by Jeff Smith
This season I asked our coaches to write mid-season evaluations for each player on their team. These evaluations provided athletes with their coach's insights on their positive areas of growth as well as developmental steps the players need to take in the second half of the season.
The coaches emailed each evaluation to that athlete's family. Having coached at another club prior to Serve City and knowing coaches from dozens of other clubs, I'm fairly confident that these evaluations are unique to Serve City. A parent of one of our high school players even emailed to say her daughter had never received an evaluation from a coach in her years of playing club and school volleyball.
After receiving her daughter's evaluation from her coach, another mom appreciated the coach's gesture so much that she replied with a message of her own. It read, "My daughter has a great coach who is committed to her growth and pushes her to her limits."
Taking a risk
Pushing athletes to their limits -- if you asked coaches what aspect of their job they are most reluctant to pursue, some would admit it's this very quality. It's probably akin to parents needing to keep their children on task with their schoolwork especially when their kids aren't motivated to stay on top of their academics, even if it means risking being the "unpopular" parent and having to initiate a confrontation between them and their child.
It isn't fun or popular to stretch athletes in new ways that make them uncomfortable or challenge them to learn new things or confront areas where they need to grow. But it's essential for coaches to take this responsibility seriously if their athletes and teams are to experience true growth.
As 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medal coach Doug Beal put it, "A coach should take the athletes to their limits, should go beyond the comfort zone. If you are concerned about being friends with the players, you are not going anywhere."
Pushing athletes to their limits
This isn't to say that coaches must develop an adversarial relationship with their players. Through their actions and words, coaches should in fact convey their care, love and concern for their athletes as players and as people.
But good coaches make their greatest impact on their athletes when they push their athletes to their limits in practices and tournaments. They maintain that coach-athlete relationship that enables them to demand their players' best and train their players at the very edge of their abilities.
In fact, coaches who push their athletes to their limits are actually the coaches who truly care the most about their athletes. Coaches who are more interested in being their players' friend are doing their athletes more harm than good. They are stunting their athletes' development by failing to stretch their athletes to new heights as players or teaching their athletes the habits and character qualities needed to reach their highest potential.
What happens when coaches don't push their athletes
My senior year of high school our basketball coach was a kind, mild-mannered man who didn't push us or demand excellence in practice. Our practice sessions were fun, breezy and uninspired. We learned little, weren't pushed much and wasted precious time with slow-paced warm-ups, half-hearted scrimmages and lots of laughs joking around with our coach/buddy.
You guessed it, the fruit of our lack of labor was an unprepared team for games, a losing record and a lackluster first-round postseason exit. My high school career ended with a whimper, and so did my coach's coaching tenure.
After that disappointing season, I determined that if I ever went into coaching, I would not repeat my coach's mistakes. I would strive to be a coach that my athletes respected because of how much they learned from me and grew under my tutelage.
Going out on a limb
Being a coach who pushes athletes to their limits isn't easy. Sometimes athletes don't want to be pushed but just want to remain in their current comfort zone. They're OK with who they currently are and don't want to undergo the growing pains of learning new skills or tactics, developing better work ethic or confronting a flaw in their technique or a weakness in their skill set. They're comfortable with the status quo, or so they think.
This is where dedicated coaches separate themselves from those who would rather just run comfortable practices so that they can always be liked by their players -- even though their players won't ultimately respect them for being afraid to stretch and challenge their team.
Calling athletes to a higher standard
I've experienced this numerous times over the years. In one of my early seasons as a sand volleyball coach several of the players in my high school class had built a reputation for not taking indoor practices seriously. When they brought that same lackadaisical attitude to the first day of the sand program, I had a decision to make: Let them continue to be themselves and not make waves or confront the problem head on.
I chose the latter. The next practice I called a short meeting and let everyone know that they had two choices: to give their best effort at each practice or, if they weren't interested in giving their best effort, to call their parents to pick them up right now and not return to the program. I set the expectations high for the program. The only athletes who would be welcome in the class were those who would make a commitment to learning and growing. No murky, mediocre in-between would be tolerated.
To their credit, all of the girls decided to stay and invest in their growth, and the rest of the season was very enjoyable and went really well.
Pushing athletes to strive for their best takes support from the athletes' homes. In fact, it's essential. One of my players' dads confided in me that, a few times over the course of the four seasons I coached his daughter, she had asked her father, "Why does Coach Smith push me so hard in practice?" I run high-energy, challenging practices that are designed to put athletes on a fast learning track that helps them get the most out of their talent if they commit to pouring themselves into the training.
To this dad's credit, he always responded to his daughter's question with the same answer: "Because he believes you have the talent to be great and he wants to help you get the absolute most out of your talent."
Parents supporting a coach's growth-focused training philosophy is where a coach who truly cares about their athletes can make a lasting difference. The coaches can then push their athletes outside their comfort zone because, as a coaching colleague of mine likes to say, "A good coach will make his or her players see what they can be rather than what they are." An athlete may think she can never learn how to jump serve, but their coach helps them see otherwise and teaches and encourages them to pursue this goal until they reach it.
Some of my colleagues' most satisfying moments as a coach have been when a player we've worked with is able to execute a new skill in a match for the first time. It's the equivalent of a parent watching their child take their first steps or ride a bike on their own for the first time.
By contrast, mediocre coaches leave players the same at the end of the season as they were when the season began. Good to great coaches work with their athletes to help them take their skills and game knowledge to new levels of excellence.
Players want to be stretched
Truth be told, most athletes really do want to be pushed outside their limits. Sometimes they just don't realize it or need someone to help them conquer their fear of clearing that hurdle. Yes, there are always going to be a minority of players who truly aren't motivated to get better at volleyball, just as there are always going to be a small group of students who aren't motivated to excel in the classroom in spite of their teachers' grandest efforts. But the vast majority really do desire to learn, develop and take their skills to the next level.
Recently I was training a player in how to serve a jump float. Try as she might, this athlete kept burying her jump serve into the net or sending it out of bounds. We kept trying to fix technical errors in her approach and swing, but nothing seemed to work.
Finally, after a string of unsuccessful attempts, this player blurted out to me, "I can't do this, Coach. I just can't." I replied by agreeing with her -- to a point.
"I think you're right," I said. "You can't do it -- yet. The key word is yet. You will get it. It's just going to take time, some tweaks and more effort. Just keep plugging away and it'll come."
This player never did figure out how to find the court with her jump float at practice that day, or the next practice, either. But a couple of weeks later, as she worked on serving, I asked her to practice her jump float yet again, and soon enough she pounded a jump serve a couple of feet inside the deep corner of the court. Then she did it again. And again.
Then, while working on serving and serve receive, she blasted a few jump floats in-bounds that registered aces. At her next tournament she debuted her jump float in actual matches and recorded several aces, and at her last practice her jump float was so effective that no one could return it during serve receive drills.
The point here isn't to puff up my bona fides. A few thousand other coaches would have done the exact same thing. But if I had given in to this athlete's misgivings about learning a jump serve, let her off the hook and told her she could stick with her standing serve, she would have never experienced the exhilaration of serving a jump float for aces in a tournament or enjoyed the satisfaction of mastering an exciting new skill that will benefit her not only this season but for the rest of her volleyball career.
That's what pushing athletes outside their limits looks like -- helping them see who they can become and not just who they currently are and then collaborating with them, or sometimes even pulling and prodding them, to reach that destination. It's sometimes hard to do, but it's also worth it in the end.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.