The impact of a near-fatal car crash

by Jeff Smith

October 5, 2018 was a typical, hum-drum evening. I was driving home alone after assistant coaching with Wheaton College’s women’s volleyball team at a tournament at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Interstate 90 was congested with Friday night traffic as I sped past Marengo.

But the evening took a turn for the worse from there. The skies opened up and pounded the stream of traffic with an intense thunderstorm. The rain shower was so heavy that visibility became limited, and most vehicles began slowing down in response.

I don’t remember much of what happened next, and that’s probably a blessing. I still recall my Ford Focus was rear-ended, sending the car spinning 360 degrees. Frantically I tried regaining control of the vehicle but in a matter of seconds was struck again and began spinning even more.

That’s all I can remember. The rest of the details I had to learn from reading the cops’ interviews with witnesses in the police report. To paraphrase the report, my car ended up getting totaled by four different vehicles in a span of about 10 seconds. The last vehicle to strike me was a large pickup truck that rear-ended me. The force of the last collision was so strong that it shattered my car’s back windshield and ejected me out of the car, through the opening where the back windshield once was in place and catapulted me to the shoulder of the highway.

A couple of witnesses apparently pulled to the side of the road, called 911 and attended to me while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. The ambulance whisked me off to a hospital ER in Elgin, where I regained consciousness after being unconscious since the ejection from the car.

My injuries were serious enough to warrant three days in ICU but by God’s grace were not life threatening: some broken ribs, a severe concussion, whiplash to my neck, compressed vertebrae in my back, a sprained ankle, banged-up knees and various lacerations and cuts around my face and body. Today I’m 80 to 90 percent recovered from the accident and am able to do most of the activities that I enjoyed before October 5.

The fact I wasn’t run over or struck by a car after getting thrown out of my vehicle on a slick highway during a rainstorm, and I didn’t die or suffer permanent damage from the ejection or landing on the interstate pavement, is truly a miracle. It has been a difficult road to recovery, and to this day when I’m driving on a highway and a strong storm erupts I struggle to fight back old feelings of fear, but God took incredible care of me. He even met every one of our financial needs from an overwhelming debt of medical bills. He is good, and I don’t deserve His goodness.

As a club director and coach I also learned one lesson in particular from this near-death experience. I find myself caring and feeling even more deeply about every athlete I work with. I still am very competitive and passionate about winning; I still take pride that my 1,001 career wins puts me among a very small and rare group of coaches in any sport, including volleyball, and I still expect every athlete to give her best effort, her best attitude and her best self to every practice and game.

But what has changed is that I now derive even more gratification from seeing athletes achieve smaller accomplishments. As an example, I substitute coached one of our teams at a tournament in March. One of the team’s middle hitters had never gotten to serve in a match that season. When I learned this, I made sure that she got the chance to serve in three of our matches that weekend. Watching her not only deliver her first-ever serve in play but earn an ace on that serve and then seeing her joy at the moment was tremendously satisfying. Ironically that same player went on to play sand volleyball this summer and has grown substantially in her all-around skills. Sometimes all it takes is having someone believe in us.

I still was highly motivated to help lead that team to victory that weekend. But I’m not sure that the pre-accident me would have allowed that middle hitter to serve. I would have wanted to line up our top servers who would give us the best opportunity to win that day.

That same weekend, the team I was substitute coaching advanced to the finals of its tournament before we lost 23-25, 24-26 in a hard-fought match by both teams. On match point one of our back-row players shanked a pass that ended the match. She felt terrible and looked over at me despondently after committing the error. My pre-accident self would have just ignored her mistake and said nothing about it.

After the match I ended up giving that player one of my post-match awards for all the great plays she made in the back row throughout the match. I know what it feels like to fail and wanted her to focus on all the positives she contributed that day and not on the match-point mistake.

At Serve City camps this summer I also found myself working more than usual with the kids who were struggling to learn or master a skill. I still trained the higher-skilled athletes but gravitated more to reaching out to those who needed extra help. Everyone deserves our best version of us, don’t they?

Now more than ever I want our summer camps to be events where each player gets the best possible coaching. I’ve seen far too many camps where the camp coaches go through the motions and give the players mediocre, watered-down teaching and run a slow, boring camp marked by long hitting lines and few touches on the ball. That won’t happen at a Serve City camp.

The accident has especially influenced how I see my daughters. Watching my older daughter coach her first team last winter and spring was more gratifying than any victory I’ve ever experienced, and when I got to watch my younger daughter play for College of DuPage in a spring tournament in Indiana I soaked up every serve, pass and attack by her. After the car accident last October, I’m fortunate just to be able to see her play and get to cheer her on. Now I don’t want to miss a single point of her matches or of Jessica’s matches at Judson University.

I was given a new lease on life in October. I didn’t deserve it; it was a gift. Now that I have a second chance at life, I want to seize every opportunity that comes my way as a husband, a father, a friend, a family member, a club director and every other role I’m called to fulfill.

Jeff Smith is Serve City club director.

Sneak peek at an exciting 2019-2020 Serve City Volleyball season ahead

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by Jeff Smith

The next club volleyball season doesn’t officially start until November 25, so some plans are written in pencil instead of ink. But we’ve already begun crafting an exciting 2019-2020 campaign.

Here are some of Serve City’s hopes and goals for a memorable and meaningful new season.

National and regional teams at every age level

In 2017-18, we were able to field our first two national teams that competed in the Asics Jr. National Championships at Navy Pier in Chicago. This year that figure will double to four later this month.

Next year, our hope is to field one national team at every age level from 12U to 18U. Our national teams will be true national teams in that, instead of giving the national squads a three-week break in April like we did this year, they will continue training and playing tournaments throughout April and May into June.

This change will ensure that our national teams receive the kind of sustained training they need to continue growing and developing their skills, tactics, strategies and chemistry as individual players and as teams.

Having said that, regional teams will always be a vital component and the primary focus of Serve City. Our hope is to field two regional teams and one national team at each age level from 12U to 16U along with one regional team and one national team at 18U for those athletes who love volleyball but need to conclude their seasons in April. Regional teams will form the nucleus of our enrollment. Our enduring mission is to make quality club volleyball training accessible to all middle-class and working-class families in the western suburbs, and our regional team program plays a critical part in that purpose.

We also plan to offer two and possibly three middle school short season teams in 2019-20 after running two short season teams in 2018-19. Our short season program is popular with families who either want an 8- to 9-week season that gives their daughter a taste of club volleyball, can’t afford the cost of a full season of club volleyball or whose girls don't have time to devote themselves to a full regional or national season.

What the 2019-20 schedule will look like

After tryouts on Oct. 6 for middle school and Oct. 27 for high school, our practices will begin the week after Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-29). The regional season wraps up the week of April 13-18. Our national season will end at Asics Jr. Nationals June 19-21 for 15U to 18U national teams and June 22-23 for 12U to 14U.

Our regional and national teams will again practice two weeknights per week and most likely in the same format as this year. One practice will be as an individual team and then one combined practice on multiple courts with other teams of similar age levels and with a lead trainer running that practice while the other teams’ coaches still work with their teams.

This format works well on many levels. It gives our athletes opportunities to train more in a 6v6 game-like format for parts of the combined practices. It also ensures that our teams are being trained based on a structured, intentional player and team development model for each age level. This model enables athletes to learn specific skills, tactics, offensive and defensive systems and strategies that progress them developmentally from 12U to 18U.

New positional training option

Because of our expanded plans for national teams and our desire to offer regional team athletes additional opportunities to develop their skills, we also are planning to run positional training clinics one weeknight a week from the end of November until April 15. The positional training clinics will be optional, but for a reasonable additional cost you can sign up your daughter for as many of these clinics as she’d like to attend for her age group. This new option will provide our athletes with an extra venue for learning new skills and refining current skills throughout the season.

Unlike many clubs where positional training is required, families who aren’t interested in this clinic series or who don’t have the time or funds for these clinics will not be required to participate nor pay for them.

Serve City’s family-friendly focus

As a family-focused club, we will again give our teams 2 1/2 weeks off for Christmas and New Year’s and nine days off for spring break so our athletes can spend quality time with their families. We will also intentionally wait to start the club season until the Monday after Thanksgiving for this same reason. Most clubs kick off their practice schedule the first or second week of November, but we want to continue giving our athletes a longer break between the fall school season and the club season so they can rest, recover and re-energize before hitting the club schedule.

We will also continue scheduling only tournaments in the Chicago area. Our teams will not participate in any overnight tournaments that, truth be told, only serve to drain a family’s time together along with their pocketbooks. (As a former national team coach at another club, I know this from experience.)

The Chicago area features some of the best club volleyball in the country. There are plenty of good to outstanding club tournaments here that our teams can enter, as well as the Windy City Power League and the Chicago Volleyball League, which we will continue registering our teams for in 2020.

Our hope is to register our strongest national teams in 1-2 two-day pre-national tournaments at such prestigious club tournaments as Sky High’s national invitationals to expose our most experienced national teams to the best competition. This strategy will allow our national teams to sharpen their skills against opponents who will prepare them best for Asics Jr. Nationals.

And, as usual, our player fees will be either the lowest or nearly the lowest fees of any Chicago-area volleyball club. We offered the lowest fees this season, But you never know if another club comes along and offers even lower fees, though we expect our fees will still be the lowest in 2019-2020.

Continued emphasis on helping athletes reach their potential as people

One of our most heartfelt missions is to assist athletes in reaching their highest potential on and off the court. It’s one reason why our Serve City Serves program is so important. We believe volleyball is a tremendous tool not only from an athletic standpoint but in training our youth in the life skills and values needed to excel as Americans, as leaders, as compassionate servant-minded people, as students, family members and positive contributors to society.

With this in mind, we will continue to emphasize our three core values of Excellence, Relationships and Love in each practice throughout the season as well as provide service opportunities that help our athletes see how they can impact the lives of others in their communities and around the world.

Ultimately, as enjoyable as it is to win a match, execute a new skill or achieve a team or personal goal, the life lessons learned over the course of each club volleyball season will be the most enduring qualities that athletes take away from their Serve City experience.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s volleyball director.

You’re capable of more than you think: growth mindset

by Jeff Smith

In the 1990s, two psychologists performed a unique study that has changed how learning is viewed in the U.S. and around the world. They examined two groups of fifth-grade students in a case that helped change the way that millions of people think about a term called growth mindset.

keep working quote.jpg

The two groups of students were given the same test. In one group, the teachers heaped one type of praise on the students who registered a high score, telling each student, “Nice job. You must be really smart!” The other group received praise along the lines of “Nice job. You must have worked really hard!”

