The Best Gifts for a Volleyball Player

By John Kessel, USA Volleyball Director of Sport Development

Around the world, not just in America, parents ask me what gifts they can give their child to help them improve in volleyball. Some of them want to take their child to the next level while others want to help their child who was disappointingly cut from their first or next level of a volleyball program.

I think the best gifts for a volleyball player are these:

  • The Gift of Play
  • The Gift of Struggle
  • The Gift of a Lifetime Sport
  • The Gift of Unconditional Support

At USA Volleyball, we hope all are given to your son or daughter as they learn this challenging, but totally team sport.

Celebration

The Gift of Play

Put a net up, most boys will play. Too many girls will sit and wait until someone comes along to tell them what to do, drill or otherwise. When you are an athlete, there is no gender specificity to that term, no “atheteos” and “athleteas.” Athletes love to play, so help create a new tradition of playing without coaching: spontaneous play.

The BEST way to do this: install a net in your backyard and let the kids come over and play. No backyard? Get a portable net and take it to the park to play with your child or by watching the kids play. Misty May-Treanor played coed with her dad for years as a youngster, as did Karch Kiraly and his father. Those gold medals began with the gift of play. There is a “learning faster” bonus within this gift in that playing doubles teaches you the game faster than the six-person game, and playing against the speed of older/more experienced players teaches you to read and react faster, along with some "slimy" shots.

Anson Dorrance is a soccer coach who has won more than 20 NCAA national titles over the last 30 years. His book, The Vision of a Champion, is the best book I have ever read for a team player who wants to know how to be a better individual team member. The inspiration for his book title came when he saw a player practicing in the rain, alone on a field. He writes, “The vision of a champion is an athlete, training alone, drenched in sweat, when nobody is watching.” That player was soccer legend Mia Hamm.

The Van Zweiten family understands what we are saying. They live in West Palm Beach, just off the sand, but built a lighted beach court in their backyard. Three FIVB level beach players came from their family including Mark, who was the 2005 World 19U silver medalist and Mr. Florida Volleyball indoors. AVP star Phil Dalhuasser and other AVP talent got their start on this court. The family just turns on the lights if needed and lets them play.

Then, there is a state champion volleyball team in Nebraska where the coach has kids from any high school come over and play on a dozen grass courts he has set up in a backyard field. The kids play 2-4 person games in summer evenings--no coaching, just players playing and the parents having lemonade or iced tea on the back porch if they stick around, building the volleyball community even more. We need to give the gift of play without coaching spontaneous and guided by the kids.

Another example is in Colorado Springs where School District 11’s program sees schools where 90 kids try out and 24 make the A and B squad. Parents came forward and helped create and coach once a week the “C,” “D” and “E” teams, playing against other schools’ “cut kids” teams on Saturday mornings in cooperation with the park and rec department. The next year, the “cut” kids make the A team, as they had been given the chance to play.

John Cook knows the gift of play, and at the University of Nebraska, a perennial top 10 NCAA women's volleyball program, he built an international standard beach court so the kids could play for fun in their off season.

In large part it comes down to the number of “Gamelike Contacts per Hour” your child gets in practice,and in gifting thousands more of those key contacts per season through the chance to just play with other volleyball loving athletes.

Many parents discuss the techniques their child is learning or the lack of skill they might be showing. What they fail to realize is that the techniques of our sport are pretty simple and easily understood and learned.

The key challenge is to learn the most important skill in "volleyball reading." The vast majority of errors you will see your child make in this game come from their being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They can chose to look good technically, but miss the ball, or look out of position and actually play the ball.

I have played hundreds of one vs. six games and won all but one, even while giving my opponents a 10-point lead. It is not because I am six times taller, stronger, or more technically skilled that I win, for I am not. I win as I have the needed reading and anticipation skills, learned by playing the game to know what the kids are going to do. There is a man who makes his living at challenging schools to play him one vs. any. He wins every match, then speaks to the student body on the power of one.

Resilience

The Gift of Struggle

Sport is one of the few places that your child will get a chance to struggle, and by choosing a unique rebound sport, the struggles will be amplified. If you do not like to see your child struggle you have two simple choices, keep them out of the sport, or don’t go to their practices or games. Otherwise, please realize that if you go to watch either, you will see your child struggle.

By letting your child struggle, you let them learn to problem solve on their own. What we want to see are kids who, after an error, do not twist their head to the bench for the solution, but instead confidently look for the next ball to come their way. In the beach game, coaches are not even allowed on the court, so 45 minutes before the game, the players enter the field of play area, and the coaches go sit in the stands.

It may be a surprise to realize that fully 50 percent of all matches and games played will have a losing team. The gift is this competition and struggle as the players learn from each other.

What percent of the game is mental, do you think? Given the large percentage that it is, help your child with this core skill of being skilled in the mental side of the game. Help them focus on their successes. Reward and focus on helping your child in the two areas of the game he or she CAN control: attitude and of effort.

The Gift of a Lifetime Sport

Volleyball is played in 219 nations in the world, far more than there are member nations of the United Nations. Travel this globe and you can jump in on hard court or beach courts and play the game with the locals. You may not speak their language, but you speak the universal language of volleyball with your competition-acquired skills.

USA Volleyball offers national championships starting at the 12 and under level, progressing thru 18 and under, then adult divisions of Open, AA, A, BB, B and Masters divisions. The latter starts at 30 and over and continues in five-year intervals, “finishing” at the 75 and over division age group. Truly a lifetime sport.

The Gift of Support

Your support, in patience, passion and praise, is vital. You must give your child full support, regardless of the outcome of the games. For if YOU are not confident in your child, how do you expect them to be confident in themselves?

This comes in words and action, as body language speaks volumes without words. Volleyball is a game that is not a parent-pleaser. There are no better tools to buy to help your child, and as it is a rebound sport, being in the right place at the right time so one looks correct in technique, it takes a long time to learn. Mistakes are going to happen. A lot. An awful lot. Relax and focus on what is going right, for those are the things to remember.

Volleyball is your season to be the unconditionally loving parent you want to be. If your child’s coach is coaching on the court and you are coaching your child in the car, then kids don’t have a safe place to go, and they eventually tune both out of you out.

But, if you are unconditionally supportive, win or lose, success or failure, then your child not only digs your relationship more, but you help them build confidence and give them more personal strength. Thus, the coaches can better guide each athlete to new personal bests You and the coach work in concert to help your child to be swifter, higher, and stronger each day, both on and off the court, as parents as partners with the coach.