Stuff Happens

March 01, 2010, 5:46 p.m. (ET)

Flying back from a great clinic in the "Hittin Mitten" I did with Hugh McCutcheon and Gary Sato. Signed all sorts of USAV Logo banners for the kids in our clinic - "Citius, Altius, Fortius," as these are all USAV Jr. Olympic Volleyball players -- hopefuls to be future Olympians....and they need to know those key three words right? Watched the Gold medal hockey match with Lakeshore leadership, and then the closing ceremonies.

These Winter Olympics brought me back to an Olympics I attended over 20 years ago, the 1988 Summer games in Seoul. The USA men went on to win the gold, while the USA women needed to win in three and not let Peru get 33 points (or about that) in the Peru hopeful loss. Peru got about 11 in the first game loss, and about the same in the next loss, so when Peru got to their 33rd point, and mathematically eliminated the USA team from advancing....they celebrated. The USA just needed about 5 more points than Peru to advance, points scored over the whole period of pool play, but fell short. Peru went on to the Silver medal, and the USA women took 7th as I recall.

So a couple of days later, I went to watch the semifinals for the women. The top four in the world now at that point, and one match in particular really impacted me.  Russia was to play China in this first Olympic semifinal. Now, China had been the #1 team in the world almost all that decade, winning the gold in the major FIVB event of the year in 1981, 82, 83....Olympic Gold in 1984 over our USA women and led by Lang Ping who 25 years later would be coaching that USA team in China of all places, and beyond...they had dominated Russia, and most other nations, over those years. The event was played in the evening, televised live to both nations who were on the same basic time zone, so billions watched. What was the score of this match in a rivalry that really goes by thousands of years, predating even the Great Wall?  Did it go 3, 4, 5?  ....most coaches guess it went five, with China winning 15-10 in the 5th.  Randomness in sport is the why we play the game. On any given Sunday, they say an NFL team can beat another. USA wins over Russia in Ice hockey in the Miracle on Ice in 1980. Canada defeats the USA in Ice hockey, both men and women, in their own Miracle on ice in 2010. In volleyball, this same randomness of sport hits home as  Russia defeated China in 3, 15-0, 15-9, 15-2. That is ZERO and TWO in an OLYMPIC semifinal coaches. Stuff happens. Randomness is certain to happen, and will surprise you at times - both positively (for Russia) and negatively (for China).

I so often hear from coaches the following "explanations..." for their own USAV Jr. Olympic Volleyball teams play....Do you think that...

1.      "We just did not practice hard enough..." - Well the Chinese may practice more than anyone in the world....

2.      "We just did not care enough..."  This was being televised to a billion countrymen live, as they played to defend their gold medal.

3.      "We just were not ready for this level"  - They had over half a returning Olympic Gold medalists squad.

4.      "We s@#k..." ? - Yeah the best team in the decade clearly deserves that title.

5.      "We just did not get enough rest..." - The village was not the quietest place by the near end of an Olympics, as most competitors are done and beginning their unwinding phase, but all the volleyball teams were still in it - playing for places, Russia included, and the Chinese are some of the most skilled nappers and catnappers I have seen.

Nope. Stuff happens. When it does, stop chewing out your kids for what is the randomness of sport. Be their biggest supporter - not their biggest critic - and teach them to love and embrace the chaos and funny bounces of the game. 

 I reflect on the times I drove in my Region Eight while developing my game, to my "local" tournaments - which were over 12 hours away -- as back then my RVA was 6 states. I would leave work at 5pm, drive my VW Squareback alone to the gym, and on arrival sleep in the back, on an angle for maybe 1 hour. Then I would unfold, get up and play all day in the Men's Open tourney. Sometimes I would be play great, and sometimes I would not. Or we would stay out and celebrate to 3 am on the overnight of a 2 day tournament and Sunday morning sometimes we would play great and sometimes not.  The game is random. It is OK, in my humble opinion, that your athletes might stay up and be kids, talking about life and learning from each other well beyond the VB court. They should be in their room, and know that they need to get enough rest, as it is not about overtraining, it is about getting enough rest. Just remember, we chose a random game....and randomness occurs, and they will not play poorly just because they shared life lessons with their roommates.

 I have been to many USAV Qualifiers and watched teams play with a coach who have taken CAP from me, and proudly watched the coach win game one 25-0. Then watched that coach's team in the second game lose 0-25.  I know I see it more at 13s and 12s, than older, but it happens at all levels. That same year of 1988, I was in the stands watching the NCAA Final Four for women. Texas lost to Stanford in the first game....15-0.  NCAA Final Four level....15-0. If you go to look at the big qualifiers where lots of matches are played, you will see these 0-25 games and cousins 1-25 etc. happening on a nice bell curve. Our game is random, and when bad stuff and streaks occurs is just as random.

You can win 25-0, 25-0 and lose 23-25-23-25 13-15, so that you score 115 to their 62, and yet lose the match. The randomness of our game, and helping kids be comfortable with playing one point at a time is an important lesson and skill to teach, part of the mental side of the game we need to teach better.  The outcome of a volleyball game is out of one player's control. What is in your athelte's control is simply this point, then this point... something we can do something about, as we develop that right now, right here focus.

The recent blog on Cumulative effect has elicited some fun email discussions, and one from grassroots member Michelle Goodall noting the concept of "212 degrees" was a good reminding example that sometimes it is just one little degree that matters. In this concept, the story to share with your athletes is that at 211 degrees, water is simply hot and does not much else, but at 212, the power of a steam engine and the water is huge. Just one degree, just one tenth of a second, just one more repetition in practice...

We must win by two, but in the end, every point matters. The USA men beat Cuba 15-13 in the fifth to qualify for 2004, which built the team for 2008 gold. Had that win not happened...I don't think you would have seen our success in Beijing, for we went on to play in the medal round in Athens that year, and built from that team, our gold medal success. Cuba in 2004 on the other hand, by just two points, failed to go for yet another quad - not unlike our teams in the 1970s - where in 1972 and 1976 and 1980, the USA teams failed to qualify, not being able to get past...Cuba...(except in 1980, with Cuba already World qualified, the USA women got in thru NORCECA win, only to have the USA Government boycott those Olympics...what a waste...). So just TWO points meant 4th in 2004 and several times in the 2008 Olympics for the men, we won by the minimum two every point matters, amidst all this random play...

This randomness is seen in sport with the crashes at the gate, after four years of training. The 1-2-3 finish of the short track Korean athletes, clipping one another and whammo, it is Korea and the USA in silver and bronze...random weather makes for delays allowing healing, or reruns less successful than hoped...the Dutch Coach looking at his clipboard and then looking back up, signaling his gold medal bound, on a record setting course skater into the wrong lane and disqualification.... these Vancouver games again showed why we PLAY sport - and don't just let the experts, or fans, tell us who is the best - all the while knowing that if these Olympics were re-run, the results would be very different no doubt. The best book on understanding this is The Drunkards Walk - a physicist term for what happens randomly with molecules released in a room - how the movement and everything else, even though following the laws of physics, remains completely random.

In closing, though stuff happens, you do need to teach the kids the incredible value and importance of mindful learning, and deliberate practice, and of not making excuses. How real teams better the ball rather than blame teammates, and how all communication, both verbally and non-verbally, needs to be feedforward and about things to improve and help one another. They say excuses are like bellybuttons, everybody has one....but just in case your players need a chance to discuss the wasted time making them, download my handy dandy "Excuse List" by CLICKING HERE.

 Let us know how else we can grow the game together.