coaching

3 questions that every team should ask after a match

by Jeff Smith

Two Sundays ago I was watching one of our teams play in the Chicago Volleyball League at Top Flight. After the first set ended in the team’s second match, the coach rushed over to me with a concerned look on her face.

“I think I have a fever,” she confided. “I feel terrible and don’t know if I can coach the rest of the tournament.”

I agreed. She looked very pale, and she said she felt the combination of chills and hot temperature that is a prime symptom of fevers.

Fortunately she was able to catch me just before I left to go home. I told the coach I’d sub for her and asked if she could find the tournament trainer to get her some Ibuprofen and find a place to rest.

I then quickly headed to the team bench, explained the situation to the players, filled out the lineup sheet for the second set and began coaching with seconds to spare. The team rebounded to win the second set before losing the third set and the match. The girls handled the situation very well, especially considering they were without two key players that day, and stepped up to play with a lot of energy, teamwork and determination.

Question time

Afterwards, I gathered them together for a post-game huddle and caught them off guard by asking them a question:

“So what did we do well in the match?”

For a couple of seconds the question seemed to throw them for a loop. We had just lost. It was the team’s second straight loss of the day. What positives could possibly come out of a defeat?

But they eventually started responding. “We served really well,” one girl said.

“We had some great sets and attacks in the second set to get us back in the match,” another player shared.

“We didn’t get down after losing the first set; we came out and played with a lot of energy and focus in the second set.”

Their responses were helpful and enabled them to realize they did some very good things in the match that they could build on in future matches. No one likes to lose, but losing doesn’t mean we as a team or individually didn’t play well. In fact, sometimes teams will play their best volleyball in a loss. Sometimes the defeat was just a matter of the opponent simply being better in that match.

I then moved on to question two.

“Great. Now what are two things we need to work on to get better?”

The reason I say two is so the team doesn’t go into psychoanalytical mode and dredge up every small error or mistake we made throughout the match. Putting a limit on the areas where we can improve is important for maintaining a positive outlook on the team and limiting too much negativity, especially when the team was assigned to be the work crew for the very next match.

“We can communicate more consistently; we got quiet at times,” one player chimed in.

“We need to stay aggressive throughout the match,” another said.

Those are the two questions I ask teams after most matches. A third question I’m going to add to my repertoire in future matches comes from John O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, an organization dedicated to helping coaches improve their craft.

Why are we a better team or player because we lost today?

This is a brilliant question to pose to our athletes because, as O’Sullivan says, “Development is a process. It is a marathon, not a sprint. There are going to be ups and downs, and the critical thing is we continually learn and improve. The outcome of the competition cannot be changed, but we can influence the outcome of our next event and our preparation for it. This question helps athletes frame the loss and take ownership of the training and preparation for the next match.”

One answer to this question might be “We are a better team because we learned today that, when we are always communicating on the court and always looking to play aggressively, we play our best volleyball.” Or, “I’m a better player when I stay focused on getting to the right place at the right time on the court during each rally.”

Or, “We learned today that we’re a better team when we get quickly to our spots on defense and are reading what the opposing setter and hitters are doing so we can be prepared for how they’re going to hit or dump the ball at us.”

The nice part about these three questions is that they are adaptable and beneficial to any age level.

These questions are helpful for 12U, 18U and any age between. I could see college teams benefiting, too.

I posed them to a 15U team the other day, and the players’ answers really benefited us for the last match of the day. I saw and heard excellent communication on the court and solid serve receiving and defense throughout the last match, which was something the girls raised in our post-game huddle after the second match, and for the first set and most of the second set the team played more assertively on offense as well.

I’d love to see every SCV coach asking these three questions after each match going forward. Their teams and their players will benefit from answering each question, and their future practices will be that much more productive. Their athletes will have specific skills and tactics to work on based on their answers to these questions at their last tournament.

And, instead of giving long-winded speeches loaded with “We need to do x, y and z” statements that burden players with too much constructive criticism, asking questions is the better way to go. More often than not, the players already know what they did well and what they need to work on to do better. They just need to hear each other say it out loud.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

4 sports lessons from a friend who left a lasting legacy

by Jeff Smith

A friend of mine whose daughters I coached in seventh and eighth grade about 18 years ago unexpectedly passed away this weekend. I’m still stunned by the news. Ron kept himself in phenomenal shape and was one of the most active people I know. It’s really true that man knows not his time.

