Stay Quiet and Let Them Play

July 29, 2015, 3:58 p.m. (ET)

John Kessel's Grow the Game Together blog
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Sometimes as coaches, we need to stand back and see if we have taught them anything (the ducklings). If you are simply quiet, and let them have a little independence, they’ll prove your worth as a coach. There is no better feeling. We can all learn from and relate to his is a story by a coach about his first three days of summer open gym.

Day One

Started open gym on Tuesday; four kids show up. It was initially two for 30 minutes until two of them finished some rehearsal for their National Honor Society induction ceremony. They asked me to play; I declined. I wanted to see what they did and how they interacted with one another. I intentionally stayed quiet. I set up the nets, tossed them the bag of balls and hopped onto the rowing machine and elliptical for 45 minutes.

Well, it was interesting. They started off by jogging two or three laps around the gym (something we don't do, but other sports do - ugh). Then they proceeded to pepper without the net for about 15 minutes. In their defense, they were waiting for more to show up. Then the other two girls show up. They did a little warm-up and started serving straight away. Three of them are going to be seniors and one is going to be a 10th grader. After a little bit of this, they decide to play two-on-two. It actually wasn't too bad. They started jump serving pretty straight away and some of the rallies weren't too bad; a lot of bumping back on three, but I digress. The freshman was really struggling as she does not have the ball control of the other girls. They were really nice about it and after 20 or so minutes, she improved drastically, at least to the point where balls were staying in play a bit longer. Not a bad first day. All of them vowed to come back on Thursday and tell more kids to show up.

Day Two

Walked down to the gym where I saw 16 kids today (whoa!). Five of them were boys (mostly baseball players who stayed after to turn in their gear). One is 6'4" and gangly, but could be a pretty darn good volleyball player with some time. We set up the second net because there were so many kids wanting to play, which was pretty cool. Again, I just sat back, said nothing and just worked out on my rower.

Day Three

Today was a bit better; nice short warm-up, then straight into Queen of the Court three-on-three.The leaders began to emerge, teaching the boys how to play, giving technique tips on serving, passing, etc. It was pretty awesome to watch your players become coaches and to be hearing them say things that you have said to them. After about 20 minutes of Monarch of the Court, they decided to play six-on-six.

All during this time my best player, a great kid who will be a senior setter next year (who is also our best passer) from a wonderful family with hearts of gold, is teaching a JV girl who initially said she was not going to play, how to serve consistently overhand. It was a pretty special moment. She worked with this girl, a ninth grader, for about 35 minutes. She finally got her to make semi-consistent serves. That was pretty special; giving up her opportunity to play with the others so she could teach, all the while giving cues like,

"Make solid contact just under the middle" 

"If you want to hit the ball harder, you have to swing faster."

"That's it! Nice!"

I nearly cried.

Meanwhile, the six-on-six game was a bit disorganized, but they seemed to have a decent time. No real leadership emerged, so it fizzled quickly. Then the leaders got together and hatched an idea to use the second court more effectively; let's play a three-on-three mini round-robin tourney, games to 11, everyone switches courts and everyone plays. Pretty awesome. So they played three-on-three laughing and giggling and hustling all over the place. I just sat there absorbing all of it. Then they began to trickle out.

A few of the kids stay for extra serving practice (including my senior setter). She is now rocketing her jump float and nailing all parts of the court. That took a half a season last year. By the end, I was openly grinning, smiling inside to see the improvement; the aggressiveness, the dedication to her craft, the leadership and…the joy of playing. Gosh, all it took was three days and me being quiet.

I hope other programs let open gym be an “Exploratorium” of learning to love the game and your teammates, as kids these days have so few opportunities to be in control of their learning. Too often it is coming from extrinsic sources, and not from within. Let them play and just sit back and learn too. I am going to enjoy these next open gyms a lot I am sure…  Just put up these two signs conveniently included in this story, and then get out of the way…