Sneak peek at an exciting 2019-2020 Serve City season

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by Jeff Smith

The next club volleyball season doesn’t officially start until November 25, so some plans are written in pencil instead of ink. But we’ve already begun crafting an exciting 2019-2020 campaign.

Here are some of Serve City’s hopes and goals for a memorable and meaningful new season.

National and regional teams at every age level

In 2017-18, we were able to field our first two national teams that competed in the Asics Jr. National Championships at Navy Pier in Chicago. This year that figure will double to four later this month.

Next year, our hope is to field one national team at every age level from 12U to 18U. Our national teams will be true national teams in that, instead of giving the national squads a three-week break in April like we did this year, they will continue training and playing tournaments throughout April and May into June.

This change will ensure that our national teams receive the kind of sustained training they need to continue growing and developing their skills, tactics, strategies and chemistry as individual players and as teams.

Having said that, regional teams will always be a vital component and the primary focus of Serve City. Our hope is to field two regional teams and one national team at each age level from 12U to 16U along with one regional team and one national team at 18U for those athletes who love volleyball but need to conclude their seasons in April. Regional teams will form the nucleus of our enrollment. Our enduring mission is to make quality club volleyball training accessible to all middle-class and working-class families in the western suburbs, and our regional team program plays a critical part in that purpose.

We also plan to offer two and possibly three middle school short season teams in 2019-20 after running two short season teams in 2018-19. Our short season program is popular with families who either want an 8- to 9-week season that gives their daughter a taste of club volleyball, can’t afford the cost of a full season of club volleyball or whose girls don't have time to devote themselves to a full regional or national season.

What the 2019-20 schedule will look like

After tryouts on Oct. 6 for middle school and Oct. 27 for high school, our practices will begin the week after Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-29). The regional season wraps up the week of April 13-18. Our national season will end at Asics Jr. Nationals June 19-21 for 15U to 18U national teams and June 22-23 for 12U to 14U.

Our regional and national teams will again practice two weeknights per week and most likely in the same format as this year. One practice will be as an individual team and then one combined practice on multiple courts with other teams of similar age levels and with a lead trainer running that practice while the other teams’ coaches still work with their teams.

This format works well on many levels. It gives our athletes opportunities to train more in a 6v6 game-like format for parts of the combined practices. It also ensures that our teams are being trained based on a structured, intentional player and team development model for each age level. This model enables athletes to learn specific skills, tactics, offensive and defensive systems and strategies that progress them developmentally from 12U to 18U.

New positional training option

Because of our expanded plans for national teams and our desire to offer regional team athletes additional opportunities to develop their skills, we also are planning to run positional training clinics one weeknight a week from the end of November until April 15. The positional training clinics will be optional, but for a reasonable additional cost you can sign up your daughter for as many of these clinics as she’d like to attend for her age group. This new option will provide our athletes with an extra venue for learning new skills and refining current skills throughout the season.

Unlike many clubs where positional training is required, families who aren’t interested in this clinic series or who don’t have the time or funds for these clinics will not be required to participate nor pay for them.

Serve City’s family-friendly focus

As a family-focused club, we will again give our teams 2 1/2 weeks off for Christmas and New Year’s and nine days off for spring break so our athletes can spend quality time with their families. We will also intentionally wait to start the club season until the Monday after Thanksgiving for this same reason. Most clubs kick off their practice schedule the first or second week of November, but we want to continue giving our athletes a longer break between the fall school season and the club season so they can rest, recover and re-energize before hitting the club schedule.

We will also continue scheduling only tournaments in the Chicago area. Our teams will not participate in any overnight tournaments that, truth be told, only serve to drain a family’s time together along with their pocketbooks. (As a former national team coach at another club, I know this from experience.)

The Chicago area features some of the best club volleyball in the country. There are plenty of good to outstanding club tournaments here that our teams can enter, as well as the Windy City Power League and the Chicago Volleyball League, which we will continue registering our teams for in 2020.

Our hope is to register our strongest national teams in 1-2 two-day pre-national tournaments at such prestigious club tournaments as Sky High’s national invitationals to expose our most experienced national teams to the best competition. This strategy will allow our national teams to sharpen their skills against opponents who will prepare them best for Asics Jr. Nationals.

And, as usual, our player fees will be either the lowest or nearly the lowest fees of any Chicago-area volleyball club. We offered the lowest fees this season, But you never know if another club comes along and offers even lower fees, though we expect our fees will still be the lowest in 2019-2020.

Continued emphasis on helping athletes reach their potential as people

One of our most heartfelt missions is to assist athletes in reaching their highest potential on and off the court. It’s one reason why our Serve City Serves program is so important. We believe volleyball is a tremendous tool not only from an athletic standpoint but in training our youth in the life skills and values needed to excel as Americans, as leaders, as compassionate servant-minded people, as students, family members and positive contributors to society.

With this in mind, we will continue to emphasize our three core values of Excellence, Relationships and Love in each practice throughout the season as well as provide service opportunities that help our athletes see how they can impact the lives of others in their communities and around the world.

Ultimately, as enjoyable as it is to win a match, execute a new skill or achieve a team or personal goal, the life lessons learned over the course of each club volleyball season will be the most enduring qualities that athletes take away from their Serve City experience.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s volleyball director.

Playing in the national season? Your team needs one thing from you

by Jeff Smith

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No matter what team you play for, they need the same thing from you: your commitment to being and becoming the best player and teammate you can possibly be this season.

This is especially true when you play for a team that is entered in a season-ending national tournament. As NBA championship coach Pat Riley says, “There are only two options regarding commitment. You're either in or out. There's no such thing as life in between.”

Playing in a national tournament is a real honor. Four Serve City teams will be competing with opponents from across the Midwest and even the country at the Asics Jr. National Championships coming up in June at Navy Pier in Chicago. (Next year our hope is to field seven national teams.) Last year clubs from 20 states played in the tournament as well as from Puerto Rico.

The level of competition at the top of each age division of the 2018 Asics Jr. Nationals was very strong. Playing on such a national stage is an opportunity and a challenge. It requires excellent preparation. If you’ve never played in a national tournament before, it will be an eye opener.

Since three of our four teams are playing at Asics for the first time, some of our teams will be the most inexperienced teams at Asics. Most of our opponents will feature players who have played in at least one national tournament and, on some 18s teams, several seasons of national competition. They’ll have a key advantage over those teams that are new to the national scene.

I know this from experience. I coached an 18s team at another club prior to Serve City that played at AAU Nationals in Orlando several years ago. Our team finished with a 3-6 record over three days, and we played in the 18s club division, a notch below the open, or highest, division. (Many open division players went on to play Division I volleyball collegiately.)

Competing at AAU Nationals was an inspiring and humbling experience. The level of skill and athleticism was outstanding, the best our team had seen all year, and left us wishing we’d trained with even more passion, focus and attention to detail — i.e., more commitment.

It’s similar to practicing for the year-end school musical or band concert or studying for a final exam. You get one shot at preparing for it, with a limited amount of time at your disposal. The teams that use their limited time to get themselves as fully ready as they can for the moment will, by and large, enjoy the most success, albeit factoring in talent and experience levels, too.

This is why your team needs a wholehearted commitment from you, your teammates and coach. An in-between commitment won’t prepare you or your team for the rigors of a national competition.

Your team gets one shot at the 2019 national tournament. Once the first match begins, you can’t call timeout and ask for an extra couple of practices to prepare that much more for this stage.

The time to prepare, to get ready, is now. That’s why every practice is crucial to that process.

So, what does a well-prepared national team look like?

  • Practices with 100-percent or nearly 100-percent attendance

  • Athletes arriving 10-15 minutes early so that they’re ready to start training as soon as their team has the court

  • Players and coaches giving their full effort in every drill, game and scrimmage, not just “once they’re feeling into it.” Your feelings will follow your actions, not vice versa.

  • Training marked by the right kind of fun. Fun by national team standards is the joy of learning, growing and improving while enjoying the game as we make each other better — and celebrating each other’s helpful contributions to that growth and success along the way.

  • A teachable attitude and a desire to be a positive influence on your teammates and team

  • A growth mindset where athletes are eager to stretch themselves outside their comfort zone, take chances, tackle difficult drills, goals and challenges head-on and learn and refine techniques, skills, tactics and strategies. These athletes fail on numerous occasions on the road to growth but pick up themselves and their teammates and jump back into the fray with the same bold frame of mind.

  • Teams that work diligently at their skills, systems, rotations and plays until they execute automatically without need to think. They don’t play perfect — no team does — but they train themselves to be consistently in the right place at the right time using the right technique and in the right mindset. Every little detail makes a big difference in a team’s play.

  • Training with such energy and passion that athletes leave the gym after each practice feeling sweaty, tired, a bit sore and excited about the progress of their team and themselves

  • Even getting in occasional extra reps on your own time between practices. The more expensive clubs do positional training each week; we have to be creative in training at home or elsewhere to keep sharpening our skills and bodies outside of practice.

Are you committed to being this kind of national player and teammate? That’s what your team needs from you.

Don’t be an in-between team member. Make the conscious decision today to be a fully committed teammate the rest of the season.

Now, giving a full commitment won’t guarantee a slew of wins at nationals, nor ensure that you’ll always play your very best. But it will enable you and your team to experience the most growth in your game and will help your team be as prepared as you can be for this challenge.

One of the most gratifying feelings in volleyball is taking the court knowing you did everything in your power to ready yourself for the task at hand. Win or lose, you feel secure in the satisfaction of giving your all to prepare for this event. You can take great pride in that truth.

When you’ve consistently practiced the way you want to play on this stage, you can relax, trust your preparation, go out and revel in the moment. You earned that right and opportunity.

So train with total commitment as your end goal, and enjoy every intense, pivotal and funny moment of the national season, even each failure, error and drill. And treat the season as a privilege to be part of this process.

Have an amazing spring season!

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s volleyball director.

You’re capable of more than you think: growth mindset

by Jeff Smith

In the 1990s, two psychologists performed a unique study that has changed how learning is viewed in the U.S. and around the world. They examined two groups of fifth-grade students in a case that helped change the way that millions of people think about a term called growth mindset.

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The two groups of students were given the same test. In one group, the teachers heaped one type of praise on the students who registered a high score, telling each student, “Nice job. You must be really smart!” The other group received praise along the lines of “Nice job. You must have worked really hard!”

After the first test, the teachers gave the students a chance to take a more difficult test. About 90 percent of the students who got feedback about their great effort on the first test agreed to tackle the second test. By contrast, less than half of the students agreed to take the second test who had received feedback about excelling on the first test because they were smart.

After taking several different tests, both groups took one final test that was similar in difficulty to the initial test. The group that was praised for its effort scored 30 percent higher than the group that was praised for its intelligence.

The results of this study clearly show the strengths of a growth mindset (“I can learn almost anything with enough hard work and dedication”) over a fixed mindset (“I can only learn things that I’m genetically gifted to learn”).

All it ultimately takes is understanding and believing that we can improve substantially at almost anything in sports, academics, music, work and daily activities — i.e., we can be powerful learners. The key is through consistent effort combined with perseverance, feedback from our coaches and teachers and a willingness to stretch ourselves outside our comfort zone as we face challenges and deal with the inevitable mistakes we’ll make along the way.

A growth mindset is the belief that you are not merely born with specific abilities that will determine how successful you will be at volleyball, music, math or any other area of life. Yes, we each have born qualities that make us more likely to excel at certain sports, hobbies or interests. But scientific research shows that your attitude, work ethic and commitment level can influence how well you perform at volleyball.

In fact, your attitude, hard work and dedication will impact your level of success in volleyball more than anything else, including more than your natural athletic talent.

I personally think the secret for many young athletes is their attitude toward mistakes.

