an EF Hutton commercial. Everyone's eyes turned to me. All I could do was smile and pick up the clipboard off the floor.

(Afterwards a mom came up to me and said, "That was nothing. If I were in your shoes I would've broken the clipboard over my knee." That made me feel better.)

Last season I was in SCV director mode watching two of our teams compete in a tournament at Fusion. One of our teams frittered away a 23-18 lead, eventually losing 27-25, minutes after dropping a similar lead in the first set. Afterwards their coach came up to me and let off some steam about the team's inability to close out sets this season. I've been in those same shoes, so I could empathize with her.

It's hard. You try X, Y, Z and any other solutions you can think of, and sometimes nothing changes. There's no magic formula to resolve that issue in an instant. At times you just have to guide and encourage your team along the way and let them learn how to deal with late-game situations through good and bad experience.

As a parent, coach and volleyball director, I'd suggest to parents to do three things for your team's coach before the season concludes:

  1. Encourage the coach in some way. An email, kind words before or after a tournament or practice, a surprise plate of cookies, a thank-you note, whatever you feel comfortable doing.

  2. Say something positive about your coach to or in front of your son or daughter. This lets them know you support their coach. That goes a long way with your kids' attitude toward the coach.

  3. Let your child's coach coach. Don't approach them with correction or criticism during or after a tournament. Wait at least 24 hours to contact them. Give them their space. I'm grateful as a parent that other people didn't come up to me when my kids were younger and misbehaving and give me advice on how to better parent them.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

6 things that make coaches smile

by Jeff Smith

It was an unseasonably cold Sunday morning in April when members of my first 18U team slowly sauntered into the gym at McHenry County College about 45 minutes before the squad’s first match of the MCC tournament.

None of the girls was smiling as they walked inside, partly because of the gloomy weather outside, partly due to the time of day — 7:15 a.m. is anathema at that age — and partly because four of our 10 players were unavailable to play, including both of our outside hitters, who were our two leaders in kills and two of our best passers.

As a first-year 18U coach who was used to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds, I had no pearls of wisdom for how to inspire this sleepy group. In fact, I could understand why they weren’t looking forward to playing since we only had six players dressed for the tournament.

If I were honest with them, I had no interest in being there, either.

Our meager roster consisted of one 5-foot-2-inch setter, two middle hitters who hadn’t received a serve in the back row all season, one libero who had to move to outside hitter to replace one of our starting outsides, a right-side hitter who had to move to outside hitter to sub for our other missing outside hitter and a 5-foot-1 defensive specialist who had to move to right-side hitter and play in the front row for the first time all season.

This lineup had the looks of a team that would meekly lose three matches and head home early.

But, to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, this motley crew came together, fought hard, dug deep and performed beyond our wildest expectations. The team won its first three matches to take first place in its pool, then swept the semifinals and finals to secure an unlikely championship. Everybody stepped up and played the best volleyball of their season, and the patchwork lineup left the gym wearing smiles that seemed permanently etched on the girls’ faces for our next three practices.

Every time I think of that shocking accomplishment I can’t help but smile myself even though it occurred five years ago. It’s hard not to be filled with pride when a team achieves the seemingly impossible. What those girls pulled off was nothing short of incredible.

As coaches, we can seem too tough, too strict, too serious, too critical and too intense as we strive to create an atmosphere in practices and matches that enables our athletes to learn, grow, refine and thrive. But, beneath that exterior lies a heart that can melt when our players do the amazing — or even take a big step forward as a team or individually.

Here are six things that make coaches smile, even when we wait to smile on the drive home from a practice or tournament.

6. Great achievements together

This is especially true of team accomplishments. Nothing in team sports is more rewarding than achieving something together, whether it’s a goal, a championship, a victory or a milestone. It’s where the power of numbers comes in. A team achievement reminds us that alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.

5. A small step forward

In middle school I coached my two daughters. The summer before one of their middle school seasons they worked for a couple of hours a week trying to master an overhand serve. We would walk over to the local high school so they could practice and practice and practice this skill, pounding one serve after another off the exterior brick wall in the school parking lot. I critiqued their technique over and over, and they kept at it repeatedly but didn’t see any significant progress in June or July. It didn’t look like they’d ever develop this skill.

Then, in mid-August, all those countless hours of grinding started to click, and about a week before the season began they each had their overhand serves down pat. They each served overhand all season and were two of the team’s best standing float servers. Watching them serve overhand in their first match of the season was pure joy for me and for them. The more you invest in something the more you get out of it.

4. Game day

There’s something magical about the day of a match or tournament for coaches. We pour so much time, planning, energy, practice and brain power into our teams that tournaments feel a lot like opening night of a school musical. The wait is finally over. After all the dress rehearsals (practices) we as a team get to perform for a live audience. It’s why we practice for hours a week, to “take the stage” and give a performance, hoping to nail every “line” we’ve practiced and shine on the court.

3. Seeing our team become a family

One year I was coaching a 15s team that struggled to put matches away. We would build a sizable lead, then slowly squander it. It was as if the girls didn’t trust each other in tight situations. They would grow quiet and stop encouraging one another.

It was a habit that had to stop.

In a late-season tournament, we built another large lead and then as usual started to make one inexplicable error after another, an all-too-familiar script.

Finally I called timeout, purposely didn’t speak for a few seconds, then told the girls this was a test of our character as a team and as individuals. Would we revert to our old habits again and play like six individuals, or would we band together and fight the rest of the match as a supportive and united team that believes in each other?

I honestly wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my challenge.

To my utter relief, they supported each other like never before, encouraging each other, picking up their energy, refusing to give up, digging deep and battling their way to a close and thrilling victory.

It was a defining moment for us.

Afterwards, they didn’t want to leave the facility. It was such a rewarding and bonding experience to go through together that they wanted to savor the moment and just hang out as a team. They now saw each other in a new light as true teammates and not just people they played a game with.

Great teams become like a family to one another. You go through so much adversity and clear so many hurdles together that it can’t help but bring you closer to your teammates and coach.

It’s such a satisfying feeling knowing you’re part of a team where everyone has your back and gives you their full support through good times and bad, through your great plays and mistakes.

2. Helping a player overcome one of life’s challenges

As a coach you don’t realize how much you care about your players until something life-threatening happens to one of them. Three years ago I was coaching a 14U team for Serve City when I got a call from one of the girls’ moms telling me that one of the players was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain the night before a tournament. She went into surgery when the doctors discovered her appendix had ruptured. They caught the appendicitis just in time; if they had to wait a couple of more hours, it would have burst and put her life at serious risk.

Lainey had a slow road to recovery. A few weeks after the surgery the doctors allowed her to attend one of our tournaments in street clothes. It was a tournament in Rockford and we had only six players in uniform due to illness, vacations and Lainey’s surgery. But Lainey dutifully cheered on the team from the sidelines and took stats as well. Her mere presence back with our squad inspired her teammates, who won six straight matches on a long, grueling but ultimately satisfying day to secure the championship.

Afterwards, as the girls’ parents began snapping photos of the kids with their first-place medals, the players made sure that Lainey was included in every picture. In fact, they positioned her in the middle of each team photo. She didn’t play a single point that day, but the whole experience was perhaps more important to Lainey than it was to anyone else.

1. When an unsung hero emerges

Most coaches don’t play favorites. But even the most die-hard coach will admit that it is especially gratifying to win a game on the heels of an unlikely player’s contributions.

In the state private school tournament a few years ago, our eighth-grade team led 24-23 in the third set of the third-place match when the team’s smallest player was due up to serve. Jess was 4 feet 8 and probably weighed 60 pounds. She looked like a fifth-grader on the court size-wise, and she had to use every ounce of her tiny frame to pound her standing float serve over the net.

But there was no one I wanted serving match point at Lincoln Land Community College that day than her. Jess was probably our most mentally tough player, and she deserved this moment for all the hard work she had poured into developing her serve and her back-row skills. At her diminutive size, Jess never got to experience the sensation of a front-row kill or block that brought the crowd to its feet. She was a back-row player who did the grunt work of passing and digging balls to our setters so they could set up our hitters for the more glamorous roles on the team.

So, when she delivered an ace to clinch the match, everyone was thrilled for her. Seeing Jess get to enjoy the spotlight for her accomplishment made the victory that much more rewarding.

That’s one of the aspects of volleyball that I relish the most, seeing an underdog soak up the limelight. It’s why many coaches hold a special place in their hearts for the underdogs on their teams — whether it’s a small DS or libero or a front-row player who has finally discovered a sport where she can excel and find a home.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

6 things that make every coach smile

by Jeff Smith

It was an unseasonably cold Sunday morning in April when members of my first 18U team slowly sauntered into the gym at McHenry County College about 45 minutes before the squad’s first match of the MCC tournament.

julia conard serve.jpg

None of the girls was smiling as they walked inside, partly because of the gloomy weather outside, partly due to the time of day — 7:15 a.m. is anathema at that age — and partly because four of our 10 players were unavailable to play, including both of our outside hitters, who were our two leaders in kills and two of our best passers.

