by Jeff Smith
If you asked what my biggest pet peeve is in two decades as a coach, it's this: coaches who specialize players in middle school.
Middle school is the ideal period when volleyball players should be given ample opportunities to learn every aspect of the game. It's why every athlete who plays on one of my teams, even the high school teams I worked with at a previous club, learns and works on passing, serving, setting, hitting, serve receiving and digging in our practices, no matter if they're 6 feet tall or 4 feet 10.
That doesn't mean everyone plays every position in actual matches, but it does mean learning and playing a range of skills during practices. Why? Because, except for rare instances, it's hard to predict with certainty what position a 12- to 14-year-old athlete is best suited for in high school. Even if a player is a great fit for a specific position as a seventh- or eighth-grader, they need to learn the full game so that they can be fully effective on the court in any and all situations.
An eighth-grade player named Mary serves as the ultimate example of this philosophy.
The confused look on Mary's face said it all. It was the first practice of the season, and the other players were forearm passing balls while the coaches finished setting up the nets.
"We're supposed to pass the ball 50 times without a miss," one of Mary's teammates told her.
Mary shook her head. "But I'm not good at passing," said the team's tallest player, who played middle hitter for her club team last year. "I'm a hitter, not a passer."
Once the drill ended, the girls organized into groups of four for a 2v2 split-court warm-up drill. Each player took turns setting, passing and hitting. When it was Mary's turn to set, she didn't realize I was standing a few feet behind her when she exclaimed to her teammates, "But I'm not a setter!"
Mary's reluctance to do anything but hit and block continued throughout the first couple of weeks of the season. That is, until one day, upon hearing her tell a teammate again that she was a middle hitter and not a passer or setter, I chimed in: "You're not a middle hitter; you're a volleyball player."
From that point forward, Mary slowly grew into an all-around volleyball player. It took lots of instruction, feedback, affirmation and game repetitions, but Mary's passing and setting skills steadily developed. At first I had to stand and watch Mary for a couple of minutes before she finally delivered a solid set to a teammate during a ball control drill that allowed me to affirm a positive play. But by mid-season her setting and passing skills were remarkably improved over the season's first practice, and she no longer complained to teammates about "having" to set or pass. As part of my philosophy that middle-school athletes should learn the all-around game, I also put Mary and her teammates in serve receive and at different positions on the court during practices. Even though Mary only played middle hitter in matches, she played every position on the court in our practices, which sped her all-around development.
Mary's transformation became public in a mid-season match when she received an errant pass and set the ball to a teammate for a kill, giving Mary the first assist of her young career. The "milestone" was not lost on Mary, who broke into a huge grin after the play was over. In fact, the assist fed her desire to pass and set the ball.
Later in the season, she recorded three assists in one match from her middle hitter position, and in another match she delivered five passes to setter. Her confidence continued to grow to the point where she even stole the second ball from one of our setters a couple of times in her zeal to set a teammate.
At our season-ending team party, Mary delivered another "assist" when she gave me a handwritten note that read, "Thank you for coaching me this season. You have helped me improve tremendously. You let me play more than just middle and helped me improve as an all-around player. Thank you again. I'm glad to have had you as my coach."
Needless to say, I'll be keeping Mary's note for a long, long time.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.