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Primum Non Nocore

Nov. 08, 2010, 12:26 a.m. (ET)

Some of you may know the Hippocratic Oath, given to medical doctors. For those who do not know, it translates simply to First Do No Harm. This is a cornerstone in my philosophy of developing amazing leaders and growing the game. I believe this oath should be given to each coach, for in my decades of watching coaches teach, it is violated far, far, FAR too often.

Today I share some recent insights to email responses to my blog….Each one hurts to read, and I challenge those reading this blog, to do what you can to stop these coaches from staining our sport….

I found your blog. So many great moments in there.  I wish I could send some to my daughter’s coaches.  My heart is breaking for her. She is at the point of quitting because of them.  She has had it with the yelling, punishing practices, endless sprinting (resulting in dead legs for the next match), and most of all the "you suck!"s.  She said they have taken something she has loved for a long time and turned it into something she dreads….

 I also received this blind copy – again edited for generic use…

Coach, 

I have now played for you for two years and after much thought and searching I have decided the time has come to resign. I came into this school with my only love being volleyball.  I lived, breathed and talked about volleyball since I was 11 years old.  I feel as though you have tried to sabotage my success since I came to this college. I have had many different coaches in a wide range of sports over the years and you are the only coach I have been unable to connect with a positive way.  For whatever reason this is, I do not know.  I have maintained very high grades, I've never defied you or your directions, and I have given you all that I have. I am very sad to say I no longer love volleyball.  To be perfectly honest I have no feelings what-so-ever. I am tired of fighting a losing battle with you.  I have asked you why you hate me many times, and have yet to get a straight response. I am frustrated, depressed, and angry every day that goes by when considering our relationship, or in actuality or lack of one. I have tried to tell myself it is going to get better, but it hasn't, and I have never seen you take one step in a direction to improve it.

 You have constantly asked all the other players on my team if I have a bad attitude, what I do, and where I go.  I have never given you any reason to think that I have not been a loyal and respectable person.  I have never heard anything back but negative criticism from you, and I strongly believe that a player does not perform best under such circumstances.  All I ever desired was encouragement and your confidence in my abilities.  You might have been surprised at the results.  You recruited me, and I have been a starter on your team for the last two years. I had the best season of my life my freshman year and earned many honors.  I have no idea why you not believe in me as a player, because even now I still believe in myself. I had never been unsure of myself or my abilities until I played for you.

It hurts me more than anything to give up the one thing that has made my life complete, but I feel I must for my mental and emotional health.  I cannot continue to wake up every morning wondering if practice that night is going to be another session of me trying to impress you and to elicit a positive comment instead of negativity and disgust, coming from your direction.  I cannot continue to give you everything I have because you have given me nothing to work for and I have no more to give.  I am not motivated,  I am not passionate, and I have no desire left in me.   As a coach I believe that it was your job to give me encouragement and respect.  I believe that coaches should have confidence that their players can achieve anything.  I never got any of that from you.  There is nothing I can do to win your approval, and I longer seek it.

I respectfully resign from your team.  Thank you for the college experience that your coaching staff has given me and I wish you the best of luck this season and in the future.

I shared these two emails with some club director colleagues and not only found each one to agree with this harmful conduct, but one said that of their graduating players from this year now playing in college, that six of them had quit the game at the next level, due to the coach’s conduct. It hurt them to read these and it hurts our sport even more…

So how to we get to these coaches who fail to understand the science of sport and the principles of good teaching?  I guess that is why I keep writing these blogs, to somehow guide coaches to not be fooled by randomness and to break the cycle of bad coaching. I sense however that most these coaches are so entrenched in their habits, including not seeking out new knowledge and changing, that we are not getting to them even with the facts are shown to them.  Their main error may be that they think they are a “Volleyball Coach” and not coaching PEOPLE.  They know how to teach a volleyball – but not players. So I first wish to apologize to these players on behalf of those who do really coach, not those who call themselves professional coaches just because they get paid….and then write to all coaches with a reminder checklist letter of our job as a mentor of athletes…First up, a note to players…