After the first test, the teachers gave the students a chance to take a more difficult test. About 90 percent of the students who got feedback about their great effort on the first test agreed to tackle the second test. By contrast, less than half of the students agreed to take the second test who had received feedback about excelling on the first test because they were smart.

After taking several different tests, both groups took one final test that was similar in difficulty to the initial test. The group that was praised for its effort scored 30 percent higher than the group that was praised for its intelligence.

The results of this study clearly show the strengths of a growth mindset (“I can learn almost anything with enough hard work and dedication”) over a fixed mindset (“I can only learn things that I’m genetically gifted to learn”).

All it ultimately takes is understanding and believing that we can improve substantially at almost anything in sports, academics, music, work and daily activities — i.e., we can be powerful learners. The key is through consistent effort combined with perseverance, feedback from our coaches and teachers and a willingness to stretch ourselves outside our comfort zone as we face challenges and deal with the inevitable mistakes we’ll make along the way.

A growth mindset is the belief that you are not merely born with specific abilities that will determine how successful you will be at volleyball, music, math or any other area of life. Yes, we each have born qualities that make us more likely to excel at certain sports, hobbies or interests. But scientific research shows that your attitude, work ethic and commitment level can influence how well you perform at volleyball.

In fact, your attitude, hard work and dedication will impact your level of success in volleyball more than anything else, including more than your natural athletic talent.

I personally think the secret for many young athletes is their attitude toward mistakes.

A player with a fixed mindset — believing she is what she is right now and that she can’t change — is easy to spot. She fears making mistakes, so she is reluctant to try new skills or positions. She also is concerned about what others think of her, which makes her even more hesitant to try new skills for fear of looking silly, uncoordinated or embarrassing herself when she struggles to hit, set, overhand serve or perform other skills she hasn’t mastered.

(I’ve taught private lessons with countless athletes who were afraid to venture out and learn a particular skill in practice for fear of making mistakes in front of their peers, especially either overhand or jump serving and setting, two of the hardest skills for young players to learn. They’re fine with making mistakes in the safety and privacy of an empty gym. If they can take that mentality to their practices and not be concerned about making mistakes that teammates see, that makes a big difference going forward.)

Again, fear of mistakes and fear of being embarrassed in front of others keeps players with a fixed mindset from embracing a growth mindset. It makes you afraid to take risks and prevents you from developing a can-do attitude that leads to learning new skills, positions, tactics and strategies.

Of course, volleyball is a challenging sport. At times it can frustrate young players (and older players, too). And the fact that matches are played in front of an audience can make it even more frustrating when you inevitably make mistakes with people watching you. (That’s one advantage of academics. You don’t have to take a test and miss questions on the test with spectators observing your every error.)

One of volleyball’s biggest proponents of a growth mindset is Karch Kiraly, three-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S.. women’s national team coach. Karch has fantastic advice for how to overcome the temptation to hold on to a fixed mindset.

“If you’re concerned what others think, you may take few risks and hold yourself back. But if you’re excited about the possibilities of how good you could become with enough hard work, you’ll welcome the chance to challenge yourself,” Karch says. “Chances are, when things get tough, you’ll summon more grit and work through it rather than walk away, as someone with a fixed mindset might do.

“Embrace a growth mindset and go for it! You can be a much better player, and with enough effort and purposeful practice, you will be.”

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

You are what you think: the mental side of volleyball


by Jeff Smith

Mental training is all the rage in sports nowadays. There’s a legitimate reason for this. Confidence and positive thinking in the heat of battle are important traits to a successful athlete. An athlete’s mind has a powerful impact on how she performs.

But, before exploring this subject further, it needs to be noted that a positive mental attitude is no substitute for the other qualities of a successful athlete: skill, talent, training, experience, discipline, passion for the game and dedicated preparation. I can train myself to have the most upbeat, positive attitude in the world, but if I don’t fortify that attitude with excellent training, work ethic, skill development and learning, I can be positive about one thing: I’ll struggle and lose nearly every time I set foot on the court.

Volleyball is about training yourself to be in the right place at the right time using the right technique with the right amount of effort, the right read on the situation and the right split-second decision, all of which takes countless hours of sustained training. The good news is player development from dedicated training helps produce the mental confidence and positive outlook you need to excel on the court.

Now, having said all that, the mind is definitely a powerful tool in your performance as an athlete. A positive mental approach practiced by the entire team makes a huge difference.

I can personally attest to this. I’ve been fortunate enough to win 999 games as a coach. Of those victories, probably a quarter of them were by two to five points. The final result sometimes came down to playing with more confidence at game’s end, maintaining a more positive approach in tight situations, keeping a healthy, upbeat perspective on the game, enjoying the moment more (we taught ourselves to be excited about close matches as a fun opportunity instead of as an unnerving obstacle) and continuing to trust each other and believe that we could win.

A verse I read today is a wonderful reminder of positive mental training: “As he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

As the author who quoted that verse explained, self-fulfilling prophecy is about becoming what you think yourself to be. “If you think you will fail, you probably will,” the author wrote. “If you think you will succeed, then most likely you will succeed.”

A relentlessly positive mental attitude will not guarantee that your team will always play its best or always win. You might even lose every match on a particular day. As a skeptical coaching friend likes to joke, “What if both teams have great mental attitudes? Will they finish in a tie?”

However, a positive mental attitude will enable you to be at your mental best most often and make the seemingly impossible possible, particularly when your team is:

  • locked in a nip-and-tuck battle

  • having one of those days where you’re struggling to play your normal game

  • playing shorthanded that day

  • staring up at a big deficit

This poem by Walter D. Wintle cleverly addresses the mental side of athletics.

Success begins with a fellow's will;

It's all in the state of mind.

Think big and your deed will grow,

Think small and you will fall behind.

Think that you can and you will—

It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are.

You have got to think high to rise.

You have got to be sure of yourself

Before you win a prize.

Life's battles don't always go

To the stronger or faster man.

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the man who thinks he can.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Dive, dig and roll -- the most under-taught skill in volleyball


by Jeff Smith

Of all the skills I’ve taught over the years — blocking, serving, footwork patterns, passing, setting, hitting, digging and various specialty skills — the one skill that draws the most fear and trepidation from players is easily diving, digging and rolling.

No other skill comes close.

Whenever I’ve introduced this skill or reviewed it with players, no matter their age level, most athletes initially react with nervousness. In fact, the ones who dive into the skill — no pun intended — with gusto are usually the players who either play in the back row in matches or who eventually become liberos, defensive specialists or six-rotation players.

The willingness and ability to effectively dive and dig is only a small portion of back-row play. But it is an essential portion indeed, especially at the 15U to 18U levels and in college. Wheaton College’s libero dove at least several times every match this past fall and sometimes up to a dozen times or more in longer matches.

Simply put, you can’t be a truly successful back row player if you aren’t able to dive and dig.

This is why we devoted a large chunk of two 14U, 15U, 16U and 18U practices this season to teaching and practicing this skill. In future seasons, we will devote a monthly segment of practice time to learning and sharpening this skill in all its various forms.

Technical issues

Effective diving and digging starts with proper technique. A successful back-row digger or off-blocker needs to master a few important fundamentals:

  • Down and ready defensive position (a low, athletic posture with a wide base and low hips and her chin slightly ahead of her knees and her knees slightly ahead of her toes)

  • Bent at the ankles

  • Weight on the balls of her feet and the inside of her feet

We then start by learning the most basic dive and dig move: a one-step maneuver where the defender keeps her hips low (“under the ball”) so that she can dive flat and parallel to the floor and steps with her right foot if the ball is in front of her and to her right. She extends her platform forward and under the ball as she dives forward — again, as parallel as possible to the floor both for her safety and so she can scoop the ball up in the air with her platform.

After she dives and digs the ball up in the air (preferably anywhere to the middle of the court) and then her body goes to the floor, the defender lands on her side (not on her chest). This is crucial. Far too many female players dive and land on their chest, which is not a safe maneuver. Landing on their side is critical for their long-term safety in avoiding injury.

The digger keeps her right knee bent, rolls over her right side and then uses her right foot (specifically the right toes) to plant into the ground and propel her quickly up so that she can finish in down and ready defensive posture. Volleyball is a game of explosiveness where every second counts. Moving quickly and decisively is vital. It can be the difference between being prepared to make the next play and being slightly too late to execute that next play.

(One of my pet phrases is that great defense is about “being in the right place at the right time using the right technique with the right amount of effort.”)

Keeping the defender’s right knee bent as she rolls over her side is key. The bent knee allows her to plant her right foot and spring up fast back to her feet so that she’s ready to either cover one of her hitters, hustle to play a third contact over the net, be prepared to approach and attack the third contact if it’s set to her or recover quickly back to her base defensive position ready to defend again.

Dive into a variety of dives

Learning to dive, dig and roll takes hours of focused practice. There are numerous types of dives and rolls as well as several different scenarios to master. Here are just a few:

  • Digging, diving and rolling to cover tips or block touches in front of you and slightly to your right using a one-step dive

  • Diving to dig a ball that is short, in front and slightly to your left using a one-step dive

  • Diving and digging a ball farther in front of you using a two-step dive (left step, right step, dig, dive and roll for a ball to your right or right step-left step for a ball to your left)

  • Dives and one-armed digs

  • Dives into pancake digs, such as this pancake

  • Diving and digging balls directly to your right and left

Is diving and digging glamorous? Not to many people, though to most coaches a well-executed dive and dig is a work of art. It is an essential skill in a good defender’s toolkit, and the sooner you learn this skill and can perform it with excellence and discernment (when to dive and when to simply read the hitter and move and stay on your feet to dig the ball) in matches, the better off you’ll be and the more successful your team’s defense will be.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

3 questions that every team should ask after a match

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.

Question time

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.

Are you nervous or excited? Your perspective impacts how you play

by Jeff Smith


There were 10 seconds remaining in our high school basketball game when I received a pass just behind the free-throw line. I was wide open for a shot I had made on many opportunities over the years.

Only this time the stakes were much higher. We trailed by two points in a single-elimination playoff contest. As I rose up to shoot, the thought briefly flashed across my mind: What if I miss the shot? We’ll probably lose, and my basketball playing days will be over. (I wasn’t talented enough to play collegiately.)

