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.]

So, Thanks.

We know to give thanks.  We know to express gratitude.  We know what it is to feel favored, blessed, fortunate.  We know all of that, but that doesn’t always mean we think to thank the many who help in life.  I think, ordinarily, that we wait to make some grand gesture when something simple, something small, would do.  So do something little, say something simple this holiday.  Thank a student for something routine, thank a player for something common and often lost to expectation.  Thank a parent, a coworker, a perfect stranger.  Make a point to make someone feel the thanks you know you feel.

Today, right now, in our classroom, the students of my first period are signing a large thank you card for Steve… the custodian who cleans our classroom each night.  No student has met Steve and they likely never think of the fact that someone, some Steve, each night, comes along and cleans our classroom the best he can.  Steve deserves thanks.  This is nothing heroic- it’s a large sheet of paper that will be signed by the 140 some students that pass through the classroom each day.  I feel, though, that it’s important for them to know and remember that Steve, and all the other ‘Steve’s’ in the world, help in invisible ways. When they feel that, when they are reminded of it, they care more, act more, and see the world a little differently if only for a few moments.

So thanks.  Thanks to those who read these posts so often.  Thanks to those who comment. Thanks to those who share their ideas and help us all get a little better.  Thanks.  Truly, thanks.

–Tom Mooney

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

Don’t Be Busy

Several years ago there was an article published in the New York Times called ‘The Busy Trap’; it was good. It identified the trend that everyone feels they have to be busy these days.  It’s not something most want to be, or want to feel, but generally we are, we do.  We are busy.  The article explained, though, that we don’t have to be.  The idea of being busy sometimes, it went on, was in response to others who claimed they were busy- so all felt they had to be equally busy, or busier, in response.  In the spirit of ‘you think you’re busy?’, we’ve come to despise the word and overuse it [start paying attention].  So, let’s not be busy.  I know, it’s hard.  Sometimes we simply are busy, other times we just want to feel busy.  Let’s not be so busy.  How? How do you not be busy? I think it starts with simply realizing you don’t have to be busy, or that slowing down might help you more than you realize.  For instance, half the time I feel busy it’s typically related to compensating for something I forgot to do since, after all, I was too busy to remember it in the first place.  I don’t manage time correctly, I fail to prioritize, I just get lost in my own mismanagement.

I think that busy makes us feel important, but I think it’s that trap mentioned about.  Instead of busy, say your day was ‘full’.  I’ve read that instead of ‘having’ to do something, say that you ‘get’ to.  You don’t have to take a kid to practice, you get to take them.  It is, after all, pretty amazing that you have kids and that you can give them the chance to try a sport.  It’s pretty awesome that they have the health and the ability to play a sport. Heck, you don’t have to set aside an hour each night for homework, you get to help your child with their homework.  You’re still there, still so needed.  The time can be so great, even in the chaos and the whirl of day that seems to be 5:23 p.m. one minute and 8:48 p.m. the next.  It’s a rush; many feel it, but don’t feel busy.  Feel like life is full, like life is taking you along with all the need and speed of itself.

–Tom Mooney

I Don’t Think I Tried

Chances are you’ve never seen me on ESPN’s Center of Sports.  There’s a reason for that- I’m not a very good athlete.  I’m not looking for lame praise to the contrary, I simply know this to be a fact.  Although I’ve always enjoyed sports, always played sports growing up, I have never felt like an offense was built around me or anything.  I was okay, serviceable, a team-player.  And, to be honest, at my age I miss the chances I think I squandered as an athlete.  I think I made some mistakes as an athlete and I think the greatest overall mistake is now clear to me: I didn’t try.

Though I regret this now, there is absolutely nothing that I can do to change the fact that I could have practiced more, could have done more strength conditioning, could have become more of a student of the game.  I didn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t. I liked sports, I loved certain teams that I was on, I had my moments… but by and large, I could have tried harder to be the athlete I now wonder about.  I wonder, now (and maybe you wonder the same for yourself) if I could have been better if I’d tried harder.  It’s a natural part of the aging process- wonderment.  I wonder, more than I likely realize, who or what I could have been if I’d tried harder.

