Discipline: the overlooked key to excelling on the court

by Jeff Smith

At a Windy City Power League tournament on Saturday, I watched the pre-game warm-ups for the opening match of one of the 14U pools. During shared court time, one team was working efficiently on a blocking and hitting run-through and then transitioned quickly into a fast-paced ball-control drill. The other team lazily sloughed through the motions of partner passing, though it looked more like partner shanking; the majority of passes were off-target thanks to a mix of poor passing technique and halfhearted focus and effort.

You can safely guess the winner of the match.

The more disciplined warm-up team won handily. It wasn't solely because they warmed up more purposefully. They had the more experienced, more skilled and more talented team. But, just from watching their warm-ups and their performance on the court, it was clear they were the kind of team that probably practices with the same level of discipline they displayed in warm-ups and the match.

Their opponent, on the other hand, looked like it was playing at a backyard summer barbecue.

Good habits eventually lead to good skills and knowledge of the game. It might take months or years to see tangible fruit from your labor, but at some point positive habits will yield positive results.

And good habits take discipline. As our club's theme quote says, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

A similar quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better."

In the world of club volleyball, discipline can mean:

Taking technical skill development seriously, striving to continually improve and sharpen our skills in practice. Developing a fundamentally sound skill set is vital to long-term success in our sport. This kind of development requires discipline; it takes countless hours to hone your skills and expand your volleyball IQ without getting discouraged at the lengthy process this entails so that you can thrive on the court.

Getting to practices on time (and even early -- if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time) so you can use your team's full practice time wisely. (I still vividly remember attending a team's practice in an earlier season as a guest coach and watching as most of the players arrived between five and 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to start, then took another five to 10 minutes to change into their knee pads and volleyball shoes. To no one's surprise, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.)

Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and reached the Final Four in 2017. One of the hallmarks of the program is its attention to detail. The coaches and players work diligently on every detail during training. The spring before the Cardinal's last national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from zone 1 to the deep corner of zone 5 in every training session involving serve receive. Their goal was for the players to become so adept at serving deep zone 5 that, when the fall season began, they would serve teams out of system with this one simple strategy.

Their plan worked; Stanford was one of the top serving teams in the nation that season.

Practicing with passion. The other day I substitute coached for our Wheaton 18 Blue team. One thing that impressed me was the level of energy the players poured into training. The players competed in each drill with competitive zeal. Whether performing a simple 2v0 drill or competing in a serve receive game, the athletes were fully engaged. They approached practice with the same drive that you witness in the playoff round of a weekend tournament. It brought to mind the axiom to "practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice."

Taking care of your body. Proper sleep, a healthy diet, plenty of fluids and regular fitness and exercise are instrumental to preparing our bodies to be at peak levels of performance in practices and matches. We can't expect to be at our best if we don't properly care for ourselves. How we treat our bodies before a tournament also says a lot about our level of commitment to our team.

Maintaining the right conduct on the court. Studies show that our mental approach to competition has a large bearing on our performance as athletes. Keeping an upbeat mental attitude, delivering positive verbal affirmation and words of encouragement to teammates and maintaining confident body language and tone of voice on the court are crucial to success. All of these traits take discipline to incorporate into our on-court demeanor.

Successfully riding the highs and lows that come with sports competition. Wild swings of momentum are common in volleyball. One minute your team has a 12-3 lead. The next minute your opponent has tied the set at 14-14. Discipline is essential to having the poise, confidence and grit to be able to overcome the many challenges thrown our way in this sport. It takes practice to develop the habits necessary to be able to weather any storm on the court, from your team playing shorthanded one day to falling quickly behind and needing to rally from a large deficit.

Training when you don't feel your best. This doesn't mean coming to practice with a 103-degree fever. But it does refer to pushing through the minor aches, pains and illnesses that lesser athletes lean on as excuses to avoid practicing and instead showing up to practice ready to get "3-percent better" even when we don't feel like training.

Individual improvement is largely a choice. We can either choose to only practice when we feel great and miss out on opportunities to truly grow, or we can commit ourselves to the process of player development even on those days when we're sore, tired or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline, and, like a muscle, develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Is your daughter interested in playing college volleyball? Here are 5 keys to achieving her dream

by Jeff Smith

It's a hard truth: Few high school volleyball players go on to play in college. In fact, the latest statistics show that just 5.8 percent of four-year high school players continue the sport collegiately.

During a break between high school clinics on January 5, one of the players asked me what I thought she needed to do to earn a college scholarship. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability. Tens of thousands of high school and middle school athletes dream about playing volleyball after high school. Perhaps your daughter is one of those athletes -- or you are a high school or middle school player who dreams of competing in college.

With fewer than six out of every 100 high school volleyball players moving on to the college ranks, it takes much more than passion to turn this dream into reality. I've personally coached only about a dozen athletes who went on to play collegiately, so I asked coaching colleagues what they would tell young players who want to play at the next level. Most of the coaches who responded are current or former college coaches.

The coaches' words of wisdom fell into five categories:

1. 'Out-work everyone'

Work ethic was the coaches' clear-cut No. 1 piece of advice. The competition for spots on college rosters is fierce. To stand out from the crowd, "Be in the top three at every practice for work ethic and intensity," one coach said. "You may not have the best practice, but out-work everyone each day."

I saw this first hand with the handful of players who went on to play in college. They not only exhibited an excellent work ethic in practices and matches but honed their skills and volleyball IQ outside of club and school.

One of the most recent college players, Taylor, was always one of my shortest players. She peaked out at 5 feet 3 as a sophomore in high school. But Taylor was a relentless worker. Even during school season she would go to a local volleyball facility and play four or five hours of open gym games on weekends. When she picked up Taylor from practice on Mondays, her mom would tell me how Taylor was at open gym the whole afternoon on Saturday playing one game after another.

Taylor loved volleyball and was driven even then to play collegiately. Today she is a starting libero at a university in Tennessee. Her persistence, perseverance and several years of passionate practice paid off handsomely.

2. 'Be an elite learner'

One college coach mentioned that character matters greatly in the recruiting process. One of the main characteristics that coaches look for is a teachable attitude. Volleyball is a deep and complex sport. Even at the highest levels, there is always something new to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you still have to learn.

A voracious appetite to continually learn is essential to developing into a college-worthy volleyball player. Learn as much as you can from coaches at each practice. Participate in camps, clinics and classes outside of club and school. The day you think you know it all is the day that your game will start to stagnate or even back-slide and other players your age who keep learning, grinding and striving will eventually pass you by.

One coach put it this way: "Be an elite learner. Ditch your ego. You're 15; you aren't a finished product. Working hard, being versatile, being creative and other qualities don't matter in my opinion until you have a kid who's truly ready to learn and grind."

3. 'Be the best student they can be'

For obvious reasons, college coaches strongly prefer signing student-athletes who excel academically. Several coaches mentioned academics as a key quality they seek out when recruiting.

"If she wants to play here, work hard on the court and work harder in the classroom," one coach said.

"Be the best student they can be," another coach commented. "Get good grades, nail the SAT and research financial aid opportunities. Get exposure by attending Math Camp and Mock Trial and other academic events."

4. 'Don't get pigeon-holed into a single role'

Specializing at one position is typical, especially at the high school level. But don't get too tied to one spot on the court. A lot of players end up moving to different positions in college. A right side moves to the middle. A middle moves to the right side. An outside hitter becomes a libero. A setter transitions to defensive specialist.

"Don't let yourself get pigeon-holed into a single role," one coach said. "You never know what the college coach needs or sees in you."

Another college coach said coaches at his level are always in need of one type of player in particular: "If you can pass and defend well, you can play at a lot of places."

5. Promote yourself to college coaches

Most college programs have limited recruiting budgets. Unless they are a top-level Division I program like Nebraska or Penn State, they don't have the resources to unearth hidden gems and diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail.

If success in real estate is about location, location, location, success for athletes in the recruiting game is about promotion, promotion, promotion. From videoing your matches and uploading them to YouTube or other websites to provide easy access for college coaches to contacting coaches at the colleges you're interested in playing at, you'll need to take initiative if you'd like to grab a prospective college's attention.

"Start telling college coaches they are interested in their programs," one coach said.

Another coach recommended, "Be persistent. Email and contact coaches on a regular basis where you'd like to play. Make sure to always put a link to your playing video in the emails that you send to coaches."

Bonus tip

One long-time college coach left one final piece of advice for young athletes who want to play beyond high school.

"If playing volleyball is the only concern, there is a program for everybody," he said. "If money or the quality of the education or the (school size) or the competitiveness of the team factor in, that will limit your options. But there is a program for anyone who wants to play. I used to coach one of those programs."

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Fearful or fun? It's all in your perspective

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by Jeff Smith

The first high school tournament I coached started promisingly. Our team finished in second place in our pool to earn a spot in the playoffs. In the quarterfinals we faced the No. 1 seed, which featured the most imposing player in the tournament, a 6-foot dynamo who dominated the net with her hitting and blocking and possessed the most dangerous jump serve in the field. No one expected our team to have a chance against the tournament favorites.

With no pressure on our shoulders and nothing to lose, our team played loose and free early, building a 19-13 lead in a single-elimination set to 25 points. But, standing just six points from a huge upset and a berth in the semifinals, our mood turned from fun to fearful. We began focusing on the scoreboard and took our eyes off the process of playing solid volleyball. Our performance suffered as a result. Our six-point advantage quickly disappeared. Trailing 24-23, one of our team's most reliable servers fittingly ended the loss by shanking a serve into the net.

Afterwards, we went home kicking ourselves for letting our mood suddenly change from footloose to foot in the mouth in a matter of seconds.

Have you or your team experienced this kind of defeat? You're not alone. Most teams from the professional ranks down to recreational leagues go through this same thing at some point. It's commonly referred to as choking or "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Even the world's greatest athletes have had infamous moments where they've tightened up and lost a game or match they probably should have won.

The age-old question is how do you avoid the so-called "gag reflex"? Here are five lessons I've learned, and re-learned, while coaching -- and occasionally choking -- over the last 20 years.

See each game as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

Whether you're playing in the finals of a tournament or against a higher-seeded opponent or in a single-elimination match, your perspective influences your performance more than anything. If you think of what you could lose out on if your team is defeated -- losing the championship trophy, getting ousted from the tournament, squandering a shot at the playoffs -- you're more likely to experience a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But if you focus instead on the possibilities in front of you -- winning the championship trophy, advancing in the tournament, earning a shot at the playoffs -- your whole mindset changes.

  • When we play a tougher opponent it's an opportunity to see what we're made of, learn how much we've progressed as a team and test our skills against a strong foe.
  • When we compete in a single-elimination tournament, it's an opportunity to experience the thrill of winning elimination games and display the heart, character, talent and unity that we know we have as a team in an exciting format that brings out the best in teams like ours.
  • When we participate in the finals of a tournament, it's an opportunity to show our stuff, experience the highest of highs and support and celebrate with each other on club volleyball's biggest and brightest stage.

Embrace the moment.

I used to dread close games as a high school basketball player. It showed in my play. My last game in high school I bricked a wide-open jump shot from the foul line with 10 seconds left in regulation that would have tied the score.

As a coach, though, with more maturity under my belt and a perspective seasoned by lots of last-second losses as a player, I learned to love and relish the excitement of a closely contested game.

When you go into a playoff match or the deciding set of a match with the mindset that what you're doing is fun and thrilling to be part of, it drowns out your fears and changes your whole point of view. You then control your emotions instead of your emotions controlling you, and the moment at hand brings out the best in you. You revel in these moments instead of fearing them.