That’s exactly what happened. Playing out of fear — out of what I might lose instead of what I could win — I short-armed the shot. It bounced off the front of the rim and into an opposing player’s hands for the rebound and the eventual victory. Negativity won, and my team lost.

Time for a new perspective

That missed shot stuck in my gut for awhile. In fact, it motivated me to change my perspective on close games and the most important matches when I began coaching 21 years ago.

Funny thing is, I didn’t even realize that the change in mental approach I took to big and tightly contested games has a scholarly term attached to it. It's called “anxiety reappraisal.”

In a nutshell, anxiety reappraisal is when you tell yourself that you feel excited when your body is feeling nervous. It’s the conscious act of embracing nervousness as excitement — the intentional decision to enjoy the moment and see the championship match, tough opponent or nip-and-tuck score as a fun opportunity to revel in instead of letting anxiety negatively affect your approach to playing.

A change in perspective makes a huge difference.

(For more background, an article on anxiety reappraisal in The Atlantic explains that anxiety and excitement are each aroused emotions that cause the heart to beat faster, cortisol to surge and our body to get ready for some type of action.)

Helpful tool for my teams

My new mental approach to key games and closely fought matches was meant to help me handle these pressure moments as a young coach. But not only did anxiety reappraisal benefit me — I saw myself making poised decisions and communicating confidence in the heat of battle that gave my teams the adjustments and leadership needed to pull out victories — it aided my teams as well. Instead of letting nerves make us play tentatively or without poise and confidence, we usually rose to the occasion in tight games and the biggest tournament and playoff match-ups and won the vast majority of these contests.

I still remember one of my first matches as a coach. We were tied late in the finals of a tournament when our opponent called timeout. As we huddled up, I told our team, “This is so much fun. Games like this are why I love to coach.” My players looked surprised, so I explained, “Playing in a close game at a tournament is so much more exciting than winning 25-8. Moments like this bring out the best in us. This is what makes our sport so fantastic to play and coach. Enjoy the moment, go for it and have fun playing together on the court.”

It wasn’t Knute Rockne, but what I said helped our team loosen up and play aggressive, together and free, competing with excitement instead of anxiety. We went on to win the tournament championship, and I used various forms of that mini-speech before and during other larger and more challenging games in future seasons. Nine hundred and ninety-nine wins later, I’m one victory away from 1,000 coaching wins, and this mental approach is one of the reasons behind this success.

You’re excited, not nervous

If you feel nervous or anxious at your next key match, view the butterflies in your stomach as a sign of the excitement you’re feeling about the chance to play in this game. In short:

Embrace the moment. See it as a fun challenge that will bring out the best in you. Trust your skills, your preparation, your coach and your teammates. (Confidence matters.) Smile and enjoy the game and your team. Don’t treat it like a do-or-die situation. I like to tell teams that look uptight, “This is volleyball, not a final exam in algebra. It’s fun — enjoy it. if we win, that’s great. If we lose, we still got to play and enjoy this game together, and the sun will still rise tomorrow.”

Celebrate your team’s every success on the court. Ignore the scoreboard — if you just focus on playing well and with great enthusiasm, everything will usually take care of itself. Affirm your teammates, and let them affirm you. Use positive self-talk (“We’ve got this,” “The next point’s ours”). Play your game — don’t try to do too little or too much — play for each other and go for it. The team that has more fun and is more assertive almost always wins.

And don’t ever think about what will happen if you don’t do x, y or z. Train yourself to be relentlessly positive. The more you allow yourself to enjoy the game, enjoy your team and play with hope and excitement, the better you’ll play on the court.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

6 ways to keep focused and fresh for late-season practices


by Jeff Smith

For regional club volleyball teams, March and April is the period that some coaches describe as the dog days of the season. This is the time of year when less motivated athletes begin giving less effort in practices, or missing more and more practices, and less motivated coaches put less planning, intentionality and creativity into their practices, as the season winds down.

The last six weeks of the season usually separate the good players and teams who remain devoted to growth and development from the less committed ones, and the results are evident on the court in tournaments and training sessions.

It can be tempting to start cutting corners and exerting less energy and mental focus in late-season practices. You may be tired, not feeling 100 percent physically, counting down the days until spring break, busy with a variety of extracurricular activities, yearning for more free time in your schedule to just chill out and do nothing or needing a break from sports, or you might be new to club volleyball and not accustomed to maintaining a five-month commitment to a sport.

Truth is, it’s safe to say 99 percent of our athletes sincerely want to pour their full physical, emotional and mental effort into every practice for the sake of their team and their own development. How can you as an athlete avoid the slippery slope of letting your practice and match habits slide or start lagging?

Here are six tips that can help you in this critically important area.

1. Set goals for yourself

This is something the USA women’s national team coaches ask their players to do at their practices. Each player is asked to set a specific goal for each practice.

For example, Jordan Larson’s goal for one recent practice was to pass the ball off the sweet spot of her platform (the area between her wrists and elbows) on average eight out of every 10 serves she received during practice that day. Jordan knows that passing the ball off the sweet spot of her platform consistently is crucial to her success as a serve receiver, so she made it the focus of her goal setting that day.

Goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) help us to keep growing in our skills and understanding of the game. They also keep us focused throughout practice so that we stay motivated and mentally locked in to the task at hand.

2. Analyze your game: what needs to improve?

Goal setting will benefit us most if our goals are tied to the areas of our game that need to get better. To be honest, we all need to get better at every skill.

Even if, say, you’re a great server for your age level, your serve isn’t perfect. It can always improve. Maybe you need to serve more consistently; if you miss one out of every five serves on average, your goal could be to increase your serving percentage from 80 percent accuracy to 90 percent. Perhaps you don’t know how to zone serve; your goal could be to learn how to consistently zone serve to all of the back-row or front-row zones.

Maybe you’re a 12U or 13U player who doesn’t yet serve overhand in matches. Your goal could be to develop a consistent overhand serve between now and the last tournament of the season. Or you’re a 14U or high school player who uses a standing overhand serve but doesn’t yet have a reliable jump float serve. Make mastering the jump float and using it in your next tournament or by your last tournament your practice goal.

Perhaps you serve a jump serve already but only sometimes are able to serve it to specific zones, particularly short zones. There’s a great goal for you to pursue.

3. Choose to be an intentional energy source for your team

The best way to do this is through words of encouragement and affirmation as well as high fives and fist bumps. Watch an NBA game. Professional basketball players exchange high fives and fist bumps with each other throughout every game: as players are subbed out or come in, before and after team huddles, after made and missed free throws, after hustle plays, even throughout pre-game warm-ups.

They do this as a sign of team unity and support and also because studies show that people feed off receiving both verbal and physical affirmation.

Take this approach in your practices. Verbal and physical signs of encouragement will not only keep your teammates and team energized, but you’ll find this will energize you as well.

4. Change up your routine

If you’ve found yourself falling into the same rut for each practice — eating a snack, perusing social media on your phone, changing into your practice gear and then getting in the car to head to practice — change it up to keep things fresh.

For instance, get ready first, then watch a couple of skill videos that Serve City sends to all our athletes each week to motivate you for practice. Write down one goal for that day’s practice that you will seek to accomplish. Drink a protein shake or Gatorade instead of a can of Mountain Dew. Take a 15-minute nap or listen to music while lying on the couch for 15 minutes.

Altering your routine before each practice will keep you refreshed and ready to get after it that evening.

5. Ask a coach for feedback

Talk to your coach before a practice. Ask them what two or three areas of your game you need to especially focus on at practices that week. Your coaches know your game better than anyone. They see you practice and play more than anybody else does. Seek out their input, or read through the mid-season evaluation each coach was supposed to write for their players (or ask them to give you an evaluation).

6. Be the kind of teammate you want others to be to you

When I played basketball in middle school, one of my teammates, named Rodney, was the kind of player that kept everyone on their toes. He wasn’t one of our best shooters or ball-handlers or passers, but what he lacked in scoring ability he more than made up for with his hustle, effort, enthusiasm and determination. His practice energy was off-the-charts good.

Rodney practiced like every practice was the championship game of the league season. Whenever we scrimmaged or ran a drill, he went all out. We’d play a 5 on 5 scrimmage, and whenever there was a loose ball on the floor, you knew Rodney would be the first one to dive for it.

Rodney’s approach to practice was contagious. His teammates soon found themselves practicing with greater energy and focus because of him.

Eventually the whole team was working with his fire and determination, and it wasn’t a coincidence that our team ended up winning the league championship in back-to-back seasons. We simply out-efforted our opponents game after game.

And it all started with how we practiced. Practice the way you want to play. If you want to play with excellence, you have to practice with excellence, no matter how you feel or what time of year it is.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Lessons from the life of #18, Beth Dunlap

by Jeff Smith

I’d never heard of Beth Dunlap until learning the news that the Downers Grove North junior was struck by a car while walking across the street to school the morning of February 19. She tragically passed away three days later.

Serve City boys volleyball players gather during a tournament on Sunday for an 18-second moment of silence in memory of Beth Dunlap.

Serve City boys volleyball players gather during a tournament on Sunday for an 18-second moment of silence in memory of Beth Dunlap.

It’s been hard not to think of her since.

It grips your heart to hear of a young life taken far too soon. One minute Beth is entering a crosswalk near school on a typical day. The next minute the lives of her parents, sister, friends, teachers, classmates and teammates are thrown into chaos by the careless act of an alleged drunk driver.

Beth’s passing hits close to home. My two daughters had so much in common with Beth. They’re two years older than Beth. They both play volleyball like Beth, a DGN and club standout. My younger daughter is a setter like Beth was. They’re churchgoers with a strong faith in God like Beth apparently had. They’re dedicated students like Beth was. They’re devoted to our family just like Beth was a member of a close-knit family.

After reading about Beth’s tragic accident, I prayed for God’s protection over my daughters. I know I can’t keep them safe in this broken world, not by a long shot.

As a girls volleyball director, Beth’s passing made me see Serve City’s girls players in a new frame of mind. We don’t just have 122 female athletes on our 12 teams. We have 122 Beth Dunlaps.

As a parent it’s difficult to imagine the gut-wrenching pain and heartache that Beth’s parents are suffering. I will pray for Randall and Jennifer 18 times this month in honor of Beth’s #18 volleyball jersey and the Beth Dunlap 18 Fund. Beth’s trust fund was established to benefit First United Methodist Church, her church home, and to launch a charitable fund that accomplishes 18 acts of kindness annually in the volleyball community to assist underprivileged volleyball players.