Ron’s passing got me thinking about our relationship and the things I learned from him as a sports parent in the early years of my coaching tenure.

1. Support the team and the players

Ron wasn’t the type of sports parent who got on my case about his daughters’ playing time or how I coached them. He never once even talked to me about anything coaching related. I even asked him after we lost in the finals of a tournament if he was scratching his head over any of my coaching decisions, and his reply stuck with me to this day: “I honestly never think about your coaching. I just focus on enjoying watching my daughters and their teammates play. It’s such a blessing to get to be at their games.”

Blessing was a word Ron used often.

Ron was an excellent athlete. He played four years of college basketball. Yet in four years of coaching his daughters I never once heard him question anything I did as a coach even though I certainly was not a perfect coach and made my share of mistakes. He was always supportive and encouraging.

His background as a collegiate athlete helped. He understood how difficult coaching can be. I jokingly call it teaching in a tornado as you find yourself teaching kids while in the pressure cooker of a match or tournament with spectators watching your every move or an intense, important practice the day before a game. I needed and appreciated the slack he gave me as a young coach.

Ron loved watching his girls play. He made it to nearly every event, and I don’t remember him ever berating the referees or me. He was supportive to a fault.

2. Focus on effort and attitude over the scoreboard

As a former college athlete, Ron wasn’t shy about expecting his daughters to always give their best effort in matches or practices. I remember seeing him give his girls a hug after a game and, win or lose, tell them how proud he was of the effort they played with. Occasionally he’d show up after a practice and play for a couple of minutes with one of them so they could get some extra reps in on a particular skill.

His younger daughter’s eighth-grade season, we lost in the finals of our home tournament. The girls played with great energy, but we were just out-classed by a better opponent that day. Sometimes our best simply isn’t good enough, and that’s totally fine.

I felt bad not being able to lead them to the championship, but Ron told me afterwards how proud he was of how the girls played all season and how much he enjoyed watching the team. Seeing us lose didn’t bother him at all. He saw sports as an opportunity to connect with his girls, watch them enjoy athletics and learn valuable life lessons along the way.

Once, when he thought his younger daughter had gotten too frustrated on the court in a game and let her emotions get in the way of her performance, I remember him quietly talk to Sarah off to the side afterwards for maybe 30 seconds to a minute, then walk arm in arm with her out of the gym after a teaching moment with her.

His perspective was refreshing and encouraging.

3. Be thankful

When I coached Ron’s younger daughter our team went on a huge winning streak capped by a championship at a big tournament in Elgin. Ron was one of the first parents to congratulate me after the finals concluded. Yet he was also one of the first parents to encourage me after we lost in the finals of our home tournament that concluded the season. In fact, he thanked me for coaching the team and his daughters probably 50 or more times over four years.

Coaches are hired to do a job, and it’s not necessary for parents to express gratitude to them so often as Ron did. But most coaches truly appreciate the gesture even if some act like it wasn’t needed. Coaching can be a very draining profession, especially working with the younger age levels. You give out a lot of your time and energy and don’t always get much back in return, which can leave you depleted emotionally sometimes.

Ron’s encouragement meant a great deal to me, especially since I had just started coaching in the late 1990s. In a world of givers and takers, Ron was a consistent giver.

4. Support the whole team

I think the quality I remember most about Ron is how he cheered enthusiastically for every player on the team. He didn’t just verbally support his daughters. He cheered just as much for his daughters’ teammates and for the team as a whole. That sent a positive message to all the girls and was a terrific example for the other parents to follow.

He saw volleyball and basketball as team sports where everyone’s contributions were important, not just his daughters, and he treated all the players with dignity and value. His actions helped create a selfless environment at home and away matches where everyone was pulling for the team above all else.

Ron was a special guy. He left an amazing legacy for his kids to build on.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Are coaches human, too?

by Jeff Smith

We were playing arguably the best set of our season, and the scoreboard reflected as much. We led 24-16 and were serving for set point against the top team in our division.

It was all downhill from there.

A service error gave the Chicago Shamrocks the serve trailing 24-17. Nine points, two timeouts to ice the server and eight or nine futile exclamations of "We've got this!" later, the Shamrocks celebrated a 26-24 victory. Even after 20-plus years and over 1,400 games of coaching, dramatic losses like that can't help but shake you up a bit. It's like being offered a sporty new Corvette and then, at the last second, being handed the keys to a 2004 Ford Focus.

But, as I quickly wrote in the service order for the second set, I decided to project the appearance of calm, poise and confidence to the team before the second set began. I told the players not to give the first set a second thought because we had a blank new slate to look forward to in the next set. Play our game and we'll be fine.

Eight points later we trailed 8-0. So much for letting go of the first set.

Anyone who's coached more than two or three seasons can share a similar story from a match. The point I'm making is that coaching isn't for the faint of heart. I've coached 18U, 16U, 15U, 14U on down to 12U teams that have been on both sides of this story line as well as nearly any other possible story line you can think of.

Same with practices. Put a group of 10-14 players together with different personalities, attitudes, temperaments, upbringings, values, ideas, motivations, experience and skill levels, mindsets and even differing events and outcomes to their day prior to arriving in the gym. Unless your team has an amazing practice culture, a lot of unexpected things can take place.

One of the toughest challenges of coaching is trying to figure out how to teach, train, motivate, connect with and reach such a diverse group of players who also each have their own favored learning style. What works for these four players may not work at all for these other four players and only moderately well with those three players. These aren't cookie cutter athletes, and of course there's no such thing as cookie cutter coaches, either.

We're all human.

Ultimately, that's the point. Coaches are human. We make good decisions, and we make mistakes. We celebrate like crazy when our teams excel and sometimes want to cry or cry out when our teams struggle. Sometimes we offer amazing words of wisdom and inspiration to our athletes. Other times all we can muster up in a team huddle is akin to "What was THAT?"

Coaching is a lot like parenting. I've never met a perfect parent or perfect child. If I kept track of every parenting mistake I've made in the last 19 years, I'd be filling up my fourth notebook by now.

Same with coaching. It's a highly pressurized profession. Making matters worse, part of your job is done in public at tournaments and power leagues for all to see you in your glory, or lack thereof. Dozens of sets of eyes are on you scrutinizing your every move and gesture.

A couple of years ago, a team I was coaching was playing in the finals of a tournament at Top Flight. It was the fifth match of the day, and some of the players were tired. Near the end of the match, with the outcome and championship on the line, a softly passed free ball hit the floor between two of our players. The girls just looked at each other. Neither said a word or made a play on the ball.

I was so stunned that I dropped my clipboard. The sound of it clanging on the ground was like an EF Hutton commercial. Everyone's eyes turned to me. All I could do was smile and pick up the clipboard off the floor.

(Afterwards a mom came up to me and said, "That was nothing. If I were in your shoes I would've broken the clipboard over my knee." That made me feel better.)

Last season I was in SCV director mode watching two of our teams compete in a tournament at Fusion. One of our teams frittered away a 23-18 lead, eventually losing 27-25, minutes after dropping a similar lead in the first set. Afterwards their coach came up to me and let off some steam about the team's inability to close out sets this season. I've been in those same shoes, so I could empathize with her.

It's hard. You try X, Y, Z and any other solutions you can think of, and sometimes nothing changes. There's no magic formula to resolve that issue in an instant. At times you just have to guide and encourage your team along the way and let them learn how to deal with late-game situations through good and bad experience.

As a parent, coach and volleyball director, I'd suggest to parents to do three things for your team's coach before the season concludes:

  1. Encourage the coach in some way. An email, kind words before or after a tournament or practice, a surprise plate of cookies, a thank-you note, whatever you feel comfortable doing.

  2. Say something positive about your coach to or in front of your son or daughter. This lets them know you support their coach. That goes a long way with your kids' attitude toward the coach.

  3. Let your child's coach coach. Don't approach them with correction or criticism during or after a tournament. Wait at least 24 hours to contact them. Give them their space. I'm grateful as a parent that other people didn't come up to me when my kids were younger and misbehaving and give me advice on how to better parent them.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

6 things that make every coach smile

by Jeff Smith

It was an unseasonably cold Sunday morning in April when members of my first 18U team slowly sauntered into the gym at McHenry County College about 45 minutes before the squad’s first match of the MCC tournament.

julia conard serve.jpg

None of the girls was smiling as they walked inside, partly because of the gloomy weather outside, partly due to the time of day — 7:15 a.m. is anathema at that age — and partly because four of our 10 players were unavailable to play, including both of our outside hitters, who were our two leaders in kills and two of our best passers.

As a first-year 18U coach who was used to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds, I had no pearls of wisdom for how to inspire this sleepy group. In fact, I could understand why they weren’t looking forward to playing since we only had six players dressed for the tournament.

If I were honest with them, I had no interest in being there, either.

Our meager roster consisted of one 5-foot-2-inch setter, two middle hitters who hadn’t received a serve in the back row all season, one libero who had to move to outside hitter to replace one of our starting outsides, a right-side hitter who had to move to outside hitter to sub for our other missing outside hitter and a 5-foot-1 defensive specialist who had to move to right-side hitter and play in the front row for the first time all season.

This lineup had the looks of a team that would meekly lose three matches and head home early.

But, to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, this motley crew came together, fought hard, dug deep and performed beyond our wildest expectations. The team won its first three matches to take first place in its pool, then swept the semifinals and finals to secure an unlikely championship. Everybody stepped up and played the best volleyball of their season, and the patchwork lineup left the gym wearing smiles that seemed permanently etched on the girls’ faces for our next three practices.

Every time I think of that shocking accomplishment I can’t help but smile myself even though it occurred five years ago. It’s hard not to be filled with pride when a team achieves the seemingly impossible. What those girls pulled off was nothing short of incredible.

As coaches, we can seem too tough, too strict, too serious, too critical and too intense as we strive to create an atmosphere in practices and matches that enables our athletes to learn, grow, refine and thrive. But, beneath that exterior lies a heart that can melt when our players do the amazing — or even take a big step forward as a team or individually.

Here are six things that make coaches smile, even when we wait to smile on the drive home from a practice or tournament.

6. Great achievements together

This is especially true of team accomplishments. Nothing in team sports is more rewarding than achieving something together, whether it’s a goal, a championship, a victory or a milestone. It’s where the power of numbers comes in. A team achievement reminds us that alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.

5. A small step forward

In middle school I coached my two daughters. The summer before one of their middle school seasons they worked for a couple of hours a week trying to master an overhand serve. We would walk over to the local high school so they could practice and practice and practice this skill, pounding one serve after another off the exterior brick wall in the school parking lot. I critiqued their technique over and over, and they kept at it repeatedly but didn’t see any significant progress in June or July. It didn’t look like they’d ever develop this skill.

Then, in mid-August, all those countless hours of grinding started to click, and about a week before the season began they each had their overhand serves down pat. They each served overhand all season and were two of the team’s best standing float servers. Watching them serve overhand in their first match of the season was pure joy for me and for them. The more you invest in something the more you get out of it.

4. Game day

There’s something magical about the day of a match or tournament for coaches. We pour so much time, planning, energy, practice and brain power into our teams that tournaments feel a lot like opening night of a school musical. The wait is finally over. After all the dress rehearsals (practices) we as a team get to perform for a live audience. It’s why we practice for hours a week, to “take the stage” and give a performance, hoping to nail every “line” we’ve practiced and shine on the court.

3. Seeing our team become a family

One year I was coaching a 15s team that struggled to put matches away. We would build a sizable lead, then slowly squander it. It was as if the girls didn’t trust each other in tight situations. They would grow quiet and stop encouraging one another.

It was a habit that had to stop.

In a late-season tournament, we built another large lead and then as usual started to make one inexplicable error after another, an all-too-familiar script.

Finally I called timeout, purposely didn’t speak for a few seconds, then told the girls this was a test of our character as a team and as individuals. Would we revert to our old habits again and play like six individuals, or would we band together and fight the rest of the match as a supportive and united team that believes in each other?

I honestly wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my challenge.

To my utter relief, they supported each other like never before, encouraging each other, picking up their energy, refusing to give up, digging deep and battling their way to a close and thrilling victory.

It was a defining moment for us.

Afterwards, they didn’t want to leave the facility. It was such a rewarding and bonding experience to go through together that they wanted to savor the moment and just hang out as a team. They now saw each other in a new light as true teammates and not just people they played a game with.

