Are coaches human, too?

by Jeff Smith

We were playing arguably the best set of our season, and the scoreboard reflected as much. We led 24-16 and were serving for set point against the top team in our division.

It was all downhill from there.

A service error gave the Chicago Shamrocks the serve trailing 24-17. Nine points, two timeouts to ice the server and eight or nine futile exclamations of "We've got this!" later, the Shamrocks celebrated a 26-24 victory. Even after 20-plus years and over 1,400 games of coaching, dramatic losses like that can't help but shake you up a bit. It's like being offered a sporty new Corvette and then, at the last second, being handed the keys to a 2004 Ford Focus.

But, as I quickly wrote in the service order for the second set, I decided to project the appearance of calm, poise and confidence to the team before the second set began. I told the players not to give the first set a second thought because we had a blank new slate to look forward to in the next set. Play our game and we'll be fine.

Eight points later we trailed 8-0. So much for letting go of the first set.

Anyone who's coached more than two or three seasons can share a similar story from a match. The point I'm making is that coaching isn't for the faint of heart. I've coached 18U, 16U, 15U, 14U on down to 12U teams that have been on both sides of this story line as well as nearly any other possible story line you can think of.

Same with practices. Put a group of 10-14 players together with different personalities, attitudes, temperaments, upbringings, values, ideas, motivations, experience and skill levels, mindsets and even differing events and outcomes to their day prior to arriving in the gym. Unless your team has an amazing practice culture, a lot of unexpected things can take place.

One of the toughest challenges of coaching is trying to figure out how to teach, train, motivate, connect with and reach such a diverse group of players who also each have their own favored learning style. What works for these four players may not work at all for these other four players and only moderately well with those three players. These aren't cookie cutter athletes, and of course there's no such thing as cookie cutter coaches, either.

We're all human.

Ultimately, that's the point. Coaches are human. We make good decisions, and we make mistakes. We celebrate like crazy when our teams excel and sometimes want to cry or cry out when our teams struggle. Sometimes we offer amazing words of wisdom and inspiration to our athletes. Other times all we can muster up in a team huddle is akin to "What was THAT?"

Coaching is a lot like parenting. I've never met a perfect parent or perfect child. If I kept track of every parenting mistake I've made in the last 19 years, I'd be filling up my fourth notebook by now.

Same with coaching. It's a highly pressurized profession. Making matters worse, part of your job is done in public at tournaments and power leagues for all to see you in your glory, or lack thereof. Dozens of sets of eyes are on you scrutinizing your every move and gesture.

A couple of years ago, a team I was coaching was playing in the finals of a tournament at Top Flight. It was the fifth match of the day, and some of the players were tired. Near the end of the match, with the outcome and championship on the line, a softly passed free ball hit the floor between two of our players. The girls just looked at each other. Neither said a word or made a play on the ball.

I was so stunned that I dropped my clipboard. The sound of it clanging on the ground was like an EF Hutton commercial. Everyone's eyes turned to me. All I could do was smile and pick up the clipboard off the floor.

(Afterwards a mom came up to me and said, "That was nothing. If I were in your shoes I would've broken the clipboard over my knee." That made me feel better.)

Last season I was in SCV director mode watching two of our teams compete in a tournament at Fusion. One of our teams frittered away a 23-18 lead, eventually losing 27-25, minutes after dropping a similar lead in the first set. Afterwards their coach came up to me and let off some steam about the team's inability to close out sets this season. I've been in those same shoes, so I could empathize with her.

It's hard. You try X, Y, Z and any other solutions you can think of, and sometimes nothing changes. There's no magic formula to resolve that issue in an instant. At times you just have to guide and encourage your team along the way and let them learn how to deal with late-game situations through good and bad experience.

As a parent, coach and volleyball director, I'd suggest to parents to do three things for your team's coach before the season concludes:

  1. Encourage the coach in some way. An email, kind words before or after a tournament or practice, a surprise plate of cookies, a thank-you note, whatever you feel comfortable doing.

  2. Say something positive about your coach to or in front of your son or daughter. This lets them know you support their coach. That goes a long way with your kids' attitude toward the coach.

  3. Let your child's coach coach. Don't approach them with correction or criticism during or after a tournament. Wait at least 24 hours to contact them. Give them their space. I'm grateful as a parent that other people didn't come up to me when my kids were younger and misbehaving and give me advice on how to better parent them.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.