The Dunlaps will desperately need the prayers and support of many people in the weeks, months and, honestly, years to come.

Beth’s passing hit especially close to home for me last Saturday, the day after she died, as I traveled to a volleyball tournament in Marengo. On the way I had to drive near the site where I was thrown out of the shattered back windshield of my car into a field along I-90 after being struck by four different vehicles on a stormy October 5 evening last fall. After that accident I laid unconscious and didn’t regain consciousness for an hour after arriving at Sherman Hospital in Elgin.

A near-death experience changes your perspective. Now, when I think of Beth and the dark valley her family and friends are journeying through, I realize more than ever how fragile life is.

At 10:59 a.m. you’re walking across a street near school, or at 8:59 p.m. you’re driving down a highway heading home from a college volleyball tournament. Then suddenly, in a matter of seconds, you’re lying on the ground unconscious and helpless.

Sadly, Beth didn’t get a chance to recover from the devastating car accident that robbed her life. But even though she is no longer on earth, she still taught me three powerful lessons.

1. Touch lives around you

That’s not easy to do sometimes. Loved ones hurt us. Strangers hurt us. The world hurts us. And, let’s face it, we hurt others. We’re all far from perfect.

But, then you read about the Dunlaps who, even as they cry in agony over an unspeakable tragedy, still decide to set up the Beth Dunlap 18 Fund, donate Beth’s organs to science, commit to raise money for their church and perform acts of kindness so underprivileged kids get the same opportunity to play volleyball that their daughter enjoyed.

Even in the midst of the despair of darkness, the Dunlaps are choosing to shine light.

2. Forgive others

If I were in the Dunlaps’ shoes, I’d want to hold a bitter grudge against the driver whose reckless actions snuffed out their daughter’s life. Unfortunately, as the famous quote says, bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

From everything I’ve read and heard about Beth’s family, I expect they’ll forgive the driver. They won’t ever forget, nor should they, and it will be perhaps the the most daunting task they’ll ever do. But it will be the right thing for them to do for their healing as they move forward with their lives.

If the Dunlaps can forgive something so horrific, so can we forgive others for much lesser pains.

3. Kindness matters

On Monday I was exhausted and cranky after working seven long, draining days, including coaching two tournaments, leading four practices, running a fundraiser, setting up team picture day and organizing Feed My Starving Children on top of regular duties and home responsibilities.

While slumped in my recliner at home, I opened GroupMe on my phone and saw an amazing picture of members of Serve City 14 Blue each displaying #18 on their hands in honor of Beth.

As I looked at the photo, it felt like God was telling me to do something on my own to honor Beth. So I brought cookies for our 12 Blue and 12 Red teams at their practice on Tuesday just to surprise them and did the same for 13 Blue and 13 Red at their practice on Thursday. I invited my daughters to go to a movie with me because I love them so much. I devoted a day to pray for my wife because she means the world to me, and I called my mom Thursday because frankly I owe her everything.

I don’t do random acts of kindness like this very often. I give the credit to #18, Beth Dunlap. Her life inspired our 14 Blue players to pay tribute to her, which motivated me to do the same.

Death may have taken Beth’s last breath, but it can’t stop her life from continuing to impact others for years to come. In fact, she may end up impacting more lives now than she ever did before.

No. 18 walked off the court of life as a winner.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

What should you do after making a mistake on the court? H-A-M it up

by Jeff Smith


At last year’s Diggin’ in the Dells tournament, one of the players on the 18 Blue team went into meltdown mode. She started making one serve receive error after another on the final day of the event. Her passing became so unreliable and her confidence so deflated that I changed the serve receive alignment to hide her in one corner of the court in front of the end line. Eventually I subbed her out to catch her breath and restore her poise.

No amount of encouragement, time off the court or instruction seemed to help her.

I share her story (anonymously) as a stark reminder that volleyball is largely a mental game and to serve as an example that mental mistakes aren’t limited to the youngest players and teams. What players of any age, even collegiately and in the Olympics, think and how they respond to adversity and tense situations makes a monumental difference in how they play.

One of the questions I get asked most often by parents is “How should my daughter handle making mistakes on the court in a match?” It’s a great question.

My response is they should H-A-M it up.

That sounds crazy, and it should! What I’m referring to is an acronym I created for what players should do after they make an error that loses a rally or leads to their team losing the rally. H-A-M stands for:

Huddle up.

We teach our teams to quickly and briefly huddle up after every rally, win or lose. I call it the celebrate or encourage huddle. If your team wins a rally, every player on the court for the team gathers quickly in the middle of their side of the court and celebrates the point. If your team loses a rally, they also gather in the middle of the court, only this time to briefly encourage each other, especially the player or players who made mistakes that led to losing the rally.

Affirm each other.

The player or players who made the mistake that led to losing the rally need a quick word of encouragement and affirmation from their teammates. This sends the message that their teammates have their back and support them through thick and thin and any mistakes they make.

Because let’s face it: We all make mistakes in a match. Every volleyball rally ends in a mistake. If your team serves an ace, the other team lost the point because someone shanked their pass of the serve out of bounds or into the net or they let the serve hit the floor. If your team wins a rally with an attack, the other team lost the rally because a blocker blocked it out of bounds or a back-row player was unable to dig the ball up.

Teams need their players to constantly be affirming their teammates throughout the match and tournament. No mistake should go without a word of affirmation, a high-five, a fist bump, pat on the back or a “Shake it off, we got the next one” type of comment.

Move on.

A phrase I’ve said countless times to countless players and teams over the last 20-plus years is “Good players have bad memories.” Good players realize that dwelling on their mistakes won’t help them play better. In fact, it will lead to them playing worse.

Once a rally ends, all of a player’s focus needs to be on the next point. Dwelling on the past won’t change the outcome of the last rally or the mistake you made. If you need to, take two quick seconds to remind yourself what you should have done on the passing or service or hitting or setting error you made and then shift all of your focus to the next rally.

If you as a player have a difficult time letting go of your mistakes, remember this: Every player makes mistakes. All of your teammates make mistakes. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes.

That doesn’t mean to celebrate mistakes or make light of them. But it does mean to give yourself a helping of grace.

Something I taught an 18U libero I coached was to give herself the latitude to make two passing errors per set. She was a perfectionist who beat herself up over any passing errors she made. I reminded her that libero is the toughest and most demanding back-row position on the court and she would never be able to play a perfect match. I told her to allow herself two passing mistakes for each set. That way, when she shanked an occasional pass in serve receive or dug an attack out of bounds, she mentally realized she had a little extra cash in her bank account so to speak that covered over those mistakes.

My coaching colleagues would probably think that idea was nuts, but it worked with her. She was able to play more relaxed and free knowing she wasn’t expected by her coach or teammates — or now herself — to play perfect volleyball. I ended up teaching the same strategy to a perfectionist 14U libero with similar helpful results.

Another helpful strategy is positive self-talk. For example, before every opponent’s serve Kayla Banwarth, the libero for the U.S. national women’s team, says her phrase of the day in her mind. For one match the phrase she repeated over and over before every serve was “I’m a great passer when I hold my finish to my target.” Hold my finish refers to “freezing” her platform in place for a second after passing the ball, similar to a basketball jump shooter holding her follow-through for a second after releasing her shot.

Whether you’re 12U, 18U or anywhere in between, H-A-M it up on the court this weekend and watch your mental game soar.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

How to keep confidence high when your team is struggling in the win-loss column

by Jeff Smith

Losing a string of matches or the majority of your matches can suck the life out of your team … if you let it.

Fortunately you don’t have to. Here are three ways to keep your team’s confidence and energy high when your team is going through a slump in the win-loss column.

1. Setting and achieving goals outside of the scoreboard

Many times the scoreboard gets too much of a team’s or athlete’s focus. When you simply are playing strictly for the win, it can leave you with a false impression of how you or your team performed when you win and when you lose. For example, you might win a match while not playing as well as you normally do, or you may lose a match but you played one of your best matches of the season.

To avoid putting all your focus on wins and losses, get in the habit of creating goals for yourself or for your team to achieve during a match or tournament. Using different criteria to judge performance can be striving to accomplish a certain goal for a specific area of the game.

For instance, when I substitute coach for one of our coaches at a tournament, I like to set a goal for the team to reach in each match. For one of our teams, I challenged them to get double-digit kills in a match. The nice part of that goal was it required contributions from everyone, not just the hitters. The passers needed to deliver a lot of accurate passes to the setting zone, and the setter needed to consistently deliver hittable balls to the hitters.

Our team’s primary focus in that match wasn’t on the scoreboard but on reaching our goal. That way, if your team is struggling in the win column, it doesn’t tense up from an over-emphasis on winning. It plays loose, relaxed, confident and focused with its energy channeled to its performance, not the final score. Plus, even after a loss, you and your teammates can gain confidence in yourselves because you see yourselves meeting team and individual goals and making progress in your skills and overall play from tournament to tournament.

2. Share one or more positives after each defeat

Losing a match doesn’t mean you or your team had no success or made no strides or positive contributions in the match. In your post-game team huddle, find at least one positive from the team’s performance after each loss and share it with everyone.

If you’re a coach, open the floor during your post-game huddle and ask your players to share two positives from the team’s play and one area where the team needs to grow. The reason you should share two positives and only one negative is so your team gets trained to think positively and to look for the positive in others around them and in themselves.

This is one reason why we end our multi-team (master training) practices by giving out the excellence, relationships (best teammate) and love for the game awards. After spending two practice hours largely working on improving the weaknesses or weaker aspects of our skills, tactics and strategies, we like to close practice focused on and celebrating successes.

3. Never accept unacceptable practice habits or a “what-does-it-matter” attitude

When teams suffer a string of losses or a losing slump, it can become tempting to develop sloppy practice habits caused by a change in attitude. It’s almost akin to giving up on yourself or your team, believing practice no longer matters because “we’re just going to lose anyway.”

Good, dedicated athletes and coaches refuse to let that mindset take hold. They realize that allowing that perspective to creep in will mean they’ll never be able to turn around a losing season and they’ll stop growing as a team and as individual players and coaches. They’ll also lose their love for the game. Instead, they support each other, remain committed to constant development and hold each other accountable to continue pushing, striving, stretching and growing.

