Dear Cut Player

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

Ouch, it hurts. The word “cut” comes from the action of your body being sliced open to some level. It might 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, and not in the control of the coach who just cut you. 

If you like playing, then 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 orenter doubles tournaments with one other passionate volleyball friend. You can play coed, do intramurals or even form your own club. Join another cut player/friend and play doubles all summer or even fall/spring if you live somewhere it is available. Learn to officiate. Coach younger players because that which you teach, you learn. Getting better or 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. 

Volleyball is a lifetime sport, and 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 2008 U.S. silver- and gold-medal indoor teams was almost 29 years old for the women (with the oldest almost 40) 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 it is not 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 a choice.

You should also read the article “It's Not Where you Are, It's Who You Are." Some athletes shortchange their sport career by not focusing on getting better, and instead focus on where they are from – town, school or club.

There are two people who can help you gain perspective on being cut. Randy Pausch’s video, which can be seen HERE, and his subsequent bestselling book The Last Lecture, are first on my list. A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel is the other, one. Both teach important things about attitude, something you can control. Being cut is simply part of the journey.

Maybe you were cut because you are “not tall enough." 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." We suggest keeping as many players as long as possible. If you question your height, read this article called “Am I Too Short to Play Volleyball?” If you love the game, you can prove with your volleyball IQ, skills, mental toughness and being a great teammate that height does not matter as much as some coaches think.

How you handle the immediate aftermath of being cut says a lot about who you are as a person. Some choose to bad mouth the team, the coach and the program, yet they live in the same community and go to the same school. What if there are injuries and they 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 or try a different sport or school activity. There are many Olympians who got cut from a sport when they were young. Basketball great Michael Jordan was cut from varsity at 16 and played JV. 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? Being cut is simply a test to see if you really want your sport to be part of your life. Gabe Gardner won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 after more than a decade of training with the U.S. 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, which is covered in this blog called STOP Teaching Running. When coaches use running to determine your success in volleyball, it means they do not understand the principle of specificity. Keep becoming the best volleyball player you can be in other ways, as coaches who think long-distance running, or even sprints, are somehow a predictor of how good a player is, are likely not to change. Alas, life is not fair. You 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.

I think you will find inspiration and insight from an award winning documentary supported by USA Volleyball’s Puget Sound Region, on 2012 U.S. Olympian and silver medalist Courtney Thompson – “Court and Spark” (order it here). 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?”  Her answer was, "Of course not." He noted that life is not always fair. There are ups and downs along the way, and to stick with it.

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, after looking at learners in many different educational environments, calls this perseverance, “GRIT,” which determines a person's ultimate success more than anything else (like health, IQ,  social intelligence, “good looks”, etc.). In a TED talk that includes 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 a great story that seems an ideal follow up both for those who were cut and those who made the team:

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 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 medals from the Olympics, but I doubt he put himself through the early morning workouts, lived in isolation while in training and suffered through skull-numbing and monotonous laps just because he might like to have medals to show off. 

Medals, money and praise serve as reminders to the athlete of what they have accomplished intrinsically. They are reminders 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 disappear 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” allows 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 and because not everyone gets “it”.  In fact, fewer and fewer people get “it”.

“It” 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?