by Jeff Smith
This past weekend I saw each of our full-season middle school teams play 1-2 matches apiece at their Chicago Volleyball League tournaments. Fortunately five of the six teams played at Top Flight, so I only had to drive to two different locations. (College of DuPage was the other.)
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to watch each of our middle school squads in action, and most of them had a great weekend. In fact, four of our teams went 4-2, while two others went 3-3, so it was a very successful weekend on the scoreboard.
Even though there was a wide range of age levels represented (12 Blue and 12 Red, 13 Blue and 13 Red, 14 Blue and 14 Red), it was refreshing to see some common traits among our teams, particularly what coaches call “looking the part” of a competitive team. Here are the common characteristics I noticed:
1. Supporting one another on the court
One of the most disheartening things to see as a coach is a team that doesn’t support each other. I didn’t see that issue crop up with any of our middle school teams. The players on the court during their matches came together in a quick huddle after every point. That takes discipline and commitment, but it’s something that every good team does, and it’s a must to do in order to preserve team unity and keep each other engaged and encouraged.
This is something we specifically teach our teams during early season practices. I call it Celebrate and Console Time. If we win a point, we huddle up in the middle of the court and celebrate. If we lose a point, we still huddle up and console each other with an affirming “We’ll get the next one.”
Each team did a great job of this in the matches I witnessed. I especially loved 13 Blue’s fun ace huddle cheer after each service ace. It was very encouraging to see our teams doing this consistently and not reluctantly, too.
2. Actively engaged bench
We talk a lot at practices about remaining mentally and emotionally invested in the match even when you’re on the bench not playing. Each player needs to be actively engaged in the match whether on or off the court. Bench players’ encouragement and enthusiasm from the sidelines goes a long way toward strengthening their teammates’ play, and it keeps them mentally focused so that when they re-enter the match they are mentally and emotionally ready to give their best effort.
Our middle school teams’ bench support was for the most part fantastic. It was great to see teammates on the sidelines cheering on their team after winning points, encouraging them after losing points and avoiding the pitfalls of sitting on the bench idly talking to their teammates and ignoring the action on the court.
Speaking of sitting, I ask our teams ages 13U and up to stand on the sidelines instead of sitting on the bench. This is largely symbolic, but by standing, the players are more likely to be engaged in the match, and standing instead of sitting demonstrates to the opponent and to their teammates that they are “in” the match with their teammates. Standing also keeps their legs looser so they are better prepared to play in the match when they sub in.
3. Playing tough and together in close matches
One of the most encouraging parts of the weekend was seeing Serve City teams dig deep and play their best volleyball when their matches were tightly contested. Our teams won several three-set matches, including rallying from a first set loss to win in three sets.
You’ll never win all of your close matches. But good teams find a way to win tight matches more often than not. It speaks to a team’s preparation, character and training when they pull out hard-fought matches. Our teams won six or seven three-set matches while only losing two or three of these three-setters, which spoke highly of our teams’ perseverance and never-quit attitudes.
4. Playing the game the right way
It is very easy at the middle school level, especially at the 12U and 13U age groups, to go solely for the win by playing it safe. What I mean is using a simplistic system that teaches the athletes nothing and doesn’t prepare them for future seasons and encouraging your team to simply pass the ball over the net in one or two contacts or rely solely on free balls and safe down balls on third contacts instead of being committed to passing, setting and hitting.
To our teams’ credit, they seemed almost always focused on playing the game the right way instead of merely going for the easy victory by playing what coaches call “backyard barbecue volleyball” — passing the ball over the net instead of looking to pass-set-hit. Club volleyball should first be about player and team development and secondly about winning.
That doesn’t mean winning is not important. We should always play to win, but not at the cost of not playing assertively or in a way that enhances and stretches our players’ development in terms of skills and their understanding of tactics and strategies. One example is jump serving. We work on jump serving in nearly every 14U multi-team practice, so observing a few of our players using jump serves in matches is exciting to see at an age level where nearly every player relies on the safer standing float or topspin serve.
A good example of this was 13 Red’s loss to a team from Top Flight on Sunday. The opponent rarely attempted to pass, set and attack the ball. It was content to pass the ball safely over the net in one or two contacts. By contrast, 13 Red consistently looked to set up its hitters for attacks while running a 5-1 system that mirrors the systems employed by most eighth-grade school teams and 14U club teams.
The short-term result was 13 Red ended up losing this match after committing several hitting, setting and passing errors that inevitably will happen when a younger team works to pass-set-hit, particularly jump hitting out of a 5-1 system where the setter transitions from the back row for three rotations.
But the long-term result is our 13 Red players will be better equipped to play the pass-set-hit style on their eighth-grade school teams, in 14U club volleyball and beyond into high school. And we are focused more on the long term than the short term in developing players both now and for the immediate future.
Congratulations to each of our middle school squads on a successful Chicago Volleyball League season! The coaches and I are very proud of each of you!
Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.