The Score Takes Care of Itself

Jan. 31, 2010, 11:05 p.m. (ET)

 I have been watching my son play up this weekend against the teams in Men's A division here in Colorado. As I marvel at how well 17 and 18 year olds fare against the older, far more experienced men, one key thing comes to mind that we all need to do better. - To play one point at a time. If we can focus - one point at a time - on what we can control - attitude, internal focus and learning, body language, hustle, effort, communication and one's SERVE - well, the score takes care of itself. This is the title of a great book by Bill Walsh written long ago, but still timeless as ever. 

Mindful focus, deliberate practice, and mindful competition - that "right here, right now" focus that the USOC promotes to all athletes - is seen best measured and seen in the errors in serving. In the chaos of the game, playing up against men who hit faster and harder than those they have seen before - errors and misreads abound. Sue Enquist, 11 time NCAA Champion softball player and coach from UCLA, brilliantly puts her talent and skill as a coach  is that her job is simply "to be a relationship counselor between the athletes and their love of the game "- so we each need to be better at celebrating and guiding our players to relish and rejoice in the complete uncertainty of the game. What an amazingly fast, powerful, random, exciting game we get to PLAY.  Sometimes we play well, en route to playing even better, but sometimes we don't - but we should never stop playing and competing (remember, competition's latin roots are "to strive together," and need to get better at focusing on the fun, one point at a time.

In the joy of playing and letting the game teach the game, we should see the spirit of a game of tag, and the celebration of a hockey goal, along with the connections to teammates. The uniqueness of our game means every play ends in a point, each and every time. I so often say that I really don't care about the outcome of the game - for that is out of our control  - we have focus on those things one CAN control, serve being one of them - and thus - in countless timeouts - we celebrate hustle and effort and then focus on just this next point.  

Two sayings you might consider using in your gym that have become my favorites are:

               We can't control if we win or lose, but nobody will ever outhustle us.

               Hustle beats talent, when talent does not hustle.

I recently received a great email from a coach who has been using the fun scoring option we teach in IMPACT of the "Connect Four" scoring/game and getting her players to focus on the end of the game in small points. I think sharing a couple of excerpts here might give you ideas on doing the same. Christine wrote:

The difference this year, is that I reminded the girls in our timeout of our practice games and told them, "this is just a small game to 5 points, and then you can go put the token in the Connect 4 game.  I need you to play really hard for only 5 points, it's really that simple....and then you can drop the token."  The whole team laughed and realized that this wasn't such a difficult challenge, and plus they are really good at the volleyball version of Connect 4, so it eased their mind I think.

My team is pretty hilarious because they LOVE playing connect 4 in practice.  They squeal when the box gets brought out.  And we usually play some sort of game where the first team to reach 3 or 5 points first gets to play their colored token.  Little did I know that keeping the score low, and only making them play really hard for 5 points would help in this tournament situation when we usually seem to let up. 

To the boys playing men, beach juniors playing adults, and to any team challenging themselves by playing teams of higher talent or experience, remember that mistakes are just part of the learning process, so never be afraid of them, just forget about them. Stop giving them any attention by head hanging - for that also empowers the opponents who - due to the uniqueness of our sport - get to see each and every one of their opponent's body languages and post-whistle actions.  That play is done, GITOVERIT - and focus on what you can control - this and only this upcoming point.

Serving is such a key to winning at every level and the sooner you start practicing mindful repetitions in practice, worrying only about THIS serve point possibility, and making it go in tough and successfully, the better you get in the match. Stop wasting valuable practice time by serving mindlessly - just serving because it is time to serve. Work to make it be the weapon it really is, your first line of defense, and as it is in your COMPLETE control - be GREAT at it, not just good. Be CONFIDENT in it, the other team should be worried, not you.

Time for some "secrets" of mine in serving, for I love to serve teams off the court and love teaching serving (note, there are more serving thoughts in the players section of the grassroots button):  

Your serve should be simple - no step (does an accurate free throw shooter step?).

Your serve should be simple - arm already back ready to strike like a cobra, no hand on the ball stuff.

Your serve should be as simple as possible - even if doing a jump serve or floater. I teach a slide jump float as the first version, with no toss but more hitting a quick set given to yourself, with the hitting arm already back. The slide helps younger players learn the key torque movement naturally and more successfully I have found.

Your contact point should be consistent - rigid as a ping-pong paddle, never hitting your fingers, just the rock hard and predictable palm of your hand.

Your rhythm should be two count, no more,  for if more, you are getting too complex.

You should be relaxed - including, like a good free throw shooter shows,  a full, deep, mindful preparation breath.

You should always aim at flat spaces, never at a person.

And finally - you can "say" in your two count rhythm 1. "You're" -  low toss or place, then 2. "In Trouble" (fast swing and strike the ball) - for those opposing passers should be in trouble, each and every time you serve whatever serve option you chose.

Simple is key for great serving, the only "closed' motor program skill we have in our sport - the others are all "open," being determined by other's actions which we must respond to.  Gymnasts who do their own closed motor programs - including flips, handstands, splits and spins, while on a 4 inch wide balance beam three feet in the air - with no errors, show what level of errorless performance in risky situations can be achieved. We must serve better to win at any level.

Simple as possible, just like an accurate free throw shooter. Remember, those hoopsters can put eight balls out of ten from 15 feet away into a target that is about two square feet. We stand twice as far away from our target - 30 feet, but how big is our target?  About 900 square feet - roughly 450 times larger than they have....and you miss?

One final secret - as serving is so important, I used to teach serving a lot with everyone serving. Now I don't. I am coaching a boy's team at Cody's high school when the season starts, only two players on the team will have ever played before this year. We have to win the" serve-pass war" I write of in a chapter in the Minivolley book (remember, it went up Christmas day in the Grassroots Coaches section). So now, half our kids, not all, serve. The other half pass those live serves as best they can to the strip 5-10 feet off the net. No more "Everybody serve" moments. Half serve, half pass and the next time they switch. Yeah, it really can be a game, servers vs. passers, but right now, I just want the servers to know that "You're -- In Trouble" when they serve, and the passers to see live serves over and over and over again, passing the ball not tight, but ALWAYS off the net. Gotta be consistent and teach positive errors in every phase of learning. Add in "Speed Ball" and "Monarch of the Court," for a third or more of practice, and my practice plan is nearly set...  as we guide them to discover the joys playing for the joy of uncertain competition.

By the way, my son read this as I was writing it in the gym today on the laptop. He then went out helped his team beat the host college team in the pool crossover, 15-12, while he hit about .750 and did not miss a serve. So they get to stay up in Men's A for another tournament, a pretty good way to end the month of January 2010. Maybe he learned something from dad.....nah, don't kid yourself Kessel, it was just the randomness of the game and his time to shine.

Citius, Altius, Fortius all - and thanks for being a part of our sport.