What to do if my daughter is struggling in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

Volleyball is the most popular girls sport in America.

It’s also one of the most challenging and competitive, in large part because of its phenomenal growth.

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For a long list of possible reasons, your daughter could be finding this club season to be difficult for her. Perhaps she’s new to club volleyball, or competitive volleyball. Maybe she’s struggling to learn a new position on the court. She might be learning how to compete at the club volleyball level. She could be fighting to earn playing time on a deep or talented roster or just feeling lost in the shuffle. She might be an introvert on a team of mostly extroverts, or an extrovert on a team of introverts.

Perhaps she is overwhelmed with too many activities in her life or a tougher-than-usual academic schedule or is having a hard time making friends on her team. Maybe she feels her coaches are pulling her too far outside her comfort zone as a player, or not enough. Or she thinks she’s on a team that’s not winning as much as she’d like, or only seems to care about winning, or doesn’t care enough about it.

She might even be struggling to connect with her team’s coach. Perhaps her coach is much different than her, or too much like her, or has a teaching style, temperament or level of expectations that she’s not used to, or is too used to.

The possibilities are seemingly endless … kind of like life in general, if we were honest.

The question remains what to do about it. Here are four pieces of advice to consider. Some will seem painfully obvious to some but not others, but sometimes the simplest answers aren’t always considered.

1. Talk on a deep level with your daughter

If something seems significantly wrong with her, this will likely require a conversation on a deeper level and at a time and location where you know your daughter is more likely to open up. It may even require a series of conversations, heavy on listening and light on solutions from Dad or Mom, to get to the root of the issue. She might not even know what the root cause is. It may take some probing and some nuggets of wisdom from an outside source.

2. Examine the situation objectively together with your daughter

One of my daughters’ former high school teammates had a trying season on her club team last year. The good news was she made the top national team at one of the area’s largest clubs. The bad news was she rarely played in tournaments. She sometimes stood on the sidelines not playing a single point for eight or nine consecutive matches. Ironically, her team finished near the bottom of the Great Lakes Power League 18U standings.

Rather than quit, at some point during the season they talked as a family, studied the situation their daughter found herself in, and concluded together that 1) she had chosen to try out for a larger club’s national team, 2) she had elected to accept their offer to join that team knowing the risks involved with being on a national team and 3) she would stick it out and make the best of the situation for her benefit as an athlete and as a young adult.

That’s just one specific scenario. There are dozens of different situations going on at clubs and school programs all over the country, and not just confined to athletics. But, no matter the circumstance, discussing it as a family, coming to conclusions as a unit and making decisions together can be very helpful to your daughter and to the family as a whole, and even beneficial to her team.

It also can aid in avoiding the temptation to make a rash decision based on emotion, which we’ve probably all done and regretted at some point in our lives.

3. If needed, talk to your daughter’s coach

If steps 1 and 2 above don’t resolve an issue and you realize the circumstance is something that her coach needs to be involved in or aware of, by all means reach out to them. Our coaches are hired to be helpful, and they care about their athletes as players and as people.

A few days ago I reminded our coaching staff to be the kinds of coaches that don’t end up being a player’s last volleyball coach. What that means is coach your athletes in a way that helps them grow in their love for the game, their skills in the game and their understanding of the game.

Three caveats here:

  • If your daughter is ready age-wise and maturity-wise, the best first step may be for her to talk to her coach at practice without a parent in tow. This is especially true for high school athletes.

  • Contact or talk to the coach at least 24 hours after a tournament or practice. Following this 24-hour rule will enable the coach to decompress and re-fill their mental and emotional reserves after what could have been a tough day of matches or a draining practice. Having coached 1,500 games and likely another 10,000 practices, camps and clinics since 1998, I’ve occasionally been contacted an hour or two after a match or training session and simply wasn’t ready to be broadsided by accusations of doing or not doing X, Y or Z to or for one of my players. Conversations held too close after a tournament or practice rarely go well.

  • Assume the best of your daughter’s coach. I know each of this year’s coaches reasonably well. They care about their players. They aren’t in coaching for the money (there’s a reason most of us drive “gas-efficient” used vehicles). They are sincerely trying to do the right thing nearly all the time. Yes, coaches make mistakes. But we all do. If you need to discuss something with your girl’s coach, go in with the perspective that the coach is an ally, not an enemy.

This is especially difficult when the conversation or email exchange comes late at night after a full day of work and practice or a long tournament day. The coach won’t be prepared to thoughtfully respond when the problem is laid at their feet in this situation.

4. Sometimes time and patience is the best option

My younger daughter’s freshman year of high school she made West Chicago High School’s freshman B team. As a coach who knew her game well, I thought the coaches should have assigned her to the A team, but coaches coach and parents parent, and in my role as a parent it was my responsibility to be a supportive dad. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it :).

Making matters worse, Nicki’s coach was a basketball coach who had never coached volleyball before, and she decided to play Nicki as a left-handed middle hitter instead of at her natural position of setter seemingly because Nicki was fairly tall. It was a trying season for Nicki and for my wife and especially me as I watched some interesting matches unfold that season.

As much as I wanted to jump into the fray and improve Nicki’s situation, I “let go and let God” so to speak, praying often about it and staying out of it. It wasn’t a lot of fun for Nicki, but she survived, made a 15U club team, started at setter all club season, then made the sophomore team at West Chicago and started at setter that next fall. A season of playing out of position on a freshman B team didn’t kill her passion for the sport or her future prospects. It was a good life lesson and growth opportunity for her, and for me.

Sometimes circumstances warrant specific action. In other instances, time and patience is the right call to make. If a veteran coach can exhibit patience, there’s hope for us all to do the same :).

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.