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.

6 qualities that coaches want in a libero

by Jeff Smith

Jessica Serve City libero.jpg

While the setter is the leader of the team's offense, the libero leads the defense. They are the captain of your team's back row and the heart and soul of the team's serve receive and defensive units.

A good setter and good libero are like two sides of a house roof; they are each essential to the home's protection or, in the case of a team, your team's success.

So, what are the qualities that coaches look for when considering candidates to fill the odd-colored jersey on their roster? Here are six libero traits that are vital to most college, high school and middle school coaches:

1. Serve receive passing consistency

Every coach will tell you that serve receive is the most important part of the game. Since liberos play most of the match in the back row, they have to be strong in this area to be effective weapons for their team.

2. Reading and digging

Being able to dig up spikes and tips is only half of a libero's role here. They also need to be able to look across the net, read what the opponent is going to do, make a split-second plan for how to defend the opponent's attack and then execute it properly with good digging technique. To do this, liberos need to have a high volleyball IQ and ability to analyze opposing setters and hitters' movements and patterns instead of merely watching the ball and reacting to it.

3. Relentless work ethic and energy

I believe libero is the second toughest position to play on the court after setter. Becoming an effective libero takes tremendous work habits and desire. It's not considered a glamorous position due to the nature of the role, and learning how to play this role with excellence requires many extra hours outside of practices. If you're not willing to pour in the extra time that this position demands, then it's not for you.

Liberos also need to play with great energy on the court. They typically play every rally of the game except when they briefly come out while one of the players they are replacing in the back row serves. Teammates look to the libero to provide defensive leadership and to be a spark plug for their team.

4. Hustle and grit

Liberos routinely must dive to the floor, scramble for errant passes, cover hitters and then immediately return to base defense, dig up hard-driven hits and compensate for teammates whenever they forget or fail to perform their defensive or serve receive duties. It's a challenging position that requires mental toughness, outstanding effort and a never-quit attitude, especially when you're struggling in a game and the opponent seems to be targeting you on most of its serves and attacks.

5. Consistent platform and passing technique

To be a consistently good passer and digger also takes developing strong fundamentals. Liberos need to master a variety of different passing techniques so they can handle a range of serves and attacks on balls in front of them, to their left and right and even behind them.

Among the skills they need to learn and excel at are:

  • shuffle steps and crossover running steps in all directions
  • stationary digs
  • the drop and drive
  • drop step side shuffle
  • overhead digging
  • platform angles to their left and right
  • run-through digs
  • side digs
  • the side and slide
  • lateral dives to their left and right
  • one-step and two-step forward dives
  • collapse digs
  • extension and pancake (emergency) digs

Just as importantly, liberos need to be fundamentally sound in their lower-body technique. Always begin in an athletic, balanced, stable defensive position with your weight on the balls of your feet and slightly on the insides of your feet and your shoulders positioned over and slightly in front of your knees. This stance leaves you ready to quickly move in any direction for the ball. This includes a deep knee bend that enables you to get close to the floor so you can get your platform under any ball that comes your way.

6. Serving prowess

An underappreciated aspect of the libero position is serving. Most liberos serve for one of their team's front row hitters. This is the one time when liberos can be an offensive weapon for their team. Most coaches expect their libero to be one of the top servers on the team both in terms of aces, consistency and getting opponents out of system.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

6 traits that coaches look for in a setter

Nicki Blaze setting.jpg

by Jeff Smith

Similar to a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football, setter is the most important position in volleyball. (Sorry, hitters, liberos and defensive specialists. You're valuable, too.) Running the offense and taking nearly every second contact is a crucial responsibility to the team's success.

Because of the importance of the position, not just anyone can be selected to fulfill this role. Whether coaching 14U, 16U or 18U, I've always looked for six qualities in potential setters: quickness, soft yet strong hands, assertiveness, intelligence, great work ethic and a teachable attitude.

Due to the complexity of setting, some coaches are even pickier than me. In his book "Setting for the Setter," Arie Selinger, head coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s team, said he seeks out players at setter who can be described as "a play-maker, architect, decision maker, cooperative, an extension of the coach, perceptive, great mental stamina, leader, hard-working, creative, disciplined, crafty, aware, well liked and inspire trust and confidence." That's a lot of attributes to fill!

Whether you're interested in setting, are a setter hoping to set at the next level of your volleyball journey or are the parent of a current or prospective setter, let's unpack each of the six traits I listed.

1. Quickness

Quickness doesn't only refer to how fast you can run to the ball. Much of a setter's quickness comes from their ability to read a situation and made a quick and smart decision.

Olympic coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly describes it this way: "You have to quickly get your eyes to the next actor, the next mover of the ball. One point we emphasize with our setters is ‘reading the platform,’ which means the setter is looking at and really seeing the passer’s arms contact the serve. To read best, a setter has to get to her spot fast, establish a balanced, ready position facing the passer and be ready to pounce in any direction for any pass. Then, she has to look and really see the passer’s platform. The better a setter reads the platform, the faster she’ll identify where she has to go to run the offense."

2. Soft yet strong hands

I've trained hundreds of setters over the last 20 years. To be totally honest, some players never acquire this skill. In some ways, it is a gift, the ability to have both soft and strong hands for setting at the same time.

Soft hands refers to being able to cushion the ball slightly and remove any spin from the ball as it contacts the hands. But that's just half the battle. Setters need the strength to quickly release the ball, alter its path and direct it high or fast to hitters, too. Sometimes those hitters can be 20 to 25 feet away. And sometimes as a setter you're receiving passes that are extremely high in the air or come at you flat and fast. Either way you need rigid hands, too, that can handle such challenging passes.

3. Assertiveness

No matter what level, setters need to be take-charge types. They need to be able to not only take the second contact -- or first pass from a teammate -- but turn that contact into a hittable ball for one of their hitters. This requires a player who is willing to be aggressive and fearless and exert her command of the court. Many players never learn or exhibit this trait due to lack of confidence, lack of necessary temperament or a host of other reasons.

4. Intelligence

High volleyball IQ might be the most overlooked skill for setting. The setter is the team's floor general who is tasked with not only making hundreds of split-second in-game decisions but also being able to take her team's "temperature" on the court and guide and direct her teammates based on how each is doing over the course of the match. For instance, this can mean figuring out each hitter's strengths and the types of sets and set locations that bring out the best in each hitter.

Salima Rockwell knows this subject intimately well as a three-time all-American setter at Penn State University who is now PSU's associate head coach.

"A setter must cultivate genuine and real connections with every team member to ensure they trust her and count on her stability as a leader," Rockwell said. "You are the psychologist of the team because everyone needs something a little bit different and it’s up to you to figure out what that thing is and how to give it to them. The coach can do only so much from the bench. It’s necessary to have someone on the court who can settle the team down when the match starts slipping away or fire the team up when it’s time to finish."

5. Great work ethic

Setters are in constant learning mode. It's akin to a quarterback in football. NFL quarterbacks have to study and master a playbook of 300 to 400 pages in a matter of a couple of months. Setting isn't quite as challenging, but you get the idea. Becoming a great setter takes many years of practice and training. It's why most high school teams require their setters to show up for practice 30 minutes early to work on their skills and get as many extra repetitions as possible in order to develop their hands, footwork and technique.

The most accomplished setters spend countless additional hours on their own training their hands at home in their room or in the gym. Former University of Wisconsin all-American setter Lauren Carlini said she has spent thousands of hours lying on her back in her bedroom setting a ball to herself to train her hands to be soft yet strong.

She's not alone. Outstanding setting takes extraordinary dedication and drive. My younger daughter is a good high school varsity setter, and it didn't happen overnight. I remember hundreds of nights hearing the rhythmic sound of her setting a ball off her bedroom wall or setting to herself in her room for 10, 20, 30 or more minutes at a time. It wasn't glamorous or easy, but she was highly motivated and wanted to be a varsity setter, so she paid the price, and her hard work paid off.

Want to be a standout setter? Set early and often each day.

6. Teachable attitude

Due to the critical nature of the position, setters receive more feedback and correction from coaches than anyone else on the team. They need to take lots of feedback at every practice and match and filter it with a positive, even-keeled attitude.

Setting is the most complex position in the sport. There are literally hundreds of different mini-skills that setters must learn and master as they move up the ranks from middle school to high school to college. They are on a constant learning curve that requires them to be open and receptive to coaching on a daily basis. If they can't handle this much insight and feedback, their setting development will eventually plateau, and with it their growth as a setter.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a setter?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

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

by Jeff Smith


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.

5 steps to earning a college volleyball roster spot

by Jeff Smith


Playing volleyball collegiately takes tremendous effort, diligence and commitment. Only six percent of all high school volleyball players end up playing volleyball in college. Landing a spot on a team is extremely competitive, and the recruiting process can be very daunting. You may find yourself competing with countless other student-athletes who are just as hungry, or even hungrier, for a place on a team as you are.

But, if you're willing to do whatever it takes to play at the next level, you can definitely make it happen. Here are five tips to give you a leg up on the competition and find a college that's a good fit for you.

