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

Making Our Case

In the January 23rd issue of Sports Illustrated, Seth Davis writes about the trend of high school basketball players leaving high school in their senior year so that they can start playing in college earlier.  In “The Case for … Starting College Early,” Davis writes about the Auburn coaching staff approaching a recruit in his junior year at Spain Park High in Alabama.  They encouraged Austin Wiley’s family to arrange an early graduation by transferring to Calusa Prep in Miami while playing basketball for The Conrad Academy in Orlando until he enrolled at Auburn and played in his first game last December.  By my count, that’s four different schools in less than 12 months.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl argues that players heading to college early “get college coaching” “a meaningful off-season” and “closer to a degree.”  The NCAA appreciates the latter argument, asserting on its website that “the ultimate goal of the college experience is graduation.”  Yet, less than half of Auburn’s men’s basketball players who enrolled in 2009 had earned a degree from Auburn University by 2016 (according to 2016 US Department of Education Federal Graduation Rate statistics).

Kentucky coach John Calipari, who helped 18-year-old Hamidou Diallo enroll at UK this spring even though he may enter the NBA draft next year without ever playing a minute for the Wildcats, added: “If a young man is 18 and has a chance to go to college as an 18-year old, he should do it.  I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”

Unless you consider that only 29% of Wildcat men’s basketball players who enrolled in the school in 2009 earned a University of Kentucky degree by 2016.  To be fair, a record number of Kentucky players left college early to play in the NBA, likely a far more lucrative option than many of their Kentucky classmates had even with a degree.  Kentucky is the outlier however: only 1% of NCAA men’s basketball players actually have the opportunity to play in the NBA.

Click image. NCAA screenshot shows graduation rates vs. professional playing opportunities.  Yes, those are multiple typographical errors on the NCAA website touting the academic success of college student-athletes.

Coach Calipari previously asserted that the advancement of his players’ personal goals is paramount, even more than winning a national championship: “[My mission is] to be the vehicle that helps others reach their dreams, be the stone that creates the ripple in their lives that goes on and on and on.”

Sounds a lot like what we’re trying to do in high school education.  So why do these college basketball coaches feel so confident in publicly dismissing the value of the senior year experience in high school?

It’s not just college football and basketball: we are experiencing this phenomenon in volleyball.  High school student-athletes are increasingly seeking to leave high school early and enroll in college during what would be the spring semester of their senior year, and in response to decreasing participation USA Volleyball has moved up the National Championships for the 18s division, holding the tournament two months before all other age divisions.

I believe that college coaches are doing this for many of the right reasons.  They correctly assert that college coaches have more time and resources to dedicate to the training of student-athletes, including strength, conditioning, nutrition and academic programs.  Certainly having more time with their student-athletes on campus can improve the team dynamic, and college coaches can more quickly identify and address problems with student-athletes during off-season training.

On the other hand, college coaches don’t articulate the disadvantages of transitioning a student months before the rest of their freshman class comes on campus, or address the national statistics that indicate that more students every year are entering college unprepared academically and socially.  Many college coaches bemoan the lack of focus, leadership and program commitment from incoming players, while underestimating the abilities of high school and club coaches who could help form those characteristics.

If I were a college coach, I would want more time with my players too.  The tremendous pressures on athletic programs and the significant responsibilities of players and coaches makes every day with a college team important.

However, as a high school educator, I also want more time to help form these talented young people.  As seniors they can engage in a more personalized academic environment to prepare them for a university classroom.  They should spend time with mentors on campus who can challenge them to become active contributors and leaders, committed to leaving a positive legacy in their high schools.  They should work with coaches who have grown to know them and their families well and can assist them in developing life balance that will be essential in the pressure-packed world of intercollegiate athletics.  They must become mentors and teachers themselves, so that they are prepared to assume that role in college and later in life.  In short: they need to develop the characteristics that universities and intercollegiate athletics programs claim to seek in prospective students, but may be in fact keeping them from gaining by enrolling them in college too early.

Early enrollment isn’t the fault of college coaches or universities.  The fact that nobody is willing or able to articulate the value of the academic, athletic and social formation during the senior year of high school falls squarely on the shoulders of high school administrators, teachers and coaches.  Have we become too comfortable allowing or even enabling “senioritis?”  Has our willingness to allow twelfth graders to coast through classes, practices and competitions rendered the experience expendable?  Have we missed an important leadership opportunity by not pressing seniors into significant responsibilities to care for and lead younger athletes?  In short, are we failing our students by providing a poor senior year experience?

This is a wake-up call for us to examine the senior year in high school classrooms and gymnasiums, and to commit ourselves to providing an exceptional experience making sure that every student and family knows how important the 12th grade is to their short and long-term future.