As a first-year 18U coach who was used to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds, I had no pearls of wisdom for how to inspire this sleepy group. In fact, I could understand why they weren’t looking forward to playing since we only had six players dressed for the tournament.

If I were honest with them, I had no interest in being there, either.

Our meager roster consisted of one 5-foot-2-inch setter, two middle hitters who hadn’t received a serve in the back row all season, one libero who had to move to outside hitter to replace one of our starting outsides, a right-side hitter who had to move to outside hitter to sub for our other missing outside hitter and a 5-foot-1 defensive specialist who had to move to right-side hitter and play in the front row for the first time all season.

This lineup had the looks of a team that would meekly lose three matches and head home early.

But, to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, this motley crew came together, fought hard, dug deep and performed beyond our wildest expectations. The team won its first three matches to take first place in its pool, then swept the semifinals and finals to secure an unlikely championship. Everybody stepped up and played the best volleyball of their season, and the patchwork lineup left the gym wearing smiles that seemed permanently etched on the girls’ faces for our next three practices.

Every time I think of that shocking accomplishment I can’t help but smile myself even though it occurred five years ago. It’s hard not to be filled with pride when a team achieves the seemingly impossible. What those girls pulled off was nothing short of incredible.

As coaches, we can seem too tough, too strict, too serious, too critical and too intense as we strive to create an atmosphere in practices and matches that enables our athletes to learn, grow, refine and thrive. But, beneath that exterior lies a heart that can melt when our players do the amazing — or even take a big step forward as a team or individually.

Here are six things that make coaches smile, even when we wait to smile on the drive home from a practice or tournament.

6. Great achievements together

This is especially true of team accomplishments. Nothing in team sports is more rewarding than achieving something together, whether it’s a goal, a championship, a victory or a milestone. It’s where the power of numbers comes in. A team achievement reminds us that alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.

5. A small step forward

In middle school I coached my two daughters. The summer before one of their middle school seasons they worked for a couple of hours a week trying to master an overhand serve. We would walk over to the local high school so they could practice and practice and practice this skill, pounding one serve after another off the exterior brick wall in the school parking lot. I critiqued their technique over and over, and they kept at it repeatedly but didn’t see any significant progress in June or July. It didn’t look like they’d ever develop this skill.

Then, in mid-August, all those countless hours of grinding started to click, and about a week before the season began they each had their overhand serves down pat. They each served overhand all season and were two of the team’s best standing float servers. Watching them serve overhand in their first match of the season was pure joy for me and for them. The more you invest in something the more you get out of it.

4. Game day

There’s something magical about the day of a match or tournament for coaches. We pour so much time, planning, energy, practice and brain power into our teams that tournaments feel a lot like opening night of a school musical. The wait is finally over. After all the dress rehearsals (practices) we as a team get to perform for a live audience. It’s why we practice for hours a week, to “take the stage” and give a performance, hoping to nail every “line” we’ve practiced and shine on the court.

3. Seeing our team become a family

One year I was coaching a 15s team that struggled to put matches away. We would build a sizable lead, then slowly squander it. It was as if the girls didn’t trust each other in tight situations. They would grow quiet and stop encouraging one another.

It was a habit that had to stop.

In a late-season tournament, we built another large lead and then as usual started to make one inexplicable error after another, an all-too-familiar script.

Finally I called timeout, purposely didn’t speak for a few seconds, then told the girls this was a test of our character as a team and as individuals. Would we revert to our old habits again and play like six individuals, or would we band together and fight the rest of the match as a supportive and united team that believes in each other?

I honestly wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my challenge.

To my utter relief, they supported each other like never before, encouraging each other, picking up their energy, refusing to give up, digging deep and battling their way to a close and thrilling victory.

It was a defining moment for us.

Afterwards, they didn’t want to leave the facility. It was such a rewarding and bonding experience to go through together that they wanted to savor the moment and just hang out as a team. They now saw each other in a new light as true teammates and not just people they played a game with.

Great teams become like a family to one another. You go through so much adversity and clear so many hurdles together that it can’t help but bring you closer to your teammates and coach.

It’s such a satisfying feeling knowing you’re part of a team where everyone has your back and gives you their full support through good times and bad, through your great plays and mistakes.

2. Helping a player overcome one of life’s challenges

As a coach you don’t realize how much you care about your players until something life-threatening happens to one of them. Three years ago I was coaching a 14U team for Serve City when I got a call from one of the girls’ moms telling me that one of the players was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain the night before a tournament. She went into surgery when the doctors discovered her appendix had ruptured. They caught the appendicitis just in time; if they had to wait a couple of more hours, it would have burst and put her life at serious risk.

Lainey had a slow road to recovery. A few weeks after the surgery the doctors allowed her to attend one of our tournaments in street clothes. It was a tournament in Rockford and we had only six players in uniform due to illness, vacations and Lainey’s surgery. But Lainey dutifully cheered on the team from the sidelines and took stats as well. Her mere presence back with our squad inspired her teammates, who won six straight matches on a long, grueling but ultimately satisfying day to secure the championship.

Afterwards, as the girls’ parents began snapping photos of the kids with their first-place medals, the players made sure that Lainey was included in every picture. In fact, they positioned her in the middle of each team photo. She didn’t play a single point that day, but the whole experience was perhaps more important to Lainey than it was to anyone else.

1. When an unsung hero emerges

Most coaches don’t play favorites. But even the most die-hard coach will admit that it is especially gratifying to win a game on the heels of an unlikely player’s contributions.

In the state private school tournament a few years ago, our eighth-grade team led 24-23 in the third set of the third-place match when the team’s smallest player was due up to serve. Jess was 4 feet 8 and probably weighed 60 pounds. She looked like a fifth-grader on the court size-wise, and she had to use every ounce of her tiny frame to pound her standing float serve over the net.

But there was no one I wanted serving match point at Lincoln Land Community College that day than her. Jess was probably our most mentally tough player, and she deserved this moment for all the hard work she had poured into developing her serve and her back-row skills. At her diminutive size, Jess never got to experience the sensation of a front-row kill or block that brought the crowd to its feet. She was a back-row player who did the grunt work of passing and digging balls to our setters so they could set up our hitters for the more glamorous roles on the team.

So, when she delivered an ace to clinch the match, everyone was thrilled for her. Seeing Jess get to enjoy the spotlight for her accomplishment made the victory that much more rewarding.

That’s one of the aspects of volleyball that I relish the most, seeing an underdog soak up the limelight. It’s why many coaches hold a special place in their hearts for the underdogs on their teams — whether it’s a small DS or libero or a front-row player who has finally discovered a sport where she can excel and find a home.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Want to play volleyball collegiately? Seven lessons from a new college scholarship earner

by Jeff Smith

It’s a sobering truth: The latest stats show that just 5.8 percent of four-year high school players earn a spot on a college team’s roster.

With fewer than six out of every 100 high school volleyball players landing spots in the college ranks, it takes more than just wishful thinking to turn this dream into reality.

But, if you truly want it, you can make it happen.

Jessica varsity passing.jpg

Take Jessica Smith, for example. She is only 5 feet 2 and played club volleyball for two smaller clubs instead of a large, high-profile club. Yet Jessica played her freshman season for Harper College, one of the top community college programs in the country, and recently accepted a partial volleyball scholarship to play at Judson University in Elgin.

As her father and her middle school coach and high school sand volleyball coach, I’ve admired Jessica’s volleyball journey from a sub-four-foot-tall fifth-grader at a small Christian school to a college scholarship winner. I think several lessons from her story can help many of your daughters if they show interest in playing after high school.

1. Out-work everyone

The competition for spots on college rosters is intense, and that’s also true of high school varsity rosters, JV rosters, freshman A team rosters and even eighth-grade rosters. To stand out from the others, Jessica also had to go the extra mile to overcome her small stature. She was always the shortest player on her team.

Work ethic ended up being one of Jessica’s defining characteristics. She developed great work habits and became known for her commitment, consistent effort and intensity.

This work ethic made a stark impression on each of her school and club coaches, not only in practices and matches but from seeing the impact of her extra dedication spent playing sand volleyball for five summers. And it enabled her to learn a range of key skills and grow and sharpen her skills and understanding of the game to an all-conference level by her senior year, when she was the starting varsity libero.

Jessica’s diminutive size was an obstacle for her. She had to work harder than most of her teammates over the years to compensate for this disadvantage. But her persistence, perseverance and passionate practice allowed her to overcome this hurdle and join the prestigious college volleyball world.

2. An appetite to learn

One of the main characteristics that college coaches — and coaches at the club, high school and middle school levels — look for is a teachable attitude. Volleyball is a deep and complex sport. Even at the highest levels, there is always something new to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you still have to learn.

An appetite to continually learn is essential to developing into a college-worthy volleyball player. Learn as much as you can from coaches at each practice. Participate in camps, clinics and classes outside of club and school. The day you think you know it all is the day that your game will start to stagnate or even back-slide and other players your age who keep learning, grinding and striving will eventually pass you by.

