skill development

Versatility adds value to your volleyball future

by Jeff Smith

Julia Conard is one of the most revered players in West Chicago High School volleyball history. As an outside hitter, she became the school's all-time kills leader and paced the Wildcats to conference and regional championships in 2011.

julia conard serve.jpg

Less than a month later, she reached the pinnacle of her career when she signed a full scholarship to join the volleyball program at the University of Illinois -- as a defensive specialist. By her senior year, she was even team captain.

At 5 feet 10, Julia was too short to be an effective outside hitter among the 6-1 to 6-4 pin hitting giants at the Big Ten Conference level. But, because she had developed strong back-row skills in high school, the Fighting Illini coaching staff took notice and awarded her a coveted scholarship and an opportunity to shine at one of the premiere Division I schools in the country.

In this age of specialization, where many clubs, schools and coaches like to pigeonhole players at one position for years on end, Julia's story is a breath of fresh air. As Julia experienced, your ability to play a variety of positions and areas of the court and execute a range of different skills will increase your value, not only to your current team but for your volleyball future.

Middle school: where versatility must take root

This is especially true for middle school athletes. Players in fifth to eighth grade should not be narrowly defined into one position. Doing this not only will stunt their growth in the sport but is incredibly short-sighted. It is next to impossible to confidently predict what position an 11- to 14-year-old girl or guy is best suited to play before they reach high school.

Here's just one example. The director of one of the area's largest clubs once confided to me how she wanted a middle school player on one of Serve City's teams to join her club the next year so she could make her a setter on one of her club's national teams. There was just one problem: While she liked setting and played some setter that season, the player in question absolutely loved being an outside hitter. She ended up sticking with Serve City the next year, and two years later she made her high school's varsity team at outside hitter.

If she had been restricted to only being a setter, she wouldn't have realized that she was a great fit for outside hitter and wouldn't have discovered her passion for that position.

Middle school is the time for athletes to experience as much of the sport as possible. This helps them develop into well-rounded players and get a taste of the full range of positions on the court to see where they might best fit in.

Versatility should be part of every club's middle school philosophy

This is Serve City's training philosophy for middle school teams. After I enjoyed a stint coaching 18U and 16U teams with another club, when I joined Serve City I coached three 14U teams. Most of the players on each team were trained at two positions over the course of the season and a handful even learned three or four positions. Regardless of their position in our lineups, all of the athletes were taught how to pass, set, serve receive, dig and hit no matter if they were 5 feet 10 or 4 feet 7, and each of them regularly practiced all of these skills.

That doesn't mean athletes shouldn't learn and play a specific position. The team's tallest player can in fact be trained at middle hitter. But, at the same time, that tall middle hitter should be given numerous opportunities in practice to learn and refine other skills besides blocking and hitting. She should be regularly trained to set, serve, pass, receive serves and play back row defense, too.

If she's trained to be a volleyball player first and a middle hitter second, someday she could find herself as a six-rotation outside hitter, a setter or a middle hitter who also plays back row in high school. Training middle schoolers in a variety of skills opens the door to greater future opportunities.

This was true in my own family. My older daughter played setter in middle school but also frequently played in the back row both in serve receive and defensively as well. When she tried out for the freshman team at West Chicago High School, she made the team as a libero. Three years later, she earned all-conference honors as a libero, which never would have happened if she'd strictly played setter in middle school and never practiced serve receive.

Versatility should continue throughout high school

The need for players to be versatile doesn't end after middle school. Versatility is a valuable trait in high school, too, particularly at the large public high schools in the Chicago area.

Let's say you are one of 12 outside hitters trying out for the freshman A team at your school, and the freshman A coach will only keep four outsides on the roster. Unless you're the clear-cut best outside hitter at tryouts, your odds of making the team will only increase if you display the ability to play other positions. If you have good back-row skills you could stick on the team as a DS or libero, or if you can also hit from the right side of the net, you could win a roster spot as an opposite hitter. Perhaps you're a good blocker who can make the squad as a middle hitter, or you have some experience at setter and can earn a spot as a combination setter and opposite hitter.

The need for versatility continues throughout high school. If your school's varsity team is loaded with outside hitters, you may need to make the team and carve out playing time at another position.

How to make yourself more versatile -- and valuable

Of course, versatility doesn't just appear out of thin air. It's a trait that you have to work hard to nurture. This subject could take up an entire blog post, but here are three steps you can take as a high school player to develop your versatility:

1. Seek out opportunities to round out your game.

I can't speak for all coaches, but when I coached high school club volleyball, if a middle hitter or right-side hitter asked me if she could get regular serve receive reps in practices, I would do everything in my power to make that possible for her. Be bold yet respectful and ask your coaches for instruction and for reps at a certain skill, even if that means staying 15 minutes after practice getting swings as a hitter with a teammate or coach setting you. And play grass doubles, quads and other games outside of practices, too.

