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Teach your team to embrace and respond to the randomness of Volleyball

I attended the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul over 20 years ago.  The USA men went on to win the gold, while the USA women needed to win in three and not let Peru get 33 points (or about that) in the Peru hopeful loss. Peru got about 11 in the first game loss, and about the same in the next loss, so when Peru got to their 33rd point, and mathematically eliminated the USA team from advancing….they celebrated. The USA just needed about 5 more points than Peru to advance, points scored over the whole period of pool play, but fell short. Peru went on to the Silver medal, and the USA women took 7th as I recall.

So a couple of days later, I went to watch the semifinals for the women. The top four in the world now at that point, and one match in particular really impacted me. Russia was to play China in this first Olympic semifinal. Now, China had been the #1 team in the world for almost the entire decade, winning the gold in the major FIVB event of the year in 1981, 82, 83….Olympic Gold in 1984 over our USA women and led by Lang Ping who 25 years later would be coaching that USA team in China of all places, and beyond. They had dominated Russia, and most other nations over those years. The event was played in the evening, televised live to both nations who were on the same basic time zone, so billions watched. What was the score of this match in a rivalry that really goes back thousands of years, predating even the Great Wall? Did it go 3, 4, 5? Most coaches guess it went five, with China winning 15-10 in the 5th.

Randomness in sport is the why we play the game.

On any given Sunday, they say an NFL team can beat another.
USA wins over Russia in ice hockey in the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
Canada defeats the USA in ice hockey, both men and women, in their own Miracle on Ice in 2010.
In volleyball, this same randomness of sport hits home as Russia defeated China in 3, 15-0, 15-9, 15-2 in pre-rally scoring. That is ZERO and TWO in an OLYMPIC semifinal, coaches. Ca-ca occurs.

All too often I hear from coaches the following “explanations” for their own volleyball team’s play:

1. “We just did not practice hard enough…”

– Well the Chinese may practice more than anyone in the world….

2. “We just did not care enough…”

– This was being televised to a billion people live, as they played to defend their gold medal.

3. “We just were not ready for this level”

– They had over half a returning Olympic Gold medalists squad.

4. “We s@#k…”

– Yeah the best team in the decade clearly deserves that title.

5. “We just did not get enough rest…”

– The village was not the quietest place by the near end of the Olympics, as most competitors are done and beginning their unwinding phase, but all the volleyball teams were still in it – playing for places, Russia included, and the Chinese are some of the most skilled nappers and catnappers I have seen.

Nope. Caca occurs. When it does, stop chewing out your kids for what is the randomness of sport. Be their biggest supporter, not their biggest critic, and teach them to love and embrace the chaos and funny bounces of the game.

I reflect on the times I drove in my Region Eight while developing my game to “local” tournaments, which were over 12 hours away since back then my Region was six states. I would leave work at 5pm, drive my VW Squareback alone to the gym, and on arrival sleep in the back, on an angle for maybe 1 hour. Then I would unfold, get up and play all day in the Men’s Open tourney. Sometimes I would play great, and sometimes I would not. Or we would stