My return to coaching volleyball

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 30, 2010, 11:49 PM | comments: 0

A couple of months ago, I got in touch with the director of what appears to be one of the bigger clubs in Seattle. Long story short, we reached an agreement that I would coach their east side 17 national team ("Elite," as they call it, to differentiate it from the club teams).

My coaching story in a lot of ways began in college, when I played on a club team there. I really sucked at the game as a player, even though I really embraced a lot of the game theory. Since we were essentially self-coached, it forced me to think about the skills a great deal, in a technical way.

Two years after college, I was working my government TV gig, and got a request to post an ad on the cable bulletin board for a freshman coach at the high school. I thought, gosh, I can do that. The varsity and JV coaches were also new, and my age, so away we went. And that first year, I was terrible at coaching too. But on the up side, my own skills got better in a hurry, because I spent so much time breaking them down for the kids.

That second year went marginally better, but when I left the job in the suburbs, I also bailed on the program for a number of reasons. Part of it was the entitlement nonsense typical of suburban high schools (on the part of the parents, not the kids), but also because of the distance. After a year off, I discovered the club scene.

I made a random post on the OVR forums about wanting to coach, and while in Hawaii with Stephanie, on our honeymoon, I got a call from a club director in Cleveland about doing a 16 club team, and that began the long tenure with that club. It was a completely different scenario from high school. All of the kids actually wanted to be there, and you didn't really have to keep less talented kids. Parents just wanted their kids to be better so they could make their high school teams or play in college. People were just generally more motivated.

That club started out as all club teams, with one national team (we called them open at the time), a modest eight teams total. Over those seven seasons, it kept growing and growing, to something like 12 to 14 teams total, including a variety of open and club. I found my sweet spot to be 17 open/national (I don't remember when they changed the designation). OVR was a tough region, often home to national champs in each age division, and there was generally one club in each of the Ohio markets that was more dominant than the others. While we weren't that club in Cleveland, we kept getting closer, attracting more talent each year. My teams were generally ranking in the second fourth from the top most years, which was pretty gratifying since, with notable exceptions, my kids were fairly average. Trying to crack that top 25% was tough. We would crack it after going to out-of-region events, since they were worth more points, and other regions weren't as strong, but we'd still end up somewhere the bottom part of the top half.

That said, I often suspect we would have had greater success if my teams weren't continually robbed. There were these sisters that coached for the club that for some reason would get the club director to do whatever they wanted, and countless times I'd lose kids to their 18's teams. What annoyed me about this is that they never had better results for it. In all of the years I coached for that club, I only brought up two kids, and only then because they would very clearly be bored out of their skull and held back at the 16's level. It wasn't a decision I took lightly. Things went down hill in my last year with the club, but more on that later.

In 2005, my life was in total chaos. Stephanie and I separated toward the end of the JO season, and I was doing contract work at the time. My book had just come out, and I was plotting my next "real" career move. One of my dearest kids from the 2004 season got in touch with me about an open job at her tiny private school in Akron. She was second string for me, but emerged as a strong leader with great skills on her high school team, and I became close friends with her and her mom after the season. Needing desperately to get involved in something on a deeper level, I quit the contract work and took the coaching job, with no worries of teacher contracts or other nonsense to worry about in the event I wanted to stay with it.

This was, to put it lightly, a fixer upper. Our Lady of The Elms had 100 girls total, so literally one fourth of the school was in the volleyball program. As a tiny division IV school, they were used to playing other tiny (crappy) schools, and despite looking like a middle school team, rolled over most of their opponents the previous year. The athletic director, wanting to raise the game, scheduled matches against better teams and bigger schools, for which I was grateful.

By this time, I had some solid success stories with an adaptation of the swing offense, and despite it being far more advanced than anything these kids had encountered, I felt they could handle it since they were all above average in academics. Generally speaking, I was right, but just as I was teaching them the system, they were teaching me how to make it suit them. Every day they surprised me, and they caused me to question everything I thought I knew. It was the first team where kids embraced a generalist attitude, and it led me to an unlikely middle and an unlikely setter.

The season was challenging, in part because it's hard to convince kids that they're as good as they are sometimes, especially against those bigger schools. We had one match that we lost on an official's incompetence (opponent blocked out of bounds, and he couldn't figure out why that was our point). That was the most emotional I've ever been at a match, and the kids were as well. On the flip side, we beat a bigger, more talented private boarding school in our last home game, and it was easily the best moment I've ever had as a coach. Everything came together, and everything that I believed in had been validated that day.

In the end, despite having what I consider one of my greatest successes in life, I elected not to continue coaching with the school. I wanted to concentrate on my life and work, and create some stability as divorce was looming. There were too many parent issues at that little school too, most of which were about play time, their average record (they didn't understand that playing bigger schools meant they'd win less), delusions of D-1 scholarships, etc. The AD and I agreed that we were successful, and that was good enough for me.

(Side note: I'm still saddened by Emma's passing last summer. As the only sophomore on the team, she had the most to prove, and she delivered. She was such a funny, sweet and wonderful kid, and it bothers me to no end that she died so needlessly.)

In 2006 I went back to the club, and the sister coaches again got their way, and wrestled the 17's away from me. I got pushed to 18's, which was 80% leftover 17's. Most of the kids were going through the motions and not committed. I wouldn't say that the season was a loss, but it was hard to keep your heart in it when the kids were indifferent. Once again, we had a few bright spots, but it wasn't the level I was used to.

Later that year, the club director decided she was done, and without asking any of us who spent those years building the club to the borderline greatness it had achieved, she handed it over to some schmucks from another club. Actually, what she really did is hand over the mailing list and the name, because other than one guy who was friends with the other club guys, none of us went with it. We had been sold out. I spent a lot of time being very angry about that.

In 2008, I started out with the intention of coaching for another up and coming club, until they designated practice sites that were an hour plus away, and had teams sharing nets for practice. Yeah, national teams. It was completely absurd.

Since then, I got married, had a baby, moved 2,000 miles and all of that, and here I am today. I have a fairly positive opinion about the club. It's fairly organized, and the club director is full-time, which beats the crap out of a volunteer doing it to make sure that their kid has a place to play. It's his job. There are a few travel tournaments, to Las Vegas, Spokane and one in either Reno or Minneapolis (I sure hope it's Reno). I have no idea what to expect in terms of talent, as volleyball doesn't quite get the respect that it does in the Ohio Valley Region. I could have an epic team or one that's cosmically average. I'll have an assistant who is a current player for a local college, which will be a huge help.

It'll feel good to get back on that court.


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