As a coach, I tell my players often during huddles and between sets of a "big" match that "This is so much fun. I love these moments. Enjoy every point of this." It makes a significant difference to your players when they see and hear you embracing the moment.

Focus on the process, not on the outcome.

It takes a conscious effort to ignore the scoreboard and set your attention on the process of doing the best you can with your serving, passing, setting, hitting, blocking, digging and supporting one another. And it never seems to carry over from match to match. Once one game is over, you have to consciously tell yourself to focus on the process and not the outcome in the next game, too. It takes discipline and intentionality.

But it is very much worth it.

The more you do this, the more it becomes a trained habit. You'll find yourself so absorbed in a game that the scoreboard doesn't seem to exist or matter. My school team was playing in the conference tournament finals last fall. The match was hard fought for three sets before we made a huge run and won the championship. Funny thing is, my reaction to winning was different than my players. I didn't realize it was match point until seeing my players run to the middle of the court to celebrate. I was so immersed in the process that I hadn't been looking at the scoreboard.

This is more than ironic since, as a player, the scoreboard dominated my attention sometimes to my detriment. It took years of practice to develop this new habit.

Be relentlessly optimistic.

Due to my own insecurities as a player, I learned as a coach to establish a positive environment for my own players during high-pressure games. I knew from my own experience that some of them would be nervous heading into a championship match or important game. They didn't need me making matters worse by being too tough on them or berating them. They needed support.

As a teammate or coach, the more positive you can be with your words, your tone of voice and your body language (all three are crucial), the better off your team will be. If your teammate botches a key serve, be the first player to give her a fist bump or a word of encouragement. If your players start struggling in serve receive, give them a quick tip of what to do ("Remember: quiet platform") and, more importantly, a reminder that they'll be fine. ("We've got this.") If you shank a pass out of bounds, maintain a positive "I'll get the next one" posture; your teammates are watching you.

"We'll get it right back. Next one's ours" is one of my pet phrases; it communicates belief in our team and tells everyone to forget the last point and focus solely on the next one.

Get creative.

Sometimes you'll have to be creative with your optimism when your team is especially uptight about a game. For his team's biggest matches, a coaching colleague of mine gives his team a "term of the day." It's a silly term that he makes up and uses during the match to help keep his players loose.

I started using his strategy in recent years. Last spring at Diggin' in the Dells our team was missing our starting outside hitters but had won our pool and reached the crossover gold medal bracket match. I knew some of the kids would be nervous about the match, particularly the players who were playing new positions in the lineup, so I came up with the term "fuzzy noodles" as our motto for the match. Yes, fuzzy noodles is a dorky term. That was the point. When we broke from a team huddle, we chanted 1-2-3 fuzzy noodles. If a player was looking fearful, I just called out "fuzzy noodles" and it seemed to break the tension with laughter.

The girls ended up winning the match to reach the gold bracket in part because we played loose, focused, hungry and confident. I wish I'd known this lesson back in my playing days.

Remind yourself and your teammates that this is a game.

If all else fails, as a coach or player you can tell your players or teammates the bottom-line truth: This is only a game. It's not World War III or a final exam. It's fun. Let's smile, celebrate each point like crazy and enjoy the moment. We've got this.

That simple reminder can deflate the pressure of a close match and put your team in the proper mindset to play loose, focused, hungry and free.

What do you do to be at your best in a big game?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Are you living on the edge?

by Jeff Smith

Every coach has a pet peeve. Mine is the same pet peeve as Serve City's owner, Tim Maruyama:

Watching players continually play it safe.

As examples of this, I have to fight the urge to cringe or swallow my gum whenever seeing a high school player:

  • execute a standing serve when I know they are capable of a jump float or jump topspin.
  • hit a down-ball spike when the set warranted a three- or two-step jump attack.
  • constantly tip or push set (two-handed tip) the ball over instead of swinging at quality sets on the front row.
  • safely send a free ball to the opponent instead of delivering an out-of-system set and attack.
  • rely solely on high sets to the outside and middle hitters because the setter is afraid they'll make a mistake setting a quick, a shoot or even a back set.

Why do these things bother me? Because real growth only occurs when you're living on the edge of your abilities. And Coach Tim and I want every Serve City player from 12 Blue to 18 Blue to reach for and experience real growth.

No matter the age level, the primary point of club volleyball is the same: to learn and grow. And player development starts with you as a player being willing to learn and grow and extending yourself each practice to learn and grow.

USA Volleyball released results of a study a while back contrasting the training habits of good players with average to mediocre players. The study found that good players spent 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 most adept.

The lesson from that study is clear. Players grow the most by spending the majority of practices working to turn weaknesses into strengths or mediocre skills into proficient skills.

It's studies like this on which Serve City has built our training philosophy. Serve City has established a training mindset that encourages coaches and their athletes to push themselves outside their comfort zone, creating a tiered system from 12U to 18U that sets high standards for what Serve City's teams will be striving to learn over the course of the season.

To be perfectly honest, training with a growth mindset is like swimming upstream. Many school coaches in particular teach their players to drive in the slow lane and avoid the fast lane of growth. It saddens me every time an athlete or parent tells me that their daughter doesn't jump serve because her high school coach prohibited it. I know why these coaches discourage jump serving: It's risky. Players are likelier to commit serving errors, which leads to points for the opponent and decreases the chance for a team victory. I totally get that.

But that's what team practice is for. Teach jump serving, or back-row attacking, or back setting, or quick sets to middle hitters and outside hitters, or other skills, in practice and let your players loose working on those skills in practice. Then the risk is reduced as they master new skills, and real growth takes place.

The most cringe-worthy moment of 2017 for me personally was observing my older daughter's first varsity match of the fall season. The team itself was a good, competitive team that I loved to watch. But it was disheartening to see only three players on the roster jump serving when eight of the nine players on my 7th- and 8th-grade school team were jump servers. Most of my daughter's teammates relied on safe serves that, although they almost always stayed in-bounds, were easily passed to the setter and resulted in some sort of an aggressive attack by the opponent.

By contrast, most of the opponent's servers were jump servers who pounded jump floats and topspin serves that frequently forced my daughter's team out of system.

Not surprisingly, the opposing team won.

The same goes with other skills. The most significant growth in setting skills, hitting skills, serve receive skills, digging skills and tactical and strategic skills takes place when coaches put their players on the edge of their abilities.

Is your setter proficient at high sets to the outside? Make sure she's spending most of her practice time learning how to set quicks and back sets and shoots or go sets. Does your team frequently struggle to pass to setter in serve receive? Invest lots of practice time teaching non-setters how and where to set teammates for out-of-system attacks. 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. Is your 12U, 13U or 14U team too reliant on sending the ball over the net in one or two contacts? Set up scoring constraints in practice requiring them to always use three contacts in drills and games.

The nice part is, once an athlete or coach understands, accepts and then commits fully to playing on the edge of their abilities, or training their teams on the edge of their abilities, it eventually becomes a habit. Once you form the habit of regularly practicing and playing outside your comfort zone, you don't even have to think about it. You find yourself pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities all the time.

As a coach, what does living on the edge of your abilities look like? It means always pushing your team to get better. The other day I substitute coached our 18s team. Most of the girls have at least decent jump floats, so during serving/serve receive games I gave them zones to serve to with increasing difficulty. Once they were consistently hitting the back-row zones, I began signaling for players to serve the more challenging front-row zones. They missed the front-row zones more often than not, but by the end of practice some of them were beginning to figure it out. They were experiencing steps of growth and getting comfortable attempting something  that made them uncomfortable.

As an athlete, what does living on the edge look like? You 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, location.)

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 or improve your off-speed attacks, or hit with more power by improving your technique of generating torque on the ball.

If you're a younger player, you decide you will no longer be satisfied with safely passing first contacts over the net and will work hard to deliver accurate first passes to your team's setters. Or you stop resorting to safely free-balling passes over the net from the front row and instead begin using your three-step approach that your coach taught you and jumping and swinging whenever you receive a decent set.

If you're a coach, you dedicate yourself to constantly pushing your team to learn and refine new skills, tactics and strategies. You remove the phrase "Just get it over" from your coaching vocabulary and look for opportunities to stretch your players' and team's skills and understanding of the game.

Will you immediately turn into a standout hitter, setter, passer, coach or jump server? Of course not. In fact, as players you will see yourself making more mistakes than ever before.

But mistakes are a good sign. It means you're stretching yourself, attempting new things and placing yourself on the path to real growth. If you're not making mistakes, you're not growing. It's that simple.

And as coaches, we need to applaud mistakes. That doesn't mean clapping loudly when Jane swings at a bad set that's six inches off the ground and pounds the ball into the floor. There's another little lesson called discernment that we need to teach our athletes, too. It does mean celebrating and encouraging aggressive, growth-focused mistakes.

Last summer one of the players in my 18U sand volleyball class was petrified at the thought of even attempting a jump float serve. But I made her and the rest of the class work on jump serving for five minutes each practice and occasionally required it during our games and drills. For weeks her jump serve erratically flew out of bounds or, more often than not, into the net. It took her hundreds and hundreds of repetitions, and plenty of feedback, but to her credit she stuck with it.

For a good six weeks or so she may have missed 100 or more of her jump serves. But by the end of the summer she had developed one of the best jump floats in the class. It's akin to developing a metal through the process of fire and refinement. The refining is painful and painstaking, but the end result is worth it.

So, for your next practice, go make some mistakes while learning new skills. Practice on the edge of your abilities. Strive to learn something new each training session. Soon enough you'll find yourself cringing whenever you see a player on another team stuck in no-growth safe mode. And you'll be glad you're no longer stuck in that mindset.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

One question that every volleyball player should answer about themselves

by Jeff Smith

Before you go to your team's next practice, answer the following question:

When your volleyball career is over, how would you like to be remembered as a player?

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The purpose of that question is to get you thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave as a volleyball athlete.

  • What qualities do you want to be known for as a volleyball player and teammate?
  • What accomplishments do you want to achieve?
  • What is your personal mission statement as a volleyball athlete?

Your answer to that question should drive your effort, attitude, work effort, passion, choices and actions on the court at every practice and tournament you play at this season and for as long as you play this magnificent, one-of-a-kind sport.

This question influences me every day that I don a coaching hat. I've coached volleyball teams for 20 years, ranging from 18-and-under to grade school, from indoor to sand, from national/travel to regional teams and from school to club. No matter if I'm working with experienced high school seniors or rookie fifth-grade players, my answers to the legacy question help keep me focused on my personal mission statement:

PASSION

No matter if I'm subbing for a team or coaching a team of my own, I want my passion for the game to be clear and contagious. I still remember my first club coaching experience. I was coaching a 16U team on the first day. The girls started practice with a serve and pass drill, and I was standing on the sidelines near the back-row passers. Shortly after the drill began, I started doling out positive reinforcement with each quality pass they delivered, striving to be very specific in my praise.

"Way to use your drop step, Jane."

"That's how to hold your finish, Lisa."

"Great job of staying low in your passing stance, Mary."

At first the girls started peeking at me like I was some alien life form but quickly grew to enjoy the feedback. (Encouragement is indeed oxygen to the soul and provides a confidence boost that young players need to receive often.) Most of the coaches in our club only spoke to the players during drills to point out the mistakes they made and how to correct them. I think it's important to do that but is even more valuable to reinforce the positive decisions, habits and techniques that players exhibit in order to further encourage those very things and to create an atmosphere in your gym where good volleyball play -- and players -- are celebrated.

Volleyball gives coaches an opportunity to connect with kids and teens in meaningful ways, and it's nearly impossible for me to avoid getting emotionally invested in supporting their development as athletes and as people.

