Anatomy of a Great Teammate

by Jeff Smith

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Monday, Jan. 14 started as a typical day. I drove to Simkus Recreation Center in Carol Stream, where six of our girls teams practice together on Monday nights. When I arrived at 4:30, I expected to be the first person to enter the gym.

I was extremely happy to be wrong.

Four people had gotten to the gym before me. On one court was Cayliann, a setter with our 15 Red squad. Cayliann was by herself running through setting footwork patterns, working on her movement to the ball as a setter. After a few minutes, she moved to a wall and began tossing and hitting balls to work on her serving and hitting arm swing and then transitioned to tossing a ball to herself and back-setting to the right front area of the court.

On the other court was Lorelai Francis from our 14 Blue team. She was playing 2 vs. 1 with her father and younger sister.

These athletes didn’t have to be in the gym. Practice didn’t officially start for another half-hour. But they had chosen to get there early and work on their games.

As I set up for practice, I tried not to watch them so that they wouldn’t feel awkward having a coach observing their actions. But one thing I couldn’t avoid was feeling a great sense of admiration for what they were doing. After our 15U/14U practice I made a point to let 15 Red, 14 Blue and 14 Red know about Cayliann and Lorelai’s acts of commitment to their craft. In my two-plus decades of coaching, I’ve always made it a practice to highlight the actions of great teammates so that other athletes could learn from their example and emulate them.

Because Lorelai and Cayliann were truly great teammates that day.

But that wasn’t the last act of a great teammate to take place at Simkus that evening. Our second practice of the night was with our 18U, 16U and 15U Blue teams. Near the end of practice, one court played Neville’s Pepper, a game where a side of 6 players competed against a side of 3 players. The team of 3 players usually loses this game for obvious reasons, being out-numbered 6 to 3. It was held at the end of a challenging practice, too, so the side of 3 had to summon extra energy to battle the side of 6.

But that’s exactly what they did. Jacki Lucas, Gianna Lolli and Parker Glynn had to dig, dive and defend a flurry of hard-hit attacks and tips from the side of 6 and come up with smart, aggressive serves and back-row attacks of their own to be competitive. Not only were they competitive, they were able to win the game 25-19 while giving their six teammates a stiff challenge that will make each of them better at serve receive, defense and offense.

That’s what great teammates do. They act as iron sharpening iron for their teammates by bringing their best effort to each drill, game and competition.

Then, after the 18 Blue/16 Blue/15 Blue practice ended at 9 p.m., another great teammate emerged. Jessi Barnes, a DS/libero/setter for 16 Blue, stayed after practice asking a couple of coaches to show her how to improve her dig and roll technique.

Jessi didn’t have to stay after practice to sharpen her digging fundamentals. It was 9:10 on a school night, and she had several final exams to study for that week. We had just completed a fast-paced, high-energy practice that demanded a lot of the girls’ energy and discipline. Yet here was Jessi in a nearly empty gym asking coaches how to do a better job of diving and rolling on the court, one of the least glamorous skills in volleyball.

She may not have realized it, but Jessi was being a great teammate.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of some great teams over the last 21 years. In the case of every great team, they all had one common trait. They each featured a roster filled with great teammates — athletes who were dedicated, selfless, loyal, hard-working, sacrificial, enthusiastic, competitive, driven, disciplined and joyful about their sport, their team, their teammates and their coaches.

One season for the first week of practice our team captains started arriving for practice 30 minutes early to work on their serving. By the end of the week, every player on the team was arriving 30 minutes prior to practice to hone their skills, and the captains began arriving 45 minutes early to put in extra work.

It was no surprise when that team broke the school record for wins in a season, winning our first 27 matches. When an entire team lives out the qualities and values of great teammates day after day, tremendous growth and terrific results will follow.

The question remains. How can you and I be a great teammate or coach before, during and after our practices and tournaments this season? It can begin with one simple act — arriving 15 minutes early for a practice, encouraging a teammate you know gets down on themselves, giving your absolute best from start to finish at your next practice, staying afterwards to work on a skill, creating a plan for how to improve or learn a new skill, or writing a short thank-you note to a coach or player are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing.

Think it through, choose an action and make it happen. You and your team will be glad you did.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.