And make sure your practices are focused on growth. If your team is struggling in serve receive, spend large portions of practice time working to develop the serve receive skills the team needs to succeed. If your setters are having difficulty executing certain types of sets, work with them on those skills and give them opportunities to practice those skills with lots of game-like repetitions and helpful feedback.

Don’t forget to keep your team’s strengths sharp with regular training as well and to continue stretching your athletes outside their comfort zone so they’ll keep improving in new areas, too.

4. Be a light during darker stretches

Long losing streaks can sap the joy out of athletics if coaches and athletes aren’t careful and intentional. Whether you’re a coach or a player on such a team, commit to being a beacon of hope for your team.

Don’t let your players or your teammates perceive that you’ve lost hope in the team or given up on them as you endure a rough stretch of matches. Be relentlessly optimistic about the next practice, the next match and the next tournament. Find the positives in your team and teammates as you go through a losing streak.

Yes, you will sometimes have to look more closely to find those positives. But the effort is always worth it.

It keeps your team’s and teammates’ spirits up.

It fuels your team to continue competing hard and supporting one another.

It stretches and strengthens you as a coach, a player, a competitor, a teammate and as a leader.

It reveals the kind of character you have.

It lays the groundwork for future success for you and for your team.

I can especially attest to the last statement. A few weeks into the 2017-18 club season I took over coaching one of our 14U teams when their coach resigned. It was an inexperienced squad comprised mostly of first-year club players and even four or five players who had never played competitive volleyball of any kind. We had our share of struggles, occasionally humbling losses, lessons to learn and growing to do, but we kept pressing forward.

At season’s end we advanced to the finals of the power league divisional playoffs, losing to the top seed by two points in the title match even though we were one of the bottom seeds in the tournament. The next weekend the team made the semifinals of a tournament almost exclusively made up of national teams. Capping the season in an upbeat fashion was only possible because team members remained positive in the midst of negative win-loss results.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

4 sports lessons from a friend who left a lasting legacy

by Jeff Smith

A friend of mine whose daughters I coached in seventh and eighth grade about 18 years ago unexpectedly passed away this weekend. I’m still stunned by the news. Ron kept himself in phenomenal shape and was one of the most active people I know. It’s really true that man knows not his time.

Ron’s passing got me thinking about our relationship and the things I learned from him as a sports parent in the early years of my coaching tenure.

1. Support the team and the players

Ron wasn’t the type of sports parent who got on my case about his daughters’ playing time or how I coached them. He never once even talked to me about anything coaching related. I even asked him after we lost in the finals of a tournament if he was scratching his head over any of my coaching decisions, and his reply stuck with me to this day: “I honestly never think about your coaching. I just focus on enjoying watching my daughters and their teammates play. It’s such a blessing to get to be at their games.”

Blessing was a word Ron used often.

Ron was an excellent athlete. He played four years of college basketball. Yet in four years of coaching his daughters I never once heard him question anything I did as a coach even though I certainly was not a perfect coach and made my share of mistakes. He was always supportive and encouraging.

His background as a collegiate athlete helped. He understood how difficult coaching can be. I jokingly call it teaching in a tornado as you find yourself teaching kids while in the pressure cooker of a match or tournament with spectators watching your every move or an intense, important practice the day before a game. I needed and appreciated the slack he gave me as a young coach.

Ron loved watching his girls play. He made it to nearly every event, and I don’t remember him ever berating the referees or me. He was supportive to a fault.

2. Focus on effort and attitude over the scoreboard

As a former college athlete, Ron wasn’t shy about expecting his daughters to always give their best effort in matches or practices. I remember seeing him give his girls a hug after a game and, win or lose, tell them how proud he was of the effort they played with. Occasionally he’d show up after a practice and play for a couple of minutes with one of them so they could get some extra reps in on a particular skill.

His younger daughter’s eighth-grade season, we lost in the finals of our home tournament. The girls played with great energy, but we were just out-classed by a better opponent that day. Sometimes our best simply isn’t good enough, and that’s totally fine.

I felt bad not being able to lead them to the championship, but Ron told me afterwards how proud he was of how the girls played all season and how much he enjoyed watching the team. Seeing us lose didn’t bother him at all. He saw sports as an opportunity to connect with his girls, watch them enjoy athletics and learn valuable life lessons along the way.

Once, when he thought his younger daughter had gotten too frustrated on the court in a game and let her emotions get in the way of her performance, I remember him quietly talk to Sarah off to the side afterwards for maybe 30 seconds to a minute, then walk arm in arm with her out of the gym after a teaching moment with her.

His perspective was refreshing and encouraging.

3. Be thankful

When I coached Ron’s younger daughter our team went on a huge winning streak capped by a championship at a big tournament in Elgin. Ron was one of the first parents to congratulate me after the finals concluded. Yet he was also one of the first parents to encourage me after we lost in the finals of our home tournament that concluded the season. In fact, he thanked me for coaching the team and his daughters probably 50 or more times over four years.

Coaches are hired to do a job, and it’s not necessary for parents to express gratitude to them so often as Ron did. But most coaches truly appreciate the gesture even if some act like it wasn’t needed. Coaching can be a very draining profession, especially working with the younger age levels. You give out a lot of your time and energy and don’t always get much back in return, which can leave you depleted emotionally sometimes.

Ron’s encouragement meant a great deal to me, especially since I had just started coaching in the late 1990s. In a world of givers and takers, Ron was a consistent giver.

4. Support the whole team

I think the quality I remember most about Ron is how he cheered enthusiastically for every player on the team. He didn’t just verbally support his daughters. He cheered just as much for his daughters’ teammates and for the team as a whole. That sent a positive message to all the girls and was a terrific example for the other parents to follow.

He saw volleyball and basketball as team sports where everyone’s contributions were important, not just his daughters, and he treated all the players with dignity and value. His actions helped create a selfless environment at home and away matches where everyone was pulling for the team above all else.

Ron was a special guy. He left an amazing legacy for his kids to build on.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

What to do if my daughter is struggling in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

Volleyball is the most popular girls sport in America.

It’s also one of the most challenging and competitive, in large part because of its phenomenal growth.


For a long list of possible reasons, your daughter could be finding this club season to be difficult for her. Perhaps she’s new to club volleyball, or competitive volleyball. Maybe she’s struggling to learn a new position on the court. She might be learning how to compete at the club volleyball level. She could be fighting to earn playing time on a deep or talented roster or just feeling lost in the shuffle. She might be an introvert on a team of mostly extroverts, or an extrovert on a team of introverts.

Perhaps she is overwhelmed with too many activities in her life or a tougher-than-usual academic schedule or is having a hard time making friends on her team. Maybe she feels her coaches are pulling her too far outside her comfort zone as a player, or not enough. Or she thinks she’s on a team that’s not winning as much as she’d like, or only seems to care about winning, or doesn’t care enough about it.

She might even be struggling to connect with her team’s coach. Perhaps her coach is much different than her, or too much like her, or has a teaching style, temperament or level of expectations that she’s not used to, or is too used to.

The possibilities are seemingly endless … kind of like life in general, if we were honest.

The question remains what to do about it. Here are four pieces of advice to consider. Some will seem painfully obvious to some but not others, but sometimes the simplest answers aren’t always considered.

1. Talk on a deep level with your daughter

If something seems significantly wrong with her, this will likely require a conversation on a deeper level and at a time and location where you know your daughter is more likely to open up. It may even require a series of conversations, heavy on listening and light on solutions from Dad or Mom, to get to the root of the issue. She might not even know what the root cause is. It may take some probing and some nuggets of wisdom from an outside source.

2. Examine the situation objectively together with your daughter

One of my daughters’ former high school teammates had a trying season on her club team last year. The good news was she made the top national team at one of the area’s largest clubs. The bad news was she rarely played in tournaments. She sometimes stood on the sidelines not playing a single point for eight or nine consecutive matches. Ironically, her team finished near the bottom of the Great Lakes Power League 18U standings.

Rather than quit, at some point during the season they talked as a family, studied the situation their daughter found herself in, and concluded together that 1) she had chosen to try out for a larger club’s national team, 2) she had elected to accept their offer to join that team knowing the risks involved with being on a national team and 3) she would stick it out and make the best of the situation for her benefit as an athlete and as a young adult.

That’s just one specific scenario. There are dozens of different situations going on at clubs and school programs all over the country, and not just confined to athletics. But, no matter the circumstance, discussing it as a family, coming to conclusions as a unit and making decisions together can be very helpful to your daughter and to the family as a whole, and even beneficial to her team.

It also can aid in avoiding the temptation to make a rash decision based on emotion, which we’ve probably all done and regretted at some point in our lives.

3. If needed, talk to your daughter’s coach

If steps 1 and 2 above don’t resolve an issue and you realize the circumstance is something that her coach needs to be involved in or aware of, by all means reach out to them. Our coaches are hired to be helpful, and they care about their athletes as players and as people.

A few days ago I reminded our coaching staff to be the kinds of coaches that don’t end up being a player’s last volleyball coach. What that means is coach your athletes in a way that helps them grow in their love for the game, their skills in the game and their understanding of the game.

Three caveats here:

  • If your daughter is ready age-wise and maturity-wise, the best first step may be for her to talk to her coach at practice without a parent in tow. This is especially true for high school athletes.

  • Contact or talk to the coach at least 24 hours after a tournament or practice. Following this 24-hour rule will enable the coach to decompress and re-fill their mental and emotional reserves after what could have been a tough day of matches or a draining practice. Having coached 1,500 games and likely another 10,000 practices, camps and clinics since 1998, I’ve occasionally been contacted an hour or two after a match or training session and simply wasn’t ready to be broadsided by accusations of doing or not doing X, Y or Z to or for one of my players. Conversations held too close after a tournament or practice rarely go well.

  • Assume the best of your daughter’s coach. I know each of this year’s coaches reasonably well. They care about their players. They aren’t in coaching for the money (there’s a reason most of us drive “gas-efficient” used vehicles). They are sincerely trying to do the right thing nearly all the time. Yes, coaches make mistakes. But we all do. If you need to discuss something with your girl’s coach, go in with the perspective that the coach is an ally, not an enemy.

This is especially difficult when the conversation or email exchange comes late at night after a full day of work and practice or a long tournament day. The coach won’t be prepared to thoughtfully respond when the problem is laid at their feet in this situation.

4. Sometimes time and patience is the best option

My younger daughter’s freshman year of high school she made West Chicago High School’s freshman B team. As a coach who knew her game well, I thought the coaches should have assigned her to the A team, but coaches coach and parents parent, and in my role as a parent it was my responsibility to be a supportive dad. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it :).