A player with a fixed mindset — believing she is what she is right now and that she can’t change — is easy to spot. She fears making mistakes, so she is reluctant to try new skills or positions. She also is concerned about what others think of her, which makes her even more hesitant to try new skills for fear of looking silly, uncoordinated or embarrassing herself when she struggles to hit, set, overhand serve or perform other skills she hasn’t mastered.

(I’ve taught private lessons with countless athletes who were afraid to venture out and learn a particular skill in practice for fear of making mistakes in front of their peers, especially either overhand or jump serving and setting, two of the hardest skills for young players to learn. They’re fine with making mistakes in the safety and privacy of an empty gym. If they can take that mentality to their practices and not be concerned about making mistakes that teammates see, that makes a big difference going forward.)

Again, fear of mistakes and fear of being embarrassed in front of others keeps players with a fixed mindset from embracing a growth mindset. It makes you afraid to take risks and prevents you from developing a can-do attitude that leads to learning new skills, positions, tactics and strategies.

Of course, volleyball is a challenging sport. At times it can frustrate young players (and older players, too). And the fact that matches are played in front of an audience can make it even more frustrating when you inevitably make mistakes with people watching you. (That’s one advantage of academics. You don’t have to take a test and miss questions on the test with spectators observing your every error.)

One of volleyball’s biggest proponents of a growth mindset is Karch Kiraly, three-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S.. women’s national team coach. Karch has fantastic advice for how to overcome the temptation to hold on to a fixed mindset.

“If you’re concerned what others think, you may take few risks and hold yourself back. But if you’re excited about the possibilities of how good you could become with enough hard work, you’ll welcome the chance to challenge yourself,” Karch says. “Chances are, when things get tough, you’ll summon more grit and work through it rather than walk away, as someone with a fixed mindset might do.

“Embrace a growth mindset and go for it! You can be a much better player, and with enough effort and purposeful practice, you will be.”

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

You are what you think: the mental side of volleyball

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by Jeff Smith

Mental training is all the rage in sports nowadays. There’s a legitimate reason for this. Confidence and positive thinking in the heat of battle are important traits to a successful athlete. An athlete’s mind has a powerful impact on how she performs.

But, before exploring this subject further, it needs to be noted that a positive mental attitude is no substitute for the other qualities of a successful athlete: skill, talent, training, experience, discipline, passion for the game and dedicated preparation. I can train myself to have the most upbeat, positive attitude in the world, but if I don’t fortify that attitude with excellent training, work ethic, skill development and learning, I can be positive about one thing: I’ll struggle and lose nearly every time I set foot on the court.

Volleyball is about training yourself to be in the right place at the right time using the right technique with the right amount of effort, the right read on the situation and the right split-second decision, all of which takes countless hours of sustained training. The good news is player development from dedicated training helps produce the mental confidence and positive outlook you need to excel on the court.

Now, having said all that, the mind is definitely a powerful tool in your performance as an athlete. A positive mental approach practiced by the entire team makes a huge difference.

I can personally attest to this. I’ve been fortunate enough to win 999 games as a coach. Of those victories, probably a quarter of them were by two to five points. The final result sometimes came down to playing with more confidence at game’s end, maintaining a more positive approach in tight situations, keeping a healthy, upbeat perspective on the game, enjoying the moment more (we taught ourselves to be excited about close matches as a fun opportunity instead of as an unnerving obstacle) and continuing to trust each other and believe that we could win.

A verse I read today is a wonderful reminder of positive mental training: “As he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

As the author who quoted that verse explained, self-fulfilling prophecy is about becoming what you think yourself to be. “If you think you will fail, you probably will,” the author wrote. “If you think you will succeed, then most likely you will succeed.”

A relentlessly positive mental attitude will not guarantee that your team will always play its best or always win. You might even lose every match on a particular day. As a skeptical coaching friend likes to joke, “What if both teams have great mental attitudes? Will they finish in a tie?”

However, a positive mental attitude will enable you to be at your mental best most often and make the seemingly impossible possible, particularly when your team is:

  • locked in a nip-and-tuck battle

  • having one of those days where you’re struggling to play your normal game

  • playing shorthanded that day

  • staring up at a big deficit

This poem by Walter D. Wintle cleverly addresses the mental side of athletics.

Success begins with a fellow's will;

It's all in the state of mind.

Think big and your deed will grow,

Think small and you will fall behind.

Think that you can and you will—

It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are.

You have got to think high to rise.

You have got to be sure of yourself

Before you win a prize.

Life's battles don't always go

To the stronger or faster man.

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the man who thinks he can.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Dive, dig and roll -- the most under-taught skill in volleyball

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by Jeff Smith

Of all the skills I’ve taught over the years — blocking, serving, footwork patterns, passing, setting, hitting, digging and various specialty skills — the one skill that draws the most fear and trepidation from players is easily diving, digging and rolling.

No other skill comes close.

Whenever I’ve introduced this skill or reviewed it with players, no matter their age level, most athletes initially react with nervousness. In fact, the ones who dive into the skill — no pun intended — with gusto are usually the players who either play in the back row in matches or who eventually become liberos, defensive specialists or six-rotation players.

The willingness and ability to effectively dive and dig is only a small portion of back-row play. But it is an essential portion indeed, especially at the 15U to 18U levels and in college. Wheaton College’s libero dove at least several times every match this past fall and sometimes up to a dozen times or more in longer matches.

Simply put, you can’t be a truly successful back row player if you aren’t able to dive and dig.

This is why we devoted a large chunk of two 14U, 15U, 16U and 18U practices this season to teaching and practicing this skill. In future seasons, we will devote a monthly segment of practice time to learning and sharpening this skill in all its various forms.

Technical issues

Effective diving and digging starts with proper technique. A successful back-row digger or off-blocker needs to master a few important fundamentals:

  • Down and ready defensive position (a low, athletic posture with a wide base and low hips and her chin slightly ahead of her knees and her knees slightly ahead of her toes)

  • Bent at the ankles

  • Weight on the balls of her feet and the inside of her feet

We then start by learning the most basic dive and dig move: a one-step maneuver where the defender keeps her hips low (“under the ball”) so that she can dive flat and parallel to the floor and steps with her right foot if the ball is in front of her and to her right. She extends her platform forward and under the ball as she dives forward — again, as parallel as possible to the floor both for her safety and so she can scoop the ball up in the air with her platform.