Great teams become like a family to one another. You go through so much adversity and clear so many hurdles together that it can’t help but bring you closer to your teammates and coach.

It’s such a satisfying feeling knowing you’re part of a team where everyone has your back and gives you their full support through good times and bad, through your great plays and mistakes.

2. Helping a player overcome one of life’s challenges

As a coach you don’t realize how much you care about your players until something life-threatening happens to one of them. Three years ago I was coaching a 14U team for Serve City when I got a call from one of the girls’ moms telling me that one of the players was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain the night before a tournament. She went into surgery when the doctors discovered her appendix had ruptured. They caught the appendicitis just in time; if they had to wait a couple of more hours, it would have burst and put her life at serious risk.

Lainey had a slow road to recovery. A few weeks after the surgery the doctors allowed her to attend one of our tournaments in street clothes. It was a tournament in Rockford and we had only six players in uniform due to illness, vacations and Lainey’s surgery. But Lainey dutifully cheered on the team from the sidelines and took stats as well. Her mere presence back with our squad inspired her teammates, who won six straight matches on a long, grueling but ultimately satisfying day to secure the championship.

Afterwards, as the girls’ parents began snapping photos of the kids with their first-place medals, the players made sure that Lainey was included in every picture. In fact, they positioned her in the middle of each team photo. She didn’t play a single point that day, but the whole experience was perhaps more important to Lainey than it was to anyone else.

1. When an unsung hero emerges

Most coaches don’t play favorites. But even the most die-hard coach will admit that it is especially gratifying to win a game on the heels of an unlikely player’s contributions.

In the state private school tournament a few years ago, our eighth-grade team led 24-23 in the third set of the third-place match when the team’s smallest player was due up to serve. Jess was 4 feet 8 and probably weighed 60 pounds. She looked like a fifth-grader on the court size-wise, and she had to use every ounce of her tiny frame to pound her standing float serve over the net.

But there was no one I wanted serving match point at Lincoln Land Community College that day than her. Jess was probably our most mentally tough player, and she deserved this moment for all the hard work she had poured into developing her serve and her back-row skills. At her diminutive size, Jess never got to experience the sensation of a front-row kill or block that brought the crowd to its feet. She was a back-row player who did the grunt work of passing and digging balls to our setters so they could set up our hitters for the more glamorous roles on the team.

So, when she delivered an ace to clinch the match, everyone was thrilled for her. Seeing Jess get to enjoy the spotlight for her accomplishment made the victory that much more rewarding.

That’s one of the aspects of volleyball that I relish the most, seeing an underdog soak up the limelight. It’s why many coaches hold a special place in their hearts for the underdogs on their teams — whether it’s a small DS or libero or a front-row player who has finally discovered a sport where she can excel and find a home.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

10 lessons learned from 20 years of coaching

by Jeff Smith

It's funny how birthdays make you reflective, especially milestone days like the big 5-0. (Guess I've officially passed middle age.)

One of my favorite sports quotes.

One of my favorite sports quotes.

Today I found myself looking back at two decades and nearly 60 seasons as a coach as the calendar indicated I was another year older (and hopefully a little bit wiser). Coaching has taught me countless competitive and life lessons through nearly 1,500 games, a few thousand practices and hundreds of camp dates, clinics and private lessons. Wisdom gained is only of any worth if it's shared with others, so here are 10 of the many truths I've learned over the years from the sidelines.

10. Body language and attitude matter

Watch the most successful teams on the court and sidelines. They all have a certain "look" about them. Their body language exudes confidence and determination. No matter the situation, they look poised and have the appearance of an unflappable team that believes deeply in one another. (The "eye of the tiger" as the Rocky movies put it.) Their body language remains confident, even when they're behind on the scoreboard. Their body language and attitude makes a difference -- within the team and in what their opponent sees from the other side of the net.

9. Be physically loose and mentally tight

The most successful teams master the delicate balance between playing loose and free yet with laser-like focus on the task at hand. It's a difficult tightrope for some teams to learn to walk, but those that do perform at or near their best most consistently.

8. Matches and tournaments are mostly won in the practice gym

From coaching an 18U national team through to fifth and sixth grade, the strongest teams I've been around were also the hardest-working teams in practice. In fact, I've never coached a successful team that wasn't a fantastic practice team. The worst team record-wise that I've coached was, ironically, the worst practice team I've coached. Practice the way you want to play rings loudly with truth.