1. Assemble your college list

Doing due research online and asking an objective volleyball person to give an accurate assessment of your potential, create a list of prospective colleges you'd realistically like to play for. The list should include at least 15 to 20 schools that come from a range of different collegiate divisions (Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA, junior colleges). Base your selections on your desires for a college, taking into account not only volleyball but academics, geographic location, size and style that suit your temperament, personality and volleyball skills.

2. Contact coaches

After generating your list of colleges, gather contact information and start reaching out to coaches by email, letter and/or phone. Tell them why you're interested and demonstrate to them not only your volleyball skills, experience and accomplishments (videos, recommendations from past and current coaches, stats) but also your passion and persistence; if you don't hear back from a recruiter, politely but persistently keep contacting them on a weekly basis until they return your message.

3. Go to schools and talk to coaches and players

As you begin connecting with college coaches, your next step is to schedule unofficial visits so you can tour the campuses. Make sure on these visits to talk to as many different key stakeholders as possible -- meet the coaching staff, ask questions of current players and communicate with students and professors in the field of study that will be your major. Ask to connect with former players, too, so you can email, message or call them with questions about the school, coaches and program. They'll likely be your best and most unbiased source of information on the team culture, coaching staff and program dynamics.

4. Thrive in academics and extracurricular activities

Nearly every college coach wants players who excel academically. Balancing a volleyball commitment with academics is challenging, and coaches don't want players on their team who are a constant threat to land on academic probation or become ineligible.

A robust extracurricular resume will also impress many coaches. Volunteer your time in school clubs, church programs and community functions to demonstrate you are a well-rounded individual who can properly manage your time and who thinks of others and not just yourself.

5. Pour yourself into constantly growing as a player

The competition for college roster spots is fierce. Other players who want the same college roster spot that you do are working two, three, four or five days a week to improve and strengthen their game. Make sure you're doing the same thing. Get stronger and quicker, refine your skills and develop your volleyball IQ and understanding of your position and of the game.

Never let your game stagnate. Push yourself at practices and tournaments. Seek out opportunities to keep developing your skills in clinics, camps, leagues and private lessons. Take a few weeks off between seasons, then plunge head-first back into the development process. Give it all you've got so that, when your senior year comes and goes, you can look back and say with confidence that you did everything possible to make your dream a reality.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Versatility adds value to your volleyball future

by Jeff Smith

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

julia conard serve.jpg

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

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

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

Middle school: where versatility must take root

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Versatility should continue throughout high school

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

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

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

How to make yourself more versatile -- and valuable

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

1. Seek out opportunities to round out your game.

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

2. Play sand volleyball.

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

3. Play for a club that trains versatility.

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

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

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

The big mistake that coaches, parents and athletes make

by Jeff Smith

The scoreboard is the most fickle of friends. When you win, it treats you like its BFF. When you lose, it rejects you like it never knew you.

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Yet, despite its unfaithful nature, the scoreboard is entrancing to us. Players and coaches strain their necks to view the flip chart throughout each set. Parents ask the work crew to turn the flip chart their direction to see what it says. Teams' success or failure is determined by whether the scoreboard says they won or lost.

But should the scoreboard be the sole arbiter of success or failure?

The answer is an emphatic no.

This is especially true for club volleyball, where so many other factors are involved.

Your opponent matters

The scoreboard doesn't take the quality of your opponent into consideration. It merely reflects the score of your match.

Here's one example. Wheaton 18 Blue faced Ultimate 18 Gold in a tournament at Sky High March 3. Ultimate 18 Gold is in eighth place in the Super Open Division of the Great Lakes Power League. The Super Open is comprised of the 16 best 18U teams in the greater Chicago area. Every Super Open team is an elite national team. Ultimate is no exception. Five of its players will be joining Division 1 college volleyball programs in the fall, including one player who will play at the University of Illinois, one of the nation's top teams. By contrast, Wheaton 18 Blue features four sophomores, four juniors and two seniors and is on average about six inches shorter than Ultimate 18 Gold across the front row. This was a David vs. Goliath match-up.

Knowing all this while substitute coaching that day, my realistic hopes for Wheaton 18 Blue were to play aggressively and without fear. If 18 Blue did that, it would probably reach double figures in each set. The team met those goals, hitting with confidence, serving assertively, playing aggressive back-row defense and putting up a fight before losing 25-14, 25-13. Putting up a battle and losing to one of Chicago's best teams is a far greater achievement than beating up on a weak opponent.

Afterwards, most parents seemed to recognize the extreme odds stacked against the team. One or two might have thought it was a rough performance because of the margin of victory. But the scoreboard doesn't offer any deeper explanation behind the numbers, such as the strength of your opponent. It's why you should never rely on the scoreboard to tell you if your team was successful.

Your team's performance matters

Sometimes your team can play its best match of the season and lose and then turn around and play one of its weakest matches of the season and still win. Perhaps its opponent in the loss was simply more talented or played its best match of the season, too, and in the second match your opponent had an off day or was just an inferior team.

The scoreboard can't tell the difference between these issues. But coaches and players can.

All of us want to win and play to win. But at the end of the day, good teams care more about how they play than what the final scoreboard says. Good teams want to play their best volleyball every time they take the court. That's their primary motivation.

This is known as having a process focus over an outcome focus. Good teams and good players turn their attention to how they are passing, serving, setting, hitting, blocking, digging, communicating and making decisions on the court. They realize that, the majority of the time, if they play well it will be reflected on the scoreboard -- but not all the time. They may lose some matches where they played as well as they can play or nearly as well. They may even lose most of their matches despite playing at or near peak levels for them.

But, whether they win or lose on the scoreboard isn't their ultimate goal. They are more concerned about how they are playing on the court.

It's similar to a business. If a company is focused solely on the bottom line of making a profit, it won't be as effective as if it concentrates on delivering great products and services to its customers, and its work won't be as satisfying. Businesses that focus just on profit making will cut corners, short-change customers and produce cheaper products that cost less but also don't provide customers with long-term quality.

Your mindset and growth matter

Teams that don't play for the scoreboard are more interested in playing in such a way that their team and their players stretch outside their comfort zone to learn, grow and develop their skills. That won't happen if the team is focused merely on winning the scoreboard battle. They may even start playing too safe -- playing not to lose -- in hopes that their opponents will eventually make enough mistakes to give them the match.

The problem is that mindset will 1) stunt the team's growth, 2) cause them to play tight and nervous instead of loose and confident and 3) makes volleyball a chore instead of something fun.

You can usually tell a team's mindset by how they treat the last few points of a close set. Let's say the score is 23-23. How will a team play that is focused solely on the scoreboard? They won't take chances. They'll play it safe, resorting to tips, roll shots, free balls and two-handed pushes at their opponent. They'll wait for their opponent to make the error that gives them the point. It's because they see the score as a problem to avoid, specifically avoiding the problem of losing two more points.

How will a team play that is focused on its growth, performance, strategy and skills? It will play the same at 23-23 as it did when it was 5-5 or 15-15. The score doesn't matter to them. They keep playing their style and executing their game plan for serving, serve receive, offense and defense regardless of what the scoreboard says. They see close games as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

On Sunday Wheaton 14 Blue trailed Lions South 24-19. The next server was a player who just began jump serving the previous weekend. As Sammy prepared to serve, it was tempting for her to fall back on her standing float serve, which she was more comfortable with. But, to her credit, she stuck with her new jump float serve.

Seven points later, as her team celebrated a 26-24 victory, Sammy was glad she avoided the temptation to play for the scoreboard. It was a win for a growth mindset and for her team.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.

The one role that some coaches are afraid to fulfill

by Jeff Smith

This season I asked our coaches to write mid-season evaluations for each player on their team. These evaluations provided athletes with their coach's insights on their positive areas of growth as well as developmental steps the players need to take in the second half of the season.

The coaches emailed each evaluation to that athlete's family. Having coached at another club prior to Serve City and knowing coaches from dozens of other clubs, I'm fairly confident that these evaluations are unique to Serve City. A parent of one of our high school players even emailed to say her daughter had never received an evaluation from a coach in her years of playing club and school volleyball.

After receiving her daughter's evaluation from her coach, another mom appreciated the coach's gesture so much that she replied with a message of her own. It read, "My daughter has a great coach who is committed to her growth and pushes her to her limits."

Taking a risk

Pushing athletes to their limits -- if you asked coaches what aspect of their job they are most reluctant to pursue, some would admit it's this very quality. It's probably akin to parents needing to keep their children on task with their schoolwork especially when their kids aren't motivated to stay on top of their academics, even if it means risking being the "unpopular" parent and having to initiate a confrontation between them and their child.

It isn't fun or popular to stretch athletes in new ways that make them uncomfortable or challenge them to learn new things or confront areas where they need to grow. But it's essential for coaches to take this responsibility seriously if their athletes and teams are to experience true growth.

As 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medal coach Doug Beal put it, "A coach should take the athletes to their limits, should go beyond the comfort zone. If you are concerned about being friends with the players, you are not going anywhere."

