youth sports

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.

You are what you think: the mental side of volleyball

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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.

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.

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

by Jeff Smith

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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.

5 reasons why middle school students should play multiple sports

by Jeff Smith

It will sound odd hearing a club volleyball director promote the benefits of multi-sport participation over specialization. Shouldn’t directors demand playing nothing but volleyball 12 months a year?

But I firmly believe that every middle-school student should play more than one sport before they reach high school. Once they hit ninth grade, specialization makes sense but not for the middle-school years.

It’s one reason why Serve City’s practice attendance policy excuses absences caused by a conflicting sporting event. We especially encourage middle-school athletes to play other sports outside of the club volleyball season, such as during the summer when kids have the most free time.

My family practiced this philosophy. My older daughter played volleyball, basketball and track in middle school. My younger daughter participated in volleyball and basketball.

Multi-sport participation didn’t hurt either of them. Both played volleyball collegiately this season as freshmen. Playing volleyball in club, school and sand over the years helped their games, but playing two or three sports in middle school also played a key role in their development in the long run.

Playing club volleyball for four to six months while sprinkling in an eight- or nine-week school or park district sports season (or an individual sport like taekwondo, which I thoroughly enjoyed) before or after club, or even during club season if the schedules complement each other, also helps kids learn lifelong skills like time management, work ethic and self-discipline.

Here are five reasons why participating in multiple sports at the fifth- to eighth-grade level is good for your daughter.

1. Insurance against burnout

Playing multiple sports decreases the likelihood of emotional burnout. Playing only one sport during the middle-school years creates the risk of getting tired of that sport, particularly when you add in the pressures of heightened expectations, costs and travel associated with specialization. Variety is the spice of life that keeps sports fresh, fun and interesting for middle-school students.

I also consider sand volleyball a different sport from indoor volleyball. The rules, format, playing surface, weather conditions and many of the skills are significantly different from each other. Coaching sand volleyball the last five years, I’ve seen sand volleyball instill a deeper love for indoor volleyball and competition in general in numerous sand athletes.

2. Protection against injuries from overuse

The biggest enemy of younger athletes’ bodies is overuse. Too many repetitions of the same movements combined with inadequate recovery time and rest — typically seen in year-round travel sports like baseball with pitchers’ arm troubles, basketball with knee, ankle and foot injuries and gymnasts with leg, feet and shoulder issues — produces overuse injuries.

Various studies report that participating in multiple sports improves not only skill development but motor and muscle development as well as strength, agility, speed and balance, all of which contribute to a healthier, more resilient body.

3. Exposure to a variety of coaching and training styles

It’s understandable when a parent or child wants a certain coach to train their daughter year after year if their daughter likes the coach’s teaching style, temperament or personality. The problem is having the same coach for years on end doesn’t help the athlete for the long term.

Being exposed to different coaches from season to season or year to year will stretch and grow your daughter athletically, emotionally and in other ways. A range of different coaches in different sports will introduce her to different styles of communication, different training approaches, different coaching styles and different athletic philosophies and emphases.

Having the same coach, and in only one sport, limits what an athlete can learn, even in terms of the coaching approach to winning, competing and training to compete and win.

Participating in multiple sports also gives kids a chance to learn the benefits of different training styles. Soccer teams train differently than volleyball teams, which train different than gymnasts, who train differently than basketball players and cross country runners. Multi-sport participation unlocks the door to learning different ways to condition, strengthen and enhance our athletic bodies.

And each sport’s training style trains different muscle groups, which will increase your daughter’s athleticism, and that benefits her performance in every sport she plays.

4. All-around athletic development

At a Wheaton College volleyball practice last fall, as the players lumbered slowly on the court during a running warm-up drill, our head coach turned to me and jokingly whispered, “They run like volleyball players, don’t they?”

What she was referring to is the truth that athletes who only play volleyball tend to be slow runners. Volleyball is an anaerobic sport that requires quickness to the ball on the court in short bursts (fast-twitch muscles, for instance) but not sprinter’s speed over longer distances.