In short, anything worth doing is worth doing with passion.

PURPOSE

I believe God has given me a love for volleyball and an understanding of how to teach the sport that I've been entrusted to share with athletes. I want to be a good steward of that gift and seize every opportunity to teach, inspire and help athletes grow. When I'm visiting one of our teams' practices, I usually warn the coach that I'll be jumping in at least once to teach a skill, tactic or strategy. I can't help myself in that regard, and I want to be purpose driven whenever I'm in the gym.

PERSONAL EXCELLENCE

Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better. That's a statement I feel compelled to share with as many young athletes as I come across.

In today's technology-saturated culture, we are all used to getting things instantaneously. But volleyball doesn't work in that manner. The sport takes years and years of painstaking practice and mindfulness to develop the skills and understanding needed to excel. It's also a sport that you'll never master, never perfect and never stop learning new things.

Becoming an excellent volleyball player is the gradual result of always striving to do better. I like to ask athletes to focus on getting "3% better" at volleyball each time they practice. It's akin to answering this question: How do you eat a two-ton elephant? One bite at a time.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave as a player five, 10 or 20 years from now?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Simple is repeatable: the most effective approach to volleyball training

by Jeff Smith

A coaching friend of mine conducted a fascinating experiment at a volleyball clinic last weekend. He was teaching a class of coaches some new approaches to creating a practice plan. After the coaches spent a couple of hours collaborating on a joint practice plan, my friend led them to a volleyball court to test out the plan. The coaches acted as players, performing the various drills, games and other activities they had brainstormed together.

For one drill, one of the coaches explained how the drill worked, shared the four or five teaching cues, or points, that the coaches had come up with for teaching the desired skill, then instructed the players to perform the drill. About 10 minutes later the drill concluded. The coach then asked the "players," most of whom were long-time coaches themselves, to recall the four to five teaching cues that he had shared with them.

Not one of the players/coaches could remember any of the teaching pointers that the drill was supposed to instill in them.

That's when my friend asked the group why they thought they couldn't recollect even one of the cues that they had painstakingly designed to help teach the skill they practiced in the drill. "There were too many cues for us to remember," one coach piped up.

"I agree," my friend replied. "So, if we can't remember four or five teaching cues conveyed to us by a coach when we're experienced coaches ourselves, should we expect the middle school and high school athletes on our teams to remember a list of cues taught by us in our practices?"

Everyone knew the answer to that question.

This is a lesson in reality that takes years for coaches, and educators in general, to truly learn. I still can look back and shudder at my first year as a coach, thinking that the more I talked and taught my players through long, in-depth explanations of how to pass, set, serve and hit, the more my players would naturally soak up my knowledge, learn and develop.

It didn't take more than a couple of months to quickly realize the fallacy of that philosophy. The kids' bored looks and inability to transfer a list of 10 teaching pointers into their performance on the court demonstrated to me that over-complicating things wasn't helpful to my players. I learned to pare down my instructions to a bare minimum.

It's ironic that, after 20 years of coaching, I talk and "instruct" less in practices today than ever before. Shouldn't it be the opposite? I know more about the game now than I ever have. I still read, discuss, study, observe and soak in new methods, techniques, ideas and insights, yet I've learned the age-old axiom of less is more.

In fact, like my coaching clinic colleague, I've gotten to the point where I try hard to limit my instruction to making one teaching point per drill or game. Research shows that attempting to impart more than one teaching cue at a time to students or athletes is fruitless and ineffective, so when I run a team through a ball control drill, I ask them to focus solely on one point or step in the process of acquiring or refining a skill.

It's the concept of "simple is repeatable." Simple movements are easier to achieve and put into practice than complex movements. If you wanted to learn from me how to spike a volleyball and I promptly rattled off the 10 keys to spiking success and then turned you loose, how would you respond? Would you start incorporating all 10 teaching points and begin bouncing kills in front of the 10-foot line? Or would you struggle just to remember one or two teaching cues and walk away frustrated by your lack of progress?

(It's akin to when I would cram for a final exam in high school and college. I might "retain" the mounds of material I basically memorized for a day or two, just long enough to ace a test. But I quickly forgot the information I studied shortly after the exam took place. Filling my head with dozens of details at once did me no good as a student in the long run.)

Yet coaches in volleyball, basketball, baseball and a host of other sports do this very thing, cramming young athletes' heads with information overload and complex concepts and then expecting them to digest it all and quickly pick up these skills.

Even some of the finest minds in coaching fall prey to overly technical and verbose teaching. I'm currently reading a book on how to build successful volleyball programs. One of the chapters covers the author's teaching philosophy on hitting. When he teaches spiking to his players, he gives them 10 cues -- and another 15-20 sub-cues -- to work on. That philosophy may produce results if you're coaching the outside hitters at Penn State or the University of Nebraska, but trying that approach anywhere else will leave you with a roster of confused athletes.

At Serve City, one of our training goals is to teach in a way that players can best grasp new concepts -- to emphasize simple movements that can be grasped and accomplished. When I was guest coaching at a 12-and-under team practice the other day, I ran the girls through a game of 4 vs. 4 in which I introduced them to three new skills. But, instead of trying in vain to teach the three skills at once, I introduced one skill at a time. I started by teaching them how to execute a side bump and gave them two pointers to practice: face the ball with their hips and shoulders and drop their inside shoulder in order to swing their platform toward the opponent. Even then I felt like I was providing too much detail at once, but, with the focus on just two simple points, these 10- to 12-year-old girls were pounding side bumps back and forth into the opponent's court within a couple of minutes. Simple was repeatable.

After a few minutes of working on side bumps within the context of a game of 4 vs. 4, I then used the same simple-is-repeatable approach to introduce how to back bump the ball: arch your back and swing your platform to your target. The kids did a terrific job of learning this new skill within a few minutes as well.

I saved the toughest skill for last: a drop step. I briefly explained and demonstrated the drop step move for passing balls that sail deep over the passer's head or shoulders, using three cues this time. I quickly noticed that the kids were struggling to put all three pointers to practice, so I began reinforcing just two teaching cues instead of three: face the ball with your shoulders and hips and shuffle step back to the ball. The girls figured out the other pointers on their own -- dropping the shoulder closest to their target and angling their platform to the setter, for instance. They just needed a couple of basic teaching cues to guide them in the right direction. And all the positive and constructive feedback I gave them over the next several minutes as they practiced this new skill focused only on those two teaching pointers, reinforcing the instances I saw them trying to execute the two cues correctly and reminding them of one cue or the other when they didn't try to perform one of the cues.

Next thing you knew, these fifth- and sixth-grade players were drop stepping to receive deep free balls and delivering passes toward their setter instead of standing in one spot, reaching high and swatting helplessly at the ball with their hands. They weren't executing perfect drop-step maneuvers each time by any means, but they were recognizing when to drop step and were striving to perform this skill when they needed to.

Whether the skill you're learning is how to create a platform, how to overhand serve, how to hit a slide attack or how to improve your golf putting, keep it simple and emphasize simple movements over complex movements so you can remember it, learn quickly how to repeat it and immediately put it into practice.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

What an excellent teammate looks like

by Jeff Smith

"Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates."

NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Magic Johnson's twist on the famous John F. Kennedy quote serves as a tremendous summary of what an excellent teammate looks like.

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I personally saw an excellent teammate in action last spring at the Diggin' in the Dells tournament. The team I was coaching went to Wisconsin Dells shorthanded. Our two starting outside hitters and team leaders in kills were unable to play; one had another sports commitment, while the other, Maya, severely sprained her ankle a week before Diggin' in the Dells during the grass court tournament at Serve City's end-of-season banquet. (That grass court idea certainly didn't pan out for my team's fortunes!)

After Maya and her parents got the news that she would be sidelined, I assumed they wouldn't make the three-hour trek to the tournament for obvious reasons. But they would have none of that, bringing their entire family to the Dells, including one set of grandparents. As her teammates began warming up for their first match of the weekend, Maya hobbled over to the court, crutches in hand, and took a seat on the team bench.

"Let's go, girls!" she shouted after sitting down.

Even though she had to feel crushed to be stuck on the sidelines for the team's biggest tournament of the season, Maya shoved aside her dejection and showed no outward signs of disappointment on her face or in her body language, focusing her attention on how she could support the other players. In fact, as I headed over to the bench to grab my clipboard, Maya asked if she could help me keep stats. I handed her a stat sheet and pen, and she dutifully tracked stats throughout the next two days. Between sets, Maya talked to the team while I turned in the lineup sheet to the score table, and no one cheered harder during each of our matches.

When the team claimed first place in our pool and then won our crossover match to advance to the gold bracket, the first player to hop off the bench after match point and congratulate the other players on the court was, surprisingly, Maya, crutches in tow. She didn't pout or feel sorry for herself. Instead, she celebrated her team's achievement as if she had played a pivotal role.

Truth be told, through her presence, encouragement and enthusiasm, she really did play a pivotal role.

That's what an excellent teammate looks like:

  • Putting the team's needs ahead of your own
  • Celebrating others' success as if it's your own -- because, when one player succeeds, the whole team succeeds
  • Supporting your teammates whether you're on the court or on the bench
  • Serving your team however you can with whatever you have to offer at the time
  • Giving your teammates your best effort, even when limited by injury
  • Being fully present and wholly engaged at each practice and match
  • Encouraging your teammates through your words, actions and attitudes
  • Displaying consistent enthusiasm, even when your personal circumstances are difficult

How can you be an excellent teammate this week? This season?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Why practice is more enjoyable than a match

by Jeff Smith

I like practices more than matches.

No, that's not a typo. And yes, that opinion puts me in a solid minority. In fact, that is probably one sentence you've either never read or heard before. Don't teams practice for the glory of tournaments and matches?

In some ways that's true. I myself have coached nearly 1,400 games in the last 20 years. But even after all these years, I still enjoy practices over the actual competitions.

I love the thrill, excitement and intensity of tournaments and matches as much as any coach, but practice is the heart and soul of any team environment.

  • It's where teams are largely formed.
  • It's where the coach and players work together to develop the skills, tactics, strategies and systems necessary to compete.
  • It's where, in school terms, the teacher instructs their students in the classroom day after day on the road to graduation, or where a contractor and their crew work tirelessly to build a skyscraper.

In short, I relish the process of constructing a skilled, prepared, competitive, unified, enthusiastic, well-oiled team over the outcome of a game or tournament.

Over the last two days, I had the privilege of watching four of Serve City's 2017-18 girls teams practice for the first time this season. The teams spanned four different age groups -- 12U, 15U, 16U and 18U -- and a wide range of skill and experience levels, from first-time players to athletes who've played the sport competitively for eight years.

In observing each team, I took away several mental snapshots that reminded me anew of why I like practice so much.

Run, don't walk

While waiting for our Wheaton 12 Blue team's practice to begin, I couldn't help but smile as one of the young players "ditched" her mom and ran across the gym to meet her team and start passing a ball with one of her new teammates. The first day of practice is like that new car smell. Everything is fresh, and the future looks so bright. Watching this 10- or 11-year-old player scamper excitedly into practice was a great reminder of what a privilege it is to be part of a team.

High-five craze

As far as I know, there is no world record kept for the most high fives by a team in one practice. But if there was, that record might have been set by our Wheaton 18 Blue team. The players gave out high fives to one another throughout their practice Tuesday night.

  • High fives after successful plays.
  • High fives after mistakes.
  • High fives for teammates as they ran off the court during a drill.
  • High fives for teammates as they ran on the court for a drill.
  • High fives after winning a drill and losing a drill.