Pushing athletes to their limits

This isn't to say that coaches must develop an adversarial relationship with their players. Through their actions and words, coaches should in fact convey their care, love and concern for their athletes as players and as people.

But good coaches make their greatest impact on their athletes when they push their athletes to their limits in practices and tournaments. They maintain that coach-athlete relationship that enables them to demand their players' best and train their players at the very edge of their abilities.

In fact, coaches who push their athletes to their limits are actually the coaches who truly care the most about their athletes. Coaches who are more interested in being their players' friend are doing their athletes more harm than good. They are stunting their athletes' development by failing to stretch their athletes to new heights as players or teaching their athletes the habits and character qualities needed to reach their highest potential.

What happens when coaches don't push their athletes

My senior year of high school our basketball coach was a kind, mild-mannered man who didn't push us or demand excellence in practice. Our practice sessions were fun, breezy and uninspired. We learned little, weren't pushed much and wasted precious time with slow-paced warm-ups, half-hearted scrimmages and lots of laughs joking around with our coach/buddy.

You guessed it, the fruit of our lack of labor was an unprepared team for games, a losing record and a lackluster first-round postseason exit. My high school career ended with a whimper, and so did my coach's coaching tenure.

After that disappointing season, I determined that if I ever went into coaching, I would not repeat my coach's mistakes. I would strive to be a coach that my athletes respected because of how much they learned from me and grew under my tutelage.

Going out on a limb

Being a coach who pushes athletes to their limits isn't easy. Sometimes athletes don't want to be pushed but just want to remain in their current comfort zone. They're OK with who they currently are and don't want to undergo the growing pains of learning new skills or tactics, developing better work ethic or confronting a flaw in their technique or a weakness in their skill set. They're comfortable with the status quo, or so they think.

This is where dedicated coaches separate themselves from those who would rather just run comfortable practices so that they can always be liked by their players -- even though their players won't ultimately respect them for being afraid to stretch and challenge their team.

Calling athletes to a higher standard

I've experienced this numerous times over the years. In one of my early seasons as a sand volleyball coach several of the players in my high school class had built a reputation for not taking indoor practices seriously. When they brought that same lackadaisical attitude to the first day of the sand program, I had a decision to make: Let them continue to be themselves and not make waves or confront the problem head on.

I chose the latter. The next practice I called a short meeting and let everyone know that they had two choices: to give their best effort at each practice or, if they weren't interested in giving their best effort, to call their parents to pick them up right now and not return to the program. I set the expectations high for the program. The only athletes who would be welcome in the class were those who would make a commitment to learning and growing. No murky, mediocre in-between would be tolerated.

To their credit, all of the girls decided to stay and invest in their growth, and the rest of the season was very enjoyable and went really well.

Coach-parent partnership

Pushing athletes to strive for their best takes support from the athletes' homes. In fact, it's essential. One of my players' dads confided in me that, a few times over the course of the four seasons I coached his daughter, she had asked her father, "Why does Coach Smith push me so hard in practice?" I run high-energy, challenging practices that are designed to put athletes on a fast learning track that helps them get the most out of their talent if they commit to pouring themselves into the training.

To this dad's credit, he always responded to his daughter's question with the same answer: "Because he believes you have the talent to be great and he wants to help you get the absolute most out of your talent."

Parents supporting a coach's growth-focused training philosophy is where a coach who truly cares about their athletes can make a lasting difference. The coaches can then push their athletes outside their comfort zone because, as a coaching colleague of mine likes to say, "A good coach will make his or her players see what they can be rather than what they are." An athlete may think she can never learn how to jump serve, but their coach helps them see otherwise and teaches and encourages them to pursue this goal until they reach it.

Satisfying endeavor

Some of my colleagues' most satisfying moments as a coach have been when a player we've worked with is able to execute a new skill in a match for the first time. It's the equivalent of a parent watching their child take their first steps or ride a bike on their own for the first time.

By contrast, mediocre coaches leave players the same at the end of the season as they were when the season began. Good to great coaches work with their athletes to help them take their skills and game knowledge to new levels of excellence.

Players want to be stretched

Truth be told, most athletes really do want to be pushed outside their limits. Sometimes they just don't realize it or need someone to help them conquer their fear of clearing that hurdle. Yes, there are always going to be a minority of players who truly aren't motivated to get better at volleyball, just as there are always going to be a small group of students who aren't motivated to excel in the classroom in spite of their teachers' grandest efforts. But the vast majority really do desire to learn, develop and take their skills to the next level.

Recently I was training a player in how to serve a jump float. Try as she might, this athlete kept burying her jump serve into the net or sending it out of bounds. We kept trying to fix technical errors in her approach and swing, but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, after a string of unsuccessful attempts, this player blurted out to me, "I can't do this, Coach. I just can't." I replied by agreeing with her -- to a point.

"I think you're right," I said. "You can't do it -- yet. The key word is yet. You will get it. It's just going to take time, some tweaks and more effort. Just keep plugging away and it'll come."

This player never did figure out how to find the court with her jump float at practice that day, or the next practice, either. But a couple of weeks later, as she worked on serving, I asked her to practice her jump float yet again, and soon enough she pounded a jump serve a couple of feet inside the deep corner of the court. Then she did it again. And again.

Then, while working on serving and serve receive, she blasted a few jump floats in-bounds that registered aces. At her next tournament she debuted her jump float in actual matches and recorded several aces, and at her last practice her jump float was so effective that no one could return it during serve receive drills.

The point here isn't to puff up my bona fides. A few thousand other coaches would have done the exact same thing. But if I had given in to this athlete's misgivings about learning a jump serve, let her off the hook and told her she could stick with her standing serve, she would have never experienced the exhilaration of serving a jump float for aces in a tournament or enjoyed the satisfaction of mastering an exciting new skill that will benefit her not only this season but for the rest of her volleyball career.

That's what pushing athletes outside their limits looks like -- helping them see who they can become and not just who they currently are and then collaborating with them, or sometimes even pulling and prodding them, to reach that destination. It's sometimes hard to do, but it's also worth it in the end.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

7 habits of highly effective volleyball parents

by Jeff Smith

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

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

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

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

1. Encourage competing over winning.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Be a great role model for your child.

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

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

4. Support your child's coach.

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

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

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

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

Imagine what would happen if every parent adopted that perspective.

5. Encourage a growth mindset in your child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Be realistic.

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

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

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

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

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

by Jeff Smith

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

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

1. Arrive early

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

Then do it.

2. Set goals for each practice

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

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

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

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

3. Seek out quality and quantity touches on the volleyball

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

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

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

In volleyball, this means ...

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

4. Push yourself

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

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

5. Enjoy every moment

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

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

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

The secret to becoming a good hitter? It starts between the ears

by Jeff Smith

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A few years ago my former club's 18U team had only six players available for a tournament. This meant everyone would need to play all six rotations around the court, including our libero.

Some liberos would cringe at the thought of playing on the front row. Our libero relished the opportunity. As much as she enjoyed passing and digging, she loved hitting even more in spite of her small stature. In practices, she seized the chance to hit any time she got, sometimes even asking me if she could play a couple of rotations at outside hitter. At the tournament, she didn't dominate by any means but delivered several timely kills, finding ways to terminate hits against much bigger blockers.

The team went on to win the tournament, and the libero's fearless attitude toward hitting on the front row was a key reason why.

Over the years I've trained hundreds of athletes, ranging from fourth to 12th grade and from about 4 feet 2 to 6 feet 2, how to hit with varying degrees of success. Yes, learning the technical skills for hitting is important. But, the most critical skill of all to becoming a good hitter is mental. Developing the mindset of a hitter is what separates great and good hitters from those who are sub-par and mediocre.

What does a standout hitter "look like" mentally? Here are four traits that are essential to hitting success. You'll quickly notice that none of these characteristics has anything to do with height or size. I've coached numerous tall athletes who couldn't become successful hitters because they couldn't develop the traits below as well as some players of a "smaller stature" who grew into some of the better hitters on our teams.

1. Love for hitting

Enjoyment of hitting can be an acquired skill, but in many cases it never happens. Some athletes never love hitting, even if they eventually develop the fundamentals to hit well.

Every good to great hitter loves to hit. This love for spiking is what drives them to work feverishly at improving their hitting. They love the feeling of pounding a high line shot or cross-court kill that bounces off the floor or knocks over a helpless back-row digger. And this love for hitting sometimes takes years to nurture and grow.

2. Unafraid to make mistakes

This will sound crazy at first, but it's true: Great hitters have no conscience. What I mean is they don't feel bad, sorry or guilty about belting an attack out of bounds or getting stuff blocked at the net. Good hitters have bad memories; they don't give a hitting error a second thought, quickly moving their focus on to the next rally and another opportunity to hit again.

3. Attack mentality

Great hitters are like an aggressive quarterback who loves to fire passes downfield looking for touchdowns instead of settling for shorter, safer passes, a baseball pitcher who looks for the strikeout or a boxer whose first instinct is to go for the knockout. When they receive a good or even decent or average set, they want to convert that set into a kill. They're not interested in safely delivering a roll shot to the middle of the court to keep the play alive; they approach, jump and swing hard and fast, then ask questions later.