But that’s not to say volleyball players don’t benefit from specific athletic skills that can be acquired by training in other sports. For example:

  • Basketball can improve a volleyball player’s quickness, footwork, quick leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.

  • Track can help an athlete develop stronger legs for maintaining a low, athletic passing and digging posture.

  • Soccer can improve a volleyball player’s spatial awareness and assertiveness to the ball.

  • Gymnastics can make a volleyball athlete more limber and explosive to the ball.

  • Softball can teach overhand throwing mechanics to help players serve and hit effectively.

And the list goes on.

5. Relationships with a range of kids and sports

As someone who’s coached and played several sports, including basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and baseball, I’ve learned that each sport has a culture and climate of its own. Swimming kids are different as a whole from volleyball kids, who are different from figure skating kids, who are different from track kids, who are different from taekwondo kids, who are different from football and soccer kids.

Each sport has its own dynamics, its own rhythm, its own training style and its own personality. Walk in a gym, pool center or stadium for a practice or competition and within a few minutes you notice this right away.

Middle-school athletes reap the rewards of taking part in various sports. They learn different styles of training, conditioning and competing, and they benefit from building relationships with a range of different kinds of athletes their age. They also gain a variety of teammate experiences, interactions and memories with different kinds of peers while stretching their social circle.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Discipline: the biggest key to succeeding in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

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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.

How to Help kids Prepare for Tryouts.png

Knee pads? Check. Volleyball shoes? Check. Calm state of mind? Umm …

When helping youth athletes prepare for volleyball tryouts, parents and coaches typically focus on the basics – wear the right gear, warm up, execute the drill – and often overlook mental preparation.

But for young volleyball players, mentally preparing for tryouts can be the difference between making the team or being left off a roster.

These tips can help kids get into the right state of mind for tryouts.

Quiet the anxieties

The pressure that youth volleyball players put on themselves to perform well during tryouts can result in added stress and anxiety.

Dr. Justin Anderson of Premier Sport Psychology said it’s normal for kids to have some anxiety during tryouts.

“Anxiety isn’t a bad thing,” Anderson said. “It’s your body getting ready.”

The challenge is for athletes to learn to control the anxiety and not let it hinder their performance.

“We help them realize there are strategies for how to manage the escalations,” Anderson said.

One tactic Anderson recommends is a breathing technique. He instructs athletes to take a 10-second breath (five-second inhale, five-second exhale) to help slow down their heart rate and get into a calm state. If an athlete is feeling stress before a serving drill, for example, he or she can take a few moments to perform the breathing exercise before it’s their turn at the line.

Anderson also works with athletes to help divert their attention when needed. He teaches athletes that they can shift their attention from one thing to another to improve their mental state. At tryouts, athletes are focusing on whether or not they will make the volleyball team. Coaches and parents can help them calm themselves by diverting their attention to something else, such as a specific drill or exercise. Instead of letting a visibly anxious player spend time at the back of the gym counting how many athletes are competing for a roster spot, engage the player in conversation about how to perform the upcoming digging drill, or walk through hitting footwork to help take the athlete’s mind off the stress that tryouts can often bring.

Keep perspective

Anderson states youth athletes may think their entire identity is tied to their connection to a sports team. Young players might only see themselves as volleyball players and base their identity on being part of the volleyball club. That could be where they met their friends and their main source of both physical and social activity.

For these athletes, it’s important to help them keep perspective as they head into tryouts. They need to see there are options outside of this particular volleyball team in case they don’t make the roster.

Anderson recommends coaches and directors be upfront with athletes at the beginning of evaluations. Telling kids there will be cuts, and then giving them options of other volleyball teams or leagues they can join, can help kids understand their volleyball career doesn’t have to end after tryouts. Provide the kids with a list of community volleyball camps or instructional leagues they could potentially join if they don’t make the club.

Anderson said parents can help kids by teaching them how to cope with the results if they don’t make the team. Together they can create a path to join a new volleyball league, figure out a way to improve for next year or even try a new sport or activity.

Be confident in yourself

It’s natural to watch other competitors at tryouts, but this can risk hurting a player’s confidence. If a young volleyball player is focusing on how well other athletes are performing, they might lose assurance in their own abilities.