Making matters worse, Nicki’s coach was a basketball coach who had never coached volleyball before, and she decided to play Nicki as a left-handed middle hitter instead of at her natural position of setter seemingly because Nicki was fairly tall. It was a trying season for Nicki and for my wife and especially me as I watched some interesting matches unfold that season.

As much as I wanted to jump into the fray and improve Nicki’s situation, I “let go and let God” so to speak, praying often about it and staying out of it. It wasn’t a lot of fun for Nicki, but she survived, made a 15U club team, started at setter all club season, then made the sophomore team at West Chicago and started at setter that next fall. A season of playing out of position on a freshman B team didn’t kill her passion for the sport or her future prospects. It was a good life lesson and growth opportunity for her, and for me.

Sometimes circumstances warrant specific action. In other instances, time and patience is the right call to make. If a veteran coach can exhibit patience, there’s hope for us all to do the same :).

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Are coaches human, too?

by Jeff Smith

We were playing arguably the best set of our season, and the scoreboard reflected as much. We led 24-16 and were serving for set point against the top team in our division.

It was all downhill from there.

A service error gave the Chicago Shamrocks the serve trailing 24-17. Nine points, two timeouts to ice the server and eight or nine futile exclamations of "We've got this!" later, the Shamrocks celebrated a 26-24 victory. Even after 20-plus years and over 1,400 games of coaching, dramatic losses like that can't help but shake you up a bit. It's like being offered a sporty new Corvette and then, at the last second, being handed the keys to a 2004 Ford Focus.

But, as I quickly wrote in the service order for the second set, I decided to project the appearance of calm, poise and confidence to the team before the second set began. I told the players not to give the first set a second thought because we had a blank new slate to look forward to in the next set. Play our game and we'll be fine.

Eight points later we trailed 8-0. So much for letting go of the first set.

Anyone who's coached more than two or three seasons can share a similar story from a match. The point I'm making is that coaching isn't for the faint of heart. I've coached 18U, 16U, 15U, 14U on down to 12U teams that have been on both sides of this story line as well as nearly any other possible story line you can think of.

Same with practices. Put a group of 10-14 players together with different personalities, attitudes, temperaments, upbringings, values, ideas, motivations, experience and skill levels, mindsets and even differing events and outcomes to their day prior to arriving in the gym. Unless your team has an amazing practice culture, a lot of unexpected things can take place.

One of the toughest challenges of coaching is trying to figure out how to teach, train, motivate, connect with and reach such a diverse group of players who also each have their own favored learning style. What works for these four players may not work at all for these other four players and only moderately well with those three players. These aren't cookie cutter athletes, and of course there's no such thing as cookie cutter coaches, either.

We're all human.

Ultimately, that's the point. Coaches are human. We make good decisions, and we make mistakes. We celebrate like crazy when our teams excel and sometimes want to cry or cry out when our teams struggle. Sometimes we offer amazing words of wisdom and inspiration to our athletes. Other times all we can muster up in a team huddle is akin to "What was THAT?"

Coaching is a lot like parenting. I've never met a perfect parent or perfect child. If I kept track of every parenting mistake I've made in the last 19 years, I'd be filling up my fourth notebook by now.

Same with coaching. It's a highly pressurized profession. Making matters worse, part of your job is done in public at tournaments and power leagues for all to see you in your glory, or lack thereof. Dozens of sets of eyes are on you scrutinizing your every move and gesture.

A couple of years ago, a team I was coaching was playing in the finals of a tournament at Top Flight. It was the fifth match of the day, and some of the players were tired. Near the end of the match, with the outcome and championship on the line, a softly passed free ball hit the floor between two of our players. The girls just looked at each other. Neither said a word or made a play on the ball.

I was so stunned that I dropped my clipboard. The sound of it clanging on the ground was like an EF Hutton commercial. Everyone's eyes turned to me. All I could do was smile and pick up the clipboard off the floor.

(Afterwards a mom came up to me and said, "That was nothing. If I were in your shoes I would've broken the clipboard over my knee." That made me feel better.)

Last season I was in SCV director mode watching two of our teams compete in a tournament at Fusion. One of our teams frittered away a 23-18 lead, eventually losing 27-25, minutes after dropping a similar lead in the first set. Afterwards their coach came up to me and let off some steam about the team's inability to close out sets this season. I've been in those same shoes, so I could empathize with her.

It's hard. You try X, Y, Z and any other solutions you can think of, and sometimes nothing changes. There's no magic formula to resolve that issue in an instant. At times you just have to guide and encourage your team along the way and let them learn how to deal with late-game situations through good and bad experience.

As a parent, coach and volleyball director, I'd suggest to parents to do three things for your team's coach before the season concludes:

  1. Encourage the coach in some way. An email, kind words before or after a tournament or practice, a surprise plate of cookies, a thank-you note, whatever you feel comfortable doing.

  2. Say something positive about your coach to or in front of your son or daughter. This lets them know you support their coach. That goes a long way with your kids' attitude toward the coach.

  3. Let your child's coach coach. Don't approach them with correction or criticism during or after a tournament. Wait at least 24 hours to contact them. Give them their space. I'm grateful as a parent that other people didn't come up to me when my kids were younger and misbehaving and give me advice on how to better parent them.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

6 things that make every coach smile

by Jeff Smith

It was an unseasonably cold Sunday morning in April when members of my first 18U team slowly sauntered into the gym at McHenry County College about 45 minutes before the squad’s first match of the MCC tournament.

julia conard serve.jpg

None of the girls was smiling as they walked inside, partly because of the gloomy weather outside, partly due to the time of day — 7:15 a.m. is anathema at that age — and partly because four of our 10 players were unavailable to play, including both of our outside hitters, who were our two leaders in kills and two of our best passers.

As a first-year 18U coach who was used to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds, I had no pearls of wisdom for how to inspire this sleepy group. In fact, I could understand why they weren’t looking forward to playing since we only had six players dressed for the tournament.

If I were honest with them, I had no interest in being there, either.

Our meager roster consisted of one 5-foot-2-inch setter, two middle hitters who hadn’t received a serve in the back row all season, one libero who had to move to outside hitter to replace one of our starting outsides, a right-side hitter who had to move to outside hitter to sub for our other missing outside hitter and a 5-foot-1 defensive specialist who had to move to right-side hitter and play in the front row for the first time all season.

This lineup had the looks of a team that would meekly lose three matches and head home early.

But, to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, this motley crew came together, fought hard, dug deep and performed beyond our wildest expectations. The team won its first three matches to take first place in its pool, then swept the semifinals and finals to secure an unlikely championship. Everybody stepped up and played the best volleyball of their season, and the patchwork lineup left the gym wearing smiles that seemed permanently etched on the girls’ faces for our next three practices.

Every time I think of that shocking accomplishment I can’t help but smile myself even though it occurred five years ago. It’s hard not to be filled with pride when a team achieves the seemingly impossible. What those girls pulled off was nothing short of incredible.

As coaches, we can seem too tough, too strict, too serious, too critical and too intense as we strive to create an atmosphere in practices and matches that enables our athletes to learn, grow, refine and thrive. But, beneath that exterior lies a heart that can melt when our players do the amazing — or even take a big step forward as a team or individually.

Here are six things that make coaches smile, even when we wait to smile on the drive home from a practice or tournament.

6. Great achievements together

This is especially true of team accomplishments. Nothing in team sports is more rewarding than achieving something together, whether it’s a goal, a championship, a victory or a milestone. It’s where the power of numbers comes in. A team achievement reminds us that alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.

5. A small step forward

In middle school I coached my two daughters. The summer before one of their middle school seasons they worked for a couple of hours a week trying to master an overhand serve. We would walk over to the local high school so they could practice and practice and practice this skill, pounding one serve after another off the exterior brick wall in the school parking lot. I critiqued their technique over and over, and they kept at it repeatedly but didn’t see any significant progress in June or July. It didn’t look like they’d ever develop this skill.

Then, in mid-August, all those countless hours of grinding started to click, and about a week before the season began they each had their overhand serves down pat. They each served overhand all season and were two of the team’s best standing float servers. Watching them serve overhand in their first match of the season was pure joy for me and for them. The more you invest in something the more you get out of it.

4. Game day

There’s something magical about the day of a match or tournament for coaches. We pour so much time, planning, energy, practice and brain power into our teams that tournaments feel a lot like opening night of a school musical. The wait is finally over. After all the dress rehearsals (practices) we as a team get to perform for a live audience. It’s why we practice for hours a week, to “take the stage” and give a performance, hoping to nail every “line” we’ve practiced and shine on the court.

3. Seeing our team become a family

One year I was coaching a 15s team that struggled to put matches away. We would build a sizable lead, then slowly squander it. It was as if the girls didn’t trust each other in tight situations. They would grow quiet and stop encouraging one another.

It was a habit that had to stop.

In a late-season tournament, we built another large lead and then as usual started to make one inexplicable error after another, an all-too-familiar script.

Finally I called timeout, purposely didn’t speak for a few seconds, then told the girls this was a test of our character as a team and as individuals. Would we revert to our old habits again and play like six individuals, or would we band together and fight the rest of the match as a supportive and united team that believes in each other?

I honestly wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my challenge.

To my utter relief, they supported each other like never before, encouraging each other, picking up their energy, refusing to give up, digging deep and battling their way to a close and thrilling victory.

It was a defining moment for us.

Afterwards, they didn’t want to leave the facility. It was such a rewarding and bonding experience to go through together that they wanted to savor the moment and just hang out as a team. They now saw each other in a new light as true teammates and not just people they played a game with.

Great teams become like a family to one another. You go through so much adversity and clear so many hurdles together that it can’t help but bring you closer to your teammates and coach.

It’s such a satisfying feeling knowing you’re part of a team where everyone has your back and gives you their full support through good times and bad, through your great plays and mistakes.

2. Helping a player overcome one of life’s challenges

As a coach you don’t realize how much you care about your players until something life-threatening happens to one of them. Three years ago I was coaching a 14U team for Serve City when I got a call from one of the girls’ moms telling me that one of the players was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain the night before a tournament. She went into surgery when the doctors discovered her appendix had ruptured. They caught the appendicitis just in time; if they had to wait a couple of more hours, it would have burst and put her life at serious risk.

