True growth happens when you practice at the edge of your abilities

by Jeff Smith

At one of our high school tryouts last year, a returning player caught my attention for something she was doing or, more specifically, what she wasn’t doing. She was using a standing float serve instead of the jump float serve she had learned and shaped into a reliable weapon the previous club season.

When asked why she wasn’t serving her jump float, she replied. “My high school coach wouldn’t let me jump serve,” she said. “She thinks a jump serve is too risky.”

Out of deference to her coach, I bit my lip, smiled and moved on. But if you asked what rankles many coaches, more than anything it’s watching players continually play it safe.

Safe mode can take on many forms: using a standing serve when you’re capable of a jump float or jump topspin, hitting a standing spike when the setter sets you up for a jump hit, tipping or push setting instead of swinging at a good front-row set, passing the ball over the net in one contact at the 12U or 13U level instead of delivering a pass to your setter, or sending safe high sets to your hitters when a quick, shoot or back set is warranted.

There is a time and place to play it safe in a match, such as when you receive a poor set, the opponent’s defense is struggling to defend against tips or you’re in a prolonged slump with your jump serve. The problem with ultra-safe mode, or playing and practicing with an overly conservative mentality, is that it stunts your development as a player and hurts your team’s development as well.

True growth only takes place when you're living on the edge of your abilities. Aside from our players’ safety and well-being, the Serve City coaches and I want our athletes to reach for, attain and experience real and significant player development.

That’s because club volleyball should be about learning and growing.

Player development begins when you are willing and eager to learn and grow by stretching yourself outside your comfort zone each practice.

This philosophy is reflected in a nationwide USA Volleyball study that compared the training habits of good players with average to mediocre players. The study revealed that good players spend about two-thirds of their training time practicing the skills at which they were weakest. Average to mediocre players invested about two-thirds of their training time practicing the skills at which they were already proficient.

What does this mean? Players experience the most growth by spending the majority of practices working to turn weaknesses into strengths or mediocre skills into reliable skills.

Serve City has built our training philosophy on this principle.

Our training encourages coaches and athletes to push themselves outside their comfort zone, getting comfortable being uncomfortable. We have created a progressive training system from 12U to 18U that sets high expectations for each Serve City team’s growth track over the course of the season.

For example, our 14U and 15U girls teams worked on setting and hitting gap sets (31s) and quick sets (1s) at their last master training practice. It was challenging, uncomfortable and a bit chaotic, as it requires learning a brand-new skill for setters and hitters and even demands perfect passes from the back-row defenders, thus stretching everyone on the court.

Training with this kind of growth mindset is taking the hard route. Some school coaches in particular teach their players to drive in the slow lane and avoid the fast lane of growth. It never fails to surprise us how few middle school volleyball programs teach their players a 6-2 or 5-1 system or train them in the skills for how to run those systems. Most of these programs stick to a basic system that teaches little and relies on safe play where the team that makes fewer mistakes wins.

It’s too bad, because most young players are capable of so much more than this.

Teach jump serving, or back-row attacking, or back setting, or quick sets to middle hitters and go sets and shoot sets to outside hitters, or other skills, in practice and let your players sharpen those skills in practice. More often than not, the players will pleasantly surprise you as they master new skills, and real growth emerges.

The most substantial growth of skills in setting, hitting, serve receive, digging, blocking and tactics and strategy happens when coaches teach new skills and allow their players to work on those skills and fail, mess up, fall down, get back up and keep at it.

Is your setter proficient at high sets to the outside? Make sure she's spending much practice time learning how to set quicks, huts, back sets, shoots or go sets. Is your 12U or 13U squad eager to pass over the net in one contact instead of to their setter? Create scoring constraints where they can only score points in drills if they use three contacts in a rally.

Is your team only skilled at hitting from the front row. Spend 30 to 45 minutes each practice working on setting and hitting back-row jump attacks.

Eventually, as they see their new skills improving, your athletes will understand the benefits of a growth mindset and make a commitment to playing on the edge of their abilities. They’ll work on a jump float or jump topspin serve during open serving at practice, or arrive early to refine it. If you already jump serve, you spend practice time working on improving it -- hitting it faster, flatter and with better locations on the court, such as ones 1 and 5 or the front-row zones. (I call it PTL: pace, trajectory and location.)

For instance, if you're an outside hitter, you invest time developing your ability to hit faster sets, or hit the perimeter of the court (high line, cross-court corner, sharp angle) instead of the safe middle, or learn to hit off-speed attacks, or hit with more power by improving your technique of generating torque on the ball.

Will you quickly master a new skill or position? Probably not. As a matter of fact, you will begin making more mistakes in practice than you ever have before.

But mistakes are necessary as you stretch yourself, attempt new things and place yourself on the path to real growth. If you're not making mistakes, you're not growing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Two summers ago, a player in my 18U sand volleyball class had no interest in learning a jump float serve. But I made her and the rest of the girls work on jump serving for five minutes each practice and occasionally during games and drills. For several weeks her jump serve usually flailed into the net or sailed out of bounds.

But by the end of the program, she had honed one of the best jump floats in the class. It was like developing a metal through fire and refinement. The refining is hot and painful, but the end result is a beautiful and meaningful finished product.

Practice on the edge of your abilities. Strive to learn something new or take a skill to a new level each training session. Say goodbye to safe mode and hello to a growth mindset that transforms your skills — and your love for the game.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.