Instead, athletes need to stay in their bubble and only focus on what they can control – their own performance. Players should try to only think about the drills and techniques they need to execute and how to do them to the best of their ability.

Helping youth realize they can’t control how everyone else does, only their own performance, can help ease some of the stress they might be feeling.

Acknowledge the fear

Some volleyball players can benefit from simply talking through pre-tryouts stress with a parent, coach or other confidants.

Players can feel at-ease by discussing any fears they might have heading into the evaluation session and getting honest feedback from a trusted resource that they can use throughout tryouts. Maybe they are worried about their serve and they just need someone to listen to them explain why they are stressed about the serving drills. That alone can help alleviate some anxiety.

Physically prepare to help calm the mind

Practicing regularly before tryouts can help calm the minds of youth athletes.

Coming into tryouts prepared can help the player feel more confident during evaluations. If they know they’ve practiced and prepped to the best of their ability, then they can enter tryouts feeling assured and fearless.

Author Bio: Chris Knutson is co-founder of TeamGenius, a leading player evaluation software that helps youth sports organizations by streamlining tryouts and player evaluations.

Parents: Savor your child's volleyball experience before it's too late

by Jeff Smith

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Last weekend marked another milestone passed for my wife and me and our two daughters. On Sunday our girls competed in their final Windy City Power League matches. They each played in the power league for three years and a combined 100 matches or so. They're both high school seniors, and their final club season is nearing an end. Two more tournaments in April and their club volleyball careers will be over.

It feels like time is flying by. High school graduation is seven weeks away. The girls' final high school volleyball seasons zipped past us last fall even more quickly. College and adulthood are on our doorstep and with it the conflicting emotions of pride and mourning.

As match point concluded and our daughters' team lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs, the loss felt different than past defeats. It was like losing more than a match but a part of their childhood. As a family we would discuss their power league matches afterwards and look ahead to who they played next. Now there's no more looking ahead to the next match or the next season. The girls are both likely going to play in college in the fall, but at separate schools and separate areas and probably coming off the bench or not playing at all as freshmen.

It won't be the same again. And my wife and I can't rewind the tape and relive it all, as much as we'd love to.

As I looked through photos and video clips my wife took during the power league playoffs, I thought about parents whose kids have next club season and next school season to look forward to. It's easy to get caught up in the mindset that there will "always" be a next season with their son or daughter and to take their participation for granted.

But the reality is their child's volleyball run will end someday, too, and with it the pride they feel as they watch their child on the court. As a volleyball director, as a coach and as a journalist by trade who was trained to observe people, I can't help but notice a lot of parents who spectate as if watching their daughter play match after match at a tournament is a chore and grind and not a privilege or blessing. Their son or daughter makes a good play and they either passively react to it or don't notice it at all because they were busy checking messages on their phone or embroiled in a conversation about something else.

Or they weren't there at all, and haven't been to more than one tournament all season, a fact that their kids do notice and that does pain them.

As a parent, I understand it's not easy to stay engaged in every match. We're tired after having to get up at 5 a.m. to get ready and drive our daughter to the tournament. We all have jobs, homes, family responsibilities, bills to pay and problems to solve in our lives. Sometimes our kids are struggling on the court. Sometimes we feel pulled in multiple directions with Johnny playing basketball in Wheeling and Sally attending music practice in Wheaton, too. Other times we have a litany of worries on our mind, and all of which are legitimate concerns needing real answers, and now.

Been there and done that. Being a parent is a never-ending challenge. It takes guts and grit.

Still, at the end of the day, to those parents I'd say be careful because the time does fly by quickly. One day you'll walk out of the gym for the last time with your child's volleyball career finished. That's when it will hit you:

  • No more matches where you get to cheer on your daughter and her teammates and enjoy watching them do something they love.
  • No more discussions about the day's volleyball matches on the way home or stopping at Culver's for a post-tournament treat or seeing them fall asleep in the car after a long day on the court.
  • No more late-night conversations to celebrate an achievement with her or to console her after a hard match.
  • No more post-match pictures of her and her team standing in front of the net making goofy faces and enjoying just being kids.
  • No more words of encouragement and advice needed when they have a tough day at practice or are battling an injury or struggling with their confidence or not getting along with a teammate.
  • No more nervous excitement when they try out for the school or club team and make the team.
  • No more donning school or club spirit wear with pride when you go to your child's matches.