And, before you ask if that perspective only applies to the best, most polished hitters, it doesn't. Three years ago I coached a small, wiry 14-year-old hitter who never met a set she didn't try to pulverize with every ounce of her 98-pound frame. From the first day of practice, Zoe swung at set after set as if the ball had personally insulted her family.

Initially most of her hits either landed 10 feet beyond the end line or violently shook the net. But, with a couple of tweaks to the contact point of her hitting hand on the ball and a slight adjustment to where she was set (sets farther off the net is ideal for shorter hitters), Zoe became not only one of the top hitters in the conference but one of the league's most effective jump servers as well.

It all started with Zoe's attack mentality.

4. Fearless approach to the biggest moments

Great hitters don't change their methods based on the score of the match. Whether it's 1-1 or match point, if they receive a quality set and the opposing blockers give them an open line to hit to, they swing with confidence and assertiveness every single time. If they're facing a tall double block but their coach tells them to pound the ball over, around or through the block, they don't think twice: They go for it. If their team trails 24-23 in the decisive set and they receive a good set, they attack the ball with zeal, even if their last three hits were blocked, went out of bounds or taped the net.

Some coaches believe hitters become fearless in big moments by building their confidence through success in such moments. Other coaches believe hitters develop fearlessness by forming the habit of hitting fearlessly all the time (with the consistent and constant encouragement of their coaches to hit fearlessly): in practices, scrimmages, warm-ups and throughout every match. Some call it a growth mindset and others refer to it as the pursuit of excellence -- the gradual result of always striving to do better.

This fearlessness can be learned at a young age. One of the best hitters I ever had the privilege to coach was Gigi Crescenzo. Even in eighth grade, Gigi would approach, jump and pound cross-court and high line hits with the same force no matter the score, earning the nickname G-Force from me. Early in her career she would occasionally tip or roll shot a great set near the end of a match, but after a few disapproving looks from me she quickly ditched that habit and developed an "assassin's" attitude.

This past fall she led St. Charles North to its first trip to the state finals, crushing kills over taller blockers throughout the season, a practice she began four years earlier.

5. Consistent steps forward

Great hitters keep pushing themselves. They're never satisfied with the status quo, always looking to take the next step in their development.

Once they learn and refine their basic hitting technique, these hitters work on hitting specific locations on the court (also known as lines of power). Once they are able to run (approach) and hit in a straight line (down the sideline, cross court, sharp angle), they work on mastering their hand placement on the ball. They figure out that hitting the bottom of the ball gives them loft for hitting over blockers and hitting the top of the ball drives the ball downward. Now they are able to control the height of their hits.

Then they work on how their hitting hand finishes, specifically "thumb down" and "thumb up." If they hit from outside and are right-handed, finishing their arm swing with their thumb up enables them to cut the ball down the sideline; finishing thumb down cuts the ball across the court to the corner or even the short angle. Now they are able to control how to hit the ball off their line of power to the left or the right.

Hitters then learn how to look one way and hit the opposite direction to fool the blockers and diggers, and the process continues for the hitter who wants to be great.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Patience: the virtue that coaches, parents and athletes all need to practice

by Jeff Smith

January 23, 2016 was one of the toughest days of my 20-year coaching career. It was the second tournament of the season for the Serve City Elgin 14U team I coached. Most of the girls were new to club volleyball, and all but one were actually a year or two young for this age level. But because one of our players turned 14 that year, our team had to move up from 13U to 14U.

The combination of inexperience and youth was a recipe for hard knocks. Our first tournament went relatively well as we were competitive in every match and finished 2-2. But our second tournament featured not only all 14U opponents again but national teams to boot.

Needless to say, we played the part of the Washington Generals while the national teams were in the role of the Harlem Globetrotters. We lost eight out of nine sets, and in at least half of those sets we didn't score in double digits. One team beat us 25-5, 25-7, and ironically it wasn't really that close.

By day's end we were like punch-drunk boxers staggering back to our corner wondering where we were and what day it was. The honeymoon phase of club volleyball was officially over for our new players. Some of the girls looked on the verge of tears. As for me, the previous year I had coached for an 18U national team. Now I was on the receiving end of other coaches' insincere "Nice job, Coach!" pity comments in the sportsmanship line after matches.

Keep working

After the last match of the day, I dug deep to offer encouragement to a downcast crew.

"Girls, remember that we're a young team playing up an age level and we're almost all new to club," I remember saying in our post-game huddle. "We're going to keep working and getting better. Someday we'll look back on this day and realize how far we've come because we're going to grow into a much better team down the road. It's just going to take time, effort, support for one another and a commitment to improve each day, but we're going to get there. I really believe it."

Truth be told, I wasn't completely sold on what I said, but I did believe this group had it in them. Most of the girls were high-character kids who loved volleyball and would work as feverishly as it took to develop their skills and understanding of the game. These kids practiced with passion. They were driven young athletes who pushed themselves hard. They would just need to keep training, be patient and trust the process.

Signs of growth

Our next tournament didn't go much better, but by mid-season we started showing signs of growth. By season's end we reached the finals of our last two tournaments and even briefly led 14-13 in the first set over a national team that had pummeled us twice in January.

The next season most of the girls returned to the team and, now competing on an even playing field age-wise, the tables were turned. We won nearly 80 percent of our matches, captured two tournament titles, reached the finals or semifinals of nearly every other tournament we entered and grew into the kind of team that we knew was within our grasp.

We now could look back at January 23, 2016 and laugh about it. We had developed into almost a totally different team.

A virtue in short supply

I think the most important trait to the team's transformation was something that few of us, myself included, likes to practice: patience.

Patience is a virtue that seems in short supply in this age of Snapchat, instant messaging, text messaging, Instagram, mobile technology in general and most everything else coming to us in a matter of seconds. I believe the vast majority of families and coaches at Serve City don't really fall into this category, but lack of patience, and accompanying perspective, can be an issue in any club:

  • Coaches expecting their teams to come together quickly and play championship-caliber volleyball from the first tournament of the season onward.
  • Athletes expecting to play at an elite level after three weeks of practices, let alone three years.
  • Parents expecting their daughter's team to beat opponents loaded with more experienced and talented national team players after a dozen practices under their belt.

Patience seasoned with perspective is critical to our athletes' and teams' development and enjoyment of the game. Take the Elgin 14U team as an example. If the players had decided after our early-season and mid-season drubbings to just give up and go through the motions the rest of our season, we wouldn't have continued improving throughout the season. Most of the girls would have quit club after the season came to a close. Then, they would have missed out on an amazing 2016-17 season and all the strides we made and the successes, relationships and good times that followed.

There are countless other examples of how patience contributed to eventual success for a team or athlete. The Chicago Cubs sure come to mind!

Change of perspective

The biggest key to developing patience as a coach, athlete or parent is constantly reminding yourself why you're involved in this sport. If you only coach or play volleyball because you want to win, then you're in this sport for the wrong reason. If you're only content as a volleyball parent if your daughter or son's team is winning, then you need a change of perspective.

Yes, you should practice, play and coach to win and congratulate your child whenever the team does win. But, more importantly, you should practice, play and coach out of enjoyment for volleyball and a desire to keep learning, growing and becoming the best player or coach you can be for your team.

And realize that your involvement in volleyball is a marathon, not a sprint. Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better. Becoming a great player doesn't happen in the first tenth of a mile or the final tenth of a mile. It takes place in the 26 miles in between.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

What a Serve City practice looks like

by Jeff Smith

Our club's training philosophy looks different at a 12U practice than it does at an 18U practice for obvious reasons. But the same general principles should be evident at any Serve City practice regardless of the age, experience levels or skill development of the athletes.

Besides our last blog post about our training philosophy, the best way to explain this philosophy is to show it by walking you through a detailed description of one of our practices. Here is the Wheaton 18 Blue team's January 16 practice as an example. I substitute coached that practice for our 18 Blue coach, Coach Cody, that day. Four of the 11 players were attending the shoulder risk reduction clinic hosted by our partner Olympia Chiropractic and Physical Therapy, so I wasn't able to use the coach's pre-written practice plan. Instead I crafted a practice plan that met the needs of an 18U team of seven players.

Here's what we did from start to finish.

7:00 p.m.: 2v0 cooperative split court

In this warm-up drill, two players deliver the ball back and forth over the net using three contacts each time (all passing and setting), running quickly under the net to track down the ball and keep it alive. Our emphasis was passing the first contact high and off (away from) the net. Great drill for improving ball control, warming up and conditioning while playing volleyball.

7:05 p.m.: two groups of 1v1 and one group of 1v1+1 cooperative split court

In 1v1, one player is on one side of the net and her partner is on the other side from her. Players passed the ball back and forth to each other using one contact for one minute, then using two contacts (pass to self, set over the net to your partner) and finally using three contacts (pass to self, set to self, hit the ball over the net to your partner). Our emphasis was passing the first contact high and off the net and staying in balance.