Jessica has displayed this same teachable attitude and hunger to learn. I still remember how she taught herself a jump float serve on her own in order to give her another advantage on the court. I recall how she got herself up early in the morning twice a week during the summer to walk over to the high school and participate in optional open gym sessions, sometimes on days when she had sand volleyball practice in 90-degree heat later that day.

Jessica knew that no player is ever a finished product. She was ready to learn and grind away.

3. Student first, athlete second

College coaches want to sign student-athletes who excel academically. Any college coach will tell you that academics is a critical quality they search for when recruiting. One of the last things a collegiate coach wants to worry about is whether their players will remain academically eligible to play from week to week.

Jessica has made her schoolwork a high priority throughout her school years. Her honor roll achievements and awards in the classroom grabbed the attention of Harper College’s coach during the recruiting process and similarly caught the eye of Judson’s coach.

This week Jessica not only received a partial volleyball scholarship from Judson but also earned a few lucrative academic scholarships that together enabled her to accept an offer to attend an expensive private school that she couldn’t otherwise afford.

4. Play all-out all the time — you never know who may be watching

During Jessica’s senior year, her Serve City 18 Blue team was playing in a tournament at Sky High Volleyball Club. Their first match was against an 18U national team that featured five players who had accepted scholarship offers to Division I college programs, including two 6-foot-3 middle hitters and a pair of 6-3 outside hitters. Our 18 Blue squad fought valiantly but lost 25-13, 25-11 to one of the top club teams in the Chicago area.

Always the competitor who hates losing, Jessica was frustrated afterwards despite playing a great match at libero, digging numerous attacks from Club Momentum’s array of tall and powerful hitters. Her performance caught the eye of a coach for one of the other teams in the tournament. This was no ordinary coach, either. He also was head coach of Harper College’s volleyball program.

Between matches, Coach Vilsoet asked about Jessica’s college plans and expressed interest in recruiting her to Harper. Several weeks later, he offered Jessica a spot on the team, and she accepted, playing this past fall as a freshman DS/libero.

Similar experiences obviously don’t take place at every 18U club tournament. But Jessica’s story reminds us of the value in always bringing our best attitude, focus and effort to the court for each match. You never know who might be watching.

5. Promote yourself to college coaches

Most four-year college programs have limited recruiting budgets. Unless they are an elite Division I program like Stanford or Illinois, they don't have the resources to unearth hidden gems and diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail.

If success in real estate is about location, location, location, success for athletes in the recruiting game is largely grounded in promotion, promotion, promotion. Video your matches and upload them to YouTube or other websites to provide easy access for college coaches. Contact coaches at the colleges you're interested in. Take initiative if you'd like to grab a prospective college's attention.

Be persistent. Regularly email and contact coaches where you'd like to play. Make sure to always put a link to your YouTube performance videos in the emails you send to coaches. We sent videos of Jessica playing for Harper College, Serve City and West Chicago High School to Judson’s coach. The footage demonstrated Jessica’s skills, athletic ability and savvy as a libero in serve receive, on defense and with her serving, and it helped prompt Judson’s coach to recruit her.

6. Play in the sand

One decision that ended up giving Jessica a competitive edge over other back-row players was her involvement in sand volleyball. From eighth grade through the summer before her senior year, she and her sister, Nicki, played in summer sand programs and competed in sand tournaments.

Jessica’s participation benefited her game in several ways. It improved her volleyball IQ, sharpened her quickness to the ball and overall athleticism, expanded her all-around game and strengthened her serve receive, defensive and setting skills, all of which are important as a libero.

A nice side benefit of sand volleyball was that it didn’t require a huge time commitment. Jessica and Nicki typically practiced twice a week for three total hours a week over eight weeks and competed in 3-4 Saturday tournaments during the summer months when their schedules were usually more open.

7. Make yourself more athletic

In middle school Jessica took part in basketball and track and field at her school in addition to volleyball. Basketball further developed her quickness, leg strength, footwork, spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination, quick on-the-spot thinking and a host of other athletic skills. Track improved her speed, explosiveness, conditioning, discipline and competitive instincts.

Both sports grew Jessica’s focus, flexibility, work habits, determination, motivation and competitiveness under stress. Jessica became a better volleyball player through these other sports even if she didn’t know it at the time.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.

5 reasons why middle school students should play multiple sports

by Jeff Smith

It will sound odd hearing a club volleyball director promote the benefits of multi-sport participation over specialization. Shouldn’t directors demand playing nothing but volleyball 12 months a year?

But I firmly believe that every middle-school student should play more than one sport before they reach high school. Once they hit ninth grade, specialization makes sense but not for the middle-school years.

It’s one reason why Serve City’s practice attendance policy excuses absences caused by a conflicting sporting event. We especially encourage middle-school athletes to play other sports outside of the club volleyball season, such as during the summer when kids have the most free time.

My family practiced this philosophy. My older daughter played volleyball, basketball and track in middle school. My younger daughter participated in volleyball and basketball.

Multi-sport participation didn’t hurt either of them. Both played volleyball collegiately this season as freshmen. Playing volleyball in club, school and sand over the years helped their games, but playing two or three sports in middle school also played a key role in their development in the long run.

Playing club volleyball for four to six months while sprinkling in an eight- or nine-week school or park district sports season (or an individual sport like taekwondo, which I thoroughly enjoyed) before or after club, or even during club season if the schedules complement each other, also helps kids learn lifelong skills like time management, work ethic and self-discipline.

Here are five reasons why participating in multiple sports at the fifth- to eighth-grade level is good for your daughter.

1. Insurance against burnout

Playing multiple sports decreases the likelihood of emotional burnout. Playing only one sport during the middle-school years creates the risk of getting tired of that sport, particularly when you add in the pressures of heightened expectations, costs and travel associated with specialization. Variety is the spice of life that keeps sports fresh, fun and interesting for middle-school students.

I also consider sand volleyball a different sport from indoor volleyball. The rules, format, playing surface, weather conditions and many of the skills are significantly different from each other. Coaching sand volleyball the last five years, I’ve seen sand volleyball instill a deeper love for indoor volleyball and competition in general in numerous sand athletes.

2. Protection against injuries from overuse

The biggest enemy of younger athletes’ bodies is overuse. Too many repetitions of the same movements combined with inadequate recovery time and rest — typically seen in year-round travel sports like baseball with pitchers’ arm troubles, basketball with knee, ankle and foot injuries and gymnasts with leg, feet and shoulder issues — produces overuse injuries.

Various studies report that participating in multiple sports improves not only skill development but motor and muscle development as well as strength, agility, speed and balance, all of which contribute to a healthier, more resilient body.

3. Exposure to a variety of coaching and training styles

It’s understandable when a parent or child wants a certain coach to train their daughter year after year if their daughter likes the coach’s teaching style, temperament or personality. The problem is having the same coach for years on end doesn’t help the athlete for the long term.

Being exposed to different coaches from season to season or year to year will stretch and grow your daughter athletically, emotionally and in other ways. A range of different coaches in different sports will introduce her to different styles of communication, different training approaches, different coaching styles and different athletic philosophies and emphases.

Having the same coach, and in only one sport, limits what an athlete can learn, even in terms of the coaching approach to winning, competing and training to compete and win.

Participating in multiple sports also gives kids a chance to learn the benefits of different training styles. Soccer teams train differently than volleyball teams, which train different than gymnasts, who train differently than basketball players and cross country runners. Multi-sport participation unlocks the door to learning different ways to condition, strengthen and enhance our athletic bodies.

And each sport’s training style trains different muscle groups, which will increase your daughter’s athleticism, and that benefits her performance in every sport she plays.

4. All-around athletic development

At a Wheaton College volleyball practice last fall, as the players lumbered slowly on the court during a running warm-up drill, our head coach turned to me and jokingly whispered, “They run like volleyball players, don’t they?”

What she was referring to is the truth that athletes who only play volleyball tend to be slow runners. Volleyball is an anaerobic sport that requires quickness to the ball on the court in short bursts (fast-twitch muscles, for instance) but not sprinter’s speed over longer distances.

But that’s not to say volleyball players don’t benefit from specific athletic skills that can be acquired by training in other sports. For example:

  • Basketball can improve a volleyball player’s quickness, footwork, quick leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.

  • Track can help an athlete develop stronger legs for maintaining a low, athletic passing and digging posture.

  • Soccer can improve a volleyball player’s spatial awareness and assertiveness to the ball.

  • Gymnastics can make a volleyball athlete more limber and explosive to the ball.

  • Softball can teach overhand throwing mechanics to help players serve and hit effectively.

And the list goes on.

5. Relationships with a range of kids and sports

As someone who’s coached and played several sports, including basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and baseball, I’ve learned that each sport has a culture and climate of its own. Swimming kids are different as a whole from volleyball kids, who are different from figure skating kids, who are different from track kids, who are different from taekwondo kids, who are different from football and soccer kids.

Each sport has its own dynamics, its own rhythm, its own training style and its own personality. Walk in a gym, pool center or stadium for a practice or competition and within a few minutes you notice this right away.