The next time your son or daughter plays, treat it as if it were their last match. Love on them from the bleachers. Take pictures and video. Cheer loudly for them and their team even if, truth be told, you're not a big fan of the sport or you're an introvert who'd prefer to be home working in your garden or reading a book.

Savor the moment because you never know when it might be their, and your, last one, and you then lose one more shared connection with them. And when that part of their lives ends, so does another chapter in their childhood and your family, because they're only kids once.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Discipline: the overlooked key to excelling on the court

by Jeff Smith

At a Windy City Power League tournament on Saturday, I watched the pre-game warm-ups for the opening match of one of the 14U pools. During shared court time, one team was working efficiently on a blocking and hitting run-through and then transitioned quickly into a fast-paced ball-control drill. The other team lazily sloughed through the motions of partner passing, though it looked more like partner shanking; the majority of passes were off-target thanks to a mix of poor passing technique and halfhearted focus and effort.

You can safely guess the winner of the match.

The more disciplined warm-up team won handily. It wasn't solely because they warmed up more purposefully. They had the more experienced, more skilled and more talented team. But, just from watching their warm-ups and their performance on the court, it was clear they were the kind of team that probably practices with the same level of discipline they displayed in warm-ups and the match.

Their opponent, on the other hand, looked like it was playing at a backyard summer barbecue.

Good habits eventually lead to good skills and knowledge of the game. It might take months or years to see tangible fruit from your labor, but at some point positive habits will yield positive results.

And good habits take discipline. As our club's theme quote says, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

A similar quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better."

In the world of club volleyball, discipline can mean:

Taking technical skill development seriously, 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.

Getting to practices on time (and 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. To no one's surprise, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.)

Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and reached the Final Four in 2017. 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 last national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from 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.

Practicing with passion. The other day I substitute coached for our Wheaton 18 Blue team. One thing that impressed me was the level of energy the players poured into training. The players competed in each drill with competitive zeal. Whether performing a simple 2v0 drill or competing in a serve receive game, the athletes were fully engaged. They approached practice with the same drive that you witness in the playoff round of a weekend tournament. It brought to mind the axiom to "practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice."

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.

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.

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 be able 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.

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 or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline, and, like a muscle, develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

20 questions with our new girls club director

by Jeff Smith

I began working as Serve City's girls volleyball director August 15, but my journey as a club director actually was borne 32 years ago out of disappointment.

As one of the veteran players on our boys basketball team, I had high hopes for my senior season of high school, but our coach didn't share those aspirations. He didn't push our team to grow or excel. He was a kind man and cared about each of us on a personal level, but he wasn't driven to help us get the most out of our talent as individual players or as a team. Our practices didn't stretch us outside our comfort zone, teach us new tactics or strategies, train and extend us to be our best or prepare us well for games, either.

Not surprisingly, my senior season was a difficult one. Our team finished in last place in the conference, and my hoops career concluded on a dismal note. I still remember walking out of the gym following a lackluster season-ending loss thinking that, if I ever got the chance to coach my own team, I would push my players to reach their potential. I didn't want any athletes to experience the frustration and lack of development that marred my final basketball season.

More than three decades and nearly 1,400 games as a coach later, I start my tenure as Serve City's girls director ready to pursue the same philosophy that has guided my volleyball and basketball coaching career since 1998. I believe the most effective way a coach communicates that they value their athletes is by giving their players the best possible coaching they can each day. Conversely, I believe athletes demonstrate how important their team is to them by giving their team their best possible effort at each practice and match.

In short, excellence, improvement and realizing our dreams don't just happen. They take commitment, hard work, dedication, investment, enthusiasm, preparation and intentionality.

At Serve City, sweat plus sacrifice will spur on success.

