sports parent

7 habits of highly effective volleyball parents

by Jeff Smith

volleyball parent and child.jpg

As a volleyball and basketball coach in 1400-plus games over 20 years and as a volleyball and basketball parent for the last eight years, I've seen and experienced the best and worst of sports parenting, from parents applauding great effort by both teams in a match to threatening the referees and getting thrown out of the gym at a game.

Things seem to work out very well for everyone when we each "stick to script" and focus on fulfilling our respective roles:

  • Coaches coach.
  • Parents parent.
  • Players play.

In the first of a three-part series, this week's post offers seven habits that parents can build to be positive influences for their kids and their kids' team.

1. Encourage competing over winning.

It's disappointing watching normally mild-mannered parents become obsessed with their child winning a match or tournament. These parents are missing the big picture. Their daughter or son and the team are not failures if they lose a match. What's important is whether they competed. Did they give their best effort within their current state of emotional, physical and athletic development (which looks very different from a 12-year-old novice player to an 18-year-old veteran player), and does getting beat motivate them to work harder and improve?

Winning is a goal, but it shouldn't be the goal. Development as players, teams and people should be the primary focus. That's where parents can either reflect this message or contradict it.

2. Use the phrase "I love to watch you play" often.

Try this after your child's next tournament. As you walk out of the facility with your son or daughter, make only one comment: I love to watch you play. Don't critique their performance or the play of their team. Don't talk about wins and losses or that blown serve or shanked pass they made. Then see how that comment impacts their attitude and perspective. It'll make a dramatic difference in how it colors their experience that day.

This is something I myself have had to learn. It's easy for me to watch my daughters play with my coaching hat on, especially when I'm observing as girls club director as well as a volleyball parent. If they ever need advice or pointers, they know they can ask me any time. Otherwise my focus as a parent is to enjoy the moment because our kids won't play competitive volleyball forever. One day it will be over, and none of us wants to look back with regrets over how we behaved on the sidelines or in the car after a match or tournament.

3. Be a great role model for your child.

Here's what a positive parent looks like at a typical tournament:

  • encourages and cheers for others, not just their child
  • appreciates and affirms the efforts of opposing players
  • doesn't bad-mouth opposing teams
  • doesn't disparage their child's teammates
  • doesn't criticize their child's coach
  • isn't fixated on winning and losing
  • doesn't insult or talk badly about referees or work crews
  • doesn't coach their child from the bleachers or between games

4. Support your child's coach.

About 10 years ago I was coaching a boys basketball game at Aurora Christian. After we built a double-digit lead, the host Eagles switched to a full-court press and trimmed the deficit to four points with a late first-half run. At halftime I reviewed our full-court press break with our team, then released them to the court for warm-ups before the third quarter began.

One of the player's dads, who didn't play competitive basketball beyond middle school and had no coaching experience, then approached me on the sidelines with a stern look on his face. "When are you going to show these kids how to break a press?" he demanded. "We're about to blow our lead."

I wanted to remind him that 1) he knew nothing about coaching other than from his seat in the bleachers and 2) it's not "our" lead, but the team's lead, and he's not on the team. Instead I quietly stared a hole through his forehead until he sheepishly walked away and returned to his seat in the stands. The boys then proceeded to pick apart Aurora Christian's press in the third quarter en route to a convincing win.

By contrast, the best team I coached in basketball featured a forward whose dad was a star player for his college's basketball team. We went 23-4, yet not once during the entire season did that dad say anything to me about his daughter or the team except some variation on the phrase "Great job, Coach" or "Great job by the girls." After we lost in the finals of a season-ending tournament, I asked him why he never offered coaching advice to me. His reply has stuck with me for the last 14 years: "Because I'm a basketball parent, and you're the coach. I'm here to watch my daughter and the team play and cheer them on. Whatever you do, I fully support you."

Imagine what would happen if every parent adopted that perspective.

5. Encourage a growth mindset in your child.

Whether I've coached 18U, 16U, 14U or 12U, my teams have always heard a similar message from me: Be assertive. I'm not alone. The majority of coaches emphasize an aggressive, confident, risk-taking demeanor in their athletes. That's the only way they're going to learn and grow. Playing not to lose will stagnate their development.

Parents can support that growth mindset in their feedback to their kids. Instead of "just get it in," that means saying "Way to go for it, Lisa!" Rather than say, "Nice try," it means saying "Love how you never gave up on that ball!"

Kids are more willing to take a risk and fail if they know their parent supports that mindset.

6. Don't micromanage your child's volleyball participation.

How would you answer this question: Does your son or daughter feel like they must live up to your athletic expectations for them? How they play shouldn't determine your level of happiness, and they don't need the added pressure of performing for Dad or Mom's approval.

Encourage autonomy and independence in your child. Let them take ownership of their athletic involvement. Be there to support them, not to serve as a second coach or a manager for them. The results will be much better for them and will lay the groundwork for a much healthier long-term relationship between the two of you.

7. Be realistic.

Most of us probably think more highly of our child's athletic prowess than is warranted. It can be tough to be objective about our own kids.

Few if any of our children will be playing Olympic volleyball or leading their teams to NCAA championships in the future. Don't set unrealistic expectations in your mind about your child's volleyball potential. Don't set up your child's coach for failure if they don't miraculously turn your son or daughter into a standout player.

Your child's level of success in volleyball rests almost solely on their shoulders. And if they don't develop into the best setter in the tournament or strongest outside hitter in their conference or win the starting libero job for their team, let them know that's OK. And make sure that they know it's OK with you, too.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club 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.