Decades of Growing the Game

By John Kessel | Oct. 23, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

Sport Development Workshop

Many people joined us recently for our USA Volleyball open house.  Some of those who entered my office are still there I think, hiding or lost somewhere between the collection of world globes and my event credentials, reading some of my hundreds of books on the shelves.

Anyone who enters, thus leaves passing by one of my most treasured possessions, a handwritten letter from my Grandfather, Ollie Lamson.  My mom was an only child, so I carry that Lamson name as my middle name. It was written to me in my first season of college coaching back in 1971 at my alma mater, The Colorado College.  A sample of his writing in my letter, with a style that I still want to turn into a magical font, can be seen in the picture below the content of his whole letter. He said to me….

Dear John,

Thank you so much for your letter while trout fishing. We very well understand why you like Colorado, we both grew up in the Northwest before it got crowded. Los Angeles is so full of cars and people, and some of the people are not very considerate of others, that we often wish for the wide open spaces.

With regard to your coaching many who coach in college have been very much of a factor in the adjustment of freshmen, in particular in the first months, to college and then forward; I know it was with me. The best known example is Knute Rockne.

With every possible good wish and our love as always   - Grandpa Ollie

In reading over what I wrote regarding the help a coach can give to incoming college students it struck me how much more your help can mean to your work in minor or club sports.  Football and baseball players from high or prep schools often have been recruited with scholarships and I should imagine in many cases have plenty of egoism. Most of your students are not well known athletes and you can do much to build up their confidence. 

Build their confidence….Grandpa was a wise man, who set a record in World War I era for the highest number of consecutive rolls in a Jenny biplane, and worked his entire life for Standard Oil. He rowed in the 8 man scull for the University of Washington, thus you read how he was impacted by coaches. Thus you have a sense of why my coaching philosophy hinges around developing amazing leaders – CLICK HERE for that blog. It is also why I left the path of coaching at college, and focused on coaching the coaches, I did not want to impact just my team and some others in summer camps and a clinic or two, I want to build that confidence and knowledge and teamwork, not egoism, through every coach we reach.

You can’t have confident players without their trusting you, and in no small part that comes from their knowing you are working to be the best coach you can be and improving, no different from what you ask of your athletes. One of my big questions is, so who is pushing you to be better…who is coaching you?  What homework are you doing, books are you reading and perhaps most important, CHANGES are you making…including those which bond your team, build trust and confidence in your team and each player. As we have covered in Mindset, years ago, it is about doing things that reward effort, not outcome, that rewards things the players can do, not what their looks or “smartness” or things that are more genetic are about.

Remember, success builds confidence, and your feedback does too.  What do you say when a player shanks, but did it using solid technical form? Does your feedforward, on the next point that is in their control, build confidence? Do you understand that coaching does not always mean correcting? Are you “catching them doing it right” or only paying attention to them when they err? Also remember, athletes don’t care how much you know, until they know and trust how much you care.

Some visitors no doubt shuddered when they saw my office. More than a few asked…do you do all the dusting?  Yes I do. For me, my office is a place of over 40 years of volleyball memories and ideas, and since I spend more time there annually than I do in any other room on the planet earth, I want it to be something that impacts me as I work to grow the game together with others.  

It is very important in growing our game to break down the silos of information, those found within our sport and those between our sports. We need to share more, and a hard working junior college coach puts it accurately in his blog -  Too that end USAV has just released a new newsletter, appropriately named the “Growing the Game News.”  Like this blog, we just want to help you stay current on educational material that will assist you as a teacher of the game. Each two-page issue, going out about twice a month, will include new videos, articles, webinars, book suggestions, and technology tips in a quick-read format as we know your time is limited during season.  CLICK HERE and start reading about new things we have found in this inaugural issue, including dozens of highlight clips from the medal round of the 2012 Olympic Games, and let us know how else we can help you in growing the game! If you did not get a copy of it yet, as it went to all USAV IMPACT and CAP certified coaches, email and we will get you added.

