Excellence: the result of always striving to do better

by Jeff Smith

A few years into my coaching career, I coached a team that at first glance looked like it would be undergoing a rebuilding season. From the standpoint of experience and raw athletic talent, this was not a team that anyone would equate with excellence. All but one starter had graduated from the previous season's conference championship team.

What was left was a roster full of question marks.

But what this team lacked in experience it made up for in enthusiasm and desire. The team was led by three captains who loved the game, wanted to keep the program's winning tradition alive and were committed to doing everything in their power to make the new season a success, starting with preseason practices.

Each August morning they would arrive before the rest of their teammates to put in extra work on their skills. Some sharpened their serving accuracy or technique; others worked on their setting, hitting or digging. I got to the gym on day one at 8:25 a.m. for a 9 a.m. practice, and they were already inside waiting for me to unlock the equipment room so they could start practicing their serving. The next day I arrived at 8:20, and they were waiting for me again. On day three I got to the school at 8:15, and -- you guessed it -- they were in the gym ahead of me yet again.

The captains' dedication rubbed off on their teammates. Soon other players started showing up earlier and earlier for practices until, by day five, nearly every player was honing their skills 30 to 40 minutes before practice officially began. As a coach it was rewarding to see.

The players' devotion continued throughout the season. Led by the captains, most of the girls spent another two to three hours each weekend doing additional skill drills at home or scrimmaging in the gym outside of practice. We called the weekend skill work S-E-T for Success. S-E-T was an acronym for Spend Extra Time.

The players' commitment paid off beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The team went 27-4 to tie the school record for single-season wins, set the previous season, and four of the players went on to play collegiately. I don't compare teams to each other -- it would be like comparing one daughter to another -- but this was one of the fondest seasons of my coaching career thanks primarily to three dedicated team captains.

The team's success could be traced back to the players' decision to form training habits that went above and beyond what their coach asked them to do.

And that's what excellence -- the 2017-18 Serve City theme -- really comes down to. One of the most famous quotes on excellence says it best: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Excellence doesn't just happen, and it isn't something we're born with. It takes exerting ourselves to do things the right way over and over again until, over time, good habits produce the necessary skills, strength, knowledge base, conditioning and preparedness to thrive on the court. Excellence requires desire, motivation and the discipline to push ourselves even when it hurts, is inconvenient, we're tired or we just don't want to push ourselves that day.

Excellence also takes patience and perseverance. Five-time NBA championship coach Pat Riley said it this way: Excellence is a gradual result of always striving to do better. It's not instantaneous. It requires being satisfied with small strides, seeing "2-percent" or "3-percent" improvement in our skills -- slow and steady progress. The pursuit of excellence is a marathon, not a sprint.

Excellence also demands a consistently strong effort. Working hard some of the time won't cut it. We have to push ourselves to the brink of our abilities every time we train over a period of months and years if we want to experience excellence on the court (or in the classroom, the band room or the workplace). Excellence requires our best effort in every drill of every practice of every season over a period of seasons to reap the long-term rewards.

And excellence only takes place if we acknowledge, accept and seek out the wisdom and advice of others, particularly our coaches. When we're consistently open to our coach's teaching, trust our coach's training methods and strive to apply that teaching and training to our skill development, we have an opportunity to learn the techniques, tactics and strategies that make for excellent players and teams.

So, what does excellence look like at Serve City? Here are just a few examples of what we'd love to see happening in our practice facilities in Des Plaines, Wheaton, West Chicago, Carol Stream and West Dundee over the next few months:

** Setters arriving at practices 15 minutes early to do setting drills with a teammate, a coach or off a wall.

** Coaches sending their team YouTube videos between practices showing proper hitting technique while the team learns a new aspect of hitting.

** Players asking to train with another Serve City team on weeks when they miss a team practice due to another extracurricular commitment.

** Teammates leaving the gym after each practice feeling tired, sore and sweaty but with smiles on their faces knowing they gave maximum effort throughout their training time.

** A team's middle hitters getting permission from their parents to ask their coach if they'll stay 10 minutes after practice to work with them on their blocking skills.

** A player going to her family's fitness gym on Sunday evenings to perform 50 extra serves as she strives to improve her zone serving ability.

** A player doing strength exercises at home in order to serve and hit with more power.

** An overhand server arriving early each practice to get extra reps on a jump serve she wants to learn and use in tournaments.

** Athletes always stretching themselves to learn new skills and refine current skills.

The best part about the pursuit of excellence is, as we develop the habit of always striving to do better, we form a passion for the game of volleyball that makes training seem less like work and more like a labor of love.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball club director.