Dear Player –

I am sorry for those in our sport who have chosen to not become the best teacher they can be of this amazing lifetime sport, while you seek to be the best player you can be. There is perhaps no more important a job of the coach than that guiding your love of the game to the highest heights possible.  This word love belongs in coaching…the best coaches lead with love and respect. Clearly the coach you currently have does not have those core values. In the end you see, the central theme of a coach is to teach and connect to values -

Those coaches who ignorantly, or even worse, blatantly chose to take you on their own selfish power trip of a my-way-or-the-highway journey, and do not let each player become empowered; we simply do not need in our sport – or any other sport.  This sport is in many ways the finest team sport ever created. Those coaches who fail to teach you as a person, and instead teach a sport, fail to miss the most important part of that sport – you, the player, a unique individual who deserves the best teacher possible.

I challenge you to not let these coaches drive you from volleyball….to be brave, be bold, be unique, be daring, be original, be random, be a risk taker, be athletic…and keep being yourself. Do not let them take away your love of the sport – focus on what you can control – so let’s review those so we work together to keep you in our game for a lifetime…

– Your effort (despite their failures to see it or know how to really get it to increase)

-- Your mastery (as the winning and losing are out of one player’s control, but working to increase your own mastery of the skills – both mental and physical – in the game are not)

– Your attitude (do not let them steal your love of playing this game)  

– Your conditioning (so you know you did all you could to be in your best shape for practice)

– Your serve (make yourself invaluable to the team by being the best server they have…)

– Your communication (talk positively to yourself and your teammates, even if the coach cannot)

-  Your “Right here, right now” focus of training and competition (not being worried about the things not in my control – as in the last point, or two points ahead –just this point is what matters)

I am going to close my note to you dear player, with a quote Christopher Robin told Pooh….”Promise me you’ll always remember you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think….   

Dear  Coach –

Get off your behind and start using your head to be a better teacher – You are supposed to be “a head” coach…not a “behind” coach….

So first and foremost, remember – you are NOT a VOLLEYBALL coach…you are a coach of PEOPLE. These athletes deserve your very best, and that starts with coach from a focus point of respect, and of trust.

You can’t control the score – it is random and out of your control. Let me rephrase that – the SCORE OF THE GAME IS OUT OF YOUR CONTROL. What you can control is your way of TREATING your players – with respect, with support, with teamwork – and better done in practice, but who knows what will happen in a game.  Plus, in the words of perhaps the best coach ever to help players in America, John Wooden, “You haven’t taught them if they haven’t learned…” So lets’ review a short list of things which a good coach can commit to doing…

I will first do no harm…

I will be consistent – not a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde coach…so my players can rely on me…

I understand how not to be a child’s last coach…

I will treat my players with the respect each one deserves…

I believe that players do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care…

I may not be great at math, but I do know that 50 percent is a big number and that fully 50 percent of the teams playing volleyball every day…lose…and will focus on the process, not the outcome...

I will teach the concepts of Olympism, and help all my players daily embrace the pathway of Citius, Altius, Fortius…  

I will not confuse being demanding with being demeaning, as sarcastic, demeaning behaviors have no place in our sport…

I will not mistake intensity with screaming and yelling – as a wise player named Cody Kessel once noted, watching a college coach rant and rave in a press conference….”Dad, how is a player supposed to learn self-control from a coach who has none?” – and know that that yelling at a player is simply a sign that MY teaching needs to improve, not my player’s learning…

I have read and understand the importance of "Me-We-They"  and the article on “How to Ruin a Volleyball Player.”

I know the answer to the question of “Do you want a brilliant collection of players or a collection of brilliant players” and will teach to empower my players over my own power….