Most of these athletes had never met before Tuesday. So what generated these gestures of celebration and encouragement? Few sports bring people together as easily or create the kind of camaraderie experienced by teammates as volleyball does. Volleyball and basketball are the ultimate team sports. One ball, six teammates, a few different positions, roles and skill sets and one purpose on the court. Volleyball unifies a group of individuals like few other activities. It also unites people for a common cause and sets our hearts and focus on something outside of our own self-centered interests, something greater than ourselves. It also breaks down barriers between us. The next thing we know, we're high-fiving a new teammate whose name we didn't have a clue about 15 minutes earlier. That's volleyball.

Try, try again

During practice for our 16 Blue team in Des Plaines, coach Breann Reveley was teaching her athletes a perimeter defensive system that most of the girls were unfamiliar with. One of the players seemed particularly unsure of herself as she learned how to defend at right back in the back row. Jane (not her real name) kept getting confused about where to transition when the opponent would be setting the ball to the outside hitter. It was a whole new paradigm for her, and you could see by her facial expressions that she was getting increasingly frustrated with herself and doubting her ability to figure this out.

But, after a string of mistakes, Jane successfully started in the proper position on the court (five feet behind the 10-foot line and five feet inside the sideline), shuffled to the correct spot on the sideline, stayed in her low defensive stance and dug up an attack to her setter, who set it to the outside hitter for a hit down the line. The proverbial light bulb was shining brightly now. Jane understood her role and could execute it now. "You got it," Coach Bre said to her, and Jane's expressive face showed a mix of relief, pride and excitement at learning something new. Jane's experience reminded me of the quote "Be humble, be teachable and always keep learning." Good life lesson wrapped up in a volleyball package.

The power of applause

During the 15 Blue team's practice at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines on Monday, the players were doing a split-court serve/serve receive drill. Two groups of players were working on serving and receiving serves on both halves of the court. One of the girls was delivering her serves consistently over the net for awhile, but then started missing. Soon she had missed several serves in a row. This happens from time to time with younger players. This server is a first-time club player and is actually in eighth grade, a year younger than many of her ninth-grade teammates.

Time was nearly up for this drill, so the team's coach, Briana Flanagan, called out "Last serve." This young player took a deep breath, held up the ball in her shelf (non-serving) hand and prepared to toss and swing at the ball when her teammates did something unusual and spectacular at the same time. The other group had just completed its last serve, so when one person yelled out "You've got this, Mary!" the members of the other group joined the other girls in Mary's group in spontaneously beginning to clap loudly, hoot, holler, whistle and encourage Mary on her final serve of the drill.

At first I figured Mary might get embarrassed and feel self-conscious about all the attention. Her teammates' cheering was so loud, it sounded like we were in the finals of a tournament, and Mary had just met these other girls about an hour before this moment.

But, instead of feeling silly or ashamed, Mary took this gesture for what it was meant to be: genuine positive reinforcement from a team that wanted Mary to succeed. Mary smiled, then regained her focus, went about her routine, tossed the ball in the air, and swung as aggressively as I'd seen her attack the ball all practice. The serve took off from her hand, soared high in the air, cleared the top of the net by a good five feet and landed safely past the 10-foot line; the serve receivers were too busy clapping and yelling for Mary to have time to pass the ball.

After the ball bounced off the floor, the entire team erupted in a full-throated cheer so loud that the 16 Blue team stopped playing in the middle of its drill for a couple of seconds out of curiosity over what had taken place. Mary accepted high-fives -- that volleyball staple -- from nearby teammates, and the rest of the team congratulated her as they huddled up after the drill. It was a spontaneous moment that lasted all of maybe 15 seconds, but I guarantee that Mary will remember that moment for the rest of the season, and perhaps even longer.

I bet you no longer wonder why I love practices so much or why practices are so vital.

Jeff Smith is Serve City girls volleyball club director.

The 7 habits of an excellent player

by Jeff Smith

Molly was your typical run-of-the-mill sixth-grade volleyball player. She was tall, gangly and rail thin for her age. (She was so skinny that I carried her off the court in my arms after she sprained her ankle during a game.) Her slight build prevented her from serving overhand or hitting with power, and her still-developing coordination made it a challenge for her to move quickly to the ball. She was a typical work in progress for her age.

But one characteristic made Molly stand out from her teammates: her passion for the game. Molly could not get enough of the sport. She was one of the team's most diligent workers in practices. What she lacked in refined skills she compensated for with all-out effort that endeared her to her teammates and coaches.

Molly was also always one of the last players to leave the gym after practices, usually either getting in extra serving reps or working on her hitting form. I still remember her father standing near the gym doors each afternoon patiently waiting while Molly snuck in "just a few more" serves or spikes.

Her enthusiasm extended to matches. A member of the school's JV team, Molly would stay for every eighth-grade match, sitting at the end of the bench cheering on the team and giving high-fives to players as they came off the court. She knew she wasn't going to play but wanted to be there anyway to support the team and to watch and learn from more experienced players.

Molly's dedication didn't make a tangible difference in her skill development in sixth grade; she was a nondescript 11-year-old player. But it began paying noticeable dividends in seventh grade, when she developed a strong overhand serve and helped the team to the conference finals and a school-record 23 wins. In eighth grade she became the team's best all-around player, equally adept at hitting, setting, passing and zone serving, and helped the squad to another 20-win season.

Molly's game exploded in high school. She finished as her school's all-time leader in kills, made the Daily Herald's all-area team and earned a full-ride scholarship to UIC. She went on to start for three years at outside hitter for the Flames despite having to overcome major surgeries on her hitting shoulder and ankle.

Molly was never the most athletic player on any of her teams. But the driving force in her career arc was her commitment to excellence each day. Of the thousands of youth I've coached over the last two decades, Molly was easily one of the four or five most devoted athletes I've worked with. In a sentence, she was relentlessly dedicated to pursuing excellence.

With the 2017-18 season about to begin, here are several lessons from Molly's career that Serve City players can apply on and off the court starting next week.

1. Strive to be the hardest worker in each practice.

In four years as Molly's coach, I can't remember a single practice where she coasted, goofed around or gave less than great effort. Excellence is a habit, and so is work ethic.

2. Go above and beyond what's expected of you.

I still remember that Molly was the last player to leave the gym even after her last practice as a 14-year-old player even though by then she was far and away the team's MVP. Her work habits rubbed off on her teammates.

3. Keep pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

Molly originally emerged as a standout setter, but instead of being satisfied with that role she then committed herself to learning to be a pin hitter. Her desire to extend herself paid off down the road in the form of a college scholarship at outside hitter.

4. Stay humble and hungry.

Molly won numerous accolades over a 12-year volleyball career, but the praise and awards she earned and the accomplishments she achieved only fueled her passion to keep bettering herself.

5. Be an amazing teammate.

Molly was one of those players that everyone loved to have on the team. If a teammate made a great or even solid play in practice or a match, Molly was usually the first player to acknowledge her with a word of praise or a high five. She was also one of the first players to offer encouragement when a teammate made a mistake. It's one reason that she was usually voted team captain in middle school, high school and college.

6. Compete for every point with all your heart.

Molly poured every ounce of effort she had into her performances in matches. She didn't take it easy when the team faced an inferior opponent, built a big lead or fell far behind. She played each point with the same focus, drive and determination until giving her best effort became second nature.

7. Remain positive in all circumstances.

Of all of Molly's attributes, this may have been her most glowing trait. I still remember going to one of her college matches and sitting in the third or fourth row near the net and hearing her consistently positive chatter between points, even when her team trailed by a significant margin. Her relentless positivity was infectious, driving her teams to keep battling and never give up even in the most dire situations.

What are some other qualities of an excellent player and teammate?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Excellence: the result of always striving to do better

by Jeff Smith

A few years into my coaching career, I coached a team that at first glance looked like it would be undergoing a rebuilding season. From the standpoint of experience and raw athletic talent, this was not a team that anyone would equate with excellence. All but one starter had graduated from the previous season's conference championship team.

What was left was a roster full of question marks.

But what this team lacked in experience it made up for in enthusiasm and desire. The team was led by three captains who loved the game, wanted to keep the program's winning tradition alive and were committed to doing everything in their power to make the new season a success, starting with preseason practices.

Each August morning they would arrive before the rest of their teammates to put in extra work on their skills. Some sharpened their serving accuracy or technique; others worked on their setting, hitting or digging. I got to the gym on day one at 8:25 a.m. for a 9 a.m. practice, and they were already inside waiting for me to unlock the equipment room so they could start practicing their serving. The next day I arrived at 8:20, and they were waiting for me again. On day three I got to the school at 8:15, and -- you guessed it -- they were in the gym ahead of me yet again.

The captains' dedication rubbed off on their teammates. Soon other players started showing up earlier and earlier for practices until, by day five, nearly every player was honing their skills 30 to 40 minutes before practice officially began. As a coach it was rewarding to see.

The players' devotion continued throughout the season. Led by the captains, most of the girls spent another two to three hours each weekend doing additional skill drills at home or scrimmaging in the gym outside of practice. We called the weekend skill work S-E-T for Success. S-E-T was an acronym for Spend Extra Time.

The players' commitment paid off beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The team went 27-4 to tie the school record for single-season wins, set the previous season, and four of the players went on to play collegiately. I don't compare teams to each other -- it would be like comparing one daughter to another -- but this was one of the fondest seasons of my coaching career thanks primarily to three dedicated team captains.

The team's success could be traced back to the players' decision to form training habits that went above and beyond what their coach asked them to do.

And that's what excellence -- the 2017-18 Serve City theme -- really comes down to. One of the most famous quotes on excellence says it best: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Excellence doesn't just happen, and it isn't something we're born with. It takes exerting ourselves to do things the right way over and over again until, over time, good habits produce the necessary skills, strength, knowledge base, conditioning and preparedness to thrive on the court. Excellence requires desire, motivation and the discipline to push ourselves even when it hurts, is inconvenient, we're tired or we just don't want to push ourselves that day.

Excellence also takes patience and perseverance. Five-time NBA championship coach Pat Riley said it this way: Excellence is a gradual result of always striving to do better. It's not instantaneous. It requires being satisfied with small strides, seeing "2-percent" or "3-percent" improvement in our skills -- slow and steady progress. The pursuit of excellence is a marathon, not a sprint.

Excellence also demands a consistently strong effort. Working hard some of the time won't cut it. We have to push ourselves to the brink of our abilities every time we train over a period of months and years if we want to experience excellence on the court (or in the classroom, the band room or the workplace). Excellence requires our best effort in every drill of every practice of every season over a period of seasons to reap the long-term rewards.

And excellence only takes place if we acknowledge, accept and seek out the wisdom and advice of others, particularly our coaches. When we're consistently open to our coach's teaching, trust our coach's training methods and strive to apply that teaching and training to our skill development, we have an opportunity to learn the techniques, tactics and strategies that make for excellent players and teams.

So, what does excellence look like at Serve City? Here are just a few examples of what we'd love to see happening in our practice facilities in Des Plaines, Wheaton, West Chicago, Carol Stream and West Dundee over the next few months:

** Setters arriving at practices 15 minutes early to do setting drills with a teammate, a coach or off a wall.

** Coaches sending their team YouTube videos between practices showing proper hitting technique while the team learns a new aspect of hitting.

** Players asking to train with another Serve City team on weeks when they miss a team practice due to another extracurricular commitment.

** Teammates leaving the gym after each practice feeling tired, sore and sweaty but with smiles on their faces knowing they gave maximum effort throughout their training time.

** A team's middle hitters getting permission from their parents to ask their coach if they'll stay 10 minutes after practice to work with them on their blocking skills.