In 1v1+1, two players are on other side of the net as passers and a third player is the rotating setter; she runs back and forth under the net to set the ball for each of her teammates, with players continually delivering the ball over the net in three contacts. (Cooperative refers to the players working together to string together as many consecutive three-contact series as possible instead of going for the kill and winning a rally, which is a competitive drill.) The emphasis was on conditioning and controlling the ball with the platform and hands.

7:15: 1v1 competitive split court

With their shoulders and bodies now warmed up, we played halfcourt rallies of 1v1. Each rally began with a serve. Players were playing solo against their teammates, so they were allowed and encouraged to use three contacts, passing to self, setting to self and then hitting the ball over the net. If a player won a rally, she moved to the serve receive side of the court. If a player lost a rally, she moved off the court and grabbed another volleyball while awaiting her next turn to serve. The emphasis here was on looking across the net before delivering the ball over the net to spot the open areas that you could attack.

7:20: 1v1v1 competitive split court

This is a terrific game for passing, bettering the ball and conditioning. One player is on either side of the court with a third player setting. One player serves to the other player, who passes to the setter. The setter sets back to her, and she attacks the ball and then runs quickly under the net to become the setter for the player on the other side of the net who was the original server. This same pattern continues as the player who delivers the third contact over the net is always responsible for then running under the net and acting as the setter for the other player. Points are awarded to whichever player ends a rally with either an ace or a kill.

7:25: Bjerring split court tournament

Players were divided into three teams of two and one team of one for three different rounds of 2v2 (doubles) or 2v1 when the solo player was playing. Scoring methods changed for each round. For round one, teams could only use forearm passing and overhead passing so the players could work on delivering aggressive free ball "attacks" into the opponent's court.

For round two, players were only awarded points if they won a rally off either a service ace or a kill off a standing or jump hit. For round three, players could only score points by winning a rally off either a service ace or a jump hit for a kill. The latter rounds encouraged an aggressive approach to serving and offensive play using back-row, front-row and free-ball attacks instead of playing it safe.

7:40: 15 Queens full court

Players were divided into two teams of two and one team of three and played full-court Queen of the Court, which especially stretched the serve receive and defensive abilities of the two doubles teams. One team served to a second team while the third team waited behind the end line to serve next as soon as the rally ahead of them ended. The serve receive team stayed on its side of the court if it won the rally. The serving team ran to the serve receive side of the court if it won the rally, and the waiting team then quickly took the court to serve next.

Fifteen refers to the total number of points a team needed to score to win the game. For points 1-5, a team could only win a rally using forearm and overhead passing or an ace. For points 6-10, a team had to win a rally only using a standing attack or an ace. For points 11-15, a team could only score a point off an ace or a jump hit for a kill.

We also worked extensively on zone serving in this game. Servers looked to me before each serve to signal what zone, or area, of the court they were to serve to. I gave each server a wide range of different zones to target, so the players got valuable experience zone serving to a variety of spots.

7:50: Corners Queens

This is a game I recently devised. It is played as Queen of the Court except with a couple of challenging twists. All serves had to be delivered from zone 1 (right back) or zone 5 (left back) to either zone 1 or zone 5 on the serve receive side of the court. I gave players their zones to serve from and serve to. If they hit their zone they earned a bonus point for their team in addition to earning a point for winning the rally.

However, there were two catches. The first catch was they could only earn a point for winning a rally if they delivered the ball to zone 1 or zone 5 on the opponent's side of the net. The other catch was that, if they served the ball to zone 6 (middle of the court), their team would not receive a point for winning the rally. The reason for this rule was to emphasize serving and hitting to zones 1 and 5 instead of safely to zone 6, the easiest zone for teams to pass to their setter in serve receive and on defense.

8:05: Hitters vs. Defense

We were able to play about 12 quick-paced rounds of hitters vs. defense. This game featured a back-row passer, one setter and one hitter receiving free balls and converting them into pass-set-hit opportunities while the other four players played defense and attempted to prevent the hitter from recording any kills. Everyone played at least one round as a hitter. One setter hit from right back for one round to work on back-row attacks, while the other setter hit for one round as a right-side hitter, and the setters alternated setting on the hitter side and defending on the defensive side.

The other five players hit for two rounds apiece, with the outside hitter who was at practice hitting one round at outside hitter and one round hitting a new gap quick set, 41, we worked on for a few minutes. The middle hitter who attended practice hit 1s (quick sets) from the middle as well as the 41 gap quick set for a few minutes, and our libero and two defensive specialists each hit from middle back and left back to sharpen their back-row attacking skills.

This was a good drill for working on numerous skills at once, another staple of this training philosophy (multi-skill drills vs. single-skill drills): defending against front-row and back-row attacks, hitting a variety of shots from different positions on the court, setting a range of different hitters and types of sets (high sets, back sets, quick sets, gap sets, back-row sets) and even hitting to specific areas of the court. (The middle hitter was instructed to work on her wrist-away shots to zone 5, and the outside hitter was asked to only attack the ball cross court and to the high line.)

8:30: 30 Before 10

Since we were shorthanded that day, I volunteered my nearly 50-year-old shoulder to alternate serving with one of the other players at a team of six players on the other side of the net. The goal of the team of six was to deliver 30 pass-set-hit series over the net and into the court before the  two servers reached 10 service aces. Missed serves counted as a point for the side of six. The two servers served aggressively to make the side of six earn every point. We played three rounds of this game, with three different players joining me as servers. The team was able to receive roughly 140 serves in less than 20 minutes, a high volume of serves that sharpened their serve receive skills.

8:50: Zone Serving Queens

We finished with a fast-paced round of Queen of the Court with two teams of two and one team of three and the servers looking to me for their serving zones. In 10 minutes everyone served at least three times, and I gave them a wide range of different zones to serve to, particularly the short front-row zones (2 to right front, 3 to middle front and 4 to left front) so the players could get practice serving the short zones of the court.

9:00: dismissal

Thanks largely to the energy and efforts of the players, this practice met the four criteria of our club's training philosophy:

Gamelike: Every drill and game took place over the net and, in most cases, each rally started with a serve, or at least a free ball or standing attack. Nearly every rally was played out until the ball was dead, too.

Random: No rallies began with a pre-determined toss from a coach or teammate. Most rallies started with either a serve or a standing attack delivered randomly to different players. Athletes had to read, plan and execute the proper skills instead of receiving an easy toss from a coach or digging a hit from a coach standing on a box that required no reading of an opponent's actions.

Competitive: To increase the competitive nature of this practice, we scored everything and kept a competitive cauldron. Players earned 1 point for every game or drill in which they finished with the highest score of their teammates. For example, the hitter who finished with the most kills in Hitters vs. Defense earned a point for winning that game. Then, at the end of practice we added up the scores and determined which player won the most games and drills to win the competitive cauldron.

High energy: Each drill and game was performed at a fast pace. The only stoppages in play were to explain a game or drill beforehand, detail the scoring methods and rules for games and drills and occasionally to offer feedback and teaching points or ask questions as needed. By my rough estimate, the average player in this practice got well over 900 touches on a volleyball along with over 1,000 different reads of the opponent on the other side of the net; the latter of which is one of the most under-taught and under-emphasized skills in our sport.

The practice also stretched the players in many ways, introduced them to a few new concepts and was a lot of fun to play and coach.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Producing 'feisty, prepared players': the purpose behind our training philosophy

by Jeff Smith

Shortly after Serve City Lifezone 15 Blue had captured first place at the United Invitational on January 20, we received a text from a parent of one of the 15 Blue players. The end of the message read, "All the girls were going for the ball, and it’s clear that the Serve City coaching philosophy is resulting in feisty, prepared players who overcome a talent/size gap."

volleyball hitter for Facebook.jpg

That parent had just provided a great summary of Serve City's volleyball training philosophy.

Random, game-like, competitive

Serve City teams don't train like the typical volleyball club. Players who join Serve City from other clubs take a little while to adjust to our different training approach. I coached 18U, 16U and briefly 15U at another Chicago-area club prior to coming to Serve City. Although this previous club was beginning to dabble in the newer training philosophy, the coaches largely embraced the old methods of training. My ideas on training, learned from the science of motor learning, were seen a bit skeptically.

Many clubs are stuck in the same training methods they used 15, 20 to 30 years ago. Why? Because "it worked then and it works now," even though extensive research of learning methods in volleyball and sports in general clearly show that there is now a more effective training style available.

Motor learning: what science says training should look like

Our philosophy on player development is built on the science of motor learning: that volleyball athletes and teams learn and grow best when practices are structured around random, game-like, competitive, multi-skill drills and games.

What does a random, game-like, competitive drill or game look like? One of numerous examples is Queen of the Court. and its many variations. In game-like drills like Queens, players practice multiple skills at the same time under the direction of their coach. The game closely mimics an actual game of volleyball, and the athletes learn how to serve, receive serves, pass, set, hit, dig, read and anticipate what the opponent is doing on the other side of the net and make decisions on the fly in a challenging, competitive, game-like setting. No coaches stand on hitting boxes or toss easy sets to hitters, and balls are only received and delivered over a net, not artificially across the width of a court to a partner.