I understand that I have chosen game that is very random, and will not be fooled by randomness, while staying calm and focused on the one point in our team’s control, this point…

I will simply smile wryly or even laugh, when the game’s randomness bites me with a 0-25 or so shellacking and not blame my team, but simply return to working on that which we can control – the next point…

I will never say a player is “uncoachable”as I know it is simply in the art of coaching, I need to find what motivates such a player to be in the gym with me, and how to trigger that player’s unique desires and needs that volleyball can deliver…

I will teach life’s lessons, while recognizing that our athletes are our teachers…

I realize I should use physical conditioning as either homework, so we can better skill develop during precious practice time, or as a REWARD for the winners, so my message about conditioning is consistent….

I believe Michael Jordan was right when he said that “talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence wins championships,” and will work hard to build that smart squad every day, on and off the court….

I will live my values in no small part by developing those of each team member, helping to unlock their potential and their abilities to learn faster…

I seek to create a culture of collaboration, play and of doing the extra…

Lets us work together to retain every player coming to your program, to grow in the love of volleyball, not lose it, starting with the conduct of the coach. As the pyramid narrows towards the top, not all will be able to compete at the higher levels, but EVERY player can continue to play this sport at a level they can love. Please, do your part to be a keeper of the flame, and not someone who extinguishes that flame.

If you have any ideas on how to help empower players, increase deliberate practice, and grow the love sof the sport, share them in the comments below or email me at john.kessel@usav.org.  On behalf of the players still to discover our sport, I thank you…

Comments

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On November 12, 2010 Richard Currey wrote

Mr. Kessel, My daughter began playing volleyball as a 12 year old. She is a hogh school junior now. I have a son who plays basketball as well, and these words are as true for his sport as they are for volleyball. Some coaches have decided that threats, punishments, and criticism will motivate an athelete to increase their committment and effort. The reality is that POSITIVE encouragement, recognizing the attempt, even if it wasn't successful, will go further with most atheletes than any other action could. I have always told my kids that 50% of all teams that play every day lose, and that as an athelete, you WILL lose matches. The mark of the best atheletes and coaches is not winning and losing but how you react to it. Knowing that you left your best effort on the floor is what gives you the satisfaction, not the final score. When you can take that 25-0 drubbing, and find a way to teach or learn something from it, while being able to say "next time it will be better" is what will make you able to continuously strive for improvement. These blogs have become one of my favorite reads on the internet. Your insight and approach to the game crosses boundaries, and I thank you. Rich Currey

On November 23, 2010 Angie Thoennes wrote

Thank you for all you taught me at the CAPI course. My cousin just told me of her daughters coach and how all they do is run lines for discipline and they are 13 and getting so discouraged. I am passing this on to her so she can show it to my little cousin and I hope she will make it through this season and continue to play and hopefully find there are good coaches out there. Some of this is going to be on the walls in our gym. Angie

On December 02, 2010 Robert Cowart wrote

[Part 1 of 4] Coach, this is a bit long-winded, but I hope you find it encouraging, knowing that your efforts to make a difference are not in vain. I have really enjoyed reading the various entries on the Growing the Game Together Blog. This latest entry is so incredibly spot-on!!! I would have never thought of the Hippocratic Oath in the context of coaching, but my experience over the last three years leads me to believe it should perhaps be considered as the foundation of quality coaching. I am just entering my 4th season coaching JO girls, and have also coached a few middle school teams between club seasons. When I was first asked to coach, my assumption was that this would be pretty easy. I had played in Germany and felt that I knew the game very well as player. I knew exactly what I wanted on the court, but soon realized that I was struggling to teach it to teenage girls (14s). Our practices looked a lot like a simple version of how my men's team practiced in Germany. Looking back it was far from ideal, but we enjoyed some success, finishing 6th (out of about 90 teams) in the southern region, albeit mostly due to the talent of girls more than my coaching. Of course I didn't see it that way at the time. I moved up with the team the following year (15s), returning six players and bringing six new players on board. We had upgraded our talent at multiple key spots and had real depth, which we lacked the year before. I had also attended a few coaching clinics to get better ideas for drills. Needless to say, expectations were high. We wanted a top-3 finish, and to qualify for nationals. To make a long story short, we failed... miserably. Uncontrolled drama within the team, made much worse by my own very obvious frustration (gestures, yelling, etc.) with our lack of execution (partly fueled by my lack of ability to recognize randomness), resulted in a disappointing season for players, coaches and families.