After she dives and digs the ball up in the air (preferably anywhere to the middle of the court) and then her body goes to the floor, the defender lands on her side (not on her chest). This is crucial. Far too many female players dive and land on their chest, which is not a safe maneuver. Landing on their side is critical for their long-term safety in avoiding injury.

The digger keeps her right knee bent, rolls over her right side and then uses her right foot (specifically the right toes) to plant into the ground and propel her quickly up so that she can finish in down and ready defensive posture. Volleyball is a game of explosiveness where every second counts. Moving quickly and decisively is vital. It can be the difference between being prepared to make the next play and being slightly too late to execute that next play.

(One of my pet phrases is that great defense is about “being in the right place at the right time using the right technique with the right amount of effort.”)

Keeping the defender’s right knee bent as she rolls over her side is key. The bent knee allows her to plant her right foot and spring up fast back to her feet so that she’s ready to either cover one of her hitters, hustle to play a third contact over the net, be prepared to approach and attack the third contact if it’s set to her or recover quickly back to her base defensive position ready to defend again.

Dive into a variety of dives

Learning to dive, dig and roll takes hours of focused practice. There are numerous types of dives and rolls as well as several different scenarios to master. Here are just a few:

  • Digging, diving and rolling to cover tips or block touches in front of you and slightly to your right using a one-step dive

  • Diving to dig a ball that is short, in front and slightly to your left using a one-step dive

  • Diving and digging a ball farther in front of you using a two-step dive (left step, right step, dig, dive and roll for a ball to your right or right step-left step for a ball to your left)

  • Dives and one-armed digs

  • Dives into pancake digs, such as this pancake

  • Diving and digging balls directly to your right and left

Is diving and digging glamorous? Not to many people, though to most coaches a well-executed dive and dig is a work of art. It is an essential skill in a good defender’s toolkit, and the sooner you learn this skill and can perform it with excellence and discernment (when to dive and when to simply read the hitter and move and stay on your feet to dig the ball) in matches, the better off you’ll be and the more successful your team’s defense will be.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

3 questions that every team should ask after a match

by Jeff Smith

Two Sundays ago I was watching one of our teams play in the Chicago Volleyball League at Top Flight. After the first set ended in the team’s second match, the coach rushed over to me with a concerned look on her face.

“I think I have a fever,” she confided. “I feel terrible and don’t know if I can coach the rest of the tournament.”

I agreed. She looked very pale, and she said she felt the combination of chills and hot temperature that is a prime symptom of fevers.

Fortunately she was able to catch me just before I left to go home. I told the coach I’d sub for her and asked if she could find the tournament trainer to get her some Ibuprofen and find a place to rest.

I then quickly headed to the team bench, explained the situation to the players, filled out the lineup sheet for the second set and began coaching with seconds to spare. The team rebounded to win the second set before losing the third set and the match. The girls handled the situation very well, especially considering they were without two key players that day, and stepped up to play with a lot of energy, teamwork and determination.

Question time

Afterwards, I gathered them together for a post-game huddle and caught them off guard by asking them a question:

“So what did we do well in the match?”

For a couple of seconds the question seemed to throw them for a loop. We had just lost. It was the team’s second straight loss of the day. What positives could possibly come out of a defeat?

But they eventually started responding. “We served really well,” one girl said.

“We had some great sets and attacks in the second set to get us back in the match,” another player shared.

“We didn’t get down after losing the first set; we came out and played with a lot of energy and focus in the second set.”

Their responses were helpful and enabled them to realize they did some very good things in the match that they could build on in future matches. No one likes to lose, but losing doesn’t mean we as a team or individually didn’t play well. In fact, sometimes teams will play their best volleyball in a loss. Sometimes the defeat was just a matter of the opponent simply being better in that match.

I then moved on to question two.

“Great. Now what are two things we need to work on to get better?”

The reason I say two is so the team doesn’t go into psychoanalytical mode and dredge up every small error or mistake we made throughout the match. Putting a limit on the areas where we can improve is important for maintaining a positive outlook on the team and limiting too much negativity, especially when the team was assigned to be the work crew for the very next match.

“We can communicate more consistently; we got quiet at times,” one player chimed in.

“We need to stay aggressive throughout the match,” another said.

Those are the two questions I ask teams after most matches. A third question I’m going to add to my repertoire in future matches comes from John O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, an organization dedicated to helping coaches improve their craft.

Why are we a better team or player because we lost today?

This is a brilliant question to pose to our athletes because, as O’Sullivan says, “Development is a process. It is a marathon, not a sprint. There are going to be ups and downs, and the critical thing is we continually learn and improve. The outcome of the competition cannot be changed, but we can influence the outcome of our next event and our preparation for it. This question helps athletes frame the loss and take ownership of the training and preparation for the next match.”

One answer to this question might be “We are a better team because we learned today that, when we are always communicating on the court and always looking to play aggressively, we play our best volleyball.” Or, “I’m a better player when I stay focused on getting to the right place at the right time on the court during each rally.”

Or, “We learned today that we’re a better team when we get quickly to our spots on defense and are reading what the opposing setter and hitters are doing so we can be prepared for how they’re going to hit or dump the ball at us.”

The nice part about these three questions is that they are adaptable and beneficial to any age level.

These questions are helpful for 12U, 18U and any age between. I could see college teams benefiting, too.

I posed them to a 15U team the other day, and the players’ answers really benefited us for the last match of the day. I saw and heard excellent communication on the court and solid serve receiving and defense throughout the last match, which was something the girls raised in our post-game huddle after the second match, and for the first set and most of the second set the team played more assertively on offense as well.