Feisty and prepared

This training approach helps players enjoy the most transfer from practices to matches (i.e., retain the most learning) and teaches players to understand the game and think quickly and creatively on their feet as they improve their technical skills, resulting in feisty, prepared players, as the Lifezone 15 Blue parent above noted.

Athletes in a club like ours especially benefit from this style of training. The "elite" athletes tend to migrate to the largest clubs that boast the highest team achievements, the greatest training budgets and the most on-court success. These top-level athletes then play for national, or travel, teams that practice 6-9 hours a week, receive 1-2 additional hours of private training and compete in 25-30 tournament dates over the course of a seven- to eighth-month season.

For Serve City to field competitive teams against these clubs, our athletes need some sort of edge, especially since our teams practice fewer hours a week and play a lot fewer tournaments than most other Chicago-area clubs due to our family-friendly cost structure and schedule.

In short, we have to squeeze the absolute most out of our training time.

Accomplishing more with less

That's one reason why many of our teams also run fast-paced practices. Our training philosophy lends itself to high-energy practices that pack large volumes of learning into shorter practice sessions. One dad, after watching one of my team's practices a couple of years ago, said to me, "You accomplish more in one practice than most coaches accomplish in two."

To be fair, that's largely out of necessity. Highly structured, intensely paced practices are designed to prepare our athletes as much as possible for tournament play against opponents who have the advantage of practicing more hours and with larger budgets than our teams do. We need to make our practices so challenging that our matches seem easy by comparison.

Following USA Volleyball's lead

We can't take credit for the randomized, gamelike training method. We have patterned our philosophy after the same training model used by the world's top volleyball organization, USA Volleyball. Our sport’s national governing body believes gamelike, randomized training -- not isolated, single-skill, blocked training (here is an example of a blocked digging drill) -- is the most surefire way of helping athletes develop skills and retain learning for the long term.

Not practicing to look good in practice

Game-like training can make practices sometimes look a bit chaotic, sloppy and ugly -- kind of like volleyball can look in an actual match in a sport where statistics show that 56 percent of all rallies are played out of system. But practicing these principles will ultimately help us develop better-equipped, more well-rounded and more competitive-minded players who are prepared to perform where it matters most: in the heat of a match.

Serve City teams don’t practice to look good in practice. We practice to improve and to perform well in matches.

U.S. women’s national team coach Karch Kiraly is one of the world's biggest advocates of this training approach.

“We are training to perform, not to drill," the three-time Olympic gold medalist notes. "All of the science tells us that we do the most learning when practice looks like an actual game – which is really random and not just super controlled. That governs just about everything we do in the gym. We’re trying to make every second count in our gym as much as possible to make the most transfer (of skills) we can get.”

I will unpack this training philosophy in greater detail over the next few weeks.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Is my child burned out on volleyball? Three tell-tale signs to look for

by Jeff Smith

My first season as a club volleyball coach was with an 18U team at a club in Aurora. Being new to the 18U level, I expected the girls on our roster would be the most driven players I'd ever worked with. I figured that anyone who still played club as a high school senior must be highly motivated and deeply love the sport.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The team's top player sometimes looked like she wanted to be anywhere but on a volleyball court. She was a senior who had signed to play volleyball at a local college but who frequently seemed disinterested in anything volleyball related.

After a few frustrating practices dealing with her on and off attitude, one day at practice our team was talking during a water break about another of the club's teams whose starting middle hitter missed practice because she had a conflicting track meet. "I wish I could play a second sport," Mary revealed to us. "Track, softball, even bowling. It'd be fun to try something new."

I later found out that Mary had followed her father's wishes and devoted herself to only playing volleyball since eighth grade. For some kids that isn't an issue at all. For Mary, though, it was a source of frustration. Playing the same sport year round for school, club and beach volleyball for five straight years had taken its toll.

Even though she was just months away from realizing a dream of playing in college, Mary was tired of volleyball. She still loved the sport but had grown weary of the grind of playing 11 months a year. As a senior, she now struggled just to maintain her focus for a full practice.

In short, Mary was suffering a classic case of burnout.

Mary isn't alone. Burnout is a growing problem in our sport due to the increasing demands on players, mostly at the national (travel) team level.

If you're an older player like Mary, or even a younger player who only recently began playing the sport for longer stretches, burnout is an issue that you need to be aware of. If you're a parent of a club player, it's important for you to recognize the tell-tale signs of burnout in your kids.

Burnout can show up in numerous ways. Here are three classic symptoms.

Chronic injuries

One of the biggest sources of burnout is the injury bug. An occasional or one-time injury is to be expected in any sport. But when an athlete begins suffering an injury or series of injuries that they can't seem to shake for months or that lingers and festers for years, such a spate of aches and pains can take its toll on the player's love for the game.

In Mary's case, she had a sore shoulder and a reconstructed knee that had undergone an ACL tear and resulting surgery the previous year. Her body had yet to fully recover from either injury.

Dr. Griffin Gibson, owner of Olympia Physical Therapy and Chiropractic in Bartlett, told me recently that year-round one-sport athletes are one of Olympia's most frequent clients. It's no surprise when you consider that overuse injuries are so common for athletes who play the same sport for nine to 11 months a year for years on end. The wear and tear of volleyball hitting or serving or blocking tens of thousands of times between August and April or May can lead to problems with your knees, ankles, feet, shoulders, elbows, hands or other parts of the body.

Dr. Griffin said chronic overuse injuries don't go away easily. In fact, he said the only way they are ultimately resolved is by taking months off from that sport. Otherwise the injuries and the pain and discomfort associated with them can have a debilitating effect on a player's enjoyment of the sport. A game they once loved can become drudgery as they struggle to deal with daily ailments and the medication, extra stretching and additional precautions required to prepare their body to perform.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Don't wait until your body is in pain to do something about it. Pain is the last resort, your body's way of grabbing your attention after other attempts were unsuccessful. Take good care of your body and give it the proper rest and exercise it needs to stay healthy.

Distracted mind

Concentration was a struggle for my former player Mary. As a national team, we practiced three times a week from November to June. Mary displayed a lack of focus that made it difficult for our team to have productive practices some days. She was the best player on the team, but sometimes 30-45 minutes into practice she seemed distracted and couldn't execute plays. She would be her old self for two or three drills and then mentally check out for the next two drills. It was annoying to her teammates and to us as coaches.

Sports is more mental than anything. In Mary's case, the cumulative impact of hundreds or even thousands of intense practices over 11 months a year for five years had worn her down. Whereas some athletes remain focused and intent into and throughout college, Mary's heart wasn't into the sport anymore, and her mind followed. She needed a break from the sport in order to regain her passion and focus.

Lack of motivation to practice, play or win

To help Mary find her inner drive for volleyball again, I tried making practices more game- and competition-based, setting up as much of our practices as possible to be competitive to make training more fun and game-like. This approach made little difference in Mary's attitude. Even scrimmages with other teams in our club barely registered a blip of excitement for Mary.

When I discussed Mary's struggles with our club director, the director said Mary used to be the most competitive-minded volleyball player she had ever encountered. "She was the kind of player who would dive for every ball, track down every errant pass and sacrifice her body for a point in a heartbeat," the director revealed. "She doesn't have that same drive anymore."

A few consecutive years of non-stop tournaments and matches in club, school and sand volleyball had sapped Mary of her love for competition. She had played in so many matches over the years that tournament day had lost its luster, as had the opportunity to compete in practice. You could see it in her eyes. While the 16U team couldn't wait to take the court against our 18U team whenever the two teams scrimmaged in practice, Mary didn't care. It was a case of been there, done that, and so she largely went through the motions. She was skilled and experienced enough that she could still more than hold her own even when sliding by giving maybe 80 percent effort. But she no longer left her fingerprints all over a game or match.

When I became girls club director at Serve City, I decided to apply two lessons from my experience with Mary when creating policies and procedures for our club that would help guard athletes against burnout.

1. Insert intentional down time in the club calendar.

This meant starting the club season the week after Thanksgiving so that our high school players have 4-6 weeks off to recuperate between school and club season and our middle school players have 6-7 weeks away from the game. I also implemented a nearly three-week-long Christmas break as well as a seven-day spring break away from the court. These rest periods provide the recovery time needed to keep our athletes healthy and fresh throughout the season.

2. Avoid over-scheduling.

My previous club's 18U team played a taxing schedule of 4-5 tournaments a month from January to June. A couple of months we played at least one tournament a week for the entire four-week period. Besides playing in a Power League, our team competed in 1-3 one-day tournaments each month. Some months we would play Saturday and Sunday, then the following Sunday, then the next Saturday and then the next Saturday and Sunday, not getting a weekend off for five weeks.

Most of the girls thoroughly enjoyed the competition, but by May and June it had become too much. Players were now dealing with overuse injuries; for one late-season tournament we were down to six healthy players and had to promote a freshman from the 15U team to fill out the roster.

