Discipline: the overlooked key to excelling on the court

by Jeff Smith

At a Windy City Power League tournament on Saturday, I watched the pre-game warm-ups for the opening match of one of the 14U pools. During shared court time, one team was working efficiently on a blocking and hitting run-through and then transitioned quickly into a fast-paced ball-control drill. The other team lazily sloughed through the motions of partner passing, though it looked more like partner shanking; the majority of passes were off-target thanks to a mix of poor passing technique and halfhearted focus and effort.

You can safely guess the winner of the match.

The more disciplined warm-up team won handily. It wasn't solely because they warmed up more purposefully. They had the more experienced, more skilled and more talented team. But, just from watching their warm-ups and their performance on the court, it was clear they were the kind of team that probably practices with the same level of discipline they displayed in warm-ups and the match.

Their opponent, on the other hand, looked like it was playing at a backyard summer barbecue.

Good habits eventually lead to good skills and knowledge of the game. It might take months or years to see tangible fruit from your labor, but at some point positive habits will yield positive results.

And good habits take discipline. As our club's theme quote says, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

A similar quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better."

In the world of club volleyball, discipline can mean:

Taking technical skill development seriously, striving to continually improve and sharpen our skills in practice. Developing a fundamentally sound skill set is vital to long-term success in our sport. This kind of development requires discipline; it takes countless hours to hone your skills and expand your volleyball IQ without getting discouraged at the lengthy process this entails so that you can thrive on the court.

Getting to practices on time (and even early -- if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time) so you can use your team's full practice time wisely. (I still vividly remember attending a team's practice in an earlier season as a guest coach and watching as most of the players arrived between five and 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to start, then took another five to 10 minutes to change into their knee pads and volleyball shoes. To no one's surprise, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.)

Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and reached the Final Four in 2017. One of the hallmarks of the program is its attention to detail. The coaches and players work diligently on every detail during training. The spring before the Cardinal's last national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from zone 1 to the deep corner of zone 5 in every training session involving serve receive. Their goal was for the players to become so adept at serving deep zone 5 that, when the fall season began, they would serve teams out of system with this one simple strategy.

Their plan worked; Stanford was one of the top serving teams in the nation that season.

Practicing with passion. The other day I substitute coached for our Wheaton 18 Blue team. One thing that impressed me was the level of energy the players poured into training. The players competed in each drill with competitive zeal. Whether performing a simple 2v0 drill or competing in a serve receive game, the athletes were fully engaged. They approached practice with the same drive that you witness in the playoff round of a weekend tournament. It brought to mind the axiom to "practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice."

Taking care of your body. Proper sleep, a healthy diet, plenty of fluids and regular fitness and exercise are instrumental to preparing our bodies to be at peak levels of performance in practices and matches. We can't expect to be at our best if we don't properly care for ourselves. How we treat our bodies before a tournament also says a lot about our level of commitment to our team.

Maintaining the right conduct on the court. Studies show that our mental approach to competition has a large bearing on our performance as athletes. Keeping an upbeat mental attitude, delivering positive verbal affirmation and words of encouragement to teammates and maintaining confident body language and tone of voice on the court are crucial to success. All of these traits take discipline to incorporate into our on-court demeanor.

Successfully riding the highs and lows that come with sports competition. Wild swings of momentum are common in volleyball. One minute your team has a 12-3 lead. The next minute your opponent has tied the set at 14-14. Discipline is essential to having the poise, confidence and grit to be able to overcome the many challenges thrown our way in this sport. It takes practice to develop the habits necessary to be able to weather any storm on the court, from your team playing shorthanded one day to falling quickly behind and needing to rally from a large deficit.

Training when you don't feel your best. This doesn't mean coming to practice with a 103-degree fever. But it does refer to pushing through the minor aches, pains and illnesses that lesser athletes lean on as excuses to avoid practicing and instead showing up to practice ready to get "3-percent better" even when we don't feel like training.

Individual improvement is largely a choice. We can either choose to only practice when we feel great and miss out on opportunities to truly grow, or we can commit ourselves to the process of player development even on those days when we're sore, tired or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline, and, like a muscle, develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.