I’d love to see every SCV coach asking these three questions after each match going forward. Their teams and their players will benefit from answering each question, and their future practices will be that much more productive. Their athletes will have specific skills and tactics to work on based on their answers to these questions at their last tournament.

And, instead of giving long-winded speeches loaded with “We need to do x, y and z” statements that burden players with too much constructive criticism, asking questions is the better way to go. More often than not, the players already know what they did well and what they need to work on to do better. They just need to hear each other say it out loud.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Are you nervous or excited? Your perspective impacts how you play

by Jeff Smith

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There were 10 seconds remaining in our high school basketball game when I received a pass just behind the free-throw line. I was wide open for a shot I had made on many opportunities over the years.

Only this time the stakes were much higher. We trailed by two points in a single-elimination playoff contest. As I rose up to shoot, the thought briefly flashed across my mind: What if I miss the shot? We’ll probably lose, and my basketball playing days will be over. (I wasn’t talented enough to play collegiately.)

That’s exactly what happened. Playing out of fear — out of what I might lose instead of what I could win — I short-armed the shot. It bounced off the front of the rim and into an opposing player’s hands for the rebound and the eventual victory. Negativity won, and my team lost.

Time for a new perspective

That missed shot stuck in my gut for awhile. In fact, it motivated me to change my perspective on close games and the most important matches when I began coaching 21 years ago.

Funny thing is, I didn’t even realize that the change in mental approach I took to big and tightly contested games has a scholarly term attached to it. It's called “anxiety reappraisal.”

In a nutshell, anxiety reappraisal is when you tell yourself that you feel excited when your body is feeling nervous. It’s the conscious act of embracing nervousness as excitement — the intentional decision to enjoy the moment and see the championship match, tough opponent or nip-and-tuck score as a fun opportunity to revel in instead of letting anxiety negatively affect your approach to playing.

A change in perspective makes a huge difference.

(For more background, an article on anxiety reappraisal in The Atlantic explains that anxiety and excitement are each aroused emotions that cause the heart to beat faster, cortisol to surge and our body to get ready for some type of action.)

Helpful tool for my teams

My new mental approach to key games and closely fought matches was meant to help me handle these pressure moments as a young coach. But not only did anxiety reappraisal benefit me — I saw myself making poised decisions and communicating confidence in the heat of battle that gave my teams the adjustments and leadership needed to pull out victories — it aided my teams as well. Instead of letting nerves make us play tentatively or without poise and confidence, we usually rose to the occasion in tight games and the biggest tournament and playoff match-ups and won the vast majority of these contests.

I still remember one of my first matches as a coach. We were tied late in the finals of a tournament when our opponent called timeout. As we huddled up, I told our team, “This is so much fun. Games like this are why I love to coach.” My players looked surprised, so I explained, “Playing in a close game at a tournament is so much more exciting than winning 25-8. Moments like this bring out the best in us. This is what makes our sport so fantastic to play and coach. Enjoy the moment, go for it and have fun playing together on the court.”

It wasn’t Knute Rockne, but what I said helped our team loosen up and play aggressive, together and free, competing with excitement instead of anxiety. We went on to win the tournament championship, and I used various forms of that mini-speech before and during other larger and more challenging games in future seasons. Nine hundred and ninety-nine wins later, I’m one victory away from 1,000 coaching wins, and this mental approach is one of the reasons behind this success.

You’re excited, not nervous

If you feel nervous or anxious at your next key match, view the butterflies in your stomach as a sign of the excitement you’re feeling about the chance to play in this game. In short:

Embrace the moment. See it as a fun challenge that will bring out the best in you. Trust your skills, your preparation, your coach and your teammates. (Confidence matters.) Smile and enjoy the game and your team. Don’t treat it like a do-or-die situation. I like to tell teams that look uptight, “This is volleyball, not a final exam in algebra. It’s fun — enjoy it. if we win, that’s great. If we lose, we still got to play and enjoy this game together, and the sun will still rise tomorrow.”

Celebrate your team’s every success on the court. Ignore the scoreboard — if you just focus on playing well and with great enthusiasm, everything will usually take care of itself. Affirm your teammates, and let them affirm you. Use positive self-talk (“We’ve got this,” “The next point’s ours”). Play your game — don’t try to do too little or too much — play for each other and go for it. The team that has more fun and is more assertive almost always wins.

And don’t ever think about what will happen if you don’t do x, y or z. Train yourself to be relentlessly positive. The more you allow yourself to enjoy the game, enjoy your team and play with hope and excitement, the better you’ll play on the court.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Looking the part of a quality club volleyball team

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by Jeff Smith

This past weekend I saw each of our full-season middle school teams play 1-2 matches apiece at their Chicago Volleyball League tournaments. Fortunately five of the six teams played at Top Flight, so I only had to drive to two different locations. (College of DuPage was the other.)

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to watch each of our middle school squads in action, and most of them had a great weekend. In fact, four of our teams went 4-2, while two others went 3-3, so it was a very successful weekend on the scoreboard.

Even though there was a wide range of age levels represented (12 Blue and 12 Red, 13 Blue and 13 Red, 14 Blue and 14 Red), it was refreshing to see some common traits among our teams, particularly what coaches call “looking the part” of a competitive team. Here are the common characteristics I noticed:

1. Supporting one another on the court

One of the most disheartening things to see as a coach is a team that doesn’t support each other. I didn’t see that issue crop up with any of our middle school teams. The players on the court during their matches came together in a quick huddle after every point. That takes discipline and commitment, but it’s something that every good team does, and it’s a must to do in order to preserve team unity and keep each other engaged and encouraged.

This is something we specifically teach our teams during early season practices. I call it Celebrate and Console Time. If we win a point, we huddle up in the middle of the court and celebrate. If we lose a point, we still huddle up and console each other with an affirming “We’ll get the next one.”

Each team did a great job of this in the matches I witnessed. I especially loved 13 Blue’s fun ace huddle cheer after each service ace. It was very encouraging to see our teams doing this consistently and not reluctantly, too.