At Serve City, our philosophy is to schedule no more than 3-4 one-day tournaments each month and sometimes only two tournament dates. Any more than three and the schedule dominates too much of the lives of the athletes and their families and crosses the line from fun and exciting to feeling like a job instead of a passion. It means our teams don't compete as often as most other clubs, but it promotes a healthy life balance and prevents the kind of burnout that can rear its ugly head if you're not intentional and careful.

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.

Is your daughter interested in playing college volleyball? Here are 5 keys to achieving her dream

by Jeff Smith

It's a hard truth: Few high school volleyball players go on to play in college. In fact, the latest statistics show that just 5.8 percent of four-year high school players continue the sport collegiately.

During a break between high school clinics on January 5, one of the players asked me what I thought she needed to do to earn a college scholarship. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability. Tens of thousands of high school and middle school athletes dream about playing volleyball after high school. Perhaps your daughter is one of those athletes -- or you are a high school or middle school player who dreams of competing in college.

With fewer than six out of every 100 high school volleyball players moving on to the college ranks, it takes much more than passion to turn this dream into reality. I've personally coached only about a dozen athletes who went on to play collegiately, so I asked coaching colleagues what they would tell young players who want to play at the next level. Most of the coaches who responded are current or former college coaches.

The coaches' words of wisdom fell into five categories:

1. 'Out-work everyone'

Work ethic was the coaches' clear-cut No. 1 piece of advice. The competition for spots on college rosters is fierce. To stand out from the crowd, "Be in the top three at every practice for work ethic and intensity," one coach said. "You may not have the best practice, but out-work everyone each day."

I saw this first hand with the handful of players who went on to play in college. They not only exhibited an excellent work ethic in practices and matches but honed their skills and volleyball IQ outside of club and school.

One of the most recent college players, Taylor, was always one of my shortest players. She peaked out at 5 feet 3 as a sophomore in high school. But Taylor was a relentless worker. Even during school season she would go to a local volleyball facility and play four or five hours of open gym games on weekends. When she picked up Taylor from practice on Mondays, her mom would tell me how Taylor was at open gym the whole afternoon on Saturday playing one game after another.

Taylor loved volleyball and was driven even then to play collegiately. Today she is a starting libero at a university in Tennessee. Her persistence, perseverance and several years of passionate practice paid off handsomely.

2. 'Be an elite learner'

One college coach mentioned that character matters greatly in the recruiting process. One of the main characteristics that coaches look for is a teachable attitude. Volleyball is a deep and complex sport. Even at the highest levels, there is always something new to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you still have to learn.

A voracious appetite to continually learn is essential to developing into a college-worthy volleyball player. Learn as much as you can from coaches at each practice. Participate in camps, clinics and classes outside of club and school. The day you think you know it all is the day that your game will start to stagnate or even back-slide and other players your age who keep learning, grinding and striving will eventually pass you by.

One coach put it this way: "Be an elite learner. Ditch your ego. You're 15; you aren't a finished product. Working hard, being versatile, being creative and other qualities don't matter in my opinion until you have a kid who's truly ready to learn and grind."

3. 'Be the best student they can be'

For obvious reasons, college coaches strongly prefer signing student-athletes who excel academically. Several coaches mentioned academics as a key quality they seek out when recruiting.

"If she wants to play here, work hard on the court and work harder in the classroom," one coach said.

"Be the best student they can be," another coach commented. "Get good grades, nail the SAT and research financial aid opportunities. Get exposure by attending Math Camp and Mock Trial and other academic events."

4. 'Don't get pigeon-holed into a single role'

Specializing at one position is typical, especially at the high school level. But don't get too tied to one spot on the court. A lot of players end up moving to different positions in college. A right side moves to the middle. A middle moves to the right side. An outside hitter becomes a libero. A setter transitions to defensive specialist.

"Don't let yourself get pigeon-holed into a single role," one coach said. "You never know what the college coach needs or sees in you."

Another college coach said coaches at his level are always in need of one type of player in particular: "If you can pass and defend well, you can play at a lot of places."

5. Promote yourself to college coaches

Most college programs have limited recruiting budgets. Unless they are a top-level Division I program like Nebraska or Penn State, they don't have the resources to unearth hidden gems and diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail.

If success in real estate is about location, location, location, success for athletes in the recruiting game is about promotion, promotion, promotion. From videoing your matches and uploading them to YouTube or other websites to provide easy access for college coaches to contacting coaches at the colleges you're interested in playing at, you'll need to take initiative if you'd like to grab a prospective college's attention.

"Start telling college coaches they are interested in their programs," one coach said.

Another coach recommended, "Be persistent. Email and contact coaches on a regular basis where you'd like to play. Make sure to always put a link to your playing video in the emails that you send to coaches."

Bonus tip

One long-time college coach left one final piece of advice for young athletes who want to play beyond high school.

"If playing volleyball is the only concern, there is a program for everybody," he said. "If money or the quality of the education or the (school size) or the competitiveness of the team factor in, that will limit your options. But there is a program for anyone who wants to play. I used to coach one of those programs."

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Fearful or fun? It's all in your perspective

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by Jeff Smith

The first high school tournament I coached started promisingly. Our team finished in second place in our pool to earn a spot in the playoffs. In the quarterfinals we faced the No. 1 seed, which featured the most imposing player in the tournament, a 6-foot dynamo who dominated the net with her hitting and blocking and possessed the most dangerous jump serve in the field. No one expected our team to have a chance against the tournament favorites.

With no pressure on our shoulders and nothing to lose, our team played loose and free early, building a 19-13 lead in a single-elimination set to 25 points. But, standing just six points from a huge upset and a berth in the semifinals, our mood turned from fun to fearful. We began focusing on the scoreboard and took our eyes off the process of playing solid volleyball. Our performance suffered as a result. Our six-point advantage quickly disappeared. Trailing 24-23, one of our team's most reliable servers fittingly ended the loss by shanking a serve into the net.

Afterwards, we went home kicking ourselves for letting our mood suddenly change from footloose to foot in the mouth in a matter of seconds.

Have you or your team experienced this kind of defeat? You're not alone. Most teams from the professional ranks down to recreational leagues go through this same thing at some point. It's commonly referred to as choking or "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Even the world's greatest athletes have had infamous moments where they've tightened up and lost a game or match they probably should have won.

The age-old question is how do you avoid the so-called "gag reflex"? Here are five lessons I've learned, and re-learned, while coaching -- and occasionally choking -- over the last 20 years.

See each game as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

Whether you're playing in the finals of a tournament or against a higher-seeded opponent or in a single-elimination match, your perspective influences your performance more than anything. If you think of what you could lose out on if your team is defeated -- losing the championship trophy, getting ousted from the tournament, squandering a shot at the playoffs -- you're more likely to experience a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But if you focus instead on the possibilities in front of you -- winning the championship trophy, advancing in the tournament, earning a shot at the playoffs -- your whole mindset changes.

  • When we play a tougher opponent it's an opportunity to see what we're made of, learn how much we've progressed as a team and test our skills against a strong foe.
  • When we compete in a single-elimination tournament, it's an opportunity to experience the thrill of winning elimination games and display the heart, character, talent and unity that we know we have as a team in an exciting format that brings out the best in teams like ours.
  • When we participate in the finals of a tournament, it's an opportunity to show our stuff, experience the highest of highs and support and celebrate with each other on club volleyball's biggest and brightest stage.

Embrace the moment.

I used to dread close games as a high school basketball player. It showed in my play. My last game in high school I bricked a wide-open jump shot from the foul line with 10 seconds left in regulation that would have tied the score.

As a coach, though, with more maturity under my belt and a perspective seasoned by lots of last-second losses as a player, I learned to love and relish the excitement of a closely contested game.

When you go into a playoff match or the deciding set of a match with the mindset that what you're doing is fun and thrilling to be part of, it drowns out your fears and changes your whole point of view. You then control your emotions instead of your emotions controlling you, and the moment at hand brings out the best in you. You revel in these moments instead of fearing them.

As a coach, I tell my players often during huddles and between sets of a "big" match that "This is so much fun. I love these moments. Enjoy every point of this." It makes a significant difference to your players when they see and hear you embracing the moment.

Focus on the process, not on the outcome.

It takes a conscious effort to ignore the scoreboard and set your attention on the process of doing the best you can with your serving, passing, setting, hitting, blocking, digging and supporting one another. And it never seems to carry over from match to match. Once one game is over, you have to consciously tell yourself to focus on the process and not the outcome in the next game, too. It takes discipline and intentionality.

But it is very much worth it.

The more you do this, the more it becomes a trained habit. You'll find yourself so absorbed in a game that the scoreboard doesn't seem to exist or matter. My school team was playing in the conference tournament finals last fall. The match was hard fought for three sets before we made a huge run and won the championship. Funny thing is, my reaction to winning was different than my players. I didn't realize it was match point until seeing my players run to the middle of the court to celebrate. I was so immersed in the process that I hadn't been looking at the scoreboard.

This is more than ironic since, as a player, the scoreboard dominated my attention sometimes to my detriment. It took years of practice to develop this new habit.

Be relentlessly optimistic.