I look forward to watching our coaches and athletes dedicate themselves to striving for excellence at each practice and match this season. The goal will be simple: to get "3 percent better" at their coaching or playing craft every day. If that happens, our athletes will experience significant growth in their skills and understanding of the game, our coaches will grow as leaders and teachers and our teams will make great strides throughout the season as well.

Few things are more satisfying in volleyball than to watch your skills and knowledge of the game improve as you pour yourself into your development as a player or coach.

We'll talk more about what excellence looks like in a practice setting in my next blog post. If you'd like to learn more about me, you can read the questionnaire below and visit my girls director page. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you in the gym this season!

20 Questions With: Jeff Smith

Coaching stops: Faith Christian (fifth- to eighth-grade teams), Illinois Heat VBC (18U, 16U, 15U), Harvest Christian Academy (middle school), Serve City (14U, 13U), Serve City sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Chicago Sand Volleyball (middle school and high school), Blaze sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Geneva Park District (middle school), Serve City Recreation (volleyball, basketball), CoachUp.com (private volleyball and basketball lessons for 10U to 18U)

Favorite quote: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,  then, is not an act but a habit.

What I enjoy most about volleyball: It's the ultimate team sport, teaching amazing life lessons about teamwork, sacrifice, putting others before self and playing for a cause greater than yourself.

What I enjoy least about volleyball: when teams play not to lose instead of playing to win

Greatest accomplishment: watching my daughters play the game they love

The most important trait for athletic success is: a growth mindset

Favorite volleyball memory: each time I've gotten to help a team or an athlete achieve more than they thought possible

Coach I most admire: John Wooden

If I could change one thing about volleyball: award 10 points for kills off back-row pipe attacks! (my favorite play in volleyball)

Favorite volleyball skills to teach: jump float serve, setting, back-row play, hitting

Favorite volleyball moment: 2013 Aurora Central Catholic tournament championship (coaching my daughters' school team)

Most embarrassing volleyball moment: getting my glasses smashed by an errant serve during a tournament, which has unfortunately happened about a dozen times over the years

Best advice for athletes: There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.

What I enjoy most about working with youth: their energy and optimism

Biggest pet peeve in volleyball: athletes who think success comes easy -- you make "easy" happen through commitment, hard work, consistent enthusiasm, learning and a humble, hungry and teachable attitude

Favorite book: the Bible

Favorite movie: Duck Soup

Favorite musical group/artist: DC Talk

Favorite TV show: Man vs. Wild unless Big Ten women's volleyball counts as a show ;)

What's most important to me: my relationship with Jesus Christ

Three words that best describe me: committed, driven, thinker

What would Reid Priddy do? How to follow the four-time Olympian's example this summer

by Jeff Smith

Reid Priddy's speech at the Serve City Volleyball Banquet was inspiring and uplifting in numerous ways. One of my favorite takeaways from his story of how he grew into a decorated four-time U.S. Olympian was how his perspective on volleyball changed shortly after first being introduced to the sport in middle school.

"I began playing volleyball all the time," Reid told our athletes, families and coaches at the banquet. "I couldn't play the sport enough."

Reid's love for the game drove him to play volleyball every chance he got: in open gyms, his backyard, on the sand, at parks, during camps and clinics and on his school's teams. He continued this habit into and throughout high school, college and the professional and Olympic ranks.

Now that most of Serve City's girls teams have wrapped up their seasons, you might be wondering what your daughter (or your son) can do next to continue fanning the flame of their love for volleyball. Following Reid Priddy's advice, here are four ideas to help your child keep developing their passion for the sport along with their skills and understanding of the game.

1. Play the sport recreationally.

Reid's love for the game grew largely out of playing the game with his friends outside of structured team practices and matches. This is also where your kids will learn the game more than any other venue. Volleyball requires countless hours of play in order to learn how to read your opponent -- looking across the net to determine when your opponent is hitting vs. tipping, where they are going to hit or pass the ball to before they even contact the ball, where they are setting to and where and how they are serving. This massive amount of information can only be instinctively learned through game play.

Plus, playing pick-up games of 6v6, 4v4, 3v3, 2v2 and even 1v1 will refine and sharpen your daughter's or son's all-around skills and ability to make split-second decisions, the latter of which is a crucial skill in and of itself in volleyball. And, of course, playing the game will stoke your child's passion and appreciation for the sport.