On December 02, 2010 Robert Cowart wrote

[Part 2 of 4] I literally spent months trying to process what had happened. In the end I decided to make a lot of changes to the way that I coached. Most of these changes were related to praise and criticism. The most important were... - Figuratively speaking I opened a "criticism account" with each player. Like a bank account, if you need to sometimes make a withdraw, you must first make deposits. Praise is a deposit which must be made many times before you can make a criticism withdraw. Before I would deliver tough criticism, I was always asking myself if I was in danger of writing a bad check. - Players were praised for anything they did right, but were only criticized for things that we had specifically taught and worked on in practice. If they made a mistake, but it wasn't something we had worked on, I might suggest a better option for them to try, but would stay away from being negative. Generally during matches I would just let it go, and add it to the to-do for future practices. - I started to coach intentions instead of results. Simply put... if a player failed to get the desired result, but the technique or tactic was correct, they were praised. If they got lucky and achieved a good result with improper technique or a poor tactical choice, they were corrected. As players instinctively strived for the coaches praise, they automatically pursued proper technique and tactics. - When correcting skills, players were praised for doing the skill differently even if it wasn't yet correct. I stressed that when I make a correction, I don't expect them to always get it right the first try. However, I do expect them to try. So I want to at least see that they perform the skill differently than before, a positive indication of the intention to make the correction. They also knew that as they made changes their results would likely get a little worse before they got better, and that I could accept that reality (easy, since praise was intention-based.)

On December 02, 2010 Robert Cowart wrote

[Part 3 of 4] I spent the fall with my middle school team working on myself to make this new approach a part of my habitual coaching philosophy. The following club season, my 3rd, I stayed with the 15s age group and had a roster of kids with whom I had no previous history. It was also the least talented group I worked work with. They were still pretty good kids, but were not "stars". The results of my changed coaching style were significant. My team played with confidence, knowing that they could "go for it" without fear of being treated unfairly. They eagerly worked to learn and use new skills and tactics, knowing that they would be given the support they needed to work through the awkward early phases of learning. I think the best way to describe it is that I believe they felt safe, secure and valued (I say this based on feedback from the parents). This all combined to result in a team with great chemistry, both between teammates and coaches. Results on the court followed. Although our talent level (or more accurately our lack of size) was a limiter we fought to overcome all season, we many times proved that chemistry can trump talent. We finished ranked just inside the top 20 (of over 100 teams), but we could certainly say that no one in the top 10 wanted to play us. Nothing demonstrated this more than our success against the #5 team, whom we defeated all three times we met, including a 21-19 tie-break thriller in our final meeting. The facts are that from skill, size and athleticism perspectives we simply had no business beating this team even once, but our chemistry proved to be like kryptonite against them. The final record of chemistry vs. talent... 3-0 for chemistry.

On December 02, 2010 Robert Cowart wrote

[Part 4 of 4] I don't want to take too much credit here because this was truly an awesome bunch of kids. They could have certainly found the same magic with a lot of other coaches. I was just lucky to have them play for me at a time when I needed them to help me transform my coaching style. Now with a new club entering my 4th season I will be coaching the most talented group of kids I have yet worked with. To build on the success of last season I recognize that I will have to continue to push myself to apply what I learned and stay vigilant not to let old bad habits creep back into my coaching philosophy, and above all... "Primum Non Nocere". Thanks again for your efforts.

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