Want to be good at volleyball? You have to be bad first

When Chloe first walked in the school gym for the fourth-grade beginners clinic, I couldn't help but smile. Chloe came from an athletically gifted family. Both of her brothers were star basketball players at the school where I coached, and her parents were good athletes who instilled their kids with a strong work ethic, teachable attitudes, a love for athletics and fitness, competitive mindsets and a commitment to giving their full effort at each practice and game.

But something I didn't count on was how Chloe would respond to her first taste of volleyball. To be blunt, Chloe's initial experience at that clinic was a disaster. She struggled with all of the skills we introduced her to. As coaches, we fully expected this.

But Chloe didn't.

Chloe was an athletic dynamo who was used to excelling immediately at whatever she tried. Her inability to pick up volleyball skills instantly left her visibly discouraged. When she left the gym after the clinic ended with her head down and her face sullen, her mom said to me, "I don't know if volleyball is her sport. She likes softball and basketball, but I'm not sure she'll go out for the volleyball team next year."

The fact is, volleyball is one of the hardest sports to learn at a young age. While baseball, soccer and basketball offer modified instructional leagues for kids as young as 3 or 4, volleyball's more complex motor skills make it challenging to pick up, which is largely why there are few organized opportunities to play volleyball before fifth grade or middle school.

But fortunately Chloe's story didn't end there. Her parents talked her into joining the school's fifth-grade volleyball team that fall. Chloe was anything but a natural. From serving to hitting to passing, nothing came easy for her.

However, slowly but surely she developed a love for the game. The turning point was a play she made during an away match. An opposing player tipped a ball over the net that looked like it would land on our side of the court for a point when, out of nowhere, Chloe rushed up from the back row, made a full dive at the ball and dug it up in the air and back to the opponent's court to win the rally. It was the kind of skilled play you almost never see at the fifth-grade level. Chloe got up from the floor unhurt and beaming as if she'd just won an Olympic gold medal while her teammates mobbed her with congratulations.

That play foreshadowed Chloe's volleyball future. The next year, she started on the school's eighth-grade team as a sixth-grader. In seventh and eighth grade she won back-to-back team MVP awards and led her team to two conference titles. In high school she was a three-time varsity letter-winner and an all-conference defensive specialist and earned a full-ride college scholarship. The last two seasons she's started at libero for a Division I school.

Ironically, this wellspring of memorable experiences, successes and accolades almost never happened if not for the encouragement of Chloe's parents, teammates and coaches.

Is your daughter or son relatively new to volleyball and struggling to learn the skills and intricacies of the sport? As with any new venture, it can be disheartening for them, and even for you.

That's when we as parents, coaches and athletes need to remember a universal truth about volleyball and anything else worthwhile: Getting better is far from a pretty process. Volleyball players are going to be bad initially, and their development will only sprout out of struggle. The reality is their skills are built, not born. They'll only improve with time and hard work, with attempting new skills, taking chances, failing, trying again, making more mistakes, getting back up again -- and all fueled by a combination of their internal desire and the collective affirmation and support of their families, teammates and coaches.

Just ask Chloe.