Middle-school athletes reap the rewards of taking part in various sports. They learn different styles of training, conditioning and competing, and they benefit from building relationships with a range of different kinds of athletes their age. They also gain a variety of teammate experiences, interactions and memories with different kinds of peers while stretching their social circle.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

True growth happens when you practice at the edge of your abilities

by Jeff Smith

At one of our high school tryouts last year, a returning player caught my attention for something she was doing or, more specifically, what she wasn’t doing. She was using a standing float serve instead of the jump float serve she had learned and shaped into a reliable weapon the previous club season.

When asked why she wasn’t serving her jump float, she replied. “My high school coach wouldn’t let me jump serve,” she said. “She thinks a jump serve is too risky.”

Out of deference to her coach, I bit my lip, smiled and moved on. But if you asked what rankles many coaches, more than anything it’s watching players continually play it safe.

Safe mode can take on many forms: using a standing serve when you’re capable of a jump float or jump topspin, hitting a standing spike when the setter sets you up for a jump hit, tipping or push setting instead of swinging at a good front-row set, passing the ball over the net in one contact at the 12U or 13U level instead of delivering a pass to your setter, or sending safe high sets to your hitters when a quick, shoot or back set is warranted.

There is a time and place to play it safe in a match, such as when you receive a poor set, the opponent’s defense is struggling to defend against tips or you’re in a prolonged slump with your jump serve. The problem with ultra-safe mode, or playing and practicing with an overly conservative mentality, is that it stunts your development as a player and hurts your team’s development as well.

True growth only takes place when you're living on the edge of your abilities. Aside from our players’ safety and well-being, the Serve City coaches and I want our athletes to reach for, attain and experience real and significant player development.

That’s because club volleyball should be about learning and growing.

Player development begins when you are willing and eager to learn and grow by stretching yourself outside your comfort zone each practice.

This philosophy is reflected in a nationwide USA Volleyball study that compared the training habits of good players with average to mediocre players. The study revealed that good players spend 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 already proficient.

What does this mean? Players experience the most growth by spending the majority of practices working to turn weaknesses into strengths or mediocre skills into reliable skills.

Serve City has built our training philosophy on this principle.

Our training encourages coaches and athletes to push themselves outside their comfort zone, getting comfortable being uncomfortable. We have created a progressive training system from 12U to 18U that sets high expectations for each Serve City team’s growth track over the course of the season.

For example, our 14U and 15U girls teams worked on setting and hitting gap sets (31s) and quick sets (1s) at their last master training practice. It was challenging, uncomfortable and a bit chaotic, as it requires learning a brand-new skill for setters and hitters and even demands perfect passes from the back-row defenders, thus stretching everyone on the court.

Training with this kind of growth mindset is taking the hard route. Some school coaches in particular teach their players to drive in the slow lane and avoid the fast lane of growth. It never fails to surprise us how few middle school volleyball programs teach their players a 6-2 or 5-1 system or train them in the skills for how to run those systems. Most of these programs stick to a basic system that teaches little and relies on safe play where the team that makes fewer mistakes wins.

It’s too bad, because most young players are capable of so much more than this.

Teach jump serving, or back-row attacking, or back setting, or quick sets to middle hitters and go sets and shoot sets to outside hitters, or other skills, in practice and let your players sharpen those skills in practice. More often than not, the players will pleasantly surprise you as they master new skills, and real growth emerges.

The most substantial growth of skills in setting, hitting, serve receive, digging, blocking and tactics and strategy happens when coaches teach new skills and allow their players to work on those skills and fail, mess up, fall down, get back up and keep at it.

Is your setter proficient at high sets to the outside? Make sure she's spending much practice time learning how to set quicks, huts, back sets, shoots or go sets. Is your 12U or 13U squad eager to pass over the net in one contact instead of to their setter? Create scoring constraints where they can only score points in drills if they use three contacts in a rally.

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.

Eventually, as they see their new skills improving, your athletes will understand the benefits of a growth mindset and make a commitment to playing on the edge of their abilities. They’ll 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 and location.)

For instance, 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 to hit off-speed attacks, or hit with more power by improving your technique of generating torque on the ball.

Will you quickly master a new skill or position? Probably not. As a matter of fact, you will begin making more mistakes in practice than you ever have before.

But mistakes are necessary as you stretch yourself, attempt new things and place yourself on the path to real growth. If you're not making mistakes, you're not growing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Two summers ago, a player in my 18U sand volleyball class had no interest in learning a jump float serve. But I made her and the rest of the girls work on jump serving for five minutes each practice and occasionally during games and drills. For several weeks her jump serve usually flailed into the net or sailed out of bounds.

But by the end of the program, she had honed one of the best jump floats in the class. It was like developing a metal through fire and refinement. The refining is hot and painful, but the end result is a beautiful and meaningful finished product.

Practice on the edge of your abilities. Strive to learn something new or take a skill to a new level each training session. Say goodbye to safe mode and hello to a growth mindset that transforms your skills — and your love for the game.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.

Anatomy of a Great Teammate

by Jeff Smith

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Monday, Jan. 14 started as a typical day. I drove to Simkus Recreation Center in Carol Stream, where six of our girls teams practice together on Monday nights. When I arrived at 4:30, I expected to be the first person to enter the gym.

I was extremely happy to be wrong.

Four people had gotten to the gym before me. On one court was Cayliann, a setter with our 15 Red squad. Cayliann was by herself running through setting footwork patterns, working on her movement to the ball as a setter. After a few minutes, she moved to a wall and began tossing and hitting balls to work on her serving and hitting arm swing and then transitioned to tossing a ball to herself and back-setting to the right front area of the court.

On the other court was Lorelai Francis from our 14 Blue team. She was playing 2 vs. 1 with her father and younger sister.

These athletes didn’t have to be in the gym. Practice didn’t officially start for another half-hour. But they had chosen to get there early and work on their games.

As I set up for practice, I tried not to watch them so that they wouldn’t feel awkward having a coach observing their actions. But one thing I couldn’t avoid was feeling a great sense of admiration for what they were doing. After our 15U/14U practice I made a point to let 15 Red, 14 Blue and 14 Red know about Cayliann and Lorelai’s acts of commitment to their craft. In my two-plus decades of coaching, I’ve always made it a practice to highlight the actions of great teammates so that other athletes could learn from their example and emulate them.

Because Lorelai and Cayliann were truly great teammates that day.

But that wasn’t the last act of a great teammate to take place at Simkus that evening. Our second practice of the night was with our 18U, 16U and 15U Blue teams. Near the end of practice, one court played Neville’s Pepper, a game where a side of 6 players competed against a side of 3 players. The team of 3 players usually loses this game for obvious reasons, being out-numbered 6 to 3. It was held at the end of a challenging practice, too, so the side of 3 had to summon extra energy to battle the side of 6.

But that’s exactly what they did. Jacki Lucas, Gianna Lolli and Parker Glynn had to dig, dive and defend a flurry of hard-hit attacks and tips from the side of 6 and come up with smart, aggressive serves and back-row attacks of their own to be competitive. Not only were they competitive, they were able to win the game 25-19 while giving their six teammates a stiff challenge that will make each of them better at serve receive, defense and offense.

That’s what great teammates do. They act as iron sharpening iron for their teammates by bringing their best effort to each drill, game and competition.

Then, after the 18 Blue/16 Blue/15 Blue practice ended at 9 p.m., another great teammate emerged. Jessi Barnes, a DS/libero/setter for 16 Blue, stayed after practice asking a couple of coaches to show her how to improve her dig and roll technique.

Jessi didn’t have to stay after practice to sharpen her digging fundamentals. It was 9:10 on a school night, and she had several final exams to study for that week. We had just completed a fast-paced, high-energy practice that demanded a lot of the girls’ energy and discipline. Yet here was Jessi in a nearly empty gym asking coaches how to do a better job of diving and rolling on the court, one of the least glamorous skills in volleyball.

She may not have realized it, but Jessi was being a great teammate.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of some great teams over the last 21 years. In the case of every great team, they all had one common trait. They each featured a roster filled with great teammates — athletes who were dedicated, selfless, loyal, hard-working, sacrificial, enthusiastic, competitive, driven, disciplined and joyful about their sport, their team, their teammates and their coaches.

One season for the first week of practice our team captains started arriving for practice 30 minutes early to work on their serving. By the end of the week, every player on the team was arriving 30 minutes prior to practice to hone their skills, and the captains began arriving 45 minutes early to put in extra work.

It was no surprise when that team broke the school record for wins in a season, winning our first 27 matches. When an entire team lives out the qualities and values of great teammates day after day, tremendous growth and terrific results will follow.

The question remains. How can you and I be a great teammate or coach before, during and after our practices and tournaments this season? It can begin with one simple act — arriving 15 minutes early for a practice, encouraging a teammate you know gets down on themselves, giving your absolute best from start to finish at your next practice, staying afterwards to work on a skill, creating a plan for how to improve or learn a new skill, or writing a short thank-you note to a coach or player are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing.

