7 habits of highly effective volleyball parents

by Jeff Smith

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As a volleyball and basketball coach in 1400-plus games over 20 years and as a volleyball and basketball parent for the last eight years, I've seen and experienced the best and worst of sports parenting, from parents applauding great effort by both teams in a match to threatening the referees and getting thrown out of the gym at a game.

Things seem to work out very well for everyone when we each "stick to script" and focus on fulfilling our respective roles:

  • Coaches coach.
  • Parents parent.
  • Players play.

In the first of a three-part series, this week's post offers seven habits that parents can build to be positive influences for their kids and their kids' team.

1. Encourage competing over winning.

It's disappointing watching normally mild-mannered parents become obsessed with their child winning a match or tournament. These parents are missing the big picture. Their daughter or son and the team are not failures if they lose a match. What's important is whether they competed. Did they give their best effort within their current state of emotional, physical and athletic development (which looks very different from a 12-year-old novice player to an 18-year-old veteran player), and does getting beat motivate them to work harder and improve?

Winning is a goal, but it shouldn't be the goal. Development as players, teams and people should be the primary focus. That's where parents can either reflect this message or contradict it.

2. Use the phrase "I love to watch you play" often.

Try this after your child's next tournament. As you walk out of the facility with your son or daughter, make only one comment: I love to watch you play. Don't critique their performance or the play of their team. Don't talk about wins and losses or that blown serve or shanked pass they made. Then see how that comment impacts their attitude and perspective. It'll make a dramatic difference in how it colors their experience that day.

This is something I myself have had to learn. It's easy for me to watch my daughters play with my coaching hat on, especially when I'm observing as girls club director as well as a volleyball parent. If they ever need advice or pointers, they know they can ask me any time. Otherwise my focus as a parent is to enjoy the moment because our kids won't play competitive volleyball forever. One day it will be over, and none of us wants to look back with regrets over how we behaved on the sidelines or in the car after a match or tournament.

3. Be a great role model for your child.

Here's what a positive parent looks like at a typical tournament:

  • encourages and cheers for others, not just their child
  • appreciates and affirms the efforts of opposing players
  • doesn't bad-mouth opposing teams
  • doesn't disparage their child's teammates
  • doesn't criticize their child's coach
  • isn't fixated on winning and losing
  • doesn't insult or talk badly about referees or work crews
  • doesn't coach their child from the bleachers or between games

4. Support your child's coach.

About 10 years ago I was coaching a boys basketball game at Aurora Christian. After we built a double-digit lead, the host Eagles switched to a full-court press and trimmed the deficit to four points with a late first-half run. At halftime I reviewed our full-court press break with our team, then released them to the court for warm-ups before the third quarter began.

One of the player's dads, who didn't play competitive basketball beyond middle school and had no coaching experience, then approached me on the sidelines with a stern look on his face. "When are you going to show these kids how to break a press?" he demanded. "We're about to blow our lead."

I wanted to remind him that 1) he knew nothing about coaching other than from his seat in the bleachers and 2) it's not "our" lead, but the team's lead, and he's not on the team. Instead I quietly stared a hole through his forehead until he sheepishly walked away and returned to his seat in the stands. The boys then proceeded to pick apart Aurora Christian's press in the third quarter en route to a convincing win.

By contrast, the best team I coached in basketball featured a forward whose dad was a star player for his college's basketball team. We went 23-4, yet not once during the entire season did that dad say anything to me about his daughter or the team except some variation on the phrase "Great job, Coach" or "Great job by the girls." After we lost in the finals of a season-ending tournament, I asked him why he never offered coaching advice to me. His reply has stuck with me for the last 14 years: "Because I'm a basketball parent, and you're the coach. I'm here to watch my daughter and the team play and cheer them on. Whatever you do, I fully support you."

Imagine what would happen if every parent adopted that perspective.

5. Encourage a growth mindset in your child.

Whether I've coached 18U, 16U, 14U or 12U, my teams have always heard a similar message from me: Be assertive. I'm not alone. The majority of coaches emphasize an aggressive, confident, risk-taking demeanor in their athletes. That's the only way they're going to learn and grow. Playing not to lose will stagnate their development.

Parents can support that growth mindset in their feedback to their kids. Instead of "just get it in," that means saying "Way to go for it, Lisa!" Rather than say, "Nice try," it means saying "Love how you never gave up on that ball!"

Kids are more willing to take a risk and fail if they know their parent supports that mindset.

6. Don't micromanage your child's volleyball participation.

How would you answer this question: Does your son or daughter feel like they must live up to your athletic expectations for them? How they play shouldn't determine your level of happiness, and they don't need the added pressure of performing for Dad or Mom's approval.

Encourage autonomy and independence in your child. Let them take ownership of their athletic involvement. Be there to support them, not to serve as a second coach or a manager for them. The results will be much better for them and will lay the groundwork for a much healthier long-term relationship between the two of you.

7. Be realistic.

Most of us probably think more highly of our child's athletic prowess than is warranted. It can be tough to be objective about our own kids.

Few if any of our children will be playing Olympic volleyball or leading their teams to NCAA championships in the future. Don't set unrealistic expectations in your mind about your child's volleyball potential. Don't set up your child's coach for failure if they don't miraculously turn your son or daughter into a standout player.

Your child's level of success in volleyball rests almost solely on their shoulders. And if they don't develop into the best setter in the tournament or strongest outside hitter in their conference or win the starting libero job for their team, let them know that's OK. And make sure that they know it's OK with you, too.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.