As a coaching colleague once told me, practices should be so competitive, productive and challenging that games seem easy by comparison because your team is so well prepared for anything it faces in a match or tournament.

7. Physical touch brings your team together and makes them play better

I can't back this up with scientific research, but I've found that having my players high-five, fist-bump, pat each on the back and huddle up with their arms around one another collectively produces a closer-knit, tighter squad that supports each other. It's one reason why I give my players a fist bump whenever they come off the court in a match. That physical connection communicates encouragement, support and unity, that we're in this together.

6. Coaches need encouragement, too

I don't think it's a coincidence that my greatest coaching seasons occurred when I received the most encouragement, gratitude and support from players, their parents and fellow staff. Coaching can be a very draining profession. Like teachers, coaches spend most of their time pouring into their athletes and not getting poured into. It's like constantly drawing money out of a bank account; you also need to make deposits into the account or else the account will eventually run dry.

Parents and players who recognize this reality and pour into their coaches keep those coaches constantly filled up so they can coach out of a full account and not an over-drawn one.

5. Athletes respond best to guided discovery

As a journalism major and former news and sports reporter, I was taught the power of asking questions to draw people out and to guide them to discover solutions to problems. There is a time and place for telling players what they need to do to be successful. But the art of guided discovery makes a greater impact with the players on your team.

Last Sunday I substitute coached one of our 16U teams. After winning our first match of the day, we built a seemingly insurmountable lead in our second match before tightening up and squandering a late 9-point edge, eventually losing 28-26. In our huddle afterwards I could've lectured the team about what we did wrong and what we need to do to get back on track. But the players had a sense of what needed to happen. All I had to do was ask a couple of guided questions and they figured out the rest on their own. They then promptly changed their mindset, went out and won the next two sets, including a 26-24 nail-biter, to close out the tournament in style.

4. End every practice on an upbeat note

I've broken this rule from time to time, but by and large I've learned through experience that, to keep your team looking forward to practices and maintain a high level of enthusiasm, athletes -- especially girls, in my opinion -- need to walk out of the gym after a challenging practice with a strong sense of community, positive energy and feeling valued.

This is one reason why I end each practice playing a short, fast-paced game like a form of queen of the court or a team-building activity followed by a post-practice huddle where I give two or three players the hustle award and best attitude award for that practice. These two traditions provide positive reinforcement, camaraderie, high-energy fun and affirmation, qualities that every athlete needs.

3. You can't coach every athlete the same way

This is where a degree in psychology would come in handy for a coach. Each athlete you work with is their own unique self. In some respects you have to coach all your players the same way, but you do have to tailor your individual coaching to each athlete.

That's why I support coaches coaching the same group of players for two or three years in a row. I even coached some athletes for 4-5 years back when I coached at a school earlier in my career. This gave me the opportunity to really get to know my players well and learn what makes them tick and how to best motivate and teach them, something that is difficult to do in one short school or club season.

2. The most successful teams are like families

This is a universal truth covering both girls and guys teams. The closer knit a team is, the better it generally plays on the court. It's more supportive of one another through challenges and adversity. It pushes each other more enthusiastically in practices. And it looks forward to practicing and competing together, motivating one another to play and give their best each day. Fostering an environment of friendship and support is critical to a team's success.

1b. Athletes read their coach like a book

Several years ago, I was coaching a team in a private school state tournament quarterfinal match against the defending state champs. In front of a packed gym, our team started slowly, falling behind 10-2 early. The girls were overcome by nerves and made one tentative mistake after another. One player even began crying on the court. I got frustrated, called a timeout and chastised the team for the entire huddle. My frustration was evident in my body language, tone of voice and the words I spoke. Our team left the huddle and continued our downward slide, eventually losing meekly in two sets.

Lesson learned.

A year later, in the exact same situation as the prior season, our team struggled with nerves again in front of a raucous audience. This time I focused on projecting a sense of calm, confidence and enthusiasm, which isn't easy for us as coaches when our teams are in meltdown mode on the court. I cracked a joke in one timeout and told the players to embrace the moment, how much fun it was to get the chance to play in an important match like this, and to focus on having fun and celebrating like crazy every time we won a rally.