2. Play sand volleyball.

Sand doubles is the ultimate tool for developing well-rounded volleyball players. In sand you get to do it all: serve, serve receive, defend, set and hit. There's no better way to diversify your game than to train in the sand and play beach doubles. Just ask Julia Conard, who played sand volleyball to expand her game prior to college. Check out Chicago Sand Volleyball for more details.

3. Play for a club that trains versatility.

I'm obviously biased, but Serve City is one such club, as many of you know who already play with us. Having coached at another Chicago-area club before coming to Serve City, I can attest that our training style promotes versatility more than most other clubs. I've personally seen clubs pigeonhole middle hitters on national teams so narrowly that the middles never received a single serve nor played back-row defense in any practice aside from an occasional scrimmage for the entire season, and setters never were trained to receive serves or to hit.

Such a philosophy might suit that club and its teams just fine, but it does the athletes a total disservice. Even at the high school level, athletes should think of themselves not as outside hitters, setters, liberos and middle hitters but first and foremost as volleyball players. Like Julia Conard, one day they may find themselves needing to switch positions for the good of their careers or their team.

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.

Practicing smarter: how to get the most out of your practices

by Jeff Smith

With a shorter season and fewer practice hours than most other Chicago-area clubs, Serve City's volleyball players and teams must overcome a training-time deficit to keep up with our opponents.

How can our athletes and teams compensate? By practicing smarter, not just harder. Here are five ways to accomplish this.

1. Arrive early

As the military saying goes, if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time. Imagine if you arrive 15-20 minutes early to your next 20 practices and use that time to hone your skills. That's 300 extra minutes of work you could invest in your passing, setting, serving and other areas of your game. Consider how much you could improve with an extra five hours of training.

Then do it.

2. Set goals for each practice

Setting goals is like using a map to plot out a trip: It helps you know where you're going. As a volleyball player, you can set two or three specific goals for yourself for each practice. These goals will allow you to concentrate on areas of your development during practice that need your focused attention.

For example, let's say you're a setter who has been occasionally finding yourself arriving slightly late to the ball in the setting zone when transitioning from right back on defense. For Monday's practice your goals are to work on your footwork when moving to the ball and to improve your reaction time in transitioning from base defense to offense. Maybe you've also wanted to learn how to serve the short zones better, so your third goal for practice is to serve more effectively to zones 2 and 4.

After practice, take a quick minute to review your goals. In a journal or in a simple word processing app on your phone, note one thing you improved on and one thing you need to keep working on at your next practice.

By goal setting you'll be following the habits of pro athletes. Beach volleyball player Geena Urango discusses using goal setting in her practices in this video.

3. Seek out quality and quantity touches on the volleyball

Coaches cringe when they see a group of six to 10 girls form a circle and do circle passing before a practice or match. If you're doing circle passing with seven other players, in one minute you're probably touching the ball three or four times at most. By comparison, if you pair up with a partner you could get 25 to 30 touches in a minute.

Of course, developing your skills requires more than just a quantity of repetitions. You need quality as well. Motor learning science teaches us that the most skill acquisition and skill transfer from practices to matches occurs when volleyball players perform skills in a game-like drill setting.

At the risk of getting too technical, it's otherwise known as the law of specificity. Basically, specificity teaches that, to become better at a particular skill, you must perform that skill as closely to how you actually execute that skill in a game as possible, avoiding gimmicky drills that don't transfer well to actual games.

In volleyball, this means ...

  • If you want to get better at hitting live sets, the best strategy you can use is to work on improving your technique and timing by hitting live sets, not tosses from a coach or balls in a hitting machine.
  • If you want to grow into a more consistent serve receiver, the best way you can do this is to sharpen your skills by receiving live serves in game-like situations.
  • If you want to develop your back-row skills digging hard-driven jump attacks, your best choice is to practice digging up actual hard-driven jump hits from hitters who receive sets from live setters, not artificial hits from a coach or teammate tossing balls to himself and hitting while standing on a box.

4. Push yourself

Six-time NBA basketball champion Michael Jordan was famous for many reasons, including his passionate practice habits. His Chicago Bulls teammates and coaches called him the most competitive practice player they ever encountered. Whether shooting free throws or playing a scrimmage, Jordan went all out to win every drill and game of practice.

Treating every drill and practice like the Hall of Fame guard did is a good habit to build, constantly stretching yourself and your skills in the process.

5. Enjoy every moment

More than anything, the attitude you bring to each practice will affect your work ethic, growth and how much you get out of each training session. If you see practice as an opportunity to not only develop your skills and understanding of the game but also to play a sport you love, you'll be more motivated to pour your best effort into every practice.

In short, have fun! This doesn't mean goofing around, wasting time and disrespecting your coach and teammates. It does mean relishing the chance to play, compete, learn and improve with the other members of your team. When you love what you do, you'll enthusiastically do what you love -- and your game will get better as a result.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.