A longer version of this article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of VolleyballUSA
Walking out of the gym one afternoon, I noticed one of the younger players standing in front of the wall and not in front of a net. I was intrigued as to what she was going to do, so I stood for a moment and waited. Would she do something that may surprise me? Something that would impress me? Or would she do the favorite old standard of many players: the traditional swinging-at-the-floor-so-the-ball-bounces-off-the-wall routine?
No surprises were in store for me as she began bouncing it off the floor. This time last year I would not have given it a second thought. In fact, I am willing to wager I would not have even noticed her because it is something I myself was so used to doing. I would have walked right past her and out of the gym. Not this time - I noticed. I noticed because now I know better.
I decided to take this opportunity to talk to her. I put my bag down and walked over to her. I said hello, called her by name, asked how her day was and how school went. Then I asked her what she was doing.
“Warming up?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
I asked her why she was warming up in that fashion, and her response was, “It is just what I always do.” Valid response, I thought, because it is what I always did, too. Not this time though, I said to myself. I know better.
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I asked her if she would be willing to learn something different -- something that may help her with serving, passing, setting and hitting all at once. She was very eager to see this new and wondrous thing that was going to help her with all those skills at one time.
I pointed out a line on the wall and explained to her that line was the height of the net. I told her that our goal was to serve the ball above that line, pass the rebounded ball to herself, set it, hit it back over that line, and keep that cycle going as long as she could. I informed her as she improved that she could set a goal for the number of volleys, and challenge that number each time she played.
After I demonstrated, she looked at me and said she would never be able to do that -- that she isn’t good at hitting, and she only plays back row. I told her she wasn’t good at it YET, and asked her why was she warming up by hitting a ball off the floor if she wasn’t a hitter? I explained how we can always do something better to help ourselves and asked her to give it a try.
She got through three volleys before she lost control. I gave her a high five and told her how great it was. I had her try again, this time aiming for four volleys to challenge herself a bit.
Her response was something that will always stay with me: “No, I don’t like it because I will never be good at that -- I can’t hit. I just like to play back row.”
This is where I should mention her age: 13 years old. 13 and she already resigned herself to only playing back row.
Challenging Your Athletes for Growth
I was stunned at this point, and as she turned to walk away, I followed her. She sat on the bleachers, with the ball still in her hands.
I sat down next to her and began to talk about challenging herself to improve, and how she would get better the more she attempted it. I encouraged her not to get frustrated when learning something new but instead to be open to accepting new challenges.
Her responses were full of negatives toward herself as a player, and I could tell she was shutting down on me. I told her to think about doing this warm-up for 10 minutes a day and how much improvement she would see in a month, two months, or by the time her middle school tryouts were held. Her body language and her short answers told me that she was no longer willing to continue the conversation, so I dropped it. I told her to not give up on it so quickly, to try again later, and I would always be there to help with anything.
I have seen the fixed mindset many times, but this one really affected me. It troubled me that a 13-year-old was already throwing in the towel. She was quitting on learning how to hit and pass better. I did not even start playing volleyball until I was 20, and someone with a seven-year head start on me was balking on learning a new skill.
Each time I saw her I asked if she attempted that warm-up again, and her reply was always the same: “No, not yet.”
I continued to encourage and support her, hoping that one day that answer would be a “Yes!”
There will be a very loud and enthusiastic high five on that day - I can promise you that!