As Pearl argues, “Why discourage someone from taking advantage of an opportunity to better himself?”

I couldn’t agree more. Shame on us if a student’s senior year in high school doesn’t offer an outstanding chance to better themselves.

It’s time for high school educators to make the case for a high school senior year that every student can’t afford to miss.

-Jason Curtis

Learning by Doing

Over the Christmas holiday, I did an experiment with my two sons. Sam just turned 13 and Andrew is now 9. They like to play – whatever is in season – they like to play. Neither has played much “organized” basketball (whatever that means) but instead enjoy playing with their neighborhood friends in our driveway.

One evening, long after the sun had set, I heard basketballs still being dribbled in the driveway. I walked through the garage to find the boys still shooting and I told them I would play “21” with them. Growing up, it was the game my older brother Jim tortured me with. He was a dead eye shooter and I was, well…I was good on defense. I didn’t win many games of 21 growing up on Brinker Street. It’s a simple game in which a free throw is worth 2 points and a layup is worth 1. If the shooter makes both shots they keep going. If the shooter misses the 2 pointer, they still get to attempt the layup for 1 point but then it’s the next shooter’s turn. The game is played to 21.

Because I love for my kids to stay curious about learning new things, I told them that the layup had to be left handed. They hesitated. I knew exactly why they balked at the idea. They didn’t want to miss, didn’t want to lose, and weren’t confident in their ability to consistently make a left handed layup. So, I tried something with them that would encourage them to go for it. I knew that I had to take away the fear of failure – it’s real and I understand it.

For our game on this night, I made a deal with the boys. If they attempted a left handed layup, they got a point. They didn’t have to make it – just attempt it. We played for another hour and every time they attempted a left handed layup, they got their point. A few things started to happen…

  • They got excited about trying a left handed layup. In fact, they saw absolutely no reason to shoot a right handed layup.
  • They made mistakes – both in jumping off the wrong foot and missing more shots than they were making.
  • They got better at it every game.

I estimate that they attempted one hundred left handed layups. By the end of the night, both boys looked very natural – and they started to have success. They weren’t perfect at it but they got a lot better. That wasn’t the best part. The best part came after I went inside only to find the boys wanted to stay out longer and keep practicing.

So, how do we apply this experiment to coaching and teaching?

  • Create an environment in which risk taking is encouraged (1 point for attempting the left handed layup).
  • Emphasize process over result (each of my sons took 100 shots).
  • Recognize that mistakes will be made. Encourage and reward a demonstrated commitment to trying something new regardless of outcome.

Below is the video of when I came back outside and saw the boys practicing.

-Mike Schall

Dear Coach Dunning

The first time we “met” was in 1999. I was a young assistant coach at Penn State and we were playing your Pacific Tigers in the National Semifinals in Hawaii. One of my main responsibilities at that time in my coaching career was to scout our opponents. I watched hours of film on your team, and I knew it was going to be a tough matchup. We were coming off two straight seasons of losing in the national finals and while our group was experienced, your team had me worried. You used two different setters and had an outside hitter named Elsa Stegemann. She was fantastic and from what I can recall sitting here today, she had somewhere around 40 kills against us. We managed to win the match in 5 games and then went on to win the finals against a Stanford team featuring the great Kerri Walsh and Logan Tom. Despite your team’s difficult loss against us, you were a true gentleman. As a young coach, I noticed that.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to continue learning from you in a variety of ways. A few times in direct conversation but also in other ways: listening to you talk at coaching clinics, reading articles you wrote, watching you on the sidelines, and – maybe most important – watching your team play. I also know that Madi Bugg, an alumna of Triangle Volleyball Club, where I now serve as the Associate Director, had an incredible experience playing for you at Stanford (where you have coached since leaving Pacific).

This evening, at 9:00, your young Stanford team will battle the University of Texas for the national championship. With all due respect to Texas and their fine team and staff, I hope your team wins. Here is why…

  • You are a true teacher who cares deeply about the health and well being of your athletes.
  • You have created an environment where it is clear that the process of learning matters. Your team got off to a rocky start this year and somehow stormed through the tournament to land in the finals.
  • You are humble. You take the time to talk with everybody you come in contact with.
  • You are an encourager. I have seen you on the sidelines and can never tell if your team is winning or losing.

When I spoke with you briefly yesterday at the AVCA Convention, I didn’t have a chance to thank you for your leadership. So, Coach, I will be cheering for Stanford tonight. Thank you for the example you have set over the years of how a coach should act, how a coach should teach, and how a coach should lead. Regardless of the outcome, I want you to know how much you are appreciated.