Several of those who impacted me came through my office that Friday. Two of them were Tom Crawford, now CEO of USA Ultimate Frisbee, and Audrius Barzdukas, now the principal at the prestigious Harvard Westlake school in southern California.  Back in 1995, Tom and Audrius spoke at a USOC coaching clinic as they were the director and assistant director of USOC Coaching at the time.  They shared with those of us in attendance the poem “The Impact of Coaches.”  As I had been updating the USAV IMPACT manual annually since my first edition in 1988, with new research and ideas gleaned from around the world, I walked right up and asked them for permission to share that poem with our new volleyball coaches.  Fast forward to 2012 and you can now see these words come to life on your computer screen in the words of USAV coaches – thanks to the creative vision of Matt Podschweit.  It will open all the IMPACT courses ahead, and you will soon be able to view it at the USAV Video and Education areas -- a three minute reminder with cool video on why we coach.

I got a long email shared below while traveling back to see my daughter McKenzie and her Bowdoin Polar Bear teammates play in a tournament this weekend. Those Polar Bears went 4-0, beating the regional #1 seed and are now ranked solidly in the NCAA top 25 for Division III. The team is a wonderful bunch of athletes and staff, and Mac came in off the bench often to do her part to win.  The email came from coach who is working hard to be the best teacher of the game possible, and I will share it with you readers, as I know many of you can relate…and hopefully others might have comments to share with her.

Reading Mastery by George Leonard – good quick read…interesting thoughts about “loving the plateau” and along with Mindset, The Talent Code,  Talent and Secret Life of Teams and some other off-season reading.  It’s been some good mental stuff for me as the coach and helping me with this “process” stuff.

Early in my career I came across this USAV stuff that you teach and have since been intrigued.  I’ve tried hard to implement as much of what I can (or what has made sense or I guess you could say what I’ve bought into) with whatever level I am working with over the years.  It’s challenging when I’m the head coach or one of the founding members of our junior club to know that this stuff works and that I can’t convince other coaches that I am working with the same.  So I keep trying and somehow along the way I got to thinking that I have to win to earn some credibility to convince them.  And the same goes for when I teach coaching clinics to give back to the game – the coaches are interested, but I can tell they are not quite sure that they should buy in.  And I, of course, take it personally as in if I had more wins to my name maybe they’d listen. 

We struggle to find people to coach period, and I have found it especially difficult to get them in and then try to “tell them how to coach.”  I’ve tried giving resources – books, videos, binders of stuff I’ve collected, send them to clinics, share your USAV Resource CDs, articles, blog, etc.  I don’t think you can make someone do something and I’ve tried my best to show the coaches and the team that it works and why.  But it seems they always go back to the record thing – Winning School X runs the mile, Winning School Y teaches setting from laying down on the floor, etc.  We have had some success and I think the players I’ve worked with can see they are improving, but the parents and players have really been on my case the last few years about not being one of the elite teams.

We manage to finish a few games above .500, somewhere just under 20 wins a season and be competitive in playoffs.  But we are stuck on this plateau . . . I am very involved in all levels of our program and just keep thinking if we can implement some of this stuff at the younger levels and get the kids playing more volleyball that is going to be the difference.  And so I just keep thinking “work harder” and putting in more time and when the record comes out the same I feel like I am banging my head against the wall.  It is a hard path when you sometimes feel like you are going at it alone and all anyone has is criticism about why you are not winning more.  And when I read about you starting a team for Cody and the wins piling up I think “maybe there is supposed to be instant success.”

I feel like this year has been different.  The JV and C-team coaches who got to see you speak in person are really trying hard to use some of the stuff.  We are having a lot of good conversations about why something is done a certain way.  They are asking me a lot of questions.

You said something a few months back about it being about the process.  And I remember hating the word about as much as I hated the word fail.  But I have a lot of respect for the work you do and I remind myself that much of your time and wisdom is spent trying to convince people to think and how patient you are and that there is some new lesson for me to learn.  So I have a lot more reading and thinking to do and have certainly not mastered anything (do we ever?) but have appreciated the time you’ve taken to help me and the questions you have allowed me to ask. 

After watching so many people hear the science and ignore it anyway, I have decided that I have many levels of learning:  ignorant (don’t know the science), resistant (know the science but refuse to believe it), failure to act (know and understand, but still don’t implement).  More than anything it’s been helpful to have someone outside of our program that I can talk to, question, etc .  This level of action brings to mind a poem paraphrased for coaches – passion is not in your head; passion is not in your heart; passion is in your behind and legs….

Wow, that’s a lot of thinking for a Friday – anyway just wanted to say that I know you’re busy and thanks for sharing your time and talents.

So why not share some ideas and comments for this talented and passionate volleyball coach…as I would love to read them too…