The hardest I know I ever tried as an athlete was when my dad helped me get ready for a basketball season in seventh grade.  A few nights a week, my dad would go with me to a track behind an elementary school and we’d run together.  I’m not sure exactly how far we’d run each time, but I know by the end of those first few nights I was panting and I know that each time we went it got easier.  I was better that season, I felt prepared.  I still wasn’t great at the foul line maybe, or couldn’t hit many shots from certain distance, but thanks to my dad I was less winded than I might have been otherwise.  I think, looking back, that it was fun to do that with my dad.  It was fun and felt special to do that- running a few nights a week.  I felt like he was teaching me something about training, about trying. I was an athlete that year, that season.  I was prepared, I was better, I was committed.  I’ll never forget it. I don’t remember much of all my years as an athlete, but I remember that one best.  It was support.  It was support in the guise of training.  My dad wasn’t yelling from the sidelines, wasn’t pouring over plays that didn’t work during the car ride home… he was just running with me.  He was there for me.  It was a quiet and continued support.

So who cares? Likely no one other than me.  But, still, I offer it simply to show what might be most important to you and most important to your player or your child- the time you spend helping them try.

-Tom Mooney

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

We Hereby Agree to Be Nice to People

The following post is from Jason Curtis. Court and Classroom is especially thankful for Jim Garman of Garman Homes for allowing us to post this. More importantly we are thankful for the example Jim sets in how he leads his company and treats his customers. 

This is the most unusual contract I’ve ever seen:

Good Attitude

At Garman Homes, We believe a good attitude can change the world. We insist on a good attitude…from Our employees, Our vendors, Our cooperating Brokers, Our Legal & Lender Squad and from You, Our Buyers. We insist.

Mistakes happen all the time. So do misunderstandings, miscommunications and the dreaded perceived mistakes and assumptions. All are likely to put Our Good Attitudes to the test. At some point during construction on Your New Home, We are likely to stumble upon something unexpected. In fact, You should expect the unexpected. We have built hundreds of homes, We know to expect the unexpected.

Our good attitudes can make the difference between working through something unexpected in a collaborative way or stewing about it and trading ‘he said, she said’ emails. Those emails never end well. The gist is, We don’t promise to make any fewer mistakes than other homebuilders. But We DO promise to be honest, sincere and propose ways to move forward. In return, We expect the same from You.

We don’t respond well to yelling and screaming. And We don’t respond well to threats. We prefer working with people who want to find a winwin for everyone involved. If You feel You may struggle with this approach during the building process, We’re not the builder for You. Be honest with Yourself about whether You can commit to a Good Attitude. There is no faking it. We can tell when You’re faking.

We feel so strongly about the importance of a Good Attitude, We reserve the right to terminate Our Agreement at anytime prior to Closing if We feel Our relationship has gone off the rails. The last thing We want is for You to move forward with Your New Home if You are no longer able to offer Us the benefit of the doubt or if You’ve lost the ability to trust Us. It’s tough to imagine now but it happens. In this rare situation, We will return to You the Builder Deposit and, depending on the timing, We may be able to refund Your Option Deposit also.

We love what We do for a living. It is more than a job for every single one of Us. It’s not business, it’s personal. With Your help and positive support, We are confident that We can build a great home for You.


You:____________ Date:____________ Us:____________ Date:____________                 

Jim Garman, the owner of Garman Homes, was introduced to me by a colleague who was fortunate enough to have a home built by Jim’s team.  We invited him to campus because we were looking for someone who could stimulate new ways of thinking about IT customer service at our school.  Jim is a thoughtful, reflective, creative and passionate “serial entrepreneur,” who is taking advantage of his position as owner to serve as purchasing manager for the year (instead of running the company).

