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.
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.