Lainey had a slow road to recovery. A few weeks after the surgery the doctors allowed her to attend one of our tournaments in street clothes. It was a tournament in Rockford and we had only six players in uniform due to illness, vacations and Lainey’s surgery. But Lainey dutifully cheered on the team from the sidelines and took stats as well. Her mere presence back with our squad inspired her teammates, who won six straight matches on a long, grueling but ultimately satisfying day to secure the championship.

Afterwards, as the girls’ parents began snapping photos of the kids with their first-place medals, the players made sure that Lainey was included in every picture. In fact, they positioned her in the middle of each team photo. She didn’t play a single point that day, but the whole experience was perhaps more important to Lainey than it was to anyone else.

1. When an unsung hero emerges

Most coaches don’t play favorites. But even the most die-hard coach will admit that it is especially gratifying to win a game on the heels of an unlikely player’s contributions.

In the state private school tournament a few years ago, our eighth-grade team led 24-23 in the third set of the third-place match when the team’s smallest player was due up to serve. Jess was 4 feet 8 and probably weighed 60 pounds. She looked like a fifth-grader on the court size-wise, and she had to use every ounce of her tiny frame to pound her standing float serve over the net.

But there was no one I wanted serving match point at Lincoln Land Community College that day than her. Jess was probably our most mentally tough player, and she deserved this moment for all the hard work she had poured into developing her serve and her back-row skills. At her diminutive size, Jess never got to experience the sensation of a front-row kill or block that brought the crowd to its feet. She was a back-row player who did the grunt work of passing and digging balls to our setters so they could set up our hitters for the more glamorous roles on the team.

So, when she delivered an ace to clinch the match, everyone was thrilled for her. Seeing Jess get to enjoy the spotlight for her accomplishment made the victory that much more rewarding.

That’s one of the aspects of volleyball that I relish the most, seeing an underdog soak up the limelight. It’s why many coaches hold a special place in their hearts for the underdogs on their teams — whether it’s a small DS or libero or a front-row player who has finally discovered a sport where she can excel and find a home.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Anatomy of a Great Teammate

by Jeff Smith

best teammate ever.jpg

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.

Three new year’s resolutions for Serve City players

by Jeff Smith

After taking three weeks off from volleyball over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Serve City’s teams hit the ground running in January. In fact, after just two practices the week of Jan. 7-11, some of our teams begin power league play as early as Jan. 12-13.

The period of January 7 to April 14 will be an intense and exciting three-month stretch for our athletes. Our teams will play 8-10 tournaments while practicing eight times a month.

What will be the key to our athletes getting the most out of this 12-week roller-coaster of activity? In a way, setting new year’s resolutions would be a huge advantage to them. Just as people establish new year’s resolutions for getting physically fit, accomplishing specific goals and making important lifestyle changes, new year’s resolutions for Serve City players would give them the focus, planning and goal-setting they need to make the most out of the heart of their club season.

Here are three new year’s resolutions that Serve City players could adopt as their own — or craft or tweak to meet their own unique situations — in 2019:

1. In 2019, I will learn or master this new skill: __________.

Personal growth doesn’t usually happen without setting goals and then creating plans to achieve those goals. Players will benefit from this approach. Decide what skill(s) you’d love to learn the rest of the season, tell your coach what you’d like to learn and work together to create a plan of action to reach this goal.

If you’re a 12U or 13U player who isn’t yet overhand serving in matches, developing a consistent standing float serve might be your goal. Or maybe you want to become a jump float server. Or you’re a 15U or 16U setter who wants to begin jump setting when receiving 3-point passes. Or you’re a 16U or 18U middle hitter who would like to master front slides and back slides. Or you’re a 13U or 14U outside hitter who wants to learn and use a 3-step jump hitting approach to start jump hitting. Or you’re a 16U or 18U back-row player who’d love to learn new digging techniques.

Dream big, stretch your vision, set some goals, create plans and get to work.

This same approach could be applied to learning a new position (right-side hitter, setter, libero, middle hitter …) or learning how to play in a new system (our 13U teams are learning how to run a 6-2 back-row setter system, and our 12U teams are learning how to run a 4-2 front-row setter system).

2. In 2019, I will make myself into a better practice player by ________________.

There is no such thing as a perfect volleyball player, or a perfect practice player. Every athlete can improve their practice habits. By improving their practice habits, players will then be developing better skills and growing in their understanding of their team’s tactics and strategies.

If you’re a Serve City player, examine your practice habits and decide what you will do to become a better practice player. If you don’t think you can objectively rate your practice habits, ask your coach for their feedback on your practice habits and how you can specifically grow.

Here are some ideas to get you into self-examination mode:

  • Arrive 10 minutes early for each practice.

  • Be your team’s hardest-working player at each practice.

  • Break the habit of skipping practice when I don’t feel like training.

  • Get more repetitions (touches on the ball) in your team’s drills.

  • Develop into a better listener when coaches are explaining drills and games.

  • Spend less time talking to teammates during drills and games.

  • Regularly give encouragement and affirmation to teammates throughout each practice.

  • Be more intentional about putting your coaches’ teaching into practice. (If Coach says to assume a low and athletic posture during a defensive passing drill, intentionally work on honing that posture as you perform the drill instead of taking the easy way out and assuming a standing posture.)

3. In 2019, I will develop a growth mindset in the area of ___________.

A growth mindset is the belief that, with dedication, hard work and teaching, players can learn just about anything in their sport. Some players struggle with a fixed mindset — the belief that they have specific talents that only allow them to do well in specific areas of the game. For example, a tall middle hitter may believe she can only help her team by blocking and hitting, but she can’t develop the ability to play in the back row, set a teammate when out of system or jump serve.

Is there an area of your game where you have a fixed mindset? Perhaps you’re a small 12U player who doesn’t think she can learn to overhand serve. Or a 13U player who struggles with jump hitting. Or a 14U player who’s never jump served in a match before. Or a 15U setter who hasn’t mastered back sets or quick setting. Or a 16U or 18U hitter who doesn’t know how to hit faster-tempo sets. Or an 18U or 16U blocker who rarely registers a block touch in practices or matches when swing blocking. Or a libero or DS who struggles to deliver out-of-system bump sets.

In 2019, commit yourself to practicing a growth mindset in whatever area you choose. Train with the belief that, over time and commitment, you’ll learn this new skill. And whenever you attempt and fail at this skill, avoid the temptation to self-consciously laugh it off and not try it again or feel embarrassed about it.

If you’re not making mistakes in practice, it means you’re not stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. It’s OK to “fail.” Just shrug it off and give it another go. And another. And another. You’ll get it eventually if you refuse to accept failure and commit to practicing relentlessly. I know you will.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Discipline: the biggest key to succeeding in volleyball

by Jeff Smith


Assistant coaching with Wheaton College’s women’s volleyball program this fall taught me several valuable lessons. As impressed as I was to see a talented collection of 18- to 22-year-old athletes from across the country not only on Wheaton’s roster but playing for the opponents they faced last season, one of the biggest lessons learned was the critical importance of discipline.

Discipline was particularly valuable in:

1) helping the athletes earn the opportunity to play collegiately (only 5.8 percent of four-year high school volleyball players even receive a spot on a college roster)
2) getting the athletes ready to make a difference on their college team
3) preparing teams to win at the collegiate level

In short, discipline may be the most crucial quality that an athlete must possess to reach the college level, earn playing time collegiately and to excel on the collegiate court. Discipline is equally vital for any team and any athlete that wants to be successful. Winning college matches takes tremendous hard work, planning, preparation, grit, skill and determination — all of which are fueled by discipline. The same is true at the high school varsity and upper club levels.

The discipline I’m referring to goes by another, simpler name: good habits. Good habits are the key to achieving excellence in our skills and understanding of the game. Without good habits (discipline), talent gets wasted and never reaches its full potential.

As a famed quote teaches: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Another quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better." The key word is always. Disciplined athletes consistently and always strive to do better.

Always striving to do better is about developing and practicing good habits — or discipline.

In club volleyball and specifically in the gym at Serve City, what does discipline look like?

1. Taking technical skill development seriously, and striving to continually improve and sharpen our skills in practice. Developing a fundamentally sound skill set is vital to long-term success in our sport. This kind of development requires discipline; it takes countless hours to hone your skills and expand your volleyball IQ without getting discouraged at the lengthy process this entails so that you can thrive on the court.

2. Getting to practices on time (even early -- if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time) so you can use your team's full practice time wisely. I still vividly remember attending a team's practice in an earlier season as a guest coach and watching as most of the players arrived between five and 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to start, then took another five to 10 minutes to change into their knee pads and volleyball shoes. Not surprisingly, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.

3. Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and 2018. Stanford has attained a level of success in the sport that only two other college programs have come close to achieving. One of the hallmarks of the program is its attention to detail. The coaches and players work diligently on every detail during training.

The spring before the Cardinal's 2016 national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from their zone 1 to the deep corner of zone 5 in every training session involving serve receive. Their goal was for the players to become so adept at serving deep zone 5 that, when the fall season began, they would serve teams out of system with this one simple strategy.

Their plan worked; Stanford was one of the top serving teams in the nation that season and used outstanding serving to drive the team all the way to the NCAA championship.

4. Practicing with passion. This refers to the level of energy the players pour into training. Do you compete in each drill with competitive zeal? Are you fully engaged in every aspect of practice? Do you approach practice with the same drive that you demonstrate when playing in the playoffs of a weekend tournament? Do you “practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice"?

5. Taking care of your body. Proper sleep, a healthy diet, plenty of fluids and regular fitness and exercise are instrumental to preparing our bodies to be at peak levels of performance in practices and matches. We can't expect to be at our best if we don't properly care for ourselves. How we treat our bodies before a tournament also says a lot about our level of commitment to our team.

6. Maintaining the right conduct on the court. Studies show that our mental approach to competition has a large bearing on our performance as athletes. Keeping an upbeat mental attitude, delivering positive verbal affirmation and words of encouragement to teammates and maintaining confident body language and tone of voice on the court are crucial to success. All of these traits take discipline to incorporate into our on-court demeanor.

7. Successfully riding the highs and lows that come with sports competition. Wild swings of momentum are common in volleyball. One minute your team has a 12-3 lead. The next minute your opponent has tied the set at 14-14. Discipline is essential to having the poise, confidence and grit to overcome the many challenges thrown our way in this sport. It takes practice to develop the habits necessary to be able to weather any storm on the court, from your team playing shorthanded one day to falling quickly behind and needing to rally from a large deficit.

