Rules of Engagement

With the club season less than a month old, I recently conducted my second parent meeting with this year’s parent group. When coaches hear the term “parent meeting,” it typically sends a chill up their spine, initiates a search for their saved copy of the letter of resignation in their disorganized My Documents folder, or at the very least causes them to lash out with a fury of facebook posts regarding crazy sports parents. When parents hear that there is a parent meeting, they brace to be put in their place and once again be given a long list of do’s and don’ts.

On the contrary, this second parent meeting was an opportunity to engage WITH this year’s group of parents. We didn’t talk about rules – not that there aren’t any – but I find when working with parents (or athletes or my own children or with people in general) that when we start with a list of rules, an immediate line is drawn. Sides are taken. The season begins. Coaches and parents are immediate adversaries. The worst part of this scenario is that their children become the land over which the battle is fought.

Coaches reading this may absolutely want a line, a very thick line, when it comes to parent involvement. This often comes from past experience with a negative parent, an unsupportive athletic administration, or simply the stories that circulate regarding negative parents. Over the past twenty-five years in coaching, I have had countless conversations with parents. Every one of them – whether positive or negative – gave me a better understanding of how to coach their child better.

During this second parent meeting of the season, I proposed the not-so-new concept that one of the important factors of team success is the chemistry of the players. I then proceeded to tell them that the coaching team plays a very important role in the development of this chemistry. This is where parents are traditionally left out of the equation. I suggested that if the parent group is intentional about developing chemistry and helping their children understand its importance, the team as a whole has a much better chance of becoming all that it is capable of becoming.

So how do we do this? I’m not sure exactly but I gave them some ideas that have proven effective in the past and that I think could help in this current season.

  • I asked them to treat each other well and all of the kids on the team well. I shared a story of my all-time favorite volleyball parent. I’ve had a lot of great ones over the years. When my wife and I started Revolution Volleyball Club in Pennsylvania, we served as directors and didn’t coach a specific team. We attended most practices and as many tournaments as we could. There was a gentleman that I continued to notice who always had a smile on his face, had a kind word for everyone around, and gave a high five to every one of the players and coaches after matches whether the team won or lost. For the first two months of the season, I had no idea which player was his daughter. He treated everyone well. After officially introducing myself, I discovered that Alan Raush (pictured above) was simply the best and he serves as a standard to this day of the ultimate sports parent.
  • Show support for the team, the club, our opponents, and the officials. We are going to cheer for great volleyball, for outstanding effort, and for courage displayed on a very transparent stage. It might – it will – look different than the typical youth sporting contest. It will be worth it.
  • I encouraged them to sit together at matches as a parent group. Not one of my most popular ideas but I think it’s an important one. I get it. I did get a question for clarification from one of the parents – do we have to sit beside our spouse? After I clarified that they did NOT have to sit next to their spouse, I felt that they could buy in and sit together as a group. To clarify, I did not establish this is a rule but simply a suggestion that indicates our willingness to invest in the creation of a great learning environment and supportive atmosphere for all involved.
  • Share a meal together outside of the gym as a parent group. We are going to have our team and their parents to our home next week. My hope is that they enjoy getting to know one another outside of the competitive arena. I also hope that they will be intentional about doing this on their own throughout the season. Over the years I have learned that we are all after the same basic thing. We want to see our children learn, grow, and develop the skills that will help them become successful individually and collectively for this season and, more importantly, beyond.

– Mike Schall

The Gear

Laid out on my bed, it was almost too beautiful to imagine that it was all mine for the season: white jersey with a major league baseball logo, matching baseball pants with a real, navy-blue belt, and … most important of all … the stirrups.

It was a far cry from my “Caps” level uniform the previous year: red t-shirt with white trim with “JACK IN THE BOX” in white letters ironed-on at a comical angle by a well-intentioned mom, matching trucker hat, and BYOP (Bring Your Own Pants).  Although we lived in shorts year-round in sunny Southern California, one ambitious slide into second on our gravel-strewn basepaths convinced us that pants would prolong our playing careers.  One raspberry on the back of your leg was a badge of courage, a second raspberry was stupidity. For me, my only option was a dependable pair of Sears-bought Toughskins jeans, knees reinforced with at least three layers of stiff patches rendering the pants both completely inflexible, yet bulletproof.

But now, playing in the “Minors” I would finally look like a professional baseball player.  The stretchy pants had a back pocket big enough to fit a batting glove, a full pack of Big League Chew gum (grape flavor), and whatever candy I could get from the snack shack after the game.  The jersey looked like one that a real big-leaguer would wear, not like a craft-store project.  But best of all, there were real, navy-blue stirrups.

For youngsters not schooled in baseball fashion history: players used to wear colored stirrups over their white sanitary socks (poorly named – there’s nothing “sanitary” about athletic socks).  In the late 1970s, major leaguers yanked their stirrups up above their calves with guitar-string tension, and my baseball cards were a glorious assemblage of baseball gods sporting moustaches and knee-high stirrups.  My 9-year-old face might not be able to host a mustache that would make pitchers tremble and 4th grade girls swoon, but my stirrups were clearly ready for prime time.

Everyone in the neighborhood had to know that there was a big-leaguer in their midst.  And so I rode my Huffy to my first game in full uniform, baseball mitt hanging from the handlebars and trying to keep my cleats on the bike pedals and my stirrups out of the chain.  I arrived at the fields with my white socks dotted with black grease marks, but my precious stirrups escaped unscathed.  Undaunted, I continued to wear that uniform every possible moment until the league mercilessly pried it from my fingers at the end of the season.

If you’re complaining about professional athletes who appear not to care about commitment to a franchise or its city, or who have apparently lost the innocent joy of playing sports, there exists in our midst a bunch of young athletes who are thrilled just to wear the jersey.  Let’s cheer for them, and celebrate how excited they are just to get the gear.

Parents: force your child to pose for a super-awkward picture on the front steps in their uniform – you’ll treasure that picture forever.  Coaches: treat the distribution of gear like a medal ceremony, calling up each athlete one at a time and bestowing upon them the incredible privilege of looking like a real, big-time athlete.

And finally, players: it’s totally normal to sleep in your uniform the night before your first game. It’s absolutely acceptable to keep your uniform on as you go get a celebratory milkshake at McDonald’s after the game. It’s even appropriate to keep your jersey and cleats on as you follow your parents through Home Depot while they start on the home improvement projects they delayed while watching your game that morning.  Wear that jersey until you’re sure that everyone knows that you had a game today.

Yes, that jersey means you’re big time.  Enjoy it.

-Jason Curtis

Zero

I can count on zero fingers the times my dad argued a call while watching me play sports.  I can count on the same number of fingers the times he approached my coach about playing time.  My sporting life was my own; it was something for him to watch and enjoy, I guess.  When I didn’t play much, that was likely my responsibility.  If there was some kind of problem, there were usually some kinds of solutions- more practice, more effort, more focus, talk with the coach [myself].  I was, after all, the one playing the sport.  Sure my folks were paying, but that didn’t seem to ever equate to absolute player equity in their minds.  They didn’t ever seem to expect anything.  If I started, they were proud.  If I didn’t, they sat and watched until I got some time.  If I played first base, great.  If I played deep left? Great. End of the bench? Must be a reason. I was the one playing [or not playing], not them.

Practice? Got dropped off, like all the others.  When practice was over? Got picked up, eventually.  Practice was with my coach and teammates.  That was practice.

My parents were spectators.  Pure spectators.  I like that.  I like that I can write these words with absolute truth and confidence.  My parents loved that I played sports, lots of sports, and they supported me as much as they could… but I was the one playing, or sitting, during that time.  It was my own experience. I like that.

-Tom Mooney
p.s. The people in this photo are not my parents.

Out?

The stakes were high.  Trophies lined a 6-foot portable folding table outside of the third base line.  The pitch of the crowd suggested the score was close and the inning was late.  A kid–an 8 or a 9 year-old–on the grey team blooped a pop up toward second base.  The green team’s shortstop dove.  There was a cloud of dust and maybe a catch.  The base umpire thought so and signaled “out.”  The home plate umpire had a different angle; he signaled safe.  From my spot beyond the centerfield fence watching a game on an adjacent field, I sided with the home plate umpire.  There was no catch.  It was a great effort, but the shortstop clearly did not catch it.

The umpires met, and I hoped.  This is what I really hoped–that the umpire would go over to the kid shortstop and ask, “Hey, did you catch it?”  And I hoped that the kid would say, “No, I didn’t get it.”  And I hoped that the umpire would say, “Thanks for your honesty. I couldn’t tell from where I was standing.  That’s pretty impressive that you would be truthful even though it didn’t get your team an out.”  Then I hoped that the umpire would signal out and that everyone there–the players, the coaches, the fans–would understand.  That’s what I hoped.

Instead, the umpires talked.  They got the call right even without asking the kid.  And, from what I gathered, the play was not reviewed by the people in New York.  But despite the correct call, the kid’s coach was livid.  I watched in mute being out of earshot.  I saw the coach’s arms flail.  I saw him tear off his hat in frustration.  I saw his anger.  And worse yet, so did the kids.  All of this because the umpires got the call right, just not the way he had wanted.  And not the way I had hoped.

But I hope that when I’m in the situation that I can keep my perspective, my sense of fairness, and my honesty.  And I hope that you will too.

-Dan Schall

The Time in Between

We all experience the “time in between.”  It’s that time spent in your doctor’s office waiting room, stuck in a long line at the DMV, or waiting at a gate for your flight.

It’s the time after you were doing something that mattered, but not quite yet when you’ll start doing something that matters again.

It doesn’t matter if we’re waiting for something dreadful or exciting – people waiting in line for a roller coaster have the same look as those in line at the DMV – because the “time in between” is still considered a waste of time.

We have ways of filling the time in between.  We check our phone, zone out, and check our social media. We people-watch, play a game on our phones, look at our reflection in a window, and check our phone until we finally start worrying about our battery level.  (*Generation gap moment: in the days before cell phones we only had “Hi-lights” magazines in the doctor’s office, and I’m sorry this generation won’t ever know the thrill of finding all of the 10 hidden objects.)

Even though we may fill the time in between, we’re really not doing anything useful with that time.

We have the “time in between” at school and in athletics too.  This is that time at school where we’re waiting for AP and final exams, end-of-year events, and graduation.  Waiting for summer vacation, waiting to go to college, waiting for the weather to change.  Waiting.

Your team may be waiting too.  Both teams in most contests at this time of the year are waiting: the successful team is waiting for the regular season to end so they can get to something meaningful (the playoffs), and the team with a losing record is just simply waiting for the season to end.  Waiting for the “time in between” to end.

Which would be fine, except for the fact that the one thing we all want is more time.

Perhaps we all have been given just enough time to do what we’re supposed to do.  It might be that we don’t always recognize the extra time we have … because it’s hidden in between the things we think are more important.

Maybe this “time in between” is where we’re supposed to reconnect with a classmate, get to know a teacher better, and to work on some academic skills that will prepare us to be successful in college.  Maybe this is the time to offer sincere gratitude to our mentors, or to work on leaving a positive legacy at our school.

Maybe this time is where we’re supposed to work on those skills we never get around to training because we’re distracted by competition.  Maybe we should try a new position, experiment with creative play, change up practice plans, or revisit team goals from the beginning of the season.  This might be the time to find a role for the player who has been ignored, to encourage a disillusioned coach or teammate, or to offer mentorship for younger players.