2. Actively engaged bench

We talk a lot at practices about remaining mentally and emotionally invested in the match even when you’re on the bench not playing. Each player needs to be actively engaged in the match whether on or off the court. Bench players’ encouragement and enthusiasm from the sidelines goes a long way toward strengthening their teammates’ play, and it keeps them mentally focused so that when they re-enter the match they are mentally and emotionally ready to give their best effort.

Our middle school teams’ bench support was for the most part fantastic. It was great to see teammates on the sidelines cheering on their team after winning points, encouraging them after losing points and avoiding the pitfalls of sitting on the bench idly talking to their teammates and ignoring the action on the court.

Speaking of sitting, I ask our teams ages 13U and up to stand on the sidelines instead of sitting on the bench. This is largely symbolic, but by standing, the players are more likely to be engaged in the match, and standing instead of sitting demonstrates to the opponent and to their teammates that they are “in” the match with their teammates. Standing also keeps their legs looser so they are better prepared to play in the match when they sub in.

3. Playing tough and together in close matches

One of the most encouraging parts of the weekend was seeing Serve City teams dig deep and play their best volleyball when their matches were tightly contested. Our teams won several three-set matches, including rallying from a first set loss to win in three sets.

You’ll never win all of your close matches. But good teams find a way to win tight matches more often than not. It speaks to a team’s preparation, character and training when they pull out hard-fought matches. Our teams won six or seven three-set matches while only losing two or three of these three-setters, which spoke highly of our teams’ perseverance and never-quit attitudes.

4. Playing the game the right way

It is very easy at the middle school level, especially at the 12U and 13U age groups, to go solely for the win by playing it safe. What I mean is using a simplistic system that teaches the athletes nothing and doesn’t prepare them for future seasons and encouraging your team to simply pass the ball over the net in one or two contacts or rely solely on free balls and safe down balls on third contacts instead of being committed to passing, setting and hitting.

To our teams’ credit, they seemed almost always focused on playing the game the right way instead of merely going for the easy victory by playing what coaches call “backyard barbecue volleyball” — passing the ball over the net instead of looking to pass-set-hit. Club volleyball should first be about player and team development and secondly about winning.

That doesn’t mean winning is not important. We should always play to win, but not at the cost of not playing assertively or in a way that enhances and stretches our players’ development in terms of skills and their understanding of tactics and strategies. One example is jump serving. We work on jump serving in nearly every 14U multi-team practice, so observing a few of our players using jump serves in matches is exciting to see at an age level where nearly every player relies on the safer standing float or topspin serve.

A good example of this was 13 Red’s loss to a team from Top Flight on Sunday. The opponent rarely attempted to pass, set and attack the ball. It was content to pass the ball safely over the net in one or two contacts. By contrast, 13 Red consistently looked to set up its hitters for attacks while running a 5-1 system that mirrors the systems employed by most eighth-grade school teams and 14U club teams.

The short-term result was 13 Red ended up losing this match after committing several hitting, setting and passing errors that inevitably will happen when a younger team works to pass-set-hit, particularly jump hitting out of a 5-1 system where the setter transitions from the back row for three rotations.

But the long-term result is our 13 Red players will be better equipped to play the pass-set-hit style on their eighth-grade school teams, in 14U club volleyball and beyond into high school. And we are focused more on the long term than the short term in developing players both now and for the immediate future.

Congratulations to each of our middle school squads on a successful Chicago Volleyball League season! The coaches and I are very proud of each of you!

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

6 ways to keep focused and fresh for late-season practices

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by Jeff Smith

For regional club volleyball teams, March and April is the period that some coaches describe as the dog days of the season. This is the time of year when less motivated athletes begin giving less effort in practices, or missing more and more practices, and less motivated coaches put less planning, intentionality and creativity into their practices, as the season winds down.

The last six weeks of the season usually separate the good players and teams who remain devoted to growth and development from the less committed ones, and the results are evident on the court in tournaments and training sessions.

It can be tempting to start cutting corners and exerting less energy and mental focus in late-season practices. You may be tired, not feeling 100 percent physically, counting down the days until spring break, busy with a variety of extracurricular activities, yearning for more free time in your schedule to just chill out and do nothing or needing a break from sports, or you might be new to club volleyball and not accustomed to maintaining a five-month commitment to a sport.

Truth is, it’s safe to say 99 percent of our athletes sincerely want to pour their full physical, emotional and mental effort into every practice for the sake of their team and their own development. How can you as an athlete avoid the slippery slope of letting your practice and match habits slide or start lagging?

Here are six tips that can help you in this critically important area.

1. Set goals for yourself

This is something the USA women’s national team coaches ask their players to do at their practices. Each player is asked to set a specific goal for each practice.

For example, Jordan Larson’s goal for one recent practice was to pass the ball off the sweet spot of her platform (the area between her wrists and elbows) on average eight out of every 10 serves she received during practice that day. Jordan knows that passing the ball off the sweet spot of her platform consistently is crucial to her success as a serve receiver, so she made it the focus of her goal setting that day.

Goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) help us to keep growing in our skills and understanding of the game. They also keep us focused throughout practice so that we stay motivated and mentally locked in to the task at hand.

2. Analyze your game: what needs to improve?

Goal setting will benefit us most if our goals are tied to the areas of our game that need to get better. To be honest, we all need to get better at every skill.

Even if, say, you’re a great server for your age level, your serve isn’t perfect. It can always improve. Maybe you need to serve more consistently; if you miss one out of every five serves on average, your goal could be to increase your serving percentage from 80 percent accuracy to 90 percent. Perhaps you don’t know how to zone serve; your goal could be to learn how to consistently zone serve to all of the back-row or front-row zones.

Maybe you’re a 12U or 13U player who doesn’t yet serve overhand in matches. Your goal could be to develop a consistent overhand serve between now and the last tournament of the season. Or you’re a 14U or high school player who uses a standing overhand serve but doesn’t yet have a reliable jump float serve. Make mastering the jump float and using it in your next tournament or by your last tournament your practice goal.