** A player going to her family's fitness gym on Sunday evenings to perform 50 extra serves as she strives to improve her zone serving ability.

** A player doing strength exercises at home in order to serve and hit with more power.

** An overhand server arriving early each practice to get extra reps on a jump serve she wants to learn and use in tournaments.

** Athletes always stretching themselves to learn new skills and refine current skills.

The best part about the pursuit of excellence is, as we develop the habit of always striving to do better, we form a passion for the game of volleyball that makes training seem less like work and more like a labor of love.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball club director.

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20 questions with our new girls club director

by Jeff Smith

I began working as Serve City's girls volleyball director August 15, but my journey as a club director actually was borne 32 years ago out of disappointment.

As one of the veteran players on our boys basketball team, I had high hopes for my senior season of high school, but our coach didn't share those aspirations. He didn't push our team to grow or excel. He was a kind man and cared about each of us on a personal level, but he wasn't driven to help us get the most out of our talent as individual players or as a team. Our practices didn't stretch us outside our comfort zone, teach us new tactics or strategies, train and extend us to be our best or prepare us well for games, either.

Not surprisingly, my senior season was a difficult one. Our team finished in last place in the conference, and my hoops career concluded on a dismal note. I still remember walking out of the gym following a lackluster season-ending loss thinking that, if I ever got the chance to coach my own team, I would push my players to reach their potential. I didn't want any athletes to experience the frustration and lack of development that marred my final basketball season.

More than three decades and nearly 1,400 games as a coach later, I start my tenure as Serve City's girls director ready to pursue the same philosophy that has guided my volleyball and basketball coaching career since 1998. I believe the most effective way a coach communicates that they value their athletes is by giving their players the best possible coaching they can each day. Conversely, I believe athletes demonstrate how important their team is to them by giving their team their best possible effort at each practice and match.

In short, excellence, improvement and realizing our dreams don't just happen. They take commitment, hard work, dedication, investment, enthusiasm, preparation and intentionality.

At Serve City, sweat plus sacrifice will spur on success.

I look forward to watching our coaches and athletes dedicate themselves to striving for excellence at each practice and match this season. The goal will be simple: to get "3 percent better" at their coaching or playing craft every day. If that happens, our athletes will experience significant growth in their skills and understanding of the game, our coaches will grow as leaders and teachers and our teams will make great strides throughout the season as well.

Few things are more satisfying in volleyball than to watch your skills and knowledge of the game improve as you pour yourself into your development as a player or coach.

We'll talk more about what excellence looks like in a practice setting in my next blog post. If you'd like to learn more about me, you can read the questionnaire below and visit my girls director page. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you in the gym this season!

20 Questions With: Jeff Smith

Coaching stops: Faith Christian (fifth- to eighth-grade teams), Illinois Heat VBC (18U, 16U, 15U), Harvest Christian Academy (middle school), Serve City (14U, 13U), Serve City sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Chicago Sand Volleyball (middle school and high school), Blaze sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Geneva Park District (middle school), Serve City Recreation (volleyball, basketball), CoachUp.com (private volleyball and basketball lessons for 10U to 18U)

Favorite quote: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,  then, is not an act but a habit.

What I enjoy most about volleyball: It's the ultimate team sport, teaching amazing life lessons about teamwork, sacrifice, putting others before self and playing for a cause greater than yourself.

What I enjoy least about volleyball: when teams play not to lose instead of playing to win

Greatest accomplishment: watching my daughters play the game they love

The most important trait for athletic success is: a growth mindset

Favorite volleyball memory: each time I've gotten to help a team or an athlete achieve more than they thought possible

Coach I most admire: John Wooden

If I could change one thing about volleyball: award 10 points for kills off back-row pipe attacks! (my favorite play in volleyball)

Favorite volleyball skills to teach: jump float serve, setting, back-row play, hitting

Favorite volleyball moment: 2013 Aurora Central Catholic tournament championship (coaching my daughters' school team)

Most embarrassing volleyball moment: getting my glasses smashed by an errant serve during a tournament, which has unfortunately happened about a dozen times over the years

Best advice for athletes: There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.

What I enjoy most about working with youth: their energy and optimism

Biggest pet peeve in volleyball: athletes who think success comes easy -- you make "easy" happen through commitment, hard work, consistent enthusiasm, learning and a humble, hungry and teachable attitude

Favorite book: the Bible

Favorite movie: Duck Soup

Favorite musical group/artist: DC Talk

Favorite TV show: Man vs. Wild unless Big Ten women's volleyball counts as a show ;)

What's most important to me: my relationship with Jesus Christ

Three words that best describe me: committed, driven, thinker

Why a hitting machine won't help you learn how to hit

by David Cordes

Ten years ago, before I ever heard of motor learning, specificity or the most effective transfer of skills through game-like training, I built a ball holder out of PVC and a couple of pieces of pool noodle. The kids on my team loved it. Stick a ball in it, hold it up in front of the net and let the middle-school girls approach, jump, swing and hit the ball over the net. They looked great. They loved it, I loved it, the parents loved it.

Then we went to a game, and we couldn't hit a ball over the net to save our lives. We would pass, set and our hitters would stand there, watch the ball flying through the air until it got close enough to them so they could roll shot or shot-put swing at it. 

So the next week we spent even more time hitting off my ball holder. And the changes in my players were amazing. I felt like a genius.

Then we went to our next game. And we still could not attack a ball. No approaches, no jumps, lousy swings by kids that just stood there staring at the ball and waiting until it got too close to them to swing at it in any positive way.

So we went back to hitting off the ball holder even more.

Then a miracle happened.

I was holding the ball holder for a girl to hit, and another girl decided to practice her serving. She cranked a ball over the net and smacked the ball holder right in one of the joints and snapped it like a piece of cheap 3/4-inch PVC pipe. I didn't have anything to fix it with at practice, so I set it aside and started using my setter instead. (No, I didn't put her on my shoulders and tell her to hold a ball out there for them to hit. But I briefly considered it.)

For the rest of the season, the broken ball holder laid in my garage waiting for me to fix it. But I was busy. So we kept using our passers and setters to practice hitting. But it was ugly and frustrating, and we all hated it. Well, except the girls who were setting and passing at practice instead of standing in line waiting to hit.

Then we played our third game of the season. And we actually attacked the ball. Not a lot, but a couple of times each game I saw a girl actually approach, jump and swing at a ball that was set to her. The next week we practiced hitting off a setter even more, and we hit a couple of more balls than before in our next match.

After we won the next match, one of the parents mentioned that we were hitting a lot better. His daughter told him, "Coach built this great thing out of white pipe, and it is making us a lot better." Except that we hadn't used it for a while. It was broken.

In the end I never fixed it. I reused the PVC on some other project or my sprinkler system. And a couple of years later, I discovered why we didn't miss it, either. 

If I had a pile of money to spend on my program, an Accu-Spike hitting machine would be the LAST thing I would ever buy. Right after a serving machine. Sure, if I had one, I would use it a little, early on, to let the kids feel what it's like to jump and swing at a ball. I would be negligent to not try to use every tool available to me to see if it helps. But after a couple of swings at a ball hung on a stationary machine, I would take the machine away from them and make them actually learn how to hit a volleyball that is moving through the air. That's the best way to learn how to hit at any level.

David Cordes is a long-time coach and club director for Ridgecrest Starlings Volleyball Club.

What would Reid Priddy do? How to follow the four-time Olympian's example this summer

by Jeff Smith

Reid Priddy's speech at the Serve City Volleyball Banquet was inspiring and uplifting in numerous ways. One of my favorite takeaways from his story of how he grew into a decorated four-time U.S. Olympian was how his perspective on volleyball changed shortly after first being introduced to the sport in middle school.

"I began playing volleyball all the time," Reid told our athletes, families and coaches at the banquet. "I couldn't play the sport enough."

Reid's love for the game drove him to play volleyball every chance he got: in open gyms, his backyard, on the sand, at parks, during camps and clinics and on his school's teams. He continued this habit into and throughout high school, college and the professional and Olympic ranks.

Now that most of Serve City's girls teams have wrapped up their seasons, you might be wondering what your daughter (or your son) can do next to continue fanning the flame of their love for volleyball. Following Reid Priddy's advice, here are four ideas to help your child keep developing their passion for the sport along with their skills and understanding of the game.

1. Play the sport recreationally.

Reid's love for the game grew largely out of playing the game with his friends outside of structured team practices and matches. This is also where your kids will learn the game more than any other venue. Volleyball requires countless hours of play in order to learn how to read your opponent -- looking across the net to determine when your opponent is hitting vs. tipping, where they are going to hit or pass the ball to before they even contact the ball, where they are setting to and where and how they are serving. This massive amount of information can only be instinctively learned through game play.

Plus, playing pick-up games of 6v6, 4v4, 3v3, 2v2 and even 1v1 will refine and sharpen your daughter's or son's all-around skills and ability to make split-second decisions, the latter of which is a crucial skill in and of itself in volleyball. And, of course, playing the game will stoke your child's passion and appreciation for the sport.

2. Attend summer camps.

Participating in summer camps is an excellent option for a couple of reasons. It exposes your daughter and son to new coaches and different and fresh teaching methods than they have received during their club and school seasons. Camps also give your child new ideas on how to pass, set, hit, block, defend and execute other volleyball skills that they can then take home and work on when they play recreationally this summer.

3. Try something new.

After several months of club volleyball and possibly two or three months of school ball, your daughter or son may need a fresh take on the sport to maintain her interest and refresh her love for the game. A fresh spin may come in a few different forms:

  • Trying sand volleyball. Playing in the sand is a terrific complement to the indoor version of the sport. Sand volleyball is significantly different from indoor in terms of rules, skills employed and strategy and tactics, not to mention the venue. Taking part in sand can improve your son or daughter's all-around skills, quickness, leaping ability and the skill of reading your opponent across the net while providing a refreshing new angle on the sport they love. (If you're interested in sand volleyball training this summer, here is a subsidiary organization running sand volleyball classes in the western suburbs.)
  • Taking private lessons. Summer is a good opportunity for some athletes to train individually with a private coach, as they can hone in on specific skills they need to learn or sharpen and raise their level of play prior to the start of the upcoming school season.
  • Competing in sand and grass tournaments. Both outdoor versions of the sport are popular in the Chicago area.
  • Learning a new position. One of my former players at the club where I coached prior to joining Serve City decided to play beach volleyball one summer so she could expand her game. Due to her height and frame, she had been pegged by her club coaches as strictly a middle blocker, so she joined a sand program to work on her serve receive and defensive skills in an effort to grow into an outside hitter for her senior season of club. My older daughter did the same thing, hitting the sand to improve her passing skills the summer after eighth grade and transition into a libero in high school.

5. Pay it forward.

Has your daughter or son benefited from years of coaching, instruction and input through club and school teams? This spring and summer they can begin giving back to the game by volunteering their time. They could serve as a volunteer assistant with a YMCA or park district league or help out at local camps for elementary-school kids. Paying it forward will keep them involved in volleyball while teaching them the other side of the game and perhaps sparking a future interest in coaching.

Even if they don't take to coaching, teaching the game to younger children will help your child develop a greater understanding of the sport and improve their volleyball IQ for their next season as a volley athlete.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

Are you the kind of teammate your team needs you to be?

by Jeff Smith

A coaching colleague of mine published the best list I've read for describing in detail what it means to be an outstanding teammate. From #10 through #1, the 10 qualities listed below all have one thing in common: relationships.

Positive, successful relationships are essential to a thriving volleyball team. And these relationships must be built on strong character and a common set of core values that permeate the entire team roster, from the coach through every player on the squad.

