'I WANT to See Mistakes out Here on the Court'

by Jeff Smith

"For more than 40 years, one of the first things I say to new teams and summer camp players is 'I want to see mistakes out here on the court.'”

You're probably thinking no coach has ever said this to their players. What coach would want their athletes committing errors that squander points to the opposing team? 

But this is an actual quote from John Kessel, director of sport development at USA Volleyball. And his philosophy is spot on.

As coaches, we want players to stretch outside their comfort zone in order to do things they have never done before. That means errors are inevitable. In fact, they're expected. New skills don't just happen overnight. They require trial and error, sweat and sacrifice, falling down and getting back up again ... and again ... and again.

That's really what club volleyball should be about, shouldn't it? It's why I tell people that my team's practices are our laboratory where we're experimenting, learning, extending ourselves and frequently failing.

"I don’t want to see the athletes doing things they are already really good at, with few if any errors," John Kessel says. "I want to see those errors that are part of learning."

Admittedly, putting this philosophy into practice isn't always easy. Here's one example. On Saturday the team I coach won the first match of our tournament and then took the first set of our second match against the other unbeaten team in our pool. I knew that if we won the second set as well, we would probably go on to win the pool and the tournament. It was tempting to use the same lineup that won the first set of the pivotal match since they were playing so well together. But I switched one of our outside hitters to setter and one of our setters to outside hitter for various reasons. The main reason is because they both would like to learn second positions and earned the right to do so through their effort, attitude and improving play on the court at these new positions in practices. They earned the chance to play these positions in a tournament.

I'd love to tell you that the two girls excelled at their new positions and led us to a rousing victory that catapulted us to sole possession of first place in the tournament.

But that's not exactly what happened.

The setter actually fared very well, while the new outside hitter struggled. Most of her hits sailed out of bounds or were easily returned, and she made some mistakes in serve receive. We eventually lost the set and ended up tying for first in the tourney with this same opponent.

And that's totally fine.

In fact, I don't blame this athlete at all. We made mistakes in several areas. It was a team loss. And so, in our last match of the pool, after we won the opening set, I switched the lineup again for the second set to give the new outside hitter and setter another opportunity at their new secondary positions. The new setter did a good job again, making numerous solid plays to give our hitters hittable sets. This time our new outside hitter played much sharper both in her hitting and serve reception, even pounding a couple of hits off hut sets that are more difficult to execute than the typical high set used at the 14s level. She still has a lot of work to do in honing her hitting skills and technique, but it's clear that she has the potential to develop into both an excellent setter, outside hitter and even a middle hitter, where she'll play in our next tournament. And her taste of outside hitting will likely stir her appetite to train even harder in future practices.

It's just going to require making, learning from and living with X number of mistakes and errors to reach that destination.

Will that mean occasionally losing a set or a match we could have won by always rolling out our very best lineup for every set of every tournament? I'm sure it's already cost us a handful of sets this season. But, as John Kessel points out, limiting athletes to only doing what they're already proficient at will stunt their growth.

And that would be the biggest loss of all.

Jeff Smith is Serve City Volleyball Region Director.