by Jeff Smith
It was an unseasonably cold Sunday morning in April when members of my first 18U team slowly sauntered into the gym at McHenry County College about 45 minutes before the squad’s first match of the MCC tournament.
None of the girls was smiling as they walked inside, partly because of the gloomy weather outside, partly due to the time of day — 7:15 a.m. is anathema at that age — and partly because four of our 10 players were unavailable to play, including both of our outside hitters, who were our two leaders in kills and two of our best passers.
As a first-year 18U coach who was used to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds, I had no pearls of wisdom for how to inspire this sleepy group. In fact, I could understand why they weren’t looking forward to playing since we only had six players dressed for the tournament.
If I were honest with them, I had no interest in being there, either.
Our meager roster consisted of one 5-foot-2-inch setter, two middle hitters who hadn’t received a serve in the back row all season, one libero who had to move to outside hitter to replace one of our starting outsides, a right-side hitter who had to move to outside hitter to sub for our other missing outside hitter and a 5-foot-1 defensive specialist who had to move to right-side hitter and play in the front row for the first time all season.
This lineup had the looks of a team that would meekly lose three matches and head home early.
But, to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, this motley crew came together, fought hard, dug deep and performed beyond our wildest expectations. The team won its first three matches to take first place in its pool, then swept the semifinals and finals to secure an unlikely championship. Everybody stepped up and played the best volleyball of their season, and the patchwork lineup left the gym wearing smiles that seemed permanently etched on the girls’ faces for our next three practices.
Every time I think of that shocking accomplishment I can’t help but smile myself even though it occurred five years ago. It’s hard not to be filled with pride when a team achieves the seemingly impossible. What those girls pulled off was nothing short of incredible.
As coaches, we can seem too tough, too strict, too serious, too critical and too intense as we strive to create an atmosphere in practices and matches that enables our athletes to learn, grow, refine and thrive. But, beneath that exterior lies a heart that can melt when our players do the amazing — or even take a big step forward as a team or individually.
Here are six things that make coaches smile, even when we wait to smile on the drive home from a practice or tournament.
6. Great achievements together
This is especially true of team accomplishments. Nothing in team sports is more rewarding than achieving something together, whether it’s a goal, a championship, a victory or a milestone. It’s where the power of numbers comes in. A team achievement reminds us that alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.
5. A small step forward
In middle school I coached my two daughters. The summer before one of their middle school seasons they worked for a couple of hours a week trying to master an overhand serve. We would walk over to the local high school so they could practice and practice and practice this skill, pounding one serve after another off the exterior brick wall in the school parking lot. I critiqued their technique over and over, and they kept at it repeatedly but didn’t see any significant progress in June or July. It didn’t look like they’d ever develop this skill.
Then, in mid-August, all those countless hours of grinding started to click, and about a week before the season began they each had their overhand serves down pat. They each served overhand all season and were two of the team’s best standing float servers. Watching them serve overhand in their first match of the season was pure joy for me and for them. The more you invest in something the more you get out of it.
4. Game day
There’s something magical about the day of a match or tournament for coaches. We pour so much time, planning, energy, practice and brain power into our teams that tournaments feel a lot like opening night of a school musical. The wait is finally over. After all the dress rehearsals (practices) we as a team get to perform for a live audience. It’s why we practice for hours a week, to “take the stage” and give a performance, hoping to nail every “line” we’ve practiced and shine on the court.
3. Seeing our team become a family
One year I was coaching a 15s team that struggled to put matches away. We would build a sizable lead, then slowly squander it. It was as if the girls didn’t trust each other in tight situations. They would grow quiet and stop encouraging one another.
It was a habit that had to stop.
In a late-season tournament, we built another large lead and then as usual started to make one inexplicable error after another, an all-too-familiar script.
Finally I called timeout, purposely didn’t speak for a few seconds, then told the girls this was a test of our character as a team and as individuals. Would we revert to our old habits again and play like six individuals, or would we band together and fight the rest of the match as a supportive and united team that believes in each other?
I honestly wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my challenge.
To my utter relief, they supported each other like never before, encouraging each other, picking up their energy, refusing to give up, digging deep and battling their way to a close and thrilling victory.
It was a defining moment for us.
Afterwards, they didn’t want to leave the facility. It was such a rewarding and bonding experience to go through together that they wanted to savor the moment and just hang out as a team. They now saw each other in a new light as true teammates and not just people they played a game with.
Great teams become like a family to one another. You go through so much adversity and clear so many hurdles together that it can’t help but bring you closer to your teammates and coach.
It’s such a satisfying feeling knowing you’re part of a team where everyone has your back and gives you their full support through good times and bad, through your great plays and mistakes.
2. Helping a player overcome one of life’s challenges
As a coach you don’t realize how much you care about your players until something life-threatening happens to one of them. Three years ago I was coaching a 14U team for Serve City when I got a call from one of the girls’ moms telling me that one of the players was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain the night before a tournament. She went into surgery when the doctors discovered her appendix had ruptured. They caught the appendicitis just in time; if they had to wait a couple of more hours, it would have burst and put her life at serious risk.
Lainey had a slow road to recovery. A few weeks after the surgery the doctors allowed her to attend one of our tournaments in street clothes. It was a tournament in Rockford and we had only six players in uniform due to illness, vacations and Lainey’s surgery. But Lainey dutifully cheered on the team from the sidelines and took stats as well. Her mere presence back with our squad inspired her teammates, who won six straight matches on a long, grueling but ultimately satisfying day to secure the championship.
Afterwards, as the girls’ parents began snapping photos of the kids with their first-place medals, the players made sure that Lainey was included in every picture. In fact, they positioned her in the middle of each team photo. She didn’t play a single point that day, but the whole experience was perhaps more important to Lainey than it was to anyone else.
1. When an unsung hero emerges
Most coaches don’t play favorites. But even the most die-hard coach will admit that it is especially gratifying to win a game on the heels of an unlikely player’s contributions.
In the state private school tournament a few years ago, our eighth-grade team led 24-23 in the third set of the third-place match when the team’s smallest player was due up to serve. Jess was 4 feet 8 and probably weighed 60 pounds. She looked like a fifth-grader on the court size-wise, and she had to use every ounce of her tiny frame to pound her standing float serve over the net.
But there was no one I wanted serving match point at Lincoln Land Community College that day than her. Jess was probably our most mentally tough player, and she deserved this moment for all the hard work she had poured into developing her serve and her back-row skills. At her diminutive size, Jess never got to experience the sensation of a front-row kill or block that brought the crowd to its feet. She was a back-row player who did the grunt work of passing and digging balls to our setters so they could set up our hitters for the more glamorous roles on the team.
So, when she delivered an ace to clinch the match, everyone was thrilled for her. Seeing Jess get to enjoy the spotlight for her accomplishment made the victory that much more rewarding.
That’s one of the aspects of volleyball that I relish the most, seeing an underdog soak up the limelight. It’s why many coaches hold a special place in their hearts for the underdogs on their teams — whether it’s a small DS or libero or a front-row player who has finally discovered a sport where she can excel and find a home.
Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.