2. Attend summer camps.

Participating in summer camps is an excellent option for a couple of reasons. It exposes your daughter and son to new coaches and different and fresh teaching methods than they have received during their club and school seasons. Camps also give your child new ideas on how to pass, set, hit, block, defend and execute other volleyball skills that they can then take home and work on when they play recreationally this summer.

3. Try something new.

After several months of club volleyball and possibly two or three months of school ball, your daughter or son may need a fresh take on the sport to maintain her interest and refresh her love for the game. A fresh spin may come in a few different forms:

  • Trying sand volleyball. Playing in the sand is a terrific complement to the indoor version of the sport. Sand volleyball is significantly different from indoor in terms of rules, skills employed and strategy and tactics, not to mention the venue. Taking part in sand can improve your son or daughter's all-around skills, quickness, leaping ability and the skill of reading your opponent across the net while providing a refreshing new angle on the sport they love. (If you're interested in sand volleyball training this summer, here is a subsidiary organization running sand volleyball classes in the western suburbs.)
  • Taking private lessons. Summer is a good opportunity for some athletes to train individually with a private coach, as they can hone in on specific skills they need to learn or sharpen and raise their level of play prior to the start of the upcoming school season.
  • Competing in sand and grass tournaments. Both outdoor versions of the sport are popular in the Chicago area.
  • Learning a new position. One of my former players at the club where I coached prior to joining Serve City decided to play beach volleyball one summer so she could expand her game. Due to her height and frame, she had been pegged by her club coaches as strictly a middle blocker, so she joined a sand program to work on her serve receive and defensive skills in an effort to grow into an outside hitter for her senior season of club. My older daughter did the same thing, hitting the sand to improve her passing skills the summer after eighth grade and transition into a libero in high school.

5. Pay it forward.

Has your daughter or son benefited from years of coaching, instruction and input through club and school teams? This spring and summer they can begin giving back to the game by volunteering their time. They could serve as a volunteer assistant with a YMCA or park district league or help out at local camps for elementary-school kids. Paying it forward will keep them involved in volleyball while teaching them the other side of the game and perhaps sparking a future interest in coaching.

Even if they don't take to coaching, teaching the game to younger children will help your child develop a greater understanding of the sport and improve their volleyball IQ for their next season as a volley athlete.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

Don't be this kind of sports parent -- or this kind, either

by Jeff Smith

At first I wasn't sure I heard her right. I was sitting in the bleachers at one of my older daughter's matches, parked behind a lady whose daughter played on the other team. After her daughter served a ball into the net, her mom threw her hands in the air and yelled out, "Jane, if you keep making so many mistakes, I'm not going to buy you any lunch."

Was this woman serious?

Sadly, she was.

Her daughter continued to struggle with her hitting, passing and serving the rest of the match, further drawing her mom's ire. After the match ended, her daughter reluctantly walked over to the bleachers to grab something out of her gym bag. That's when her mom went off on her.

"What was wrong with you out there?" she asked. "You played terrible." She then listed a litany of errors her daughter had made. By the time the mom had finished berating her, Jane slowly sauntered back to her team with shoulders slumped, head down and any remaining enthusiasm drained away.

This isn't the first time I've witnessed this kind of parent-child exchange. And it won't be the last. I'm sure you've seen similar behavior. It breaks my heart to watch a young athlete treated this way by someone so important to them. It doesn't help. It leaves them demoralized, defeated and more likely to quit than commit themselves to growth and improvement.

I've also seen the opposite behavior. You probably have, too.

I'm referring to the parent who thinks their child can do no wrong. When their child does make mistakes, they either don't notice them, don't acknowledge them or blame everyone but their child. It was the coach's fault, or their teammates, or the official ("That wasn't a double contact!") or the lousy gym floor or anyone or anything else but their star athlete.

I can still remember the day that a parent came up to me after one of my team's games and lamented, "It's too bad you don't have more talent surrounding Jenny. She can't do it all." You can probably guess who Jenny's parent was. Yes, the parent who approached me.