Due to my own insecurities as a player, I learned as a coach to establish a positive environment for my own players during high-pressure games. I knew from my own experience that some of them would be nervous heading into a championship match or important game. They didn't need me making matters worse by being too tough on them or berating them. They needed support.

As a teammate or coach, the more positive you can be with your words, your tone of voice and your body language (all three are crucial), the better off your team will be. If your teammate botches a key serve, be the first player to give her a fist bump or a word of encouragement. If your players start struggling in serve receive, give them a quick tip of what to do ("Remember: quiet platform") and, more importantly, a reminder that they'll be fine. ("We've got this.") If you shank a pass out of bounds, maintain a positive "I'll get the next one" posture; your teammates are watching you.

"We'll get it right back. Next one's ours" is one of my pet phrases; it communicates belief in our team and tells everyone to forget the last point and focus solely on the next one.

Get creative.

Sometimes you'll have to be creative with your optimism when your team is especially uptight about a game. For his team's biggest matches, a coaching colleague of mine gives his team a "term of the day." It's a silly term that he makes up and uses during the match to help keep his players loose.

I started using his strategy in recent years. Last spring at Diggin' in the Dells our team was missing our starting outside hitters but had won our pool and reached the crossover gold medal bracket match. I knew some of the kids would be nervous about the match, particularly the players who were playing new positions in the lineup, so I came up with the term "fuzzy noodles" as our motto for the match. Yes, fuzzy noodles is a dorky term. That was the point. When we broke from a team huddle, we chanted 1-2-3 fuzzy noodles. If a player was looking fearful, I just called out "fuzzy noodles" and it seemed to break the tension with laughter.

The girls ended up winning the match to reach the gold bracket in part because we played loose, focused, hungry and confident. I wish I'd known this lesson back in my playing days.

Remind yourself and your teammates that this is a game.

If all else fails, as a coach or player you can tell your players or teammates the bottom-line truth: This is only a game. It's not World War III or a final exam. It's fun. Let's smile, celebrate each point like crazy and enjoy the moment. We've got this.

That simple reminder can deflate the pressure of a close match and put your team in the proper mindset to play loose, focused, hungry and free.

What do you do to be at your best in a big game?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

Are you living on the edge?

by Jeff Smith

Every coach has a pet peeve. Mine is the same pet peeve as Serve City's owner, Tim Maruyama:

Watching players continually play it safe.

As examples of this, I have to fight the urge to cringe or swallow my gum whenever seeing a high school player:

  • execute a standing serve when I know they are capable of a jump float or jump topspin.
  • hit a down-ball spike when the set warranted a three- or two-step jump attack.
  • constantly tip or push set (two-handed tip) the ball over instead of swinging at quality sets on the front row.
  • safely send a free ball to the opponent instead of delivering an out-of-system set and attack.
  • rely solely on high sets to the outside and middle hitters because the setter is afraid they'll make a mistake setting a quick, a shoot or even a back set.

Why do these things bother me? Because real growth only occurs when you're living on the edge of your abilities. And Coach Tim and I want every Serve City player from 12 Blue to 18 Blue to reach for and experience real growth.

No matter the age level, the primary point of club volleyball is the same: to learn and grow. And player development starts with you as a player being willing to learn and grow and extending yourself each practice to learn and grow.

USA Volleyball released results of a study a while back contrasting the training habits of good players with average to mediocre players. The study found that good players spent about two-thirds of their training time practicing the skills at which they were weakest. Average to mediocre players invested about two-thirds of their training time practicing the skills at which they were most adept.

The lesson from that study is clear. Players grow the most by spending the majority of practices working to turn weaknesses into strengths or mediocre skills into proficient skills.

It's studies like this on which Serve City has built our training philosophy. Serve City has established a training mindset that encourages coaches and their athletes to push themselves outside their comfort zone, creating a tiered system from 12U to 18U that sets high standards for what Serve City's teams will be striving to learn over the course of the season.

To be perfectly honest, training with a growth mindset is like swimming upstream. Many school coaches in particular teach their players to drive in the slow lane and avoid the fast lane of growth. It saddens me every time an athlete or parent tells me that their daughter doesn't jump serve because her high school coach prohibited it. I know why these coaches discourage jump serving: It's risky. Players are likelier to commit serving errors, which leads to points for the opponent and decreases the chance for a team victory. I totally get that.

But that's what team practice is for. Teach jump serving, or back-row attacking, or back setting, or quick sets to middle hitters and outside hitters, or other skills, in practice and let your players loose working on those skills in practice. Then the risk is reduced as they master new skills, and real growth takes place.

The most cringe-worthy moment of 2017 for me personally was observing my older daughter's first varsity match of the fall season. The team itself was a good, competitive team that I loved to watch. But it was disheartening to see only three players on the roster jump serving when eight of the nine players on my 7th- and 8th-grade school team were jump servers. Most of my daughter's teammates relied on safe serves that, although they almost always stayed in-bounds, were easily passed to the setter and resulted in some sort of an aggressive attack by the opponent.

By contrast, most of the opponent's servers were jump servers who pounded jump floats and topspin serves that frequently forced my daughter's team out of system.

Not surprisingly, the opposing team won.

The same goes with other skills. The most significant growth in setting skills, hitting skills, serve receive skills, digging skills and tactical and strategic skills takes place when coaches put their players on the edge of their abilities.

Is your setter proficient at high sets to the outside? Make sure she's spending most of her practice time learning how to set quicks and back sets and shoots or go sets. Does your team frequently struggle to pass to setter in serve receive? Invest lots of practice time teaching non-setters how and where to set teammates for out-of-system attacks. Is your team only skilled at hitting from the front row. Spend 30 to 45 minutes each practice working on setting and hitting back-row jump attacks. Is your 12U, 13U or 14U team too reliant on sending the ball over the net in one or two contacts? Set up scoring constraints in practice requiring them to always use three contacts in drills and games.

The nice part is, once an athlete or coach understands, accepts and then commits fully to playing on the edge of their abilities, or training their teams on the edge of their abilities, it eventually becomes a habit. Once you form the habit of regularly practicing and playing outside your comfort zone, you don't even have to think about it. You find yourself pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities all the time.

As a coach, what does living on the edge of your abilities look like? It means always pushing your team to get better. The other day I substitute coached our 18s team. Most of the girls have at least decent jump floats, so during serving/serve receive games I gave them zones to serve to with increasing difficulty. Once they were consistently hitting the back-row zones, I began signaling for players to serve the more challenging front-row zones. They missed the front-row zones more often than not, but by the end of practice some of them were beginning to figure it out. They were experiencing steps of growth and getting comfortable attempting something  that made them uncomfortable.

As an athlete, what does living on the edge look like? You work on a jump float or jump topspin serve during open serving at practice, or arrive early to refine it. If you already jump serve, you spend practice time working on improving it -- hitting it faster, flatter and with better locations on the court, such as ones 1 and 5 or the front-row zones. (I call it PTL: pace, trajectory, location.)

If you're an outside hitter, you invest time developing your ability to hit faster sets, or hit the perimeter of the court (high line, cross-court corner, sharp angle) instead of the safe middle, or learn or improve your off-speed attacks, or hit with more power by improving your technique of generating torque on the ball.

If you're a younger player, you decide you will no longer be satisfied with safely passing first contacts over the net and will work hard to deliver accurate first passes to your team's setters. Or you stop resorting to safely free-balling passes over the net from the front row and instead begin using your three-step approach that your coach taught you and jumping and swinging whenever you receive a decent set.

If you're a coach, you dedicate yourself to constantly pushing your team to learn and refine new skills, tactics and strategies. You remove the phrase "Just get it over" from your coaching vocabulary and look for opportunities to stretch your players' and team's skills and understanding of the game.

Will you immediately turn into a standout hitter, setter, passer, coach or jump server? Of course not. In fact, as players you will see yourself making more mistakes than ever before.

But mistakes are a good sign. It means you're stretching yourself, attempting new things and placing yourself on the path to real growth. If you're not making mistakes, you're not growing. It's that simple.

And as coaches, we need to applaud mistakes. That doesn't mean clapping loudly when Jane swings at a bad set that's six inches off the ground and pounds the ball into the floor. There's another little lesson called discernment that we need to teach our athletes, too. It does mean celebrating and encouraging aggressive, growth-focused mistakes.

Last summer one of the players in my 18U sand volleyball class was petrified at the thought of even attempting a jump float serve. But I made her and the rest of the class work on jump serving for five minutes each practice and occasionally required it during our games and drills. For weeks her jump serve erratically flew out of bounds or, more often than not, into the net. It took her hundreds and hundreds of repetitions, and plenty of feedback, but to her credit she stuck with it.

For a good six weeks or so she may have missed 100 or more of her jump serves. But by the end of the summer she had developed one of the best jump floats in the class. It's akin to developing a metal through the process of fire and refinement. The refining is painful and painstaking, but the end result is worth it.

So, for your next practice, go make some mistakes while learning new skills. Practice on the edge of your abilities. Strive to learn something new each training session. Soon enough you'll find yourself cringing whenever you see a player on another team stuck in no-growth safe mode. And you'll be glad you're no longer stuck in that mindset.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.