Athletes, use the 10 traits below as a checklist to evaluate how you are doing in each of these areas.

Coaches, sift your team's culture, habits and health through the filter of these 10 traits.

Parents, examine this list and consider how your son or daughter fits these traits and where they need to grow -- and how you can play a part in that growth.

Athletes, coaches and parents: Be honest with yourselves in your assessment of yourself, your team or your child. This list can illuminate the areas where you come up short and create an exciting opportunity for you to stretch and develop in new ways as a teammate, leader or sports parent.

TOP 10 WAYS YOU KNOW YOU’RE A GREAT TEAMMATE

10. You’ll play any role necessary for the sake of the team’s success.

9. You’d rather play less and win than play all the time and lose.

8. When you score, you immediately turn and thank a teammate.

7. You love training as much as you do playing in games.

6. You respect your opponent, but do not fear them.

5. You listen to your coaches and they readily describe you as coachable.

4. You are quick to pick up any teammate who is having a bad day.

3. You go out of your way to help younger teammates get better, even if it risks your own playing time.

2. You learn from each mistake you make.

1. You are confident in your abilities, but never arrogant toward your team or opponents.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

4 steps your child can take to fall in love with volleyball

by Jeff Smith

At an age when most kids begin playing organized soccer, basketball or t-ball, Laszlo Kiraly first introduced his son to volleyball shortly after his son's sixth birthday. A couple of years later, he began taking his son to sand volleyball courts to learn the outdoor game as well. His son quickly developed a deep love for volleyball, playing it with his friends for hours on end both indoors and outdoors.

Today, Karch Kiraly is universally known as the greatest men's volleyball player in the history of the sport. At age 55, he continues pouring himself into the sport he loves as head coach of the U.S. women's national team.

“I’ve been involved in this game since I was 6 years old,” Kiraly said. “I’ve had a very long love affair with volleyball thanks to the start my father gave me."

Of course, it's unlikely that any of our kids will end up accomplishing the kinds of decorated volleyball careers of Karch Kiraly. But many of us would like to see our children grow to love this game and get as much out of the sport as they can, not only in  terms of skill development and understanding of the game but also the life lessons, values and friendships this tremendous team sport offers.

Here are four ways that our kids can learn to love volleyball and develop the intrinsic motivation to passionately pursue the sport.

1. Play the game often.

If time together is the glue that holds relationships together, the same is true for volleyball. The more time spend playing the game, generally the more your child will develop an affection for the sport.

Just as time is necessary for getting to know our spouse or friend better, time playing the game is essential for getting to know and understand volleyball more intimately. The more we play the game, the more we understand how to execute the skills of the sport and how to perform the myriad of different intricacies of the sport, including how to read the opponent's actions on the other side of the net and then plan and react to those actions.

Playing the game also helps us appreciate the sport more. Most importantly, just like learning a musical instrument, the more we play the better we get at it and, in turn, the more we enjoy it.

Playing volleyball means being involved on school and club teams and taking part in camps and classes, where our kids will receive professional instruction and training as well as critical game experience. But that's just one part of the equation ...

2. Play the game outside of highly structured environments.

I played basketball competitively from second grade through high school. I participated in instructional leagues and park district leagues and competed for my school while also attending camps, clinics and private lessons.

But that's not where I developed my love for the sport. My fondest memories of basketball are the countless hours spent playing pick-up games with friends on my parents' driveway and the local park's basketball court and shooting hoops with my brother year round, even in the dead of winter, when we'd be working on our jump shots and free throws while dressed in winter coats, stocking hats and one glove (leaving our shooting hand cold but able to grip the ball).

Encourage your child to take that same approach to volleyball. Participating in camps, clinics, lessons and club and school teams is vital to your son or daughter's development. But they should be spending at least the same amount of time playing volleyball with family members and friends outside of those structured environments.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Games of 1v1 (basically volleyball singles) over a net, ribbon or clothesline in the backyard. (Use up to three contacts just like in the indoor and sand game.)
  • Games of 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4 with family or friends at a park, in someone's backyard or even indoors in the basement sitting volleyball style.
  • Play Loser Becomes the Net with family or friends.
  • Participate in open gym at the local park district or a church, school or club.
  • Hit the local sand court for games of 2v2, 3v3, 4v4 or up to 6v6.
  • Even by yourself, you can work on your skills for short increments of time: setting to yourself in your bedroom while lying on your bed or off a wall (with parents' permission) or hitting or serving the ball off a wall at a nearby school.

Karch Kiraly says his skills developed most of all by simply playing the game with friends. If it worked for him, it'll work for our kids, too.

3. Play multiple versions of volleyball.

The indoor game is fantastic, complex and ever challenging. Like golf, it's a sport you'll never completely conquer as a player.

But indoor athletes will grow a deeper love, appreciation and fascination with volleyball when they play the game in other venues as well.

Sampling the sand or grass versions of volleyball has other benefits, too. Playing sand or grass volleyball will keep the sport fresh for your child. Both sports, particularly sand volleyball, are significantly different from the indoor version, with different skills, strategies and rules to learn, and the outdoor venue makes volleyball more fun to play as well. It's hard not to love our sport with blue skies, sunshine, summer attire and soft sand thrown in the mix. Plus, playing sand or grass volleyball typically use smaller teams, such as beach doubles, which gives our kids more touches on the ball, more game reps and more opportunities to develop all-around skills. Learning the all-around game instead of merely specializing at one position will deepen their love for the sport as much as anything.

4. Watch the game played at higher levels.

I still remember the first time my two daughters saw a high school volleyball match. They were in fourth grade and accompanied my middle school team to a varsity match at Wheaton Academy to see one of my former players, Molly McCoy, who was WA's star outside hitter at the time. Molly made the DuPage County all-area team that season thanks to her powerful hitting and strong all-around game. My girls were in awe of the speed of the game and the skills that the WA players displayed, particularly Molly. Our seats were near the net, too, so they could fully enjoy Molly's hitting prowess.

We continued this habit throughout junior high and up till today. Even now, we still watch Big Ten women's matches each fall on BTN, which is a treat considering the Big Ten is one of the top volleyball conferences in the country.

Taking in higher-level volleyball matches in person or on TV or online will help your kids see and appreciate the game more than ever. It'll also hopefully expand their vision of the sport and how it should be played and inspire them to work on their own skills with that bigger picture in mind. It may even teach them new skills, tactics and strategies they can try or modify at their own age level, such as jump serving, jump setting, back-row jump hitting or specific digging or blocking techniques.

Just be careful, though. Once they start watching these matches, your TV may get monopolized on certain nights of the week during the fall. That's what's happened in my household!

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

4 ways your child can make excellence a habit

by Jeff Smith

No matter the sport, it's amazing to watch someone perform a particular skill with such excellence that they make it look effortless.

But, as we all know, it's anything but easy to sink a 30-foot putt like Sergio Garcia, drain a 25-foot jump shot with a hand in your face like Stephen Curry or pound a kill over two 6-foot-10 blockers like Reid Priddy.

U.S. Olympic setter Alisha Glass

U.S. Olympic setter Alisha Glass

Great skills take talent. But, more than that, they take excellence. And excellence, the third value of Serve City's three-pronged motto of Love, Relationships and Excellence, doesn't just happen. It takes years of developing and honing the proper technique and know-how in practices, games, individually and with a fellow player, a partner, coach or family member. As Aristotle wrote, "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Repeatedly training certain skills and techniques won't guarantee our children will begin playing volleyball at the sport's highest level. But it is encouraging to know that reaching a level of excellence as a setter, passer, hitter, blocker or digger isn't merely a matter of genetics, height, strength, speed or pure physical ability.

I just had the pleasure of watching my older daughter play with 17 Smack in the Diggin' in the Dells volleyball tournament over the weekend. She is a strong back-row passer and digger, but her game hits the excellence barometer with her out-of-system setting. As a libero, she consistently sets up her team's outside and opposite hitters with accurate bump sets from the back row when the team's setter has to pass the first ball received from the opponent.  Bump setting from behind the 10-foot line is a challenging skill to master. Countless liberos struggle to learn this. But, at the risk of sounding like a subjective volleyball parent, Jessica bump sets as well as any libero I've seen at the high school level.

The primary reason that Jessica's out-of-system sets are usually so precise is "training and habituation," as Aristotle put it. She has spent thousands of hours refining this craft between indoor school and club practices, matches and tournaments and sand practices and tournaments, not to mention playing sand doubles with family and friends and spending hours in the gym working on this skill with her sister and me. She's worked meticulously on her technique in practices, matches and individually until it has become habitually good.

Experts debate the theory that 10,000 hours are needed to master a skill, but in Jessica's case, mastering bump setting really did take a litany of hours of training. To her credit, she was willing to invest the time to excel at it, and for the last two years she and her hitter teammates and her sand partner have reaped the rewards.

So, what does it take to make excellence a habit in your child's volleyball pursuit?

1. You have to love the game.

Karch Kiraly, the three-time Olympic gold medalist considered volleyball's version of Michael Jordan, is renowned for his love for the sport. As a child and teen, he played sand and indoor volleyball year round, spending hours each day in pick-up games. Karch had no clear physical advantage over his opponents in terms of height, strength, quickness or other traits. But his love for the game drove him to play and practice it relentlessly. He practically lived on the beach playing volleyball in his youth, and his skills and knowledge of the game soared as a result.

2. You have to pour your heart into it.

Alisha Glass is the starting setter for the U.S. Olympic women's team and a former three-time all-American setter who led Penn State University to two national titles. But well before that success, Alisha was a self-described gangly and awkward middle-school girl who struggled to set the ball when she first began the sport.

But Alisha quickly developed a love for volleyball and especially for setting, and at her coach's urging began setting throughout her days. She described how she would set a ball to herself for hours while lying on her bed at night, sitting on the floor watching TV, hanging out in her backyard with a friend or family member and off a wall in the gym at her school and club.

Alisha worked tirelessly on her skills, and her investment paid off. This once "tall and overly thin string bean" grew into an all-state setter in high school, starred at Penn State and now is considered one of the world's top setters. All her accolades flow from the passion and effort she brings to her growth as a player.

"You have to train as hard as you can to be bigger, faster, stronger," Alisha told USA Volleyball. "Also, you have to train the mental game. You have to learn the game. You have to learn the opponent, learn yourself, learn your teammates. And so there so much to learn from it, you are constantly evolving. There is not a peak you are going to hit."

3. You have to make a commitment and then stick to it.

My daughter Jessica is in many ways a typical busy teenager. She takes AP and honors classes at her high school, is a student leader for one of the school's extracurricular clubs, plays volleyball for her school and club and serves in children's ministry at her church. But since she was 11 she has always made a commitment to do whatever activity she's involved in with all-out dedication. I marvel at her commitment level, particularly with volleyball. She has not missed a volleyball practice for her club or school teams since fifth grade. She has participated in practices with various injuries, with colds, the flu and a fever and on nights when she had four or five hours of homework waiting for her. Her perspective is that, if she's going to join a team or club or cause, she's going to strive to do it with excellence and devotion and not half-heartedly.

That's not to say our athletes should practice with a 102-degree fever or a broken leg or high ankle sprain. What commitment does mean is sometimes attending practice when it's not convenient for you. One way to look at it is this: When you aren't practicing, someone else is practicing, and they're getting better at their craft while you aren't. Every practice is a chance to improve, to grow and to refine and hone your skills. Seize every opportunity you can by making a commitment to your development and to your team's development, then fulfilling that commitment, even when you don't feel like doing it.

Athletes like Jessica have learned that, although there are days when you don't feel like practicing or it's hard to practice due to outside stresses or aches and pains or other issues, maintaining your commitment pays valuable dividends: short-term pain leading to long-term gain.

