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.


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.

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.