With respect,

Mike Schall

Update 12/18/16: Congratulations to Coach Dunning, the Stanford staff, and Stanford players for winning the 2016 NCAA Championships.

Why I Love Tryouts – Really

In my role as a Club Director at Triangle Volleyball Club in Raleigh, North Carolina, mid-October through mid-November mark the most difficult time of the year. And I love it.

Here is what I love about tryouts:

  • Every year, I see kids do things in moments of intense pressure that they have never done before. Pressure and their desire to perform at their very best bring out the absolute best in some kids. I love the opportunity I have to witness them taking a step in the direction of fulfilling their potential.
  • ‘How you do anything is how you do everything.’ – When tryouts are run well, when people (athletes, parents, and coaches) are treated well, and the process is fair, it is a reflection of the club as a whole and the people who want to become part of it. It’s a reflection of the club as a whole when those things are done poorly as well.
  • As leaders, we have the chance to shape the culture of the youth sports experience. I am fortunate that I work with so many coaches who understand the importance of professionalism in the tryout process. I’m also grateful for parents who exhibit trust and respect to the coaching staff during tryouts.
  • We get to teach kids about honesty – when it’s really hard. They may not like the message that we have to deliver sometimes but they deserve honesty. When honesty can be delivered with compassion and with empathy, it allows young people to process the truth in a helpful way. In a way that provides an opportunity for growth in the future. They may not agree and that’s ok but we always want them to feel that they were treated fairly and with respect. This goes for their parents as well.
  • Everyone involved has the chance to learn about courage. There are players who walk in the gym and are obvious selections for one of our teams. There are some players who are not so easy to identify. Then, there are some who may be in over their heads. It is those kids who I respect the most. They come back for three days, getting better every day, and despite the long odds of making a team, they thank us for the opportunity. I am the one who is grateful to them – for showing me year after year what courage looks like.

Tryouts are difficult for everyone involved. In every case, there are difficult decisions to be made. Whether it is 12 kids trying out for 10 spots or, in our case, more than 650 kids trying out for about 320 roster spots, there are tough decisions to make. Our intent every year is to do our best – to be fair in the process and to treat people well. We are not perfect at it but I love that it is meaningful to kids and to their families.

This is why I love tryouts.

-Mike Schall

[Full disclosure – I typically lose 10 pounds, don’t sleep, and feel stressed out for most of the tryout period. I still love it.]

What’s My Job?

Have you ever been confused about where one side ends and the other begins? The world is full of cautions about taking on too much, the slippery slopes, the warning against too much yes and not enough no.  That’s all well and good, but often the line, the space, the expectations are blurred, widened, increased, respectively.  So what then? What is your job when it isn’t the job?

Hey, coach? You just need to give the fundamentals of the game, work in some of the rules and regs, maybe touch on the way to handle both wins and losses. Right? I mean, that’s the job, right? The idea of the coach is vetting talent, forming the team, then practicing and executing.  So when did it become expected that you’d balance the playing time of some who might offer lesser talent but still deserve a jersey? Did you check a box that claimed you would make certain you watched and guarded against players not feeling part of the team? When did you become the one with the whistle that also had to help mentor the athlete struggling in an academic area?  Maybe that wasn’t explained.  Maybe during the interview process all that seemed to matter were W’s & L’s, X’ and O’s.  But be honest, it was always going to be more than that.  It should be more than that.  The job isn’t coach, the job is far more important.

Teacher, teacher. Get through your curriculum.  Grade your essays.  Make sure we all know the quadratic equation, the way to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, the importance of bees in cross-pollination.  That’s all, right? Stand in the hall between classes? Where’s that written? Learn student names in the early days of a school year? What textbook states that as a professional expectation? Offer to sit and talk with a struggling student, in the most professional ways, as they softly explain an issue you could only guess existed in a life.  No one class, no course, ever defined the ways everyday feels different in the classroom.  No professor ever lectured about the ways you should go to a school play, watch a sporting event, take part in a fundraiser.  But really, isn’t that what makes the job more complete? More fulfilling?  Yeah, it’s not expected, and you certainly don’t collect on billable hours, but it makes the job what it is.

Mom, dad? Where do you begin with this? As I sit here typing, with music playing in the living room, I have a daughter in heels dressed as Belle [Beauty and the Beast] and another dancing like a 4 year-old possessed.  And I smile.  Not always, I assure you, but right now I do.  This is the part of the job, the part of parenting, I’ve waited for.  When it’s hard, there’s nothing like it.  When it’s like this, there’s nothing better.  It is the job of a lifetime- never fully realized and never fully accomplished.  Your child, your kid, your son, your daughter… where do you begin on what your life is meant to do for them? Where do you begin to explain to someone how much you try to do?

