Dear Cut Player

Aug. 18, 2014, 10:30 a.m. (ET)

Ouch, it hurts, even the word “cut” comes from the action of your body being sliced open to some level.  It might even seem right now that your hope or even long term dream of playing at a higher level seems over.  The fact is, ending that dream is your choice really, and not in the control of the coach who just cut you. If you like playing, then simply come up with other ways to play until the next round of school or club programming. If you are cut from all levels of a program you tried out for, you can still play against and with adults in Park and Rec, take classes, enter into doubles tournaments with one other passionate volleyball friend - even coed, do intramurals, or even form your own club. For volleyball, join with another cut player/friend and play doubles all summer, or even fall/spring if where you live allows it indoors or outside. Learn to officiate. Coach younger players as that which you teach, you learn. Getting better, even great, at a sport is a rollercoaster path. It is NOT a straight line upward, nor a single cliff you fall off if you get cut. If you love playing, play. See this poster which really works for playing not only after school is done, but at all ages. 

You see, volleyball is a lifetime sport, and importantly it is a LATE skill level sport.  Olympic Volleyball Gold medalist Phil Dalhausser did not even start playing until he was in college. Olympic Volleyball Silver medalist Mike Whitmarsh started volleyball after an NBA career. The average age of our USA Silver and gold medal indoor team was almost 29 years old  for the women (with the oldest almost 40 years old!) and 31 years old for the men (with the oldest over 37). The chart below shows ages in black and height (centimeters) in red. To keep playing, and learning, you should know that USA Volleyball has age group national championships starting at 11 and under, but it goes all the way up to men’s 79 & over divisions!  Getting cut hurts but in no way is it even close to the end of your time to learn to play, for it really is just beginning. "It takes a lot of courage to go after what you want in life” said a wise coach recently.  Just as long as it is something YOU want to do, then keep at it.

If you choose to stop playing, accepting the decision of someone who may not even know you or your real interest in volleyball, that is also your choice.  How you handle the immediate aftermath says a lot about who you are as a person.  Some choose to bad mouth the team, the coach, the program, yet they live in the same community and go to the same school.  What if there are injuries and you get “called back?” It is important to be a class act, even if you get cut. You might see if you can be a team manager in some way to be around the team perhaps, or go on to experience a different sport or school activity.  Please know that there are many Olympians in sport who got cut from a sport when young. There are players, like basketball great Michael Jordan who was cut from varsity at 16, and put on the JV team. Persistence is one of the key strengths of all great sports stars, something that comes from your decision to stay at it. Yes you need to be realistic but if you love the game, why not just keep playing in other ways suggested? Indeed, being cut is simply a test to see if you really want your sport to be part of your life. Remember the “Serenity Prayer” that you change what you can control, accept what you can’t control, and know the difference between the two.  Gabe Gardner won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 after over a decade of training with the US Men's National Team and shares his insights into perseverance in this free webinar.

If you were cut before even getting a chance to show your volleyball skills, that is even harder. Sadly it still is done by coaches who are not fully aware of the principles of specificity in motor learning – something covered in this blog called STOP Teaching Running. Why coaches use running to determine your success in volleyball means they do not understand the principle of specificity. The only thing you can do it keep becoming the best volleyball player you can be in other ways, as coaches who thinking long distance running, or even shorter sprints, are somehow a predictor of how good a player you will be, are likely not to change. Alas, life is not fair. You just need to determine how to get over this obstacle, for it is there to see how much you really want to do your sport. You can use any obstacle as a stepping stone, or as a stopping point – it is your choice.

You should also take some time to read the article “It's Not Where you Are, It's Who You Are” for in a related way, some athletes shortchange their sport career by not focusing on what they can do to get better, and instead are concerned on where they are from – town, school or club.

There are two people I suggest you learn from to help you gain a perspective on being cut. Randy Pausch’s story in both video – which can be seen HERE, and his subsequent bestselling book The Last Lecture, is first on my list. A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel is the other, one I give every graduate who shares the good news of their success by an announcement they send me, and one I use for team season discussion topics. Both are will teach important things about attitude, something you can control. This being cut experience is simply part of the journey, an obstacle to see how much you want to get over it. You can decide if being cut is a stepping stone, or a “stopping stone.”

You might have been cut because you are “not tall enough” – Well again, life is not fair, and some coaches are fooled by height. My own daughter was cut at 14, for being the shortest player trying out (as she stood there with size 11 feet). She is now taller than any one of those players who were kept. This is why I wrote “STOP Cutting Players,” for height and skill change, so keeping as many players as long as possible is what we suggest. If you question your height, read this article called “Am I Too Short to Play Volleyball?” With the bronze medal setter for Japan in 2012 being 5’2” – it is also possible for you, if you love the game to prove with your volleyball IQ, skills, mental toughness, and being the best teammate you can be, that height does not matter as much as coaches think it does.