Ironically, Jenny was a good player but probably made more mistakes in that match than anyone else on the team. Only her dad didn't notice those mistakes, or chose not to. In his eyes, she was a mix of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor bundled in an eighth-grader's body, while her teammates were the Bad News Bears.

So, what kind of sports parent do our kids need us to be at their volleyball matches? I think our children will flourish most if we can accomplish the following four actions at their tournaments:

1. Cheer for them without embarrassing them.

Several years ago, the mother of one of the girls on my team was so hyper-focused on supporting her daughter from the sidelines that her daughter was almost overcome with self-consciousness on the court. Annie's mom yelled out her daughter's name so many times over the course of a match that even the opposing team's fans knew Annie as well as any of the girls on their team.

"Great job, Annie!"

"Good try, Annie!"

"You can do it, Annie!"

"That's OK, Annie!"

"Shake it off, Annie!"

"Just get it in, Annie!"

"Way to go, Annie!"

"Oh no, Annie!"

"Annie, Annie, Annie!"

Not surprisingly, after nearly every point, Annie would reflexively glance over at her mom for approval, encouragement, instruction or just plain out of habit. A team sport quickly devolved into a solo activity, as everything became about Annie.

It wasn't until Annie's mom noticed the effect she was having on her daughter and began toning down her sideline dialogue with her that Annie started feeling more comfortable on the court and playing looser, less self-consciously and more assertively.

Of course we should cheer for our child and not succumb to the temptation of spending the match absorbed with our smartphone or distractedly swapping stories with the other spectators. But we really show our kids our greatest support by simply being there, watching them play, looking engrossed in their match and cheering enthusiastically while refraining from using their name very often or communicating directly with them. In other words, more blending in with the crowd instead of sticking out.

2. Cheer for everyone on their team.

Here's a great test for us to take as parents. When you're at your daughter's next match, imagine if a stranger watched your every move and heard your every word. By the end of the match, would they know which player was your daughter?

If they figured it out pretty quickly, that may mean you don't cheer enough for the other girls on the team, or you spend most of your time cheering for your own child and not the team or her teammates. If they weren't sure who your daughter was, that likely means you do a terrific job of spreading your support around to everyone on the team and don't go overboard cheering for your own child.

As someone who's coached thousands of young athletes, I can say with complete confidence that most kids don't want their mom or dad's cheering to single them out. Either don't use your daughter's name when your cheer for her, or learn the names of every player on the team and make sure to use each player's name when you cheer for them, not just your daughter's name.

Volleyball is a team sport, and that extends to the bleachers. Team cheering sends a healthy message to your child and sets the right example for them, that volleyball is about the team and not one individual.

3. Let the coach do the coaching.

This can be a hard one for parents like me. I've coached volleyball and basketball for 19 years and a combined 52 seasons. I also have coached my daughters off and on for a combined 13 seasons. Rarely do I cross the line and coach them from the bleachers, but regrettably it has happened.

I still cringe when I remember the time my older daughter badly shanked a pass in serve receive at a season-ending tournament and, before I could shut my mouth and keep from saying anything, I blurted out, "JESSICA, HOLD YOUR FINISH!" in a tone of voice that would have made Bobby Knight proud -- and loud enough that I felt like I was in an old E.F. Hutton commercial (I'm showing my age), with every eye in the gym now laser-locked on me.

The result? My daughter began crying, her coach had to take her out of the game to compose herself, and my face turned fire engine red with embarrassment. That was three long years ago, and I haven't done anything like this ever since. But it reminded me anew that our kids don't need us to coach them. They need us to support them.

4. Use this six-word phrase often.

I got this from a coaching colleague. I've said it to my daughters, emailed it to them and texted it to them before and after matches. It's the most meaningful sentence you can ever speak to the young athlete in your home. It's probably the only thing we should ever say to our kids after a tournament. It'll almost always bring a smile to their face, and they won't ever tire of hearing or reading it from you.

Here it is:

"I love to watch you play."

Try saying it after your daughter's next tournament. You'll be glad you did, and so will she.

Jeff Smith is Serve City volleyball region director.