It's a fact: Coaches do play favorites

by Jeff Smith

No, the headline for this blog post isn't a typo. When it comes to their teams, most coaches do play favorites.

In fact, let me describe my own personal favorite players right now. The athletes who are my favorites are those who ...

Come to each practice early and ready to give their best effort in every drill, game, scrimmage and activity. They're also among the last to leave, always looking to squeeze in a few more reps and touches to continue improving their skills before heading out the door. They live by the mantra that sweat plus sacrifice equals success.

Strive to be the hardest worker on the team regardless of talent, experience or skill level. They understand that, though they can't control their height or ability, they do control their effort, and they make sure they invest maximum effort into what they do.

Play every practice and game with an enthusiasm that is infectious to those around them and whether the team is winning or losing. When they're at practice, everyone else seems to work that much harder, even the coaches.

Make practice a high priority. Even when they can't attend a practice, they ask me for ways they can make up the time on their own or by attending another team's practice. They get the fact that you only get out of something however much or little you put into it.

Bring a teachable attitude to every practice. One of my favorite questions is when an athlete comes up to me during a practice and asks, "Coach, can you help me with ____?" or "Coach, what can I do to get better at _____?" Athletes who are hungry and eager to keep improving are always my favorites.

Adopt a growth mindset. These players are excited and receptive to learning new skills, techniques, tactics and strategies and enjoy being stretched outside their comfort zone. They are fine with being comfortable being uncomfortable as they practice on the very edge of their abilities because they know this will make them better players.

Closely aligned with this growth mindset, they have no fear of mistakes. They realize that learning new skills requires failing. They don't care if they make error after error as they strive to learn a new set or hit or play or serve or passing technique. They're comfortable hitting the ball against the back wall of the gym while being taught how to jump spike for the first time or serving a ball 10 feet short of the net when learning how to jump serve. They understand that failure is part of the journey to reaching the destination of mastering a new skill.

Treat everybody on the team with respect. They respect and appreciate me as their coach through their effort, attitude, teach-ability and commitment, and they respect each teammate, even going so far as to purposely pair up with each teammate during drills and pre-game warm-ups over the course of the season instead of only practicing with her best friends.

Have appropriate fun in matches and practices. These athletes celebrate teammates' successes and the success of the team. They're the first to congratulate a teammate for an ace, kill, block or dig. They love the game and love their team and love their teammates, and it shows in how they play and conduct themselves.

Encourage their teammates. These are athletes who understand the power of words to build others up. They realize that encouragement is oxygen to the soul and are happy to pump up their teammates with affirming comments that strengthen those around them.

Will do whatever the team needs of them. If one of their team's middle hitters is injured and I ask them to switch positions to cover this gap, they're fine with it for the good of the team. They're team players first and foremost.

Play assertively in matches. My favorite players aren't always the most skilled athletes, but they don't let that hold them back from going all-out on the court. If I ask them to be the team's most aggressive back-row player, they seek to fulfill that role with all their heart. That doesn't mean they play perfect volleyball; no one does. But it does mean that the mistakes they make are aggressive, and any coach will tell you those are the kinds of mistakes that we all can happily live with.

Embrace process over outcome. Athletes who are overly focused on winning and the final score can end up playing tight, conservative, safe volleyball that stunts their growth as players. Athletes who focus on the process of playing the game the right way are freed up to be at their best. Instead of playing not to lose, they play with confidence, assertiveness and aggression no matter what the score is. A few weeks ago, one of my team's outside hitters called for our setter to run a tandem play on match point. Tandems are more difficult plays to run, especially at the 14s level. The setter obliged, and our outside hitter pounded it home for a kill to end the match. If she had been obsessed with the score of the match at the time, she would have called for a safe set or just free-balled the set over in order to keep from making a mistake on match point. But her mind was focused on the process of playing good, smart, assertive volleyball, so she went after the point with abandon.

Value her team on and off the court. My favorite players believe that a volleyball team isn't merely a volleyball team when they're together on the court. They understand that you're still a team on your off days, too, and between matches at a tournament. They occasionally send a teammate a text message or email thanking them for their contributions to the team. They gather everyone together after a match and make sure the whole team eats lunch as a unit during their off time at a tournament. They invite their teammates to their house at mid-season for a team bonding event. They occasionally bring treats for the team to a practice or tournament just for fun. They look for ways to keep their team growing together throughout the season.

Display good sportsmanship win or lose, especially after a loss. (Anyone can be a good sport after a victory. True character is revealed in how we handle adversity, such as losing.)

Control their emotions on the court. They don't get too high after a win or too low after a loss, and they don't allow their emotions to get the best of them, whether it's crying because they're not playing up to their standards or getting angry with teammates when they feel their teammates are letting them down.

You probably noticed that the qualities that define "favorite player" have nothing to do with statistics or on-court performance. Great play on the court is tainted when combined with a poor attitude, lack of commitment or weak work ethic.

What other qualities would you add to this "favorites" list?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.