4. You have to be teachable.

One of my favorite quotes is "To stop learning is to stop growing. Always remain teachable." I saw one of the best examples of this demonstrated by Lebron James of all people. I once saw a program on ESPN that showed Lebron, one of the greatest NBA players in the history of basketball, taking a private tutoring lesson from Hakeem Olajuwon, a Hall of Fame center with the Houston Rockets. Lebron hired Hakeem to teach him offensive post moves around the basket to help him sharpen his low-post skills. Lebron is a three-time NBA champion and four-time league MVP, yet here he was asking a former player to give him pointers to improve his game.

If Lebron James sees the value in being teachable, then no matter how good you are at volleyball, you can take his cue and always learn something new and get better. Follow your coach's instructions and take their feedback to heart every time. Ask your coach questions when you don't understand something or you aren't sure you're doing something right. Seek out ideas and input from instructional videos online. Soak up knowledge and tips whenever you can. Realize that a teachable attitude is essential to excellence and embrace it.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

Don't be this kind of sports parent -- or this kind, either

by Jeff Smith

At first I wasn't sure I heard her right. I was sitting in the bleachers at one of my older daughter's matches, parked behind a lady whose daughter played on the other team. After her daughter served a ball into the net, her mom threw her hands in the air and yelled out, "Jane, if you keep making so many mistakes, I'm not going to buy you any lunch."

Was this woman serious?

Sadly, she was.

Her daughter continued to struggle with her hitting, passing and serving the rest of the match, further drawing her mom's ire. After the match ended, her daughter reluctantly walked over to the bleachers to grab something out of her gym bag. That's when her mom went off on her.

"What was wrong with you out there?" she asked. "You played terrible." She then listed a litany of errors her daughter had made. By the time the mom had finished berating her, Jane slowly sauntered back to her team with shoulders slumped, head down and any remaining enthusiasm drained away.

This isn't the first time I've witnessed this kind of parent-child exchange. And it won't be the last. I'm sure you've seen similar behavior. It breaks my heart to watch a young athlete treated this way by someone so important to them. It doesn't help. It leaves them demoralized, defeated and more likely to quit than commit themselves to growth and improvement.

I've also seen the opposite behavior. You probably have, too.

I'm referring to the parent who thinks their child can do no wrong. When their child does make mistakes, they either don't notice them, don't acknowledge them or blame everyone but their child. It was the coach's fault, or their teammates, or the official ("That wasn't a double contact!") or the lousy gym floor or anyone or anything else but their star athlete.

I can still remember the day that a parent came up to me after one of my team's games and lamented, "It's too bad you don't have more talent surrounding Jenny. She can't do it all." You can probably guess who Jenny's parent was. Yes, the parent who approached me.

Ironically, Jenny was a good player but probably made more mistakes in that match than anyone else on the team. Only her dad didn't notice those mistakes, or chose not to. In his eyes, she was a mix of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor bundled in an eighth-grader's body, while her teammates were the Bad News Bears.

So, what kind of sports parent do our kids need us to be at their volleyball matches? I think our children will flourish most if we can accomplish the following four actions at their tournaments:

1. Cheer for them without embarrassing them.

Several years ago, the mother of one of the girls on my team was so hyper-focused on supporting her daughter from the sidelines that her daughter was almost overcome with self-consciousness on the court. Annie's mom yelled out her daughter's name so many times over the course of a match that even the opposing team's fans knew Annie as well as any of the girls on their team.

"Great job, Annie!"

"Good try, Annie!"

"You can do it, Annie!"

"That's OK, Annie!"

"Shake it off, Annie!"

"Just get it in, Annie!"

"Way to go, Annie!"

"Oh no, Annie!"

"Annie, Annie, Annie!"

Not surprisingly, after nearly every point, Annie would reflexively glance over at her mom for approval, encouragement, instruction or just plain out of habit. A team sport quickly devolved into a solo activity, as everything became about Annie.

It wasn't until Annie's mom noticed the effect she was having on her daughter and began toning down her sideline dialogue with her that Annie started feeling more comfortable on the court and playing looser, less self-consciously and more assertively.

Of course we should cheer for our child and not succumb to the temptation of spending the match absorbed with our smartphone or distractedly swapping stories with the other spectators. But we really show our kids our greatest support by simply being there, watching them play, looking engrossed in their match and cheering enthusiastically while refraining from using their name very often or communicating directly with them. In other words, more blending in with the crowd instead of sticking out.

2. Cheer for everyone on their team.

Here's a great test for us to take as parents. When you're at your daughter's next match, imagine if a stranger watched your every move and heard your every word. By the end of the match, would they know which player was your daughter?

If they figured it out pretty quickly, that may mean you don't cheer enough for the other girls on the team, or you spend most of your time cheering for your own child and not the team or her teammates. If they weren't sure who your daughter was, that likely means you do a terrific job of spreading your support around to everyone on the team and don't go overboard cheering for your own child.

As someone who's coached thousands of young athletes, I can say with complete confidence that most kids don't want their mom or dad's cheering to single them out. Either don't use your daughter's name when your cheer for her, or learn the names of every player on the team and make sure to use each player's name when you cheer for them, not just your daughter's name.

Volleyball is a team sport, and that extends to the bleachers. Team cheering sends a healthy message to your child and sets the right example for them, that volleyball is about the team and not one individual.

3. Let the coach do the coaching.

This can be a hard one for parents like me. I've coached volleyball and basketball for 19 years and a combined 52 seasons. I also have coached my daughters off and on for a combined 13 seasons. Rarely do I cross the line and coach them from the bleachers, but regrettably it has happened.

I still cringe when I remember the time my older daughter badly shanked a pass in serve receive at a season-ending tournament and, before I could shut my mouth and keep from saying anything, I blurted out, "JESSICA, HOLD YOUR FINISH!" in a tone of voice that would have made Bobby Knight proud -- and loud enough that I felt like I was in an old E.F. Hutton commercial (I'm showing my age), with every eye in the gym now laser-locked on me.

The result? My daughter began crying, her coach had to take her out of the game to compose herself, and my face turned fire engine red with embarrassment. That was three long years ago, and I haven't done anything like this ever since. But it reminded me anew that our kids don't need us to coach them. They need us to support them.

4. Use this six-word phrase often.

I got this from a coaching colleague. I've said it to my daughters, emailed it to them and texted it to them before and after matches. It's the most meaningful sentence you can ever speak to the young athlete in your home. It's probably the only thing we should ever say to our kids after a tournament. It'll almost always bring a smile to their face, and they won't ever tire of hearing or reading it from you.

Here it is:

"I love to watch you play."

Try saying it after your daughter's next tournament. You'll be glad you did, and so will she.

Jeff Smith is Serve City volleyball region director.

Obstacle or opportunity? It's all in your perspective

by Jeff Smith

In 2014, Reid Priddy's dreams of playing in a record fourth Summer Olympics appeared to crumple to the floor when the U.S. volleyball standout landed awkwardly after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a pro match in Bulgaria.

Doctors had to remove the tendon from his left knee to fix the torn ACL in his right knee. Few in the volleyball world expected Reid (the guest speaker at Serve City's 2017 banquet) to recover enough to earn a spot on an extremely talented 2016 U.S. men's team.

"Not many people thought I would make it this far," Reid admitted in an interview with NBC Sports.

But the most important person of all still believed he could do it: Reid himself. And he did, overcoming daunting odds to make the team and help the U.S. squad earn a bronze medal.

The biggest key for Reid's recovery was his perspective. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he saw the injury as an opportunity to test his character and his love for the game and to even make himself better than ever: better conditioned, better skilled, stronger physically and even stronger mentally. His strategy worked, and he even led the U.S. to victory in the bronze medal match when he came off the bench to spark a huge rally with his hitting, blocking and passing.

I thought of Reid's story while coaching two weekends ago. My Serve City team was down to five players for our March 25 tournament in Rockford due to spring break vacations and an emergency surgery for one of my players. We needed to borrow a player from another Serve City squad just to have enough girls to field a team, and half of the kids had to play new positions on the court as a result of so many absences.

But instead of seeing this as an obstacle and mentally checking out, we looked at it as an opportunity to learn new positions, get better, gain plenty of playing time and, most importantly, come together as a team and "shock the world," as Khalid El Amin famously said after his University of Connecticut squad upset Duke in the 1999 NCAA men's basketball tournament finals. The girls rose to the challenge, won six straight matches without dropping a set and took the tournament title without the benefit of any subs.

The best moment of the tournament for me was watching our 5-foot-2 setter register a stuff block in the semifinals. Anna had never played middle hitter due to her short stature. Seeing her reaction of shock that turned quickly to glee after blocking an opposing middle hitter was one of the highlights of the day. That play, and that tournament run, became possible because the girls viewed the tournament as a window of opportunity and not a worst-case scenario.

Serve City's 13 Blue team adopted that same opportunity-over-obstacle mindset this past Saturday. Like my team, at the last minute they were faced with having only five players for their tournament at Energy Volleyball Club, but their situation was even worse, as they didn't have time to find a sixth player and had to forfeit their three matches. Fortunately the tournament director allowed them to play one set each against the three teams they were scheduled to compete with that day, but it was still a difficult challenge. They had to play each set with only five players, leaving one position open on the court, and win or lose they couldn't qualify for the playoff bracket.

But, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the 13 Blue players and their coach, Sydney Vischer, approached each set as a regular match and put forth their best effort. They even took their last opponent to the brink before losing 26-24. Afterwards, they walked off the court with smiles on their faces. The scoreboard said they lost three sets and went 0-3 on the day, but that was far from the complete story. The girls gave it everything they had, grew a bit more in their skills and had a great time playing the game they love. It's a cliche, but those five girls were true winners that day, and it all started with an opportunistic perspective.

That same day at Energy VBC, our Ravenswood 15 Smack team had to play a 16 national team in pool play. Our 15 Smack squad is comprised mostly of eighth-grade players who are a year younger than this age level, so to say this match was daunting was an understatement. But one 15 Smack player in particular caught my attention. At about 4 feet 10, Maya was anywhere from 12 to 16 inches shorter than the front-row players on the opposing team and had to play outside hitter with the team missing three players. But Maya didn't back down from anyone. She dug up powerful serves and hits, hustled to track down shanked passes and even served three straight aces in the second set. Her all-out effort and energy was contagious, motivating her teammates to battle hard as well. Ravenswood lost the match in straight sets, but Maya came away from the games with more confidence and determination and the admiration of her teammates and coach and probably the opposing team, too.

So, what does that perspective look like with the club volleyball season coming to a close? It could mean:

  • A 12 Smack player playing volleyball games of 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and on up for hours on end this summer to progress the skills she's learned this club season. The more touches on the ball the better she'll be.
  • A 13 White or 13 Smack player getting tips and drills from her coach and then working feverishly in the off-season to develop her setting skills because she's always wanted to be a setter. Current U.S. Olympic women's setter Alisha Glass would spend countless hours setting to herself in her room and setting off a wall in the gym to train her hands. She didn't let anything stand in the way of her development.
  • A 14 Smack or 14 Blue player deciding to learn a jump serve and training at it throughout the summer with the goal of jump serving during high school team tryouts and the high school season.
  • A 15s or 16s player choosing to play sand volleyball this summer to develop her all-around skills and improve the weaker aspects of her game, such as serve reception or hitting.
  • A 17s or 18s player participating in a challenging week-long summer camp and then applying what she learns to her game during the summer in order to make her varsity team or give herself the chance to crack the varsity starting lineup.

