by Jeff Smith
January 23, 2016 was one of the toughest days of my 20-year coaching career. It was the second tournament of the season for the Serve City Elgin 14U team I coached. Most of the girls were new to club volleyball, and all but one were actually a year or two young for this age level. But because one of our players turned 14 that year, our team had to move up from 13U to 14U.
The combination of inexperience and youth was a recipe for hard knocks. Our first tournament went relatively well as we were competitive in every match and finished 2-2. But our second tournament featured not only all 14U opponents again but national teams to boot.
Needless to say, we played the part of the Washington Generals while the national teams were in the role of the Harlem Globetrotters. We lost eight out of nine sets, and in at least half of those sets we didn't score in double digits. One team beat us 25-5, 25-7, and ironically it wasn't really that close.
By day's end we were like punch-drunk boxers staggering back to our corner wondering where we were and what day it was. The honeymoon phase of club volleyball was officially over for our new players. Some of the girls looked on the verge of tears. As for me, the previous year I had coached for an 18U national team. Now I was on the receiving end of other coaches' insincere "Nice job, Coach!" pity comments in the sportsmanship line after matches.
After the last match of the day, I dug deep to offer encouragement to a downcast crew.
"Girls, remember that we're a young team playing up an age level and we're almost all new to club," I remember saying in our post-game huddle. "We're going to keep working and getting better. Someday we'll look back on this day and realize how far we've come because we're going to grow into a much better team down the road. It's just going to take time, effort, support for one another and a commitment to improve each day, but we're going to get there. I really believe it."
Truth be told, I wasn't completely sold on what I said, but I did believe this group had it in them. Most of the girls were high-character kids who loved volleyball and would work as feverishly as it took to develop their skills and understanding of the game. These kids practiced with passion. They were driven young athletes who pushed themselves hard. They would just need to keep training, be patient and trust the process.
Signs of growth
Our next tournament didn't go much better, but by mid-season we started showing signs of growth. By season's end we reached the finals of our last two tournaments and even briefly led 14-13 in the first set over a national team that had pummeled us twice in January.
The next season most of the girls returned to the team and, now competing on an even playing field age-wise, the tables were turned. We won nearly 80 percent of our matches, captured two tournament titles, reached the finals or semifinals of nearly every other tournament we entered and grew into the kind of team that we knew was within our grasp.
We now could look back at January 23, 2016 and laugh about it. We had developed into almost a totally different team.
A virtue in short supply
I think the most important trait to the team's transformation was something that few of us, myself included, likes to practice: patience.
Patience is a virtue that seems in short supply in this age of Snapchat, instant messaging, text messaging, Instagram, mobile technology in general and most everything else coming to us in a matter of seconds. I believe the vast majority of families and coaches at Serve City don't really fall into this category, but lack of patience, and accompanying perspective, can be an issue in any club:
- Coaches expecting their teams to come together quickly and play championship-caliber volleyball from the first tournament of the season onward.
- Athletes expecting to play at an elite level after three weeks of practices, let alone three years.
- Parents expecting their daughter's team to beat opponents loaded with more experienced and talented national team players after a dozen practices under their belt.
Patience seasoned with perspective is critical to our athletes' and teams' development and enjoyment of the game. Take the Elgin 14U team as an example. If the players had decided after our early-season and mid-season drubbings to just give up and go through the motions the rest of our season, we wouldn't have continued improving throughout the season. Most of the girls would have quit club after the season came to a close. Then, they would have missed out on an amazing 2016-17 season and all the strides we made and the successes, relationships and good times that followed.
There are countless other examples of how patience contributed to eventual success for a team or athlete. The Chicago Cubs sure come to mind!
Change of perspective
The biggest key to developing patience as a coach, athlete or parent is constantly reminding yourself why you're involved in this sport. If you only coach or play volleyball because you want to win, then you're in this sport for the wrong reason. If you're only content as a volleyball parent if your daughter or son's team is winning, then you need a change of perspective.
Yes, you should practice, play and coach to win and congratulate your child whenever the team does win. But, more importantly, you should practice, play and coach out of enjoyment for volleyball and a desire to keep learning, growing and becoming the best player or coach you can be for your team.
And realize that your involvement in volleyball is a marathon, not a sprint. Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better. Becoming a great player doesn't happen in the first tenth of a mile or the final tenth of a mile. It takes place in the 26 miles in between.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.