The team fed off my poise and positive energy, went on a huge run that stunned our opponent and rallied to win in three tight sets. Poise and positivity won the day.

1a. Coaches can't control everything

The most recent lesson I've learned is that, no matter how many different buttons I try to push, many times the coach has very little impact on how their players fare on the court. Recently a team I was coaching blew a 9-point lead and lost by two points in spite of my best efforts. I used my timeouts at seemingly just the right time. I projected confidence and belief in the team. I offered changes in strategy for how to counteract what the opponent was doing. I exhibited poise on the sidelines, even as we made one unforced error after another.

None of it mattered. Coaches do make a positive difference with their mindset, mentality and actions, but in the end it's a players' game. Ultimately the match is decided on the court, not the sidelines. We're the supporting actors in this play, not the lead characters. And that's the way it should be. The players should be in the spotlight, another lesson learned over 20 years.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

The one role that some coaches are afraid to fulfill

by Jeff Smith

This season I asked our coaches to write mid-season evaluations for each player on their team. These evaluations provided athletes with their coach's insights on their positive areas of growth as well as developmental steps the players need to take in the second half of the season.

The coaches emailed each evaluation to that athlete's family. Having coached at another club prior to Serve City and knowing coaches from dozens of other clubs, I'm fairly confident that these evaluations are unique to Serve City. A parent of one of our high school players even emailed to say her daughter had never received an evaluation from a coach in her years of playing club and school volleyball.

After receiving her daughter's evaluation from her coach, another mom appreciated the coach's gesture so much that she replied with a message of her own. It read, "My daughter has a great coach who is committed to her growth and pushes her to her limits."

Taking a risk

Pushing athletes to their limits -- if you asked coaches what aspect of their job they are most reluctant to pursue, some would admit it's this very quality. It's probably akin to parents needing to keep their children on task with their schoolwork especially when their kids aren't motivated to stay on top of their academics, even if it means risking being the "unpopular" parent and having to initiate a confrontation between them and their child.

It isn't fun or popular to stretch athletes in new ways that make them uncomfortable or challenge them to learn new things or confront areas where they need to grow. But it's essential for coaches to take this responsibility seriously if their athletes and teams are to experience true growth.

As 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medal coach Doug Beal put it, "A coach should take the athletes to their limits, should go beyond the comfort zone. If you are concerned about being friends with the players, you are not going anywhere."

Pushing athletes to their limits

This isn't to say that coaches must develop an adversarial relationship with their players. Through their actions and words, coaches should in fact convey their care, love and concern for their athletes as players and as people.

But good coaches make their greatest impact on their athletes when they push their athletes to their limits in practices and tournaments. They maintain that coach-athlete relationship that enables them to demand their players' best and train their players at the very edge of their abilities.

In fact, coaches who push their athletes to their limits are actually the coaches who truly care the most about their athletes. Coaches who are more interested in being their players' friend are doing their athletes more harm than good. They are stunting their athletes' development by failing to stretch their athletes to new heights as players or teaching their athletes the habits and character qualities needed to reach their highest potential.

What happens when coaches don't push their athletes

My senior year of high school our basketball coach was a kind, mild-mannered man who didn't push us or demand excellence in practice. Our practice sessions were fun, breezy and uninspired. We learned little, weren't pushed much and wasted precious time with slow-paced warm-ups, half-hearted scrimmages and lots of laughs joking around with our coach/buddy.

You guessed it, the fruit of our lack of labor was an unprepared team for games, a losing record and a lackluster first-round postseason exit. My high school career ended with a whimper, and so did my coach's coaching tenure.

After that disappointing season, I determined that if I ever went into coaching, I would not repeat my coach's mistakes. I would strive to be a coach that my athletes respected because of how much they learned from me and grew under my tutelage.

Going out on a limb

Being a coach who pushes athletes to their limits isn't easy. Sometimes athletes don't want to be pushed but just want to remain in their current comfort zone. They're OK with who they currently are and don't want to undergo the growing pains of learning new skills or tactics, developing better work ethic or confronting a flaw in their technique or a weakness in their skill set. They're comfortable with the status quo, or so they think.

This is where dedicated coaches separate themselves from those who would rather just run comfortable practices so that they can always be liked by their players -- even though their players won't ultimately respect them for being afraid to stretch and challenge their team.