The right perspective makes the impossible possible.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

The day I realized I was failing my team

by Jeff Smith

My second year as a volleyball coach felt like a dream season for someone who was new to the sport. Our team had run off a 19-3 record that broke the school record for single-season wins, helping turn our small school into a volleyball-crazed institution where every home match became a must-see event and where our players were heroes to the younger students on campus.

After a long string of straight-set victories, it felt like we could do no wrong.

That is, until Geneva opened my eyes in the first round of the conference tournament.

The Vikings played a style of volleyball like no other team we had faced all season. In short, they were a hitting machine. They jump spiked from every area of the court: front row, back row, left side, right side and middle. Their offense was in attack mode the entire match. They made their share of hitting errors, bombing a number of spikes out of bounds, into the net and even occasionally off a gym wall.

But their coach never seemed bothered by their hitting errors. His facial expression never changed. After each hitting mistake he would simply crack a small smile, clap a couple of times and encourage his team to keep swinging, keep being aggressive.

By contrast, my team's success was predicated on defense, ball control and consistent serving. Trying to block and dig Geneva's barrage of hits put us on the defensive all match. To our team's credit, the girls fought valiantly and hung tight with Geneva for three thrilling sets before the Vikings prevailed 26-24 in the decisive final set. But our style of play paled in comparison to Geneva's. I spent very little time in practice working with my players on jump hitting. My philosophy was to teach consistent use of three contacts but with a focus on delivering safe standing spikes, minimizing mistakes, keeping the ball in play, avoiding risk and waiting for our opponent to commit fatal errors that gave us points.

This formula for success produced gaudy results -- we won 19 of our first 22 matches, after all. But after the match I felt like I had let my players down in one critical area: They weren't prepared for jump hitting, not to mention setting to jump hitters, at a higher level. And jump hitting is one of the most important, and exciting, skills to learn in our sport because 1) it is one of the most essential elements in the high school and collegiate game and 2) it takes so many years to acquire, refine and master.

It suddenly occurred to me that most of my eighth-grade players would now go to high school tryouts in August with minimal teaching, skills or experience in how to execute a jump spike of any kind. They would be at a competitive disadvantage as they vied for limited spots on the freshman or JV teams. And the biggest culprit for this lack of training was none other than me.

I no longer felt like we could do no wrong, either. Geneva had revealed to me the kind of style that was slowly emerging across the sport. From that point on, I became committed to teaching the full game to my teams, with a strong emphasis on hitting. I wanted every player to come through my program learning how to jump hit and how to set to a hitter as well, no matter if they were 6 feet tall or 4 feet 9.

This one match with Geneva transformed my coaching philosophy for the next 17 seasons and continues influencing me today. Now opposing teams see my teams the way I saw the Vikings umpteen seasons ago. Many teams are more skilled at hitting than our teams, and my teams sometimes rack up hitting errors at an alarming rate -- we had 27 jump hitting errors in one two-set match back in January -- but few teams are more committed to jump hitting at every opportunity, and from anywhere on the court, as we are. The players themselves love it, and, truth be told, I think most of the opposing players they face are envious of the freedom they get to approach, jump and swing.

If you're a parent who would love to see your daughter develop jump hitting skills, or a coach who wants to teach and instill a hitting mentality on your team, or an athlete who longs to learn how to jump hit or grow into a consistent jump hitter, the only thing stopping your daughter or players from achieving this goal is making the commitment to doing this.

And yes, it is a commitment. It won't magically happen in one 10-minute session of hitting lines. It won't become reality by having someone mindlessly underhand toss balls for your hitters to pound into the court. And it won't take place if your coach or your dad or mom wince and mutter "just get it in" every time you hit a ball into the net or out of bounds.

But hitting skills will slowly, methodically and gradually emerge if you take a few necessary steps, including:

  1. Learning and practicing jump hitting from day 1 of practice
  2. Learning and practicing jump hitting from the front and back rows
  3. Working on jump hitting off live (and yes, both good and bad) sets
  4. Working on jump hitting in game-like drills and situations
  5. Living with the inevitable growing pains of a high volume of hitting errors
  6. Making the training of jump hitting as important to your team's development as passing, serving and setting

From the first day of practice for each season we introduce and work on the approach, footwork, technique, torque, timing and arm swing necessary to jump hit from any spot in the front and back rows using both a two-step and three-step approach. We treat jump hitting as a skill that is every bit as vital to the game as passing, serving, setting and digging. In fact, with my teams jump hitting is considered so crucial to my athletes' development that I also teach most of them how to jump serve largely because the footwork and arm swing used in jump serving is so similar to their jump hitting approach and arm swing.

In a nutshell, jump hitting is like a muscle; it'll only get stronger, leaner, healthier and better conditioned when you regularly exercise it. We practice jump hitting in small court games, half-court games and full-court scrimmages. During our game-like drills a rally won using a down-ball, or standing, hit doesn't even earn a point. In matches one of our team goals is to compile at least twice as many hitting attempts as our opponent.

And we train hitting as one piece of a total package. Hitting ultimately shouldn't be learned in isolation but in concert with setting, passing and even blocking. When we want to work on our jump hitting skills, we practice jump hitting off live sets, not off coach tosses. And those live sets are practiced by receiving passes from teammates, not perfect tosses from a coach. And, in most circumstances, those passes from teammates are delivered off free balls, soft hits or sometimes serves over the net from teammates competing against them. And, as often as possible, our hitters jump hit against one or two blockers in the game-like drills and games we play.

These game-like settings help our hitters, setters and passers develop the total skills they need to hit, set and pass against live competition. Our hitters learn how to read sets and adjust their footwork, approaches, jumps and arm swings to a wide variety of sets -- some sets of which are too far off the net, or too tight to the net, or too high, or too low, or too close to the antenna or too far inside the court. Just as a good shooter in basketball needs to learn how to shoot jump shots off both good and bad passes, and a wide receiver in football needs to learn how to catch a range of passes, a successful jump hitter must learn the art of taking a bad set and delivering a decent hit or taking a mediocre set and delivering a good hit.

Jump hitting takes an inordinate amount of practice, sweat, failure, time, frustration and effort, especially at the middle-school and freshman/15s levels. It's tempting to just push off the heavy lifting of learning or teaching this skill to an athlete's next coach or next team. But, for those athletes and coaches who decide to dedicate themselves to learning or teaching this craft, it's an investment that will pay tremendous dividends -- not necessarily that season, though many times it does pay off in a matter of weeks, but definitely for the athlete's future.

And it is one of the most rewarding and exciting skills in our sport. Just today I received an email from the director of the tournament my team played in on Saturday that lauded the girls for being such a fun team to watch. A mom from another Serve City team came up to me between matches on Saturday to share how she makes it a point to head over to our court to watch the team play when her daughter's team isn't playing.

The Geneva Vikings deserve the credit for compliments like those.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

It's a fact: Coaches do play favorites

by Jeff Smith

No, the headline for this blog post isn't a typo. When it comes to their teams, most coaches do play favorites.

In fact, let me describe my own personal favorite players right now. The athletes who are my favorites are those who ...

Come to each practice early and ready to give their best effort in every drill, game, scrimmage and activity. They're also among the last to leave, always looking to squeeze in a few more reps and touches to continue improving their skills before heading out the door. They live by the mantra that sweat plus sacrifice equals success.

Strive to be the hardest worker on the team regardless of talent, experience or skill level. They understand that, though they can't control their height or ability, they do control their effort, and they make sure they invest maximum effort into what they do.

Play every practice and game with an enthusiasm that is infectious to those around them and whether the team is winning or losing. When they're at practice, everyone else seems to work that much harder, even the coaches.

Make practice a high priority. Even when they can't attend a practice, they ask me for ways they can make up the time on their own or by attending another team's practice. They get the fact that you only get out of something however much or little you put into it.

Bring a teachable attitude to every practice. One of my favorite questions is when an athlete comes up to me during a practice and asks, "Coach, can you help me with ____?" or "Coach, what can I do to get better at _____?" Athletes who are hungry and eager to keep improving are always my favorites.

Adopt a growth mindset. These players are excited and receptive to learning new skills, techniques, tactics and strategies and enjoy being stretched outside their comfort zone. They are fine with being comfortable being uncomfortable as they practice on the very edge of their abilities because they know this will make them better players.

Closely aligned with this growth mindset, they have no fear of mistakes. They realize that learning new skills requires failing. They don't care if they make error after error as they strive to learn a new set or hit or play or serve or passing technique. They're comfortable hitting the ball against the back wall of the gym while being taught how to jump spike for the first time or serving a ball 10 feet short of the net when learning how to jump serve. They understand that failure is part of the journey to reaching the destination of mastering a new skill.

Treat everybody on the team with respect. They respect and appreciate me as their coach through their effort, attitude, teach-ability and commitment, and they respect each teammate, even going so far as to purposely pair up with each teammate during drills and pre-game warm-ups over the course of the season instead of only practicing with her best friends.

Have appropriate fun in matches and practices. These athletes celebrate teammates' successes and the success of the team. They're the first to congratulate a teammate for an ace, kill, block or dig. They love the game and love their team and love their teammates, and it shows in how they play and conduct themselves.

Encourage their teammates. These are athletes who understand the power of words to build others up. They realize that encouragement is oxygen to the soul and are happy to pump up their teammates with affirming comments that strengthen those around them.

Will do whatever the team needs of them. If one of their team's middle hitters is injured and I ask them to switch positions to cover this gap, they're fine with it for the good of the team. They're team players first and foremost.

Play assertively in matches. My favorite players aren't always the most skilled athletes, but they don't let that hold them back from going all-out on the court. If I ask them to be the team's most aggressive back-row player, they seek to fulfill that role with all their heart. That doesn't mean they play perfect volleyball; no one does. But it does mean that the mistakes they make are aggressive, and any coach will tell you those are the kinds of mistakes that we all can happily live with.

Embrace process over outcome. Athletes who are overly focused on winning and the final score can end up playing tight, conservative, safe volleyball that stunts their growth as players. Athletes who focus on the process of playing the game the right way are freed up to be at their best. Instead of playing not to lose, they play with confidence, assertiveness and aggression no matter what the score is. A few weeks ago, one of my team's outside hitters called for our setter to run a tandem play on match point. Tandems are more difficult plays to run, especially at the 14s level. The setter obliged, and our outside hitter pounded it home for a kill to end the match. If she had been obsessed with the score of the match at the time, she would have called for a safe set or just free-balled the set over in order to keep from making a mistake on match point. But her mind was focused on the process of playing good, smart, assertive volleyball, so she went after the point with abandon.

Value her team on and off the court. My favorite players believe that a volleyball team isn't merely a volleyball team when they're together on the court. They understand that you're still a team on your off days, too, and between matches at a tournament. They occasionally send a teammate a text message or email thanking them for their contributions to the team. They gather everyone together after a match and make sure the whole team eats lunch as a unit during their off time at a tournament. They invite their teammates to their house at mid-season for a team bonding event. They occasionally bring treats for the team to a practice or tournament just for fun. They look for ways to keep their team growing together throughout the season.

Display good sportsmanship win or lose, especially after a loss. (Anyone can be a good sport after a victory. True character is revealed in how we handle adversity, such as losing.)

Control their emotions on the court. They don't get too high after a win or too low after a loss, and they don't allow their emotions to get the best of them, whether it's crying because they're not playing up to their standards or getting angry with teammates when they feel their teammates are letting them down.

You probably noticed that the qualities that define "favorite player" have nothing to do with statistics or on-court performance. Great play on the court is tainted when combined with a poor attitude, lack of commitment or weak work ethic.

What other qualities would you add to this "favorites" list?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.