Perhaps you serve a jump serve already but only sometimes are able to serve it to specific zones, particularly short zones. There’s a great goal for you to pursue.

3. Choose to be an intentional energy source for your team

The best way to do this is through words of encouragement and affirmation as well as high fives and fist bumps. Watch an NBA game. Professional basketball players exchange high fives and fist bumps with each other throughout every game: as players are subbed out or come in, before and after team huddles, after made and missed free throws, after hustle plays, even throughout pre-game warm-ups.

They do this as a sign of team unity and support and also because studies show that people feed off receiving both verbal and physical affirmation.

Take this approach in your practices. Verbal and physical signs of encouragement will not only keep your teammates and team energized, but you’ll find this will energize you as well.

4. Change up your routine

If you’ve found yourself falling into the same rut for each practice — eating a snack, perusing social media on your phone, changing into your practice gear and then getting in the car to head to practice — change it up to keep things fresh.

For instance, get ready first, then watch a couple of skill videos that Serve City sends to all our athletes each week to motivate you for practice. Write down one goal for that day’s practice that you will seek to accomplish. Drink a protein shake or Gatorade instead of a can of Mountain Dew. Take a 15-minute nap or listen to music while lying on the couch for 15 minutes.

Altering your routine before each practice will keep you refreshed and ready to get after it that evening.

5. Ask a coach for feedback

Talk to your coach before a practice. Ask them what two or three areas of your game you need to especially focus on at practices that week. Your coaches know your game better than anyone. They see you practice and play more than anybody else does. Seek out their input, or read through the mid-season evaluation each coach was supposed to write for their players (or ask them to give you an evaluation).

6. Be the kind of teammate you want others to be to you

When I played basketball in middle school, one of my teammates, named Rodney, was the kind of player that kept everyone on their toes. He wasn’t one of our best shooters or ball-handlers or passers, but what he lacked in scoring ability he more than made up for with his hustle, effort, enthusiasm and determination. His practice energy was off-the-charts good.

Rodney practiced like every practice was the championship game of the league season. Whenever we scrimmaged or ran a drill, he went all out. We’d play a 5 on 5 scrimmage, and whenever there was a loose ball on the floor, you knew Rodney would be the first one to dive for it.

Rodney’s approach to practice was contagious. His teammates soon found themselves practicing with greater energy and focus because of him.

Eventually the whole team was working with his fire and determination, and it wasn’t a coincidence that our team ended up winning the league championship in back-to-back seasons. We simply out-efforted our opponents game after game.

And it all started with how we practiced. Practice the way you want to play. If you want to play with excellence, you have to practice with excellence, no matter how you feel or what time of year it is.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Lessons from the life of #18, Beth Dunlap

by Jeff Smith

I’d never heard of Beth Dunlap until learning the news that the Downers Grove North junior was struck by a car while walking across the street to school the morning of February 19. She tragically passed away three days later.

Serve City boys volleyball players gather during a tournament on Sunday for an 18-second moment of silence in memory of Beth Dunlap.

Serve City boys volleyball players gather during a tournament on Sunday for an 18-second moment of silence in memory of Beth Dunlap.

It’s been hard not to think of her since.

It grips your heart to hear of a young life taken far too soon. One minute Beth is entering a crosswalk near school on a typical day. The next minute the lives of her parents, sister, friends, teachers, classmates and teammates are thrown into chaos by the careless act of an alleged drunk driver.

Beth’s passing hits close to home. My two daughters had so much in common with Beth. They’re two years older than Beth. They both play volleyball like Beth, a DGN and club standout. My younger daughter is a setter like Beth was. They’re churchgoers with a strong faith in God like Beth apparently had. They’re dedicated students like Beth was. They’re devoted to our family just like Beth was a member of a close-knit family.

After reading about Beth’s tragic accident, I prayed for God’s protection over my daughters. I know I can’t keep them safe in this broken world, not by a long shot.

As a girls volleyball director, Beth’s passing made me see Serve City’s girls players in a new frame of mind. We don’t just have 122 female athletes on our 12 teams. We have 122 Beth Dunlaps.

As a parent it’s difficult to imagine the gut-wrenching pain and heartache that Beth’s parents are suffering. I will pray for Randall and Jennifer 18 times this month in honor of Beth’s #18 volleyball jersey and the Beth Dunlap 18 Fund. Beth’s trust fund was established to benefit First United Methodist Church, her church home, and to launch a charitable fund that accomplishes 18 acts of kindness annually in the volleyball community to assist underprivileged volleyball players.

The Dunlaps will desperately need the prayers and support of many people in the weeks, months and, honestly, years to come.

Beth’s passing hit especially close to home for me last Saturday, the day after she died, as I traveled to a volleyball tournament in Marengo. On the way I had to drive near the site where I was thrown out of the shattered back windshield of my car into a field along I-90 after being struck by four different vehicles on a stormy October 5 evening last fall. After that accident I laid unconscious and didn’t regain consciousness for an hour after arriving at Sherman Hospital in Elgin.

A near-death experience changes your perspective. Now, when I think of Beth and the dark valley her family and friends are journeying through, I realize more than ever how fragile life is.

At 10:59 a.m. you’re walking across a street near school, or at 8:59 p.m. you’re driving down a highway heading home from a college volleyball tournament. Then suddenly, in a matter of seconds, you’re lying on the ground unconscious and helpless.

Sadly, Beth didn’t get a chance to recover from the devastating car accident that robbed her life. But even though she is no longer on earth, she still taught me three powerful lessons.

1. Touch lives around you

That’s not easy to do sometimes. Loved ones hurt us. Strangers hurt us. The world hurts us. And, let’s face it, we hurt others. We’re all far from perfect.

But, then you read about the Dunlaps who, even as they cry in agony over an unspeakable tragedy, still decide to set up the Beth Dunlap 18 Fund, donate Beth’s organs to science, commit to raise money for their church and perform acts of kindness so underprivileged kids get the same opportunity to play volleyball that their daughter enjoyed.

