by Jeff Smith
I like practices more than matches.
No, that's not a typo. And yes, that opinion puts me in a solid minority. In fact, that is probably one sentence you've either never read or heard before. Don't teams practice for the glory of tournaments and matches?
In some ways that's true. I myself have coached nearly 1,400 games in the last 20 years. But even after all these years, I still enjoy practices over the actual competitions.
I love the thrill, excitement and intensity of tournaments and matches as much as any coach, but practice is the heart and soul of any team environment.
- It's where teams are largely formed.
- It's where the coach and players work together to develop the skills, tactics, strategies and systems necessary to compete.
- It's where, in school terms, the teacher instructs their students in the classroom day after day on the road to graduation, or where a contractor and their crew work tirelessly to build a skyscraper.
In short, I relish the process of constructing a skilled, prepared, competitive, unified, enthusiastic, well-oiled team over the outcome of a game or tournament.
Over the last two days, I had the privilege of watching four of Serve City's 2017-18 girls teams practice for the first time this season. The teams spanned four different age groups -- 12U, 15U, 16U and 18U -- and a wide range of skill and experience levels, from first-time players to athletes who've played the sport competitively for eight years.
In observing each team, I took away several mental snapshots that reminded me anew of why I like practice so much.
Run, don't walk
While waiting for our Wheaton 12 Blue team's practice to begin, I couldn't help but smile as one of the young players "ditched" her mom and ran across the gym to meet her team and start passing a ball with one of her new teammates. The first day of practice is like that new car smell. Everything is fresh, and the future looks so bright. Watching this 10- or 11-year-old player scamper excitedly into practice was a great reminder of what a privilege it is to be part of a team.
As far as I know, there is no world record kept for the most high fives by a team in one practice. But if there was, that record might have been set by our Wheaton 18 Blue team. The players gave out high fives to one another throughout their practice Tuesday night.
- High fives after successful plays.
- High fives after mistakes.
- High fives for teammates as they ran off the court during a drill.
- High fives for teammates as they ran on the court for a drill.
- High fives after winning a drill and losing a drill.
Most of these athletes had never met before Tuesday. So what generated these gestures of celebration and encouragement? Few sports bring people together as easily or create the kind of camaraderie experienced by teammates as volleyball does. Volleyball and basketball are the ultimate team sports. One ball, six teammates, a few different positions, roles and skill sets and one purpose on the court. Volleyball unifies a group of individuals like few other activities. It also unites people for a common cause and sets our hearts and focus on something outside of our own self-centered interests, something greater than ourselves. It also breaks down barriers between us. The next thing we know, we're high-fiving a new teammate whose name we didn't have a clue about 15 minutes earlier. That's volleyball.
Try, try again
During practice for our 16 Blue team in Des Plaines, coach Breann Reveley was teaching her athletes a perimeter defensive system that most of the girls were unfamiliar with. One of the players seemed particularly unsure of herself as she learned how to defend at right back in the back row. Jane (not her real name) kept getting confused about where to transition when the opponent would be setting the ball to the outside hitter. It was a whole new paradigm for her, and you could see by her facial expressions that she was getting increasingly frustrated with herself and doubting her ability to figure this out.
But, after a string of mistakes, Jane successfully started in the proper position on the court (five feet behind the 10-foot line and five feet inside the sideline), shuffled to the correct spot on the sideline, stayed in her low defensive stance and dug up an attack to her setter, who set it to the outside hitter for a hit down the line. The proverbial light bulb was shining brightly now. Jane understood her role and could execute it now. "You got it," Coach Bre said to her, and Jane's expressive face showed a mix of relief, pride and excitement at learning something new. Jane's experience reminded me of the quote "Be humble, be teachable and always keep learning." Good life lesson wrapped up in a volleyball package.
The power of applause
During the 15 Blue team's practice at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines on Monday, the players were doing a split-court serve/serve receive drill. Two groups of players were working on serving and receiving serves on both halves of the court. One of the girls was delivering her serves consistently over the net for awhile, but then started missing. Soon she had missed several serves in a row. This happens from time to time with younger players. This server is a first-time club player and is actually in eighth grade, a year younger than many of her ninth-grade teammates.
Time was nearly up for this drill, so the team's coach, Briana Flanagan, called out "Last serve." This young player took a deep breath, held up the ball in her shelf (non-serving) hand and prepared to toss and swing at the ball when her teammates did something unusual and spectacular at the same time. The other group had just completed its last serve, so when one person yelled out "You've got this, Mary!" the members of the other group joined the other girls in Mary's group in spontaneously beginning to clap loudly, hoot, holler, whistle and encourage Mary on her final serve of the drill.
At first I figured Mary might get embarrassed and feel self-conscious about all the attention. Her teammates' cheering was so loud, it sounded like we were in the finals of a tournament, and Mary had just met these other girls about an hour before this moment.
But, instead of feeling silly or ashamed, Mary took this gesture for what it was meant to be: genuine positive reinforcement from a team that wanted Mary to succeed. Mary smiled, then regained her focus, went about her routine, tossed the ball in the air, and swung as aggressively as I'd seen her attack the ball all practice. The serve took off from her hand, soared high in the air, cleared the top of the net by a good five feet and landed safely past the 10-foot line; the serve receivers were too busy clapping and yelling for Mary to have time to pass the ball.
After the ball bounced off the floor, the entire team erupted in a full-throated cheer so loud that the 16 Blue team stopped playing in the middle of its drill for a couple of seconds out of curiosity over what had taken place. Mary accepted high-fives -- that volleyball staple -- from nearby teammates, and the rest of the team congratulated her as they huddled up after the drill. It was a spontaneous moment that lasted all of maybe 15 seconds, but I guarantee that Mary will remember that moment for the rest of the season, and perhaps even longer.
I bet you no longer wonder why I love practices so much or why practices are so vital.
Jeff Smith is Serve City girls volleyball club director.