Calling athletes to a higher standard

I've experienced this numerous times over the years. In one of my early seasons as a sand volleyball coach several of the players in my high school class had built a reputation for not taking indoor practices seriously. When they brought that same lackadaisical attitude to the first day of the sand program, I had a decision to make: Let them continue to be themselves and not make waves or confront the problem head on.

I chose the latter. The next practice I called a short meeting and let everyone know that they had two choices: to give their best effort at each practice or, if they weren't interested in giving their best effort, to call their parents to pick them up right now and not return to the program. I set the expectations high for the program. The only athletes who would be welcome in the class were those who would make a commitment to learning and growing. No murky, mediocre in-between would be tolerated.

To their credit, all of the girls decided to stay and invest in their growth, and the rest of the season was very enjoyable and went really well.

Coach-parent partnership

Pushing athletes to strive for their best takes support from the athletes' homes. In fact, it's essential. One of my players' dads confided in me that, a few times over the course of the four seasons I coached his daughter, she had asked her father, "Why does Coach Smith push me so hard in practice?" I run high-energy, challenging practices that are designed to put athletes on a fast learning track that helps them get the most out of their talent if they commit to pouring themselves into the training.

To this dad's credit, he always responded to his daughter's question with the same answer: "Because he believes you have the talent to be great and he wants to help you get the absolute most out of your talent."

Parents supporting a coach's growth-focused training philosophy is where a coach who truly cares about their athletes can make a lasting difference. The coaches can then push their athletes outside their comfort zone because, as a coaching colleague of mine likes to say, "A good coach will make his or her players see what they can be rather than what they are." An athlete may think she can never learn how to jump serve, but their coach helps them see otherwise and teaches and encourages them to pursue this goal until they reach it.

Satisfying endeavor

Some of my colleagues' most satisfying moments as a coach have been when a player we've worked with is able to execute a new skill in a match for the first time. It's the equivalent of a parent watching their child take their first steps or ride a bike on their own for the first time.

By contrast, mediocre coaches leave players the same at the end of the season as they were when the season began. Good to great coaches work with their athletes to help them take their skills and game knowledge to new levels of excellence.

Players want to be stretched

Truth be told, most athletes really do want to be pushed outside their limits. Sometimes they just don't realize it or need someone to help them conquer their fear of clearing that hurdle. Yes, there are always going to be a minority of players who truly aren't motivated to get better at volleyball, just as there are always going to be a small group of students who aren't motivated to excel in the classroom in spite of their teachers' grandest efforts. But the vast majority really do desire to learn, develop and take their skills to the next level.

Recently I was training a player in how to serve a jump float. Try as she might, this athlete kept burying her jump serve into the net or sending it out of bounds. We kept trying to fix technical errors in her approach and swing, but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, after a string of unsuccessful attempts, this player blurted out to me, "I can't do this, Coach. I just can't." I replied by agreeing with her -- to a point.

"I think you're right," I said. "You can't do it -- yet. The key word is yet. You will get it. It's just going to take time, some tweaks and more effort. Just keep plugging away and it'll come."

This player never did figure out how to find the court with her jump float at practice that day, or the next practice, either. But a couple of weeks later, as she worked on serving, I asked her to practice her jump float yet again, and soon enough she pounded a jump serve a couple of feet inside the deep corner of the court. Then she did it again. And again.

Then, while working on serving and serve receive, she blasted a few jump floats in-bounds that registered aces. At her next tournament she debuted her jump float in actual matches and recorded several aces, and at her last practice her jump float was so effective that no one could return it during serve receive drills.

The point here isn't to puff up my bona fides. A few thousand other coaches would have done the exact same thing. But if I had given in to this athlete's misgivings about learning a jump serve, let her off the hook and told her she could stick with her standing serve, she would have never experienced the exhilaration of serving a jump float for aces in a tournament or enjoyed the satisfaction of mastering an exciting new skill that will benefit her not only this season but for the rest of her volleyball career.

That's what pushing athletes outside their limits looks like -- helping them see who they can become and not just who they currently are and then collaborating with them, or sometimes even pulling and prodding them, to reach that destination. It's sometimes hard to do, but it's also worth it in the end.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.