The “time in between” is the time to make yourself better, or make someone else better.  The time to recommit to what you want to do, hope to do, dream to do.  Play, smile and laugh.  Reflect, think, and imagine.

The “time in between” isn’t a waste of time, it’s a gift.  It’s time we do something with it.

-Jason Curtis

Seeking the Challenge

Everyone wants the “perfect” season … but we might not agree on what a perfect season looks like.

My perfect season is one where we lose some tough matches.  The perfect season has quite a few practices that don’t go smoothly, and we struggle to reach our goal in challenging drills.  My perfect season also has some parent meetings with challenging questions, inconveniences in travel, and some interpersonal difficulties and growth that force us to work as a team.

If we have a “perfect season,” where every practice and game goes our way, then we’ve made practices too easy and we’ve scheduled below our potential.  As Tom Hirshfield noted, “If you hit the target every time then it is either too near or too big.”

Seth Godin in his latest blog post reminds us how we learn to ride a bike: “Actually, by not doing it. You learn by doing it wrong, by falling off, by getting back on, by doing it again.”  How unreasonable it would be to expect our child to learn how to ride a bike without falling, and how ridiculous it would be to expect a season to be without challenges.

Improvement is inextricable from challenges.  You don’t ride the rainbow to the pot of gold – it’s at the end of a long, tiring journey.  The reason why learning to ride a bike is so memorable for both the child and parent is precisely because it’s difficult, scary and frustrating.

We want our players, coaches and parents to demonstrate a positive response to adversity.  Yet, we forget that the response is always better when we have sought the challenge, rather than feeling that a difficulty has been thrust upon us.  If parents gave up on teaching their child to ride a bike the first time they fell off, Schwinn would have been out of business years ago.

Instead of team goals that only include the positive, consider including the reality that your team is likely to lose some matches and have bad practices.  Be excited about the opportunity to challenge your team to the extent that you might have to work through team dynamics and explain processes to parents.  Be willing to be patient and steadfast through the challenge.

It’s the challenge that makes the journey and the destination better, richer, and more fulfilling.

The only thing better than finishing a drill, is getting to a goal that your team didn’t feel they could reach.

The only thing better than beating a team, is defeating a team that you couldn’t figure out in the beginning of the season.

The only thing better than getting a high grade on a test, is acing an exam in the class where you’ve had difficulty mastering the material.

The only thing better than seeing your child or player succeed, is seeing them be successful in something that they just couldn’t do earlier.

Seek the challenge.

-Jason Curtis

Showing Up Matters

UNC forward Luke Maye made national headlines twice in 12 hours: first, for hitting a last second shot to propel the Tar Heels into the Final Four, and then again for showing up to his 8:00am Business class just hours after returning to Chapel Hill from the Regional Championship game in Memphis.

Nobody would have blamed Maye for skipping the class.  As a player who committed to play at UNC without the guarantee of a scholarship, and didn’t even play in last year’s National Championship game, he had just hit the biggest shot of his life.  The kind of shot that every kid who grows up in North Carolina dreams of hitting when they’re shooting hoops on their driveway deep into the night.  The kind of shot that gets Twitter admiration from Christian Laettner, presumably not a big Tar Heel fan and the author of the most replayed shot in tournament history (maybe surpassed by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins and his championship-winning buzzer beater last year?).  The kind of shot that might earn you a lifetime of free meals at Al’s Burger Shack on Franklin Street.  The kind of shot that, at the very least, would give you a pass from having to attend class at 8:00am the next morning.

Except, he decided to show up.  After a physically and mentally grueling game, media obligations and a late flight home, he showed up to class.  As one online commenter confessed, “I only watched the game and couldn’t make it to class the next day.”

Our volleyball team will be playing in Atlanta this weekend.  After 3 days of tough competition, too many snack bags, navigating a massive convention center, and 14+ hours of bus travel, we’ll likely get home at around midnight on Sunday night.  All of us: players, coaches and parents, will have to decide whether we will show up to school and work on Monday.