Even in the midst of the despair of darkness, the Dunlaps are choosing to shine light.

2. Forgive others

If I were in the Dunlaps’ shoes, I’d want to hold a bitter grudge against the driver whose reckless actions snuffed out their daughter’s life. Unfortunately, as the famous quote says, bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

From everything I’ve read and heard about Beth’s family, I expect they’ll forgive the driver. They won’t ever forget, nor should they, and it will be perhaps the the most daunting task they’ll ever do. But it will be the right thing for them to do for their healing as they move forward with their lives.

If the Dunlaps can forgive something so horrific, so can we forgive others for much lesser pains.

3. Kindness matters

On Monday I was exhausted and cranky after working seven long, draining days, including coaching two tournaments, leading four practices, running a fundraiser, setting up team picture day and organizing Feed My Starving Children on top of regular duties and home responsibilities.

While slumped in my recliner at home, I opened GroupMe on my phone and saw an amazing picture of members of Serve City 14 Blue each displaying #18 on their hands in honor of Beth.

As I looked at the photo, it felt like God was telling me to do something on my own to honor Beth. So I brought cookies for our 12 Blue and 12 Red teams at their practice on Tuesday just to surprise them and did the same for 13 Blue and 13 Red at their practice on Thursday. I invited my daughters to go to a movie with me because I love them so much. I devoted a day to pray for my wife because she means the world to me, and I called my mom Thursday because frankly I owe her everything.

I don’t do random acts of kindness like this very often. I give the credit to #18, Beth Dunlap. Her life inspired our 14 Blue players to pay tribute to her, which motivated me to do the same.

Death may have taken Beth’s last breath, but it can’t stop her life from continuing to impact others for years to come. In fact, she may end up impacting more lives now than she ever did before.

No. 18 walked off the court of life as a winner.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

What should you do after making a mistake on the court? H-A-M it up

by Jeff Smith

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At last year’s Diggin’ in the Dells tournament, one of the players on the 18 Blue team went into meltdown mode. She started making one serve receive error after another on the final day of the event. Her passing became so unreliable and her confidence so deflated that I changed the serve receive alignment to hide her in one corner of the court in front of the end line. Eventually I subbed her out to catch her breath and restore her poise.

No amount of encouragement, time off the court or instruction seemed to help her.

I share her story (anonymously) as a stark reminder that volleyball is largely a mental game and to serve as an example that mental mistakes aren’t limited to the youngest players and teams. What players of any age, even collegiately and in the Olympics, think and how they respond to adversity and tense situations makes a monumental difference in how they play.

One of the questions I get asked most often by parents is “How should my daughter handle making mistakes on the court in a match?” It’s a great question.

My response is they should H-A-M it up.

That sounds crazy, and it should! What I’m referring to is an acronym I created for what players should do after they make an error that loses a rally or leads to their team losing the rally. H-A-M stands for:

Huddle up.

We teach our teams to quickly and briefly huddle up after every rally, win or lose. I call it the celebrate or encourage huddle. If your team wins a rally, every player on the court for the team gathers quickly in the middle of their side of the court and celebrates the point. If your team loses a rally, they also gather in the middle of the court, only this time to briefly encourage each other, especially the player or players who made mistakes that led to losing the rally.

Affirm each other.

The player or players who made the mistake that led to losing the rally need a quick word of encouragement and affirmation from their teammates. This sends the message that their teammates have their back and support them through thick and thin and any mistakes they make.

Because let’s face it: We all make mistakes in a match. Every volleyball rally ends in a mistake. If your team serves an ace, the other team lost the point because someone shanked their pass of the serve out of bounds or into the net or they let the serve hit the floor. If your team wins a rally with an attack, the other team lost the rally because a blocker blocked it out of bounds or a back-row player was unable to dig the ball up.

Teams need their players to constantly be affirming their teammates throughout the match and tournament. No mistake should go without a word of affirmation, a high-five, a fist bump, pat on the back or a “Shake it off, we got the next one” type of comment.

Move on.

A phrase I’ve said countless times to countless players and teams over the last 20-plus years is “Good players have bad memories.” Good players realize that dwelling on their mistakes won’t help them play better. In fact, it will lead to them playing worse.

Once a rally ends, all of a player’s focus needs to be on the next point. Dwelling on the past won’t change the outcome of the last rally or the mistake you made. If you need to, take two quick seconds to remind yourself what you should have done on the passing or service or hitting or setting error you made and then shift all of your focus to the next rally.

If you as a player have a difficult time letting go of your mistakes, remember this: Every player makes mistakes. All of your teammates make mistakes. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes.

That doesn’t mean to celebrate mistakes or make light of them. But it does mean to give yourself a helping of grace.

Something I taught an 18U libero I coached was to give herself the latitude to make two passing errors per set. She was a perfectionist who beat herself up over any passing errors she made. I reminded her that libero is the toughest and most demanding back-row position on the court and she would never be able to play a perfect match. I told her to allow herself two passing mistakes for each set. That way, when she shanked an occasional pass in serve receive or dug an attack out of bounds, she mentally realized she had a little extra cash in her bank account so to speak that covered over those mistakes.

My coaching colleagues would probably think that idea was nuts, but it worked with her. She was able to play more relaxed and free knowing she wasn’t expected by her coach or teammates — or now herself — to play perfect volleyball. I ended up teaching the same strategy to a perfectionist 14U libero with similar helpful results.

Another helpful strategy is positive self-talk. For example, before every opponent’s serve Kayla Banwarth, the libero for the U.S. national women’s team, says her phrase of the day in her mind. For one match the phrase she repeated over and over before every serve was “I’m a great passer when I hold my finish to my target.” Hold my finish refers to “freezing” her platform in place for a second after passing the ball, similar to a basketball jump shooter holding her follow-through for a second after releasing her shot.

Whether you’re 12U, 18U or anywhere in between, H-A-M it up on the court this weekend and watch your mental game soar.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

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.