I think you will find inspiration and insight from an award winning documentary supported by USA Volleyball’s Puget Sound Region, on 2012 USA Olympian, and silver medalist, Courtney Thompson – “Court and Spark” (order it here). Watch it with your parents, and your friends. When Courtney was struggling with being cut from the traveling teams, she felt like giving up. Her dad wisely asked “Courtney, if you were doing well, would you want to quit the team too?”  As her answer was of course not…he then noted that life is not always fair, there are ups and downs along the way, and to stick with it.  That resilience, that persistence, you have inside you, and you too can use this being cut to get even better at volleyball, or choose a different path. It really is what you, and nobody else, can determine. After all, you will also fail at doing things you may not like doing, so why not deal with some of those frustrations and failures that come in living, challenging, pushing yourself by doing it in something you love?

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth after looking at learners in many different educational environments, calls this perseverance, “GRIT,” which more than anything else (like health, IQ,  social intelligence, “good looks”, etc.) determines a person’s ultimate success. In a great TED talk that includes important references to a “growth mindset."  She said “In all those different contexts, one factor emerged as a secret to success, and it wasn’t social intelligence, good looks, physical health or IQ. It was grit,” “Grit is passion or perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out — not just for a day, not just for a month, but for years — to make that future a reality.”

In the end, I think that Professor Dumbledore said it best -

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we are truly are, far more than our abilities." - J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 

Post Script on Commitment – A wise coach named Peter Wung shared his version of a great story which seems an ideal follow up for both those getting cut, as well as those who made the team…about the Chicken or the Pig. Here you go with thanks to Peter!

The past Olympics gave us plenty of examples of the committed athlete, those that have all suffered, sacrificed, and suppressed their own egos for the good of their team and sport.  The depths to which these athletes have dug within themselves are exemplified by the heights that they have climbed.  Hearing the stories of what the Iraqi athletes had to endure just to train, or what the women athletes in male dominated societies had to endure just for the chance to play sports is both sobering and inspiring.  It boggles the mind at what these athletes are willing to endure just for a chance to compete, to be “Citius, Altius, and Fortius” – Swifter, higher, and stronger.  Not many will walk away with glory and ribbons, all are willing to suffer some more just for the chance.

So what does this have to do with junior volleyball?  In my conversations about volleyball with players and parents, young and old, male and female, I will inevitably hear the following clichés when the subject of commitment comes up:

  • “I don’t need to work hard; I won’t play volleyball in college.”
  • “I need to impress the college coaches, so I need to stand out from the rest of these losers and make sure the college coach knows that I am not one of them.”
  • “I should be playing all around but the coach is biased against tall players
  • “Why should I have to give up prom/junk food and soda/ego for volleyball?”

The common theme is the assumption that sports exists for the sole purpose of extrinsic rewards and if there are no extrinsic rewards, such as trophies, scholarships, personal indulgences, then it is not worth the sacrifice to be so committed to working hard.  I am sure Michael Phelps treasures his eight gold medals from this Olympics, but I doubt he put himself through the early morning workouts, live in isolation while in training, and suffer through skull numbing and monotonous laps just because he might like to have eight shiny gold medals to show off. 

Medals, money, and praise serve merely as reminders to the athlete of what they have accomplished intrinsically.  It is a reminder that they have breached the limits of what was once deemed impossible; that their dedication, talent and skills, when combined skillfully and intelligently can accomplish wondrous things.  People who participate for the sake of those extrinsic baubles fall away from sports and life at the same rate as their personal integrity and character disappears in the face of adversity.

Those who get, “it”, understand that the rewards don’t show up in a pretty ribbon or wrapper.  “It” does not show up to feed the ego. “It” is there to make you better, inside and outside.  “It” prepares you for today and tomorrow, the next day, and forever.  “It” allow you to treat obstacles and challenges with the aplomb and confidence of the well prepared.  “It” grows inside you, enables you, and supports you through the bad times, and “it” keeps you grounded through the good.  “It” is the best tool anyone can have in life, because “it” is timeless, fundamental, and ethereal, because not everyone gets “it”.  In fact less and less people get “it”.

“It”, however, does not come cheap; “it” needs commitment, not involvement.  Involvement is showing up; commitment is showing up ready.  Involvement is being a dilettante; commitment is being an expert.  Involvement is sitting out practice with every excuse known to mankind; commitment is dealing with pain wisely and logically.  Involvement is doing the right thing only when it benefits you; commitment is doing the right thing because it is the right thing.  Involvement is pouting when you are subbed out; commitment is telling the person who took your spot how to play the position effectively.  Involvement is watching teammates struggle through suicides; commitment is to run with them even if you don’t have to, to help pace them because you care.  Involvement is all about you; commitment is all about the team and the sport.  Involvement is about being interested; commitment is about being passionate.  Involvement is short term, commitment is long term.

When you want to differentiate between involvement and commitment, just remember breakfast, because when you talk about bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.  Which are you: the chicken or the pig?