In the frequently contentious world of construction, the Garman Homes team seeks to create the best possible experience for both the customer and the building team.  They seem to have hit on a winning formula: seek to create a partnership and don’t be afraid to be specific about expectations from both the builder and the homebuyer.

The most important thing about a contract is that it demands something from both parties.  It extends a promise in exchange for another promise, and is supported by specific action (or “consideration” in legal terms).  The language of the contract keeps both parties honest, while laying out what is to be expected throughout the transaction.

What if we were to create a “good attitude” contract between coaches and families at the beginning of the season?

Here are a few ideas, and we’d love to hear your comments and additions:

At ______________ Volleyball Club, We believe that we have a most important responsibility to partner with You, parents, in helping raise your child.  We believe that the only way that We can effectively help You raise Your child is by both parties agreeing to act with mutual respect and appreciation.

We know that the upcoming season will include some wins and some failures, that every player will not be able to play as much as they want and where they want, and that We will make some coaching decisions that will not be successful.

In those inevitable moments of potential disappointment, You and We will react in a positive manner because it is the best response for Your children to witness.  Both parties will allow space for each party to be the best version of themselves [Growth Clause], will always assume that the actions of the other party are initiated with best intentions [Optimism Clause], will understand that errors will be made by You and Us, both of whom are human [Forgiveness Clause], and will always endeavor to leave the other party happier at the end of every interaction [Joy Clause].

You love your children, and We do too.  Therefore, both parties promise that:

We You
will react to disappointment with professionalism, kindness and positivity will be open-minded about the learning process and embrace adversity for our children
will understand that families are doing their best to attend practices and games and will seek to decrease to a family’s scheduling stress by being empathetic, patient and kind about tardiness and absences will be patient with schedule changes and endeavor to bring my child to practice with more than a full stomach and necessary equipment: they will come armed with gratitude, optimism, openness and joy.
will continue to challenge our players by giving them opportunities to stretch and grow, especially when they struggle or fail will bring cheerfulness and kindness to the bleachers at games, and will extend genuine hospitality and welcome to other parents
will always build up and encourage players and families through conversations with other coaches will always build up and encourage all players and coaches through conversations with other parents
will cheerfully conduct ourselves as exemplary role models and supporters for our players will consistently enjoy and appreciate the sacrifice of supporting our children in athletics
will treat my players and opponents as if they were someone’s child (which, incidentally, they are) will treat my child’s teammates and opponents as if they were someone’s child (which, incidentally, they are)

Leading With Vision

Last week, I wrote about the importance of vision in a post titled, “What You Will Become.” Jason Curtis then wrote “Growing Trees” in which he describes the role leaders should play in the lives and the development of young coaches and teachers. It got me thinking in a practical way about how coaches, teachers, parents, and leaders can model, encourage, and collaborate with one another to change the atmosphere and ultimately the impact that participation in sports can have on the lives of young people.

Here are a few examples of statements I have heard over the years and how teachers, coaches, parents, and leaders with vision can change the narrative and perspective.

She can’t.” A coach with vision replies, “yet.

I give up.” A parent with vision encourages, “stick with it.

It’s his fault.” A leader with vision states, “let’s do this together.

It’s over.” A teacher with vision inquires “when can we start again?

We did it!” A leader with vision questions, “what’s next?

Where can I hide?” A friend with vision pleads, “where can we go?

We made too many mistakes.” A coach with vision wonders, “what did we learn?

That’s not fair.” A parent with vision answers, “how will you respond?

It’s mine.” A teammate with vision corrects, “it’s ours.

That’s impossible.” A teacher with vision answers, “what a great challenge.

We need this.” A leader with vision compels, “let’s give this.

It’s too late.” A mentor with vision exclaims, “it’s the perfect time to start.

There is no way.” A coach with vision begs, “what is possible?

We’re no good.” A leader with vision implores, “how can we get better?

-Mike Schall