8. Training when you don't feel your best. This doesn't mean coming to practice with a 103-degree fever. But it does refer to pushing through the minor aches, pains and illnesses that lesser athletes lean on as excuses to avoid practicing and instead showing up to practice ready to get "3-percent better" even when we don't feel like training.

Individual improvement is largely a choice. We can either choose to only practice when we feel great and miss out on opportunities to truly grow, or we can commit ourselves to the process of player development even on those days when we're sore, tired, less motivated or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline. Like a muscle, discipline develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.

What your daughter should do after club season ends

by Jeff Smith

Good food for thought. When it comes to coaching feedback, which of these three types of players are you?

Good food for thought. When it comes to coaching feedback, which of these three types of players are you?

For most of our 12 girls club teams, the 2017-18 volleyball season ends in April. The school season doesn't begin until the second week of August or, for some schools, as late as early September, giving athletes a break lasting anywhere from 3 1/2 to five months between seasons.

What should your daughter do with so much time off? Here are five suggestions:

1. Thank her coach, teammates and parents for the club season.

The club season is a huge commitment of time and energy for coaches and athletes and finances for parents. As a club director, coach and father, I believe parents should encourage their children to express gratitude to their coach and teammates for everything they did to make their season an enjoyable success.

  • Coaches pour countless hours of their time into your kids through their practice planning, coaches' education, teaching, individual and team feedback, lineup construction, team and parent communication, in-game coaching, team building, training opportunities, encouragement of each player and mid-season and postseason evaluations, among other responsibilities. If it were up to me, every Serve City coach would receive a note of thanks from each athlete and parent with their team.
  • Teammates make a difference through their own dedication at practices and tournaments and how they push, challenge and encourage one another to learn and grow and build relationships with your daughter.

2. Take some time off from volleyball.

The best antidote to protecting against burnout on volleyball is to take a break from the sport. My own daughters don't play volleyball from late April till early June, when they begin sand volleyball season. This six-week break re-energizes their love for the game while allowing any lingering hurts or injuries to heal up. This is especially beneficial for my libero daughter, whose legs and knees are covered in bruises from dives and digs by the end of club season.

3. Set goals for the summer and fall.

Setting goals will help drive your daughter's summer volleyball plans.

Is she going to be trying out for the freshman team at her high school? She may need to play in two or three summer camps geared to teaching the skills she'll need to excel at in tryouts, such as setting if she wants to be a setter or hitting, serving and serve receiving if she wants to be an outside hitter.

Is she going to be trying out for the seventh-grade team at her middle school? She might need to work on her all-around skills at a summer camp or sand volleyball program.

Is she going to try out for her high school varsity team? Maybe she needs to take part in an intense overnight college camp that will teach her high-level skills and extend her outside her comfort zone.

4. Play volleyball this summer.

The best teacher of the game of volleyball is the game of volleyball. Playing dozens and even hundreds of hours of volleyball this summer is the best route for your daughter to develop her skills and understanding of the game. Sand doubles, grass court triples and quads, games of 6 on 6 -- the more competitive volleyball your daughter can play this summer the more she will grow as a player.

5. Hit the sand.

When University of Nebraska coach John Cook wanted to take his program to the next level a few years ago, the most significant change he made was training his players in the sand during their spring training season. Cook quickly saw several immediate improvements in his players from their two months of sand training:

  • Improved all-around skills
  • Higher and quicker leaping ability
  • Better quickness to the ball
  • More explosive jumping and blocking
  • Greater confidence on the court
  • Stronger serve receiving and defensive play
  • Improved reading and anticipation skills

Besides being an exciting sport in and of itself, sand volleyball is a great complement to the indoor game. Training this summer with Chicago Sand Volleyball or another program will sharpen your daughter's skills, improve her athleticism and develop her all-around game more than a couple of week-long camps or two-day clinics. Throw in participation in two or three sand tournaments and your daughter will see her game soar in the sand in a mere eight-week-long investment.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

10 lessons learned from 20 years of coaching

by Jeff Smith

It's funny how birthdays make you reflective, especially milestone days like the big 5-0. (Guess I've officially passed middle age.)

One of my favorite sports quotes.

One of my favorite sports quotes.

Today I found myself looking back at two decades and nearly 60 seasons as a coach as the calendar indicated I was another year older (and hopefully a little bit wiser). Coaching has taught me countless competitive and life lessons through nearly 1,500 games, a few thousand practices and hundreds of camp dates, clinics and private lessons. Wisdom gained is only of any worth if it's shared with others, so here are 10 of the many truths I've learned over the years from the sidelines.

10. Body language and attitude matter

Watch the most successful teams on the court and sidelines. They all have a certain "look" about them. Their body language exudes confidence and determination. No matter the situation, they look poised and have the appearance of an unflappable team that believes deeply in one another. (The "eye of the tiger" as the Rocky movies put it.) Their body language remains confident, even when they're behind on the scoreboard. Their body language and attitude makes a difference -- within the team and in what their opponent sees from the other side of the net.

9. Be physically loose and mentally tight

The most successful teams master the delicate balance between playing loose and free yet with laser-like focus on the task at hand. It's a difficult tightrope for some teams to learn to walk, but those that do perform at or near their best most consistently.

8. Matches and tournaments are mostly won in the practice gym

From coaching an 18U national team through to fifth and sixth grade, the strongest teams I've been around were also the hardest-working teams in practice. In fact, I've never coached a successful team that wasn't a fantastic practice team. The worst team record-wise that I've coached was, ironically, the worst practice team I've coached. Practice the way you want to play rings loudly with truth.

As a coaching colleague once told me, practices should be so competitive, productive and challenging that games seem easy by comparison because your team is so well prepared for anything it faces in a match or tournament.

7. Physical touch brings your team together and makes them play better

I can't back this up with scientific research, but I've found that having my players high-five, fist-bump, pat each on the back and huddle up with their arms around one another collectively produces a closer-knit, tighter squad that supports each other. It's one reason why I give my players a fist bump whenever they come off the court in a match. That physical connection communicates encouragement, support and unity, that we're in this together.

6. Coaches need encouragement, too

I don't think it's a coincidence that my greatest coaching seasons occurred when I received the most encouragement, gratitude and support from players, their parents and fellow staff. Coaching can be a very draining profession. Like teachers, coaches spend most of their time pouring into their athletes and not getting poured into. It's like constantly drawing money out of a bank account; you also need to make deposits into the account or else the account will eventually run dry.

Parents and players who recognize this reality and pour into their coaches keep those coaches constantly filled up so they can coach out of a full account and not an over-drawn one.

5. Athletes respond best to guided discovery

As a journalism major and former news and sports reporter, I was taught the power of asking questions to draw people out and to guide them to discover solutions to problems. There is a time and place for telling players what they need to do to be successful. But the art of guided discovery makes a greater impact with the players on your team.

Last Sunday I substitute coached one of our 16U teams. After winning our first match of the day, we built a seemingly insurmountable lead in our second match before tightening up and squandering a late 9-point edge, eventually losing 28-26. In our huddle afterwards I could've lectured the team about what we did wrong and what we need to do to get back on track. But the players had a sense of what needed to happen. All I had to do was ask a couple of guided questions and they figured out the rest on their own. They then promptly changed their mindset, went out and won the next two sets, including a 26-24 nail-biter, to close out the tournament in style.

4. End every practice on an upbeat note

I've broken this rule from time to time, but by and large I've learned through experience that, to keep your team looking forward to practices and maintain a high level of enthusiasm, athletes -- especially girls, in my opinion -- need to walk out of the gym after a challenging practice with a strong sense of community, positive energy and feeling valued.

This is one reason why I end each practice playing a short, fast-paced game like a form of queen of the court or a team-building activity followed by a post-practice huddle where I give two or three players the hustle award and best attitude award for that practice. These two traditions provide positive reinforcement, camaraderie, high-energy fun and affirmation, qualities that every athlete needs.

3. You can't coach every athlete the same way

This is where a degree in psychology would come in handy for a coach. Each athlete you work with is their own unique self. In some respects you have to coach all your players the same way, but you do have to tailor your individual coaching to each athlete.

That's why I support coaches coaching the same group of players for two or three years in a row. I even coached some athletes for 4-5 years back when I coached at a school earlier in my career. This gave me the opportunity to really get to know my players well and learn what makes them tick and how to best motivate and teach them, something that is difficult to do in one short school or club season.

2. The most successful teams are like families

This is a universal truth covering both girls and guys teams. The closer knit a team is, the better it generally plays on the court. It's more supportive of one another through challenges and adversity. It pushes each other more enthusiastically in practices. And it looks forward to practicing and competing together, motivating one another to play and give their best each day. Fostering an environment of friendship and support is critical to a team's success.

1b. Athletes read their coach like a book

Several years ago, I was coaching a team in a private school state tournament quarterfinal match against the defending state champs. In front of a packed gym, our team started slowly, falling behind 10-2 early. The girls were overcome by nerves and made one tentative mistake after another. One player even began crying on the court. I got frustrated, called a timeout and chastised the team for the entire huddle. My frustration was evident in my body language, tone of voice and the words I spoke. Our team left the huddle and continued our downward slide, eventually losing meekly in two sets.

Lesson learned.

A year later, in the exact same situation as the prior season, our team struggled with nerves again in front of a raucous audience. This time I focused on projecting a sense of calm, confidence and enthusiasm, which isn't easy for us as coaches when our teams are in meltdown mode on the court. I cracked a joke in one timeout and told the players to embrace the moment, how much fun it was to get the chance to play in an important match like this, and to focus on having fun and celebrating like crazy every time we won a rally.

The team fed off my poise and positive energy, went on a huge run that stunned our opponent and rallied to win in three tight sets. Poise and positivity won the day.

1a. Coaches can't control everything

The most recent lesson I've learned is that, no matter how many different buttons I try to push, many times the coach has very little impact on how their players fare on the court. Recently a team I was coaching blew a 9-point lead and lost by two points in spite of my best efforts. I used my timeouts at seemingly just the right time. I projected confidence and belief in the team. I offered changes in strategy for how to counteract what the opponent was doing. I exhibited poise on the sidelines, even as we made one unforced error after another.

None of it mattered. Coaches do make a positive difference with their mindset, mentality and actions, but in the end it's a players' game. Ultimately the match is decided on the court, not the sidelines. We're the supporting actors in this play, not the lead characters. And that's the way it should be. The players should be in the spotlight, another lesson learned over 20 years.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.