Friends, family, perfect strangers? I think who we are supposed to be to all others can’t ever be strictly defined. No one role, no one duty, obligation, job is ever as easy or as simple as it appears.  That’s what makes the job endlessly interesting.

What’s your job… and what do you love about it?

–Tom Mooney

A Tale of Two Fields

On one field…there are uniforms, a scoreboard, coaches, umpires, bleachers, bored parents and over-involved parents alike.  There is organization.  There are kids who have to be there.  There are also a lot of walks.  Lots of walks.  Lots of standing around, a by-product of the walks.  And advice–lots of advice from the bleachers which is matched, ironically, by a lot of silence on the field.

On the adjacent field…there are arguments and resolutions, siblings of all ages and heights and abilities.  There are kids who get to be there.  There is joy and laughter.  There is action and motion and (did I mention?)  laughter.  There are clouds of dust and high-fives.

There is a place for both fields, and I am not making a suggestion to abolish the former.  But I am suggesting that the former field should have more traits of the latter.  Let us not in our executive decision to structure childhood forget the joy, the creativity, and the spontaneity of the pick-up game.

I hope you find laughter, high-fives, and clouds of dust in the place that you’re doing life today because these things shouldn’t be reserved for childhood.

–Dan Schall

Something to Learn

A college coach recently asked me, “Do you know what I’d really love to hear from a recruit?”

I leaned in because, yes absolutely and of course, I’d like to know what our players could say to impress a college coach.

He continued, “Just once, I’d like to hear an athlete on a recruiting visit say that they like their high school coach.”

I must have had a puzzled look on my face because he clarified, “The last 50 players I’ve spoken with, every single one of them has said their high school coach is terrible.”

Wow.  As a high school educator and former high school coach, I certainly don’t share those students’ assessments, but as a club coach I understand where this is coming from.  As club coaches we are able to spend more time on technical aspects of the game, and we’re working with a single age group of players with relatively similar skill sets.  It’s much easier to plan practice with extended training time and a group that doesn’t require much coaching differentiation.  Club coaches also work at tournaments attended by college recruiters, giving us access to an important goal for our players.  A group of college coaches circling our court during pool play may give us more coaching status than we deserve, at least in the eyes of our players and parents.

On the other hand, high school coaches are managing programs that are much closer to the reality of playing in college.  High school teams practice every day, balance school academics and activities with a competition schedule, work with limited resources, often coach students from more diverse age groups and backgrounds, connect with teachers and alumni, develop relationships with rival schools, and are responsible to a larger set of expectations from their school community.

The truth is that high school coaches aren’t terrible.  In fact, they’re really good.  It’s just that they’re teaching lessons that we don’t value as much as we should.

Here are some lessons your high school coach can help you learn during your season:

  • How to serve and represent a group larger than yourself and your team. While it’s fun to walk into school the day after a win, it’s also essential to learn how to deal with public disappointment with maturity and humility.  Learning to represent your school (thousands of classmates, educators and alumni) is an opportunity to develop responsibility.
  • How to bring your best every day. The truth is that we don’t always feel motivated to train, and that challenge is magnified when you have to walk into the gym every day.  Playing in a high school program teaches you that it’s important to consistently bring your best effort because your teammates need your energy, leadership and encouragement, especially at the end of a difficult day.
  • How to work with older and younger players. Learning to mentor a younger teammate, or seeking mentorship from an older teammate is an essential life skill.  When working in teams it’s vital to learn that not everyone has the same life experiences or expectations.
  • How to balance academic and extra-curricular work with team responsibilities. High school coaches are uniquely positioned to mentor you through conversations with teachers and administrators.  Schedule and assignment conflicts are an opportunity to learn how to communicate with adults, as well as to evaluating and aligning priorities.
  • How to value the contributions of others. It’s not just teammates, managers and coaches who deserve our gratitude; we should also be inspired by the classmates preparing for Science Olympiad, the basketball team using the gym after us, the teacher staying late to grade papers, and the custodians who patiently make our schools beautiful.  Training in an environment surrounded by so many different activities reminds us that we’re not the only people working hard at something we love.
  • How to leave a legacy for younger players and a future generation.  Recognizing that our actions will impact others long beyond our career is a part of developing maturity.  Leadership and decision-making will always be more fulfilling and successful if it is done on behalf of others, for a benefit that we are willing to give away to people we may never even meet.

Each of these skills transfers to life beyond the volleyball court.  Tweaking your approach and armswing may serve you today, but I hope that you learn many more important things that will allow you to serve others long after your volleyball career is over.

Most of all, I hope that you go to practice tomorrow and thank your high school coach for their willingness to provide opportunities and teach the lessons that we don’t always fully appreciate at the time.

-Jason Curtis