I hope we show up.

Showing up matters. It matters because every time we take the easy way out, the next excuse comes a little easier.  Skipping reps, not putting in the extra work, or avoiding a work or social obligation gets easier every time we do it, and we eventually find ourselves spending more time avoiding responsibilities than actually meeting them.

Showing up matters, because other people care that you’re there.  People know when we’ve made the effort, and it shows care and respect for others.  We may not feel like being at training or a conference, but our presence is important for the success of others.  We bring talents, skills and experience, and when we skip out we cheat others out of the opportunity to grow and improve.

Showing up matters, because it demonstrates gratitude for the opportunity.  When we complain about having to go to class, practice or our job, we forget that there are people who would do anything for the opportunity to go to college, play on our team, or gain employment.  Gratitude, like love, takes effort, commitment and practice.

Showing up matters, because every day and every event is an opportunity, not a burden.  That meeting, practice or class might offer inspiration, a new personal connection, or a dramatic change in perspective for us.  We’ll only know if we go.

I hope we show up.

-Jason Curtis

My Favorite Team

In each of my 25 seasons of coaching volleyball, I have had one team that is my favorite team of all time. This one.

My greatest joy of coaching is in the journey of each season and what the athletes take with them moving forward. I would like to take the opportunity to communicate to my current team and all of my past teams that I am beyond grateful for what they have left behind with their coach.

Within each season, there are lessons to be learned, challenges to overcome, and triumphs to share. Most importantly though, there are the people we meet along the way who stay with us forever. May we never lose sight of all that we gain by what we give to each other.

-Mike Schall

Youth Sports: What I Care About

My kids love sports. Currently, my oldest daughter plays club volleyball, my two sons play in a YMCA basketball league, and my youngest daughter goes to “practice” (say it in an Allen Iverson voice) once per week to learn how to play volleyball. They play other sports too but these are our current “seasons.”

I love that they love sports. I watch when I can but when I’m not there, life does go on. I don’t want my presence to have any impact on the joy they receive from playing or the effort that they give to their teams. Don’t get me wrong, I go to as many games as I can but if I have a conflict, neither I nor my kids are bothered.

When I watch, I watch. When a good play is made by any player on either team, I clap to acknowledge the play – that’s it – the game isn’t about the parents who are watching from the sidelines. I like seeing kids learn things on their own, discover how to interact with teammates and coaches, and get better at winning and losing. Gasp – losing. I want them to lose? No – I don’t WANT them to lose but I have been involved in sports long enough to realize it’s a potential outcome of competition. So, if I don’t truly care if my kids win or lose their games, what do I care about?

I care about how they respond: To wins. To losses. To injuries. To mistakes. To sitting on the bench. To bad calls. To conflict. To fatigue. To feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, or lacking confidence. I care how they respond and sports provides a fantastic experiential learning opportunity.

I care about how they learn: I want them to become good learners. I want them to learn skills, team concepts, and the rules and strategies of the sport they are playing. More importantly, I want them to learn how they learn.

I care about how they communicate: Real human communication. I want them to communicate with their teammates, their coaches, and with other adults like referees, tournament directors, and volunteers who make their experience possible. There has been nothing in my children’s lives that has helped them to become better communicators than their participation in sports.

I care about how they lead: Sports provide my kids with opportunities to speak publicly, to motivate those around them, and to teach others. In addition, sports allow kids to play different roles which is an essential leadership skill as they continue to grow.

My kids have won and lost plenty to know the difference and to also know that the sun has always come up the next day regardless of the result. The outcomes I am most interested in are the joy they give and receive to their team through competition, the relationships that develop and last a lifetime as a result of being on a team, and the experience they have of being part of something bigger than themselves. I also want them to recognize that hard work is its own reward and never guarantees a successful outcome.

-Mike Schall

Coach Life

Depending on who you talk to, or what day of the week it is, I’m either the head coach of a fifth grade girls’ basketball team or the assistant coach of that same fifth grade team.  I have the chance, this year, unexpectedly, to coach Recreational Basketball [Rec Ball] at this level.  It’s… intense. My life before Rec Ball was, in hindsight, simple, quiet, normal, borderline unimportant.  Now?  Well, let me explain…

Emails.  If one believes being added as a recipient to any email list denotes prestige or purpose, then I have newly found purpose and loads of prestige.  On a nearly daily basis I now receive emails related to all forms of Rec League management, scheduling, addendums, procedures, and the like.  As my life used to simply roll along with no knowledge of such intricacies, it now has intimate knowledge of gym availability, talent show conflicts, and jersey distribution snafus.  While I used to walk through my day job making idle chitchat and giving the stock-standard ‘good’ or ‘not bad’ response to the ‘how’s it going?’ question, I now answer such a simple question with panicked tones of, ‘my day?!? How’s it going?!? Mt. Lebanon Physical Plant has a ventilator issue in the rooftop HVAC unit at Hoover and the 4th grade practice scheduled for 6:00 has to be moved to Howe which is ALREADY dealing with a parking lot overflow issue due to parent-teacher conferences! How do you think my day is going?!? How do you think…. it’s going?!?”. Emails have done this; they’re to blame.

Team Name.  On a team of nine [which is the perfect number for a basketball team- easily divisible by two] trying to select, offer, and/or vote upon a team name proved challenging.  When my wife and I decided upon names for each of our three children, a decision that would linger with them their entire lifetime, I don’t know that I had nearly the level of stress and anxiety as managing the process of offering, voting, and selecting a team name.  The team name, which is never listed on a scheduled, rarely chanted by the parents in the stands, and remains with the team for only the six or so weeks of the season, had more emotional fallout than Prom.  Girls who suggested a name that was eventually selected, they beamed with confidence and appreciation.  Girls who offered a name that was turned down, they became disillusioned with the democratic stylings and likely will never vote when older.

Position.  Each girl wants to play 1.  Point Guard.  They want to bring the ball up, call the play, dribble more.  If you didn’t know better, and I didn’t, you’d think the other four positions were of total unimportance to the offensive strategies of a team.

Plays. Dreaming up and designing plays for a 5th grade basketball team is fun; in the theory of it, it’s fun.  The idea that you’ve designed a play that will manage movement, distribute the ball purposefully, create space… it’s wonderful; that’s in theory.  In execution?  Let me explain the offensive play: “1”.  The point guard calls ‘1!’.  The 2 comes and sets a pick allowing the 1 to dribble right. Timing the pick and movement perfectly, the 4 then crosses the lane to set a pick for 5 who, waiting patiently for the ensuing pick, then comes across the lane towards the ball-side and receive a pass, either chest or bounce, from the 1. All the while, the 3 remains distanced in an effort to create space for the play to run… eventually coming to the foul line– only after 5 receives the pass–in an effort to provide an outlet or pursue a rebound.  That’s the theory.  In reality, the point guard might as well yell ‘Fire!’ as they come across the line, sending all players, and some spectators, into a frenzied rush colliding with others around them in a desperate search for safety.  It’s, um, not the same as you see it in your mind.

I could go on, trust me.  Substitutions based on height, oversized jerseys that fit like trash bags, 8:10 pm practices that feel like… wait for it… herding cats. I could go on.  But you know what… I really like it.  I do.  I don’t know the names of other coaches like other coaches do.  I don’t know which team has that girl who “should be playing travel”, and I don’t know the score, ever, of the games that we play since the scoreboard never operates [and I’m too busy trying to make sure everyone gets a chance to play 1].  I never thought this would be my life and, depending on the day or who you ask, my coaching title varies.  Still, I love it.

-Tom Mooney