Think it through, choose an action and make it happen. You and your team will be glad you did.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Three new year’s resolutions for Serve City players

by Jeff Smith

After taking three weeks off from volleyball over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Serve City’s teams hit the ground running in January. In fact, after just two practices the week of Jan. 7-11, some of our teams begin power league play as early as Jan. 12-13.

The period of January 7 to April 14 will be an intense and exciting three-month stretch for our athletes. Our teams will play 8-10 tournaments while practicing eight times a month.

What will be the key to our athletes getting the most out of this 12-week roller-coaster of activity? In a way, setting new year’s resolutions would be a huge advantage to them. Just as people establish new year’s resolutions for getting physically fit, accomplishing specific goals and making important lifestyle changes, new year’s resolutions for Serve City players would give them the focus, planning and goal-setting they need to make the most out of the heart of their club season.

Here are three new year’s resolutions that Serve City players could adopt as their own — or craft or tweak to meet their own unique situations — in 2019:

1. In 2019, I will learn or master this new skill: __________.

Personal growth doesn’t usually happen without setting goals and then creating plans to achieve those goals. Players will benefit from this approach. Decide what skill(s) you’d love to learn the rest of the season, tell your coach what you’d like to learn and work together to create a plan of action to reach this goal.

If you’re a 12U or 13U player who isn’t yet overhand serving in matches, developing a consistent standing float serve might be your goal. Or maybe you want to become a jump float server. Or you’re a 15U or 16U setter who wants to begin jump setting when receiving 3-point passes. Or you’re a 16U or 18U middle hitter who would like to master front slides and back slides. Or you’re a 13U or 14U outside hitter who wants to learn and use a 3-step jump hitting approach to start jump hitting. Or you’re a 16U or 18U back-row player who’d love to learn new digging techniques.

Dream big, stretch your vision, set some goals, create plans and get to work.

This same approach could be applied to learning a new position (right-side hitter, setter, libero, middle hitter …) or learning how to play in a new system (our 13U teams are learning how to run a 6-2 back-row setter system, and our 12U teams are learning how to run a 4-2 front-row setter system).

2. In 2019, I will make myself into a better practice player by ________________.

There is no such thing as a perfect volleyball player, or a perfect practice player. Every athlete can improve their practice habits. By improving their practice habits, players will then be developing better skills and growing in their understanding of their team’s tactics and strategies.

If you’re a Serve City player, examine your practice habits and decide what you will do to become a better practice player. If you don’t think you can objectively rate your practice habits, ask your coach for their feedback on your practice habits and how you can specifically grow.

Here are some ideas to get you into self-examination mode:

  • Arrive 10 minutes early for each practice.

  • Be your team’s hardest-working player at each practice.

  • Break the habit of skipping practice when I don’t feel like training.

  • Get more repetitions (touches on the ball) in your team’s drills.

  • Develop into a better listener when coaches are explaining drills and games.

  • Spend less time talking to teammates during drills and games.

  • Regularly give encouragement and affirmation to teammates throughout each practice.

  • Be more intentional about putting your coaches’ teaching into practice. (If Coach says to assume a low and athletic posture during a defensive passing drill, intentionally work on honing that posture as you perform the drill instead of taking the easy way out and assuming a standing posture.)

3. In 2019, I will develop a growth mindset in the area of ___________.

A growth mindset is the belief that, with dedication, hard work and teaching, players can learn just about anything in their sport. Some players struggle with a fixed mindset — the belief that they have specific talents that only allow them to do well in specific areas of the game. For example, a tall middle hitter may believe she can only help her team by blocking and hitting, but she can’t develop the ability to play in the back row, set a teammate when out of system or jump serve.

Is there an area of your game where you have a fixed mindset? Perhaps you’re a small 12U player who doesn’t think she can learn to overhand serve. Or a 13U player who struggles with jump hitting. Or a 14U player who’s never jump served in a match before. Or a 15U setter who hasn’t mastered back sets or quick setting. Or a 16U or 18U hitter who doesn’t know how to hit faster-tempo sets. Or an 18U or 16U blocker who rarely registers a block touch in practices or matches when swing blocking. Or a libero or DS who struggles to deliver out-of-system bump sets.

In 2019, commit yourself to practicing a growth mindset in whatever area you choose. Train with the belief that, over time and commitment, you’ll learn this new skill. And whenever you attempt and fail at this skill, avoid the temptation to self-consciously laugh it off and not try it again or feel embarrassed about it.

If you’re not making mistakes in practice, it means you’re not stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. It’s OK to “fail.” Just shrug it off and give it another go. And another. And another. You’ll get it eventually if you refuse to accept failure and commit to practicing relentlessly. I know you will.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Discipline: the biggest key to succeeding in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

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Assistant coaching with Wheaton College’s women’s volleyball program this fall taught me several valuable lessons. As impressed as I was to see a talented collection of 18- to 22-year-old athletes from across the country not only on Wheaton’s roster but playing for the opponents they faced last season, one of the biggest lessons learned was the critical importance of discipline.

Discipline was particularly valuable in:

1) helping the athletes earn the opportunity to play collegiately (only 5.8 percent of four-year high school volleyball players even receive a spot on a college roster)
2) getting the athletes ready to make a difference on their college team
3) preparing teams to win at the collegiate level

In short, discipline may be the most crucial quality that an athlete must possess to reach the college level, earn playing time collegiately and to excel on the collegiate court. Discipline is equally vital for any team and any athlete that wants to be successful. Winning college matches takes tremendous hard work, planning, preparation, grit, skill and determination — all of which are fueled by discipline. The same is true at the high school varsity and upper club levels.

The discipline I’m referring to goes by another, simpler name: good habits. Good habits are the key to achieving excellence in our skills and understanding of the game. Without good habits (discipline), talent gets wasted and never reaches its full potential.

As a famed quote teaches: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Another quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better." The key word is always. Disciplined athletes consistently and always strive to do better.

Always striving to do better is about developing and practicing good habits — or discipline.

In club volleyball and specifically in the gym at Serve City, what does discipline look like?

1. Taking technical skill development seriously, and striving to continually improve and sharpen our skills in practice. Developing a fundamentally sound skill set is vital to long-term success in our sport. This kind of development requires discipline; it takes countless hours to hone your skills and expand your volleyball IQ without getting discouraged at the lengthy process this entails so that you can thrive on the court.

2. Getting to practices on time (even early -- if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time) so you can use your team's full practice time wisely. I still vividly remember attending a team's practice in an earlier season as a guest coach and watching as most of the players arrived between five and 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to start, then took another five to 10 minutes to change into their knee pads and volleyball shoes. Not surprisingly, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.

3. Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and 2018. Stanford has attained a level of success in the sport that only two other college programs have come close to achieving. One of the hallmarks of the program is its attention to detail. The coaches and players work diligently on every detail during training.

The spring before the Cardinal's 2016 national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from their zone 1 to the deep corner of zone 5 in every training session involving serve receive. Their goal was for the players to become so adept at serving deep zone 5 that, when the fall season began, they would serve teams out of system with this one simple strategy.

Their plan worked; Stanford was one of the top serving teams in the nation that season and used outstanding serving to drive the team all the way to the NCAA championship.

4. Practicing with passion. This refers to the level of energy the players pour into training. Do you compete in each drill with competitive zeal? Are you fully engaged in every aspect of practice? Do you approach practice with the same drive that you demonstrate when playing in the playoffs of a weekend tournament? Do you “practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice"?

5. Taking care of your body. Proper sleep, a healthy diet, plenty of fluids and regular fitness and exercise are instrumental to preparing our bodies to be at peak levels of performance in practices and matches. We can't expect to be at our best if we don't properly care for ourselves. How we treat our bodies before a tournament also says a lot about our level of commitment to our team.

6. Maintaining the right conduct on the court. Studies show that our mental approach to competition has a large bearing on our performance as athletes. Keeping an upbeat mental attitude, delivering positive verbal affirmation and words of encouragement to teammates and maintaining confident body language and tone of voice on the court are crucial to success. All of these traits take discipline to incorporate into our on-court demeanor.

7. Successfully riding the highs and lows that come with sports competition. Wild swings of momentum are common in volleyball. One minute your team has a 12-3 lead. The next minute your opponent has tied the set at 14-14. Discipline is essential to having the poise, confidence and grit to overcome the many challenges thrown our way in this sport. It takes practice to develop the habits necessary to be able to weather any storm on the court, from your team playing shorthanded one day to falling quickly behind and needing to rally from a large deficit.

8. Training when you don't feel your best. This doesn't mean coming to practice with a 103-degree fever. But it does refer to pushing through the minor aches, pains and illnesses that lesser athletes lean on as excuses to avoid practicing and instead showing up to practice ready to get "3-percent better" even when we don't feel like training.

Individual improvement is largely a choice. We can either choose to only practice when we feel great and miss out on opportunities to truly grow, or we can commit ourselves to the process of player development even on those days when we're sore, tired, less motivated or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline. Like a muscle, discipline develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.

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Knee pads? Check. Volleyball shoes? Check. Calm state of mind? Umm …

When helping youth athletes prepare for volleyball tryouts, parents and coaches typically focus on the basics – wear the right gear, warm up, execute the drill – and often overlook mental preparation.

But for young volleyball players, mentally preparing for tryouts can be the difference between making the team or being left off a roster.

These tips can help kids get into the right state of mind for tryouts.

Quiet the anxieties

The pressure that youth volleyball players put on themselves to perform well during tryouts can result in added stress and anxiety.

Dr. Justin Anderson of Premier Sport Psychology said it’s normal for kids to have some anxiety during tryouts.

“Anxiety isn’t a bad thing,” Anderson said. “It’s your body getting ready.”

The challenge is for athletes to learn to control the anxiety and not let it hinder their performance.

“We help them realize there are strategies for how to manage the escalations,” Anderson said.

One tactic Anderson recommends is a breathing technique. He instructs athletes to take a 10-second breath (five-second inhale, five-second exhale) to help slow down their heart rate and get into a calm state. If an athlete is feeling stress before a serving drill, for example, he or she can take a few moments to perform the breathing exercise before it’s their turn at the line.

Anderson also works with athletes to help divert their attention when needed. He teaches athletes that they can shift their attention from one thing to another to improve their mental state. At tryouts, athletes are focusing on whether or not they will make the volleyball team. Coaches and parents can help them calm themselves by diverting their attention to something else, such as a specific drill or exercise. Instead of letting a visibly anxious player spend time at the back of the gym counting how many athletes are competing for a roster spot, engage the player in conversation about how to perform the upcoming digging drill, or walk through hitting footwork to help take the athlete’s mind off the stress that tryouts can often bring.

Keep perspective

Anderson states youth athletes may think their entire identity is tied to their connection to a sports team. Young players might only see themselves as volleyball players and base their identity on being part of the volleyball club. That could be where they met their friends and their main source of both physical and social activity.

For these athletes, it’s important to help them keep perspective as they head into tryouts. They need to see there are options outside of this particular volleyball team in case they don’t make the roster.

Anderson recommends coaches and directors be upfront with athletes at the beginning of evaluations. Telling kids there will be cuts, and then giving them options of other volleyball teams or leagues they can join, can help kids understand their volleyball career doesn’t have to end after tryouts. Provide the kids with a list of community volleyball camps or instructional leagues they could potentially join if they don’t make the club.

Anderson said parents can help kids by teaching them how to cope with the results if they don’t make the team. Together they can create a path to join a new volleyball league, figure out a way to improve for next year or even try a new sport or activity.

Be confident in yourself

It’s natural to watch other competitors at tryouts, but this can risk hurting a player’s confidence. If a young volleyball player is focusing on how well other athletes are performing, they might lose assurance in their own abilities.

Instead, athletes need to stay in their bubble and only focus on what they can control – their own performance. Players should try to only think about the drills and techniques they need to execute and how to do them to the best of their ability.

Helping youth realize they can’t control how everyone else does, only their own performance, can help ease some of the stress they might be feeling.

Acknowledge the fear

Some volleyball players can benefit from simply talking through pre-tryouts stress with a parent, coach or other confidants.

Players can feel at-ease by discussing any fears they might have heading into the evaluation session and getting honest feedback from a trusted resource that they can use throughout tryouts. Maybe they are worried about their serve and they just need someone to listen to them explain why they are stressed about the serving drills. That alone can help alleviate some anxiety.

Physically prepare to help calm the mind

Practicing regularly before tryouts can help calm the minds of youth athletes.

Coming into tryouts prepared can help the player feel more confident during evaluations. If they know they’ve practiced and prepped to the best of their ability, then they can enter tryouts feeling assured and fearless.

Author Bio: Chris Knutson is co-founder of TeamGenius, a leading player evaluation software that helps youth sports organizations by streamlining tryouts and player evaluations.

The best way to improve your child's indoor skills is playing outdoors

By Jeff Smith

Last year my daughters and I continued a weekly tradition of gluing ourselves to the TV to watch Big Ten women's volleyball on Wednesday nights on BTN. On one particular night, the University of Nebraska's top-ranked team was on the air. Nebraska is always must-see TV in our household.

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Early in the match, the announcers noted that Nebraska's players trained in the sand during their spring season, and one of their star players, all-American libero Justine Wong-Orantes, played sand volleyball competitively each summer while on school break.

Their head coach, John Cook, was such an ardent believer in the merits of sand volleyball for improving indoor players' skills and athleticism that he gave the team's sand training much of the credit for Nebraska's 2015 national title run.

The ideal complement to indoor volleyball

It's easy to see why Coach Cook is high on the benefits of sand training. Running, jumping and executing volleyball skills in sand while covering an entire half of the court with just one other teammate strengthens the fast-twitch muscles in your legs, back, core and shoulders and sharpens your all-around skills. This leads to greater leaping ability, quickness to the ball and conditioning.

Sand volleyball also improves your skills in looking across the net, reading what the opponent is doing, reacting to your opponent's actions and executing your response to your opponent. Its long list of benefits is one reason why I strongly encourage athletes to play sand volleyball in the summer with Chicago Sand Volleyball or another organization.

Long-term gains

Sand volleyball takes endurance, conditioning, grit, determination and commitment to develop your skills and understanding of the game. It's short-term pain -- though it's not really pain because it's such a fun sport to play -- that produces long-term gain.

In fact, whenever families ask what the best avenue is for growing their child's game, I always mention sand volleyball first. One former pro and collegiate standout, Pat Powers, even goes so far as to say that two weeks of sand training and tournaments are as effective for player development as an entire season of indoor club.

I'm not ready to make that same statement, but I do see Pat's point. I've personally witnessed first hand how sand improves young athletes' volleyball skills, both as a sand coach and as a parent of two sand athletes.

Two real-life examples

For example, I saw significant strides made in the skills of my daughters through sand. Jessica primarily played setter for three years in middle school. But, at 4 feet 11 inches tall, she didn't think she had much of a future at the position in high school.

The summer after eighth-grade graduation, Jessica and her sister, Nicki, joined a sand volleyball program that significantly altered Jessica's volleyball career path. The girls quickly grew to enjoy sand volleyball, entering a slew of area tournaments and playing in practices and recreationally every chance they got.

They especially loved the opportunity to serve receive, defend and pursue balls all over the court. In 8-9 weeks of sand training and tournaments, my daughters received roughly 1,000 serves and even more opposing attacks, a volume of serve receive and defensive practice they couldn't replicate on any indoor court over the summer. Sand soon became a mainstay in our bathtub that summer, including last summer with Chicago Sand Volleyball.

By the time her first year of sand volleyball had ended, Jessica's quickness, court coverage and digging, passing and ball-control skills had markedly improved, convincing her to try out for the public high school's freshman A volleyball team as a libero. She made the team, became their starting libero and has played that position for her school and club teams ever since ... all while continuing to hit the sand courts for the last four summers. She'll next be a DS/libero at a local college.

Nicki benefited just as much from sand training as a setter, as it greatly improved her quickness and her ability to "better" the ball, tracking down a wide range of passes in order to set hittable balls to hitters. The rigors of setting in sand has made indoor setting seem easy by comparison. Today she is able to not only hustle to take second balls all over the court but can then deliver accurate bump sets from a variety of angles thanks largely to her sand training.

Speeding up your skill development

Not every volleyball athlete will undergo the drastic change in their career trajectory that Jessica did. But athletes who work diligently to learn the sand game will see skill development that will translate to their indoor volleyball experience, whether they play for a club and/or school program. When kids get serious about sand volleyball, it makes a tremendous impact on their all-around skills, understanding of the game, specific individual skills and their quickness and athleticism on the court.

After spending most of the summer getting to do it all in sand volleyball -- serve, pass, set, hit, dig, block and touch the ball every other contact -- transitioning to a specialized role as a middle blocker, opposite or outside hitter, defensive specialist, setter or libero in six-player indoor volleyball is a stark adjustment; the indoor game can seem slower and even less enjoyable by comparison.

One expert's take on sand volleyball

But don't just take my word for it. John Kessel, USA Volleyball director of beach volleyball, is far wiser about the sport's benefits than I am.

Mr. Kessel wrote, "The beach game is GREAT for improving your indoor game. Whatever your weaknesses are, you get to work on them a ton. Unlike the indoor game, you touch the ball in every rally. And with two of you covering the court, you learn to read and anticipate much better. Dealing with the sun and wind helps you be more adaptable. Player height is less important outdoors; ball control and skill is most important. It is a great way to improve your jump with just two of you to block and hit every rally, and communicating effectively is essential. Most coaches encourage players to play as much as they can on the beach."

When athletes combine sweat, sacrifice and dedicated sand training together, success almost always follows, along with a deeper love, enjoyment and appreciation for the game.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

What your daughter should do after club season ends

by Jeff Smith

Good food for thought. When it comes to coaching feedback, which of these three types of players are you?

Good food for thought. When it comes to coaching feedback, which of these three types of players are you?

For most of our 12 girls club teams, the 2017-18 volleyball season ends in April. The school season doesn't begin until the second week of August or, for some schools, as late as early September, giving athletes a break lasting anywhere from 3 1/2 to five months between seasons.

What should your daughter do with so much time off? Here are five suggestions:

1. Thank her coach, teammates and parents for the club season.

The club season is a huge commitment of time and energy for coaches and athletes and finances for parents. As a club director, coach and father, I believe parents should encourage their children to express gratitude to their coach and teammates for everything they did to make their season an enjoyable success.

  • Coaches pour countless hours of their time into your kids through their practice planning, coaches' education, teaching, individual and team feedback, lineup construction, team and parent communication, in-game coaching, team building, training opportunities, encouragement of each player and mid-season and postseason evaluations, among other responsibilities. If it were up to me, every Serve City coach would receive a note of thanks from each athlete and parent with their team.
  • Teammates make a difference through their own dedication at practices and tournaments and how they push, challenge and encourage one another to learn and grow and build relationships with your daughter.

2. Take some time off from volleyball.

The best antidote to protecting against burnout on volleyball is to take a break from the sport. My own daughters don't play volleyball from late April till early June, when they begin sand volleyball season. This six-week break re-energizes their love for the game while allowing any lingering hurts or injuries to heal up. This is especially beneficial for my libero daughter, whose legs and knees are covered in bruises from dives and digs by the end of club season.

3. Set goals for the summer and fall.

Setting goals will help drive your daughter's summer volleyball plans.

Is she going to be trying out for the freshman team at her high school? She may need to play in two or three summer camps geared to teaching the skills she'll need to excel at in tryouts, such as setting if she wants to be a setter or hitting, serving and serve receiving if she wants to be an outside hitter.

Is she going to be trying out for the seventh-grade team at her middle school? She might need to work on her all-around skills at a summer camp or sand volleyball program.

Is she going to try out for her high school varsity team? Maybe she needs to take part in an intense overnight college camp that will teach her high-level skills and extend her outside her comfort zone.

4. Play volleyball this summer.

The best teacher of the game of volleyball is the game of volleyball. Playing dozens and even hundreds of hours of volleyball this summer is the best route for your daughter to develop her skills and understanding of the game. Sand doubles, grass court triples and quads, games of 6 on 6 -- the more competitive volleyball your daughter can play this summer the more she will grow as a player.

5. Hit the sand.

When University of Nebraska coach John Cook wanted to take his program to the next level a few years ago, the most significant change he made was training his players in the sand during their spring training season. Cook quickly saw several immediate improvements in his players from their two months of sand training:

  • Improved all-around skills
  • Higher and quicker leaping ability
  • Better quickness to the ball
  • More explosive jumping and blocking
  • Greater confidence on the court
  • Stronger serve receiving and defensive play
  • Improved reading and anticipation skills

Besides being an exciting sport in and of itself, sand volleyball is a great complement to the indoor game. Training this summer with Chicago Sand Volleyball or another program will sharpen your daughter's skills, improve her athleticism and develop her all-around game more than a couple of week-long camps or two-day clinics. Throw in participation in two or three sand tournaments and your daughter will see her game soar in the sand in a mere eight-week-long investment.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

10 lessons learned from 20 years of coaching

by Jeff Smith

It's funny how birthdays make you reflective, especially milestone days like the big 5-0. (Guess I've officially passed middle age.)

One of my favorite sports quotes.

One of my favorite sports quotes.

Today I found myself looking back at two decades and nearly 60 seasons as a coach as the calendar indicated I was another year older (and hopefully a little bit wiser). Coaching has taught me countless competitive and life lessons through nearly 1,500 games, a few thousand practices and hundreds of camp dates, clinics and private lessons. Wisdom gained is only of any worth if it's shared with others, so here are 10 of the many truths I've learned over the years from the sidelines.

10. Body language and attitude matter

Watch the most successful teams on the court and sidelines. They all have a certain "look" about them. Their body language exudes confidence and determination. No matter the situation, they look poised and have the appearance of an unflappable team that believes deeply in one another. (The "eye of the tiger" as the Rocky movies put it.) Their body language remains confident, even when they're behind on the scoreboard. Their body language and attitude makes a difference -- within the team and in what their opponent sees from the other side of the net.

9. Be physically loose and mentally tight

The most successful teams master the delicate balance between playing loose and free yet with laser-like focus on the task at hand. It's a difficult tightrope for some teams to learn to walk, but those that do perform at or near their best most consistently.

8. Matches and tournaments are mostly won in the practice gym

From coaching an 18U national team through to fifth and sixth grade, the strongest teams I've been around were also the hardest-working teams in practice. In fact, I've never coached a successful team that wasn't a fantastic practice team. The worst team record-wise that I've coached was, ironically, the worst practice team I've coached. Practice the way you want to play rings loudly with truth.

As a coaching colleague once told me, practices should be so competitive, productive and challenging that games seem easy by comparison because your team is so well prepared for anything it faces in a match or tournament.

7. Physical touch brings your team together and makes them play better

I can't back this up with scientific research, but I've found that having my players high-five, fist-bump, pat each on the back and huddle up with their arms around one another collectively produces a closer-knit, tighter squad that supports each other. It's one reason why I give my players a fist bump whenever they come off the court in a match. That physical connection communicates encouragement, support and unity, that we're in this together.

6. Coaches need encouragement, too

I don't think it's a coincidence that my greatest coaching seasons occurred when I received the most encouragement, gratitude and support from players, their parents and fellow staff. Coaching can be a very draining profession. Like teachers, coaches spend most of their time pouring into their athletes and not getting poured into. It's like constantly drawing money out of a bank account; you also need to make deposits into the account or else the account will eventually run dry.

Parents and players who recognize this reality and pour into their coaches keep those coaches constantly filled up so they can coach out of a full account and not an over-drawn one.

5. Athletes respond best to guided discovery

As a journalism major and former news and sports reporter, I was taught the power of asking questions to draw people out and to guide them to discover solutions to problems. There is a time and place for telling players what they need to do to be successful. But the art of guided discovery makes a greater impact with the players on your team.

Last Sunday I substitute coached one of our 16U teams. After winning our first match of the day, we built a seemingly insurmountable lead in our second match before tightening up and squandering a late 9-point edge, eventually losing 28-26. In our huddle afterwards I could've lectured the team about what we did wrong and what we need to do to get back on track. But the players had a sense of what needed to happen. All I had to do was ask a couple of guided questions and they figured out the rest on their own. They then promptly changed their mindset, went out and won the next two sets, including a 26-24 nail-biter, to close out the tournament in style.

4. End every practice on an upbeat note

I've broken this rule from time to time, but by and large I've learned through experience that, to keep your team looking forward to practices and maintain a high level of enthusiasm, athletes -- especially girls, in my opinion -- need to walk out of the gym after a challenging practice with a strong sense of community, positive energy and feeling valued.

This is one reason why I end each practice playing a short, fast-paced game like a form of queen of the court or a team-building activity followed by a post-practice huddle where I give two or three players the hustle award and best attitude award for that practice. These two traditions provide positive reinforcement, camaraderie, high-energy fun and affirmation, qualities that every athlete needs.

3. You can't coach every athlete the same way

This is where a degree in psychology would come in handy for a coach. Each athlete you work with is their own unique self. In some respects you have to coach all your players the same way, but you do have to tailor your individual coaching to each athlete.

That's why I support coaches coaching the same group of players for two or three years in a row. I even coached some athletes for 4-5 years back when I coached at a school earlier in my career. This gave me the opportunity to really get to know my players well and learn what makes them tick and how to best motivate and teach them, something that is difficult to do in one short school or club season.

2. The most successful teams are like families

This is a universal truth covering both girls and guys teams. The closer knit a team is, the better it generally plays on the court. It's more supportive of one another through challenges and adversity. It pushes each other more enthusiastically in practices. And it looks forward to practicing and competing together, motivating one another to play and give their best each day. Fostering an environment of friendship and support is critical to a team's success.

1b. Athletes read their coach like a book

Several years ago, I was coaching a team in a private school state tournament quarterfinal match against the defending state champs. In front of a packed gym, our team started slowly, falling behind 10-2 early. The girls were overcome by nerves and made one tentative mistake after another. One player even began crying on the court. I got frustrated, called a timeout and chastised the team for the entire huddle. My frustration was evident in my body language, tone of voice and the words I spoke. Our team left the huddle and continued our downward slide, eventually losing meekly in two sets.

Lesson learned.

A year later, in the exact same situation as the prior season, our team struggled with nerves again in front of a raucous audience. This time I focused on projecting a sense of calm, confidence and enthusiasm, which isn't easy for us as coaches when our teams are in meltdown mode on the court. I cracked a joke in one timeout and told the players to embrace the moment, how much fun it was to get the chance to play in an important match like this, and to focus on having fun and celebrating like crazy every time we won a rally.

The team fed off my poise and positive energy, went on a huge run that stunned our opponent and rallied to win in three tight sets. Poise and positivity won the day.

1a. Coaches can't control everything

The most recent lesson I've learned is that, no matter how many different buttons I try to push, many times the coach has very little impact on how their players fare on the court. Recently a team I was coaching blew a 9-point lead and lost by two points in spite of my best efforts. I used my timeouts at seemingly just the right time. I projected confidence and belief in the team. I offered changes in strategy for how to counteract what the opponent was doing. I exhibited poise on the sidelines, even as we made one unforced error after another.

None of it mattered. Coaches do make a positive difference with their mindset, mentality and actions, but in the end it's a players' game. Ultimately the match is decided on the court, not the sidelines. We're the supporting actors in this play, not the lead characters. And that's the way it should be. The players should be in the spotlight, another lesson learned over 20 years.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

6 qualities that coaches want in a libero

by Jeff Smith

Jessica Serve City libero.jpg

While the setter is the leader of the team's offense, the libero leads the defense. They are the captain of your team's back row and the heart and soul of the team's serve receive and defensive units.

A good setter and good libero are like two sides of a house roof; they are each essential to the home's protection or, in the case of a team, your team's success.

So, what are the qualities that coaches look for when considering candidates to fill the odd-colored jersey on their roster? Here are six libero traits that are vital to most college, high school and middle school coaches:

1. Serve receive passing consistency

Every coach will tell you that serve receive is the most important part of the game. Since liberos play most of the match in the back row, they have to be strong in this area to be effective weapons for their team.

2. Reading and digging

Being able to dig up spikes and tips is only half of a libero's role here. They also need to be able to look across the net, read what the opponent is going to do, make a split-second plan for how to defend the opponent's attack and then execute it properly with good digging technique. To do this, liberos need to have a high volleyball IQ and ability to analyze opposing setters and hitters' movements and patterns instead of merely watching the ball and reacting to it.

3. Relentless work ethic and energy

I believe libero is the second toughest position to play on the court after setter. Becoming an effective libero takes tremendous work habits and desire. It's not considered a glamorous position due to the nature of the role, and learning how to play this role with excellence requires many extra hours outside of practices. If you're not willing to pour in the extra time that this position demands, then it's not for you.

Liberos also need to play with great energy on the court. They typically play every rally of the game except when they briefly come out while one of the players they are replacing in the back row serves. Teammates look to the libero to provide defensive leadership and to be a spark plug for their team.

4. Hustle and grit

Liberos routinely must dive to the floor, scramble for errant passes, cover hitters and then immediately return to base defense, dig up hard-driven hits and compensate for teammates whenever they forget or fail to perform their defensive or serve receive duties. It's a challenging position that requires mental toughness, outstanding effort and a never-quit attitude, especially when you're struggling in a game and the opponent seems to be targeting you on most of its serves and attacks.

5. Consistent platform and passing technique

To be a consistently good passer and digger also takes developing strong fundamentals. Liberos need to master a variety of different passing techniques so they can handle a range of serves and attacks on balls in front of them, to their left and right and even behind them.

Among the skills they need to learn and excel at are:

  • shuffle steps and crossover running steps in all directions
  • stationary digs
  • the drop and drive
  • drop step side shuffle
  • overhead digging
  • platform angles to their left and right
  • run-through digs
  • side digs
  • the side and slide
  • lateral dives to their left and right
  • one-step and two-step forward dives
  • collapse digs
  • extension and pancake (emergency) digs

Just as importantly, liberos need to be fundamentally sound in their lower-body technique. Always begin in an athletic, balanced, stable defensive position with your weight on the balls of your feet and slightly on the insides of your feet and your shoulders positioned over and slightly in front of your knees. This stance leaves you ready to quickly move in any direction for the ball. This includes a deep knee bend that enables you to get close to the floor so you can get your platform under any ball that comes your way.

6. Serving prowess

An underappreciated aspect of the libero position is serving. Most liberos serve for one of their team's front row hitters. This is the one time when liberos can be an offensive weapon for their team. Most coaches expect their libero to be one of the top servers on the team both in terms of aces, consistency and getting opponents out of system.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

6 traits that coaches look for in a setter

Nicki Blaze setting.jpg

by Jeff Smith

Similar to a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football, setter is the most important position in volleyball. (Sorry, hitters, liberos and defensive specialists. You're valuable, too.) Running the offense and taking nearly every second contact is a crucial responsibility to the team's success.

Because of the importance of the position, not just anyone can be selected to fulfill this role. Whether coaching 14U, 16U or 18U, I've always looked for six qualities in potential setters: quickness, soft yet strong hands, assertiveness, intelligence, great work ethic and a teachable attitude.

Due to the complexity of setting, some coaches are even pickier than me. In his book "Setting for the Setter," Arie Selinger, head coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s team, said he seeks out players at setter who can be described as "a play-maker, architect, decision maker, cooperative, an extension of the coach, perceptive, great mental stamina, leader, hard-working, creative, disciplined, crafty, aware, well liked and inspire trust and confidence." That's a lot of attributes to fill!

Whether you're interested in setting, are a setter hoping to set at the next level of your volleyball journey or are the parent of a current or prospective setter, let's unpack each of the six traits I listed.

1. Quickness

Quickness doesn't only refer to how fast you can run to the ball. Much of a setter's quickness comes from their ability to read a situation and made a quick and smart decision.

Olympic coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly describes it this way: "You have to quickly get your eyes to the next actor, the next mover of the ball. One point we emphasize with our setters is ‘reading the platform,’ which means the setter is looking at and really seeing the passer’s arms contact the serve. To read best, a setter has to get to her spot fast, establish a balanced, ready position facing the passer and be ready to pounce in any direction for any pass. Then, she has to look and really see the passer’s platform. The better a setter reads the platform, the faster she’ll identify where she has to go to run the offense."

2. Soft yet strong hands

I've trained hundreds of setters over the last 20 years. To be totally honest, some players never acquire this skill. In some ways, it is a gift, the ability to have both soft and strong hands for setting at the same time.

Soft hands refers to being able to cushion the ball slightly and remove any spin from the ball as it contacts the hands. But that's just half the battle. Setters need the strength to quickly release the ball, alter its path and direct it high or fast to hitters, too. Sometimes those hitters can be 20 to 25 feet away. And sometimes as a setter you're receiving passes that are extremely high in the air or come at you flat and fast. Either way you need rigid hands, too, that can handle such challenging passes.

3. Assertiveness

No matter what level, setters need to be take-charge types. They need to be able to not only take the second contact -- or first pass from a teammate -- but turn that contact into a hittable ball for one of their hitters. This requires a player who is willing to be aggressive and fearless and exert her command of the court. Many players never learn or exhibit this trait due to lack of confidence, lack of necessary temperament or a host of other reasons.

4. Intelligence

High volleyball IQ might be the most overlooked skill for setting. The setter is the team's floor general who is tasked with not only making hundreds of split-second in-game decisions but also being able to take her team's "temperature" on the court and guide and direct her teammates based on how each is doing over the course of the match. For instance, this can mean figuring out each hitter's strengths and the types of sets and set locations that bring out the best in each hitter.

Salima Rockwell knows this subject intimately well as a three-time all-American setter at Penn State University who is now PSU's associate head coach.

"A setter must cultivate genuine and real connections with every team member to ensure they trust her and count on her stability as a leader," Rockwell said. "You are the psychologist of the team because everyone needs something a little bit different and it’s up to you to figure out what that thing is and how to give it to them. The coach can do only so much from the bench. It’s necessary to have someone on the court who can settle the team down when the match starts slipping away or fire the team up when it’s time to finish."

5. Great work ethic

Setters are in constant learning mode. It's akin to a quarterback in football. NFL quarterbacks have to study and master a playbook of 300 to 400 pages in a matter of a couple of months. Setting isn't quite as challenging, but you get the idea. Becoming a great setter takes many years of practice and training. It's why most high school teams require their setters to show up for practice 30 minutes early to work on their skills and get as many extra repetitions as possible in order to develop their hands, footwork and technique.

The most accomplished setters spend countless additional hours on their own training their hands at home in their room or in the gym. Former University of Wisconsin all-American setter Lauren Carlini said she has spent thousands of hours lying on her back in her bedroom setting a ball to herself to train her hands to be soft yet strong.

She's not alone. Outstanding setting takes extraordinary dedication and drive. My younger daughter is a good high school varsity setter, and it didn't happen overnight. I remember hundreds of nights hearing the rhythmic sound of her setting a ball off her bedroom wall or setting to herself in her room for 10, 20, 30 or more minutes at a time. It wasn't glamorous or easy, but she was highly motivated and wanted to be a varsity setter, so she paid the price, and her hard work paid off.

Want to be a standout setter? Set early and often each day.

6. Teachable attitude

Due to the critical nature of the position, setters receive more feedback and correction from coaches than anyone else on the team. They need to take lots of feedback at every practice and match and filter it with a positive, even-keeled attitude.

Setting is the most complex position in the sport. There are literally hundreds of different mini-skills that setters must learn and master as they move up the ranks from middle school to high school to college. They are on a constant learning curve that requires them to be open and receptive to coaching on a daily basis. If they can't handle this much insight and feedback, their setting development will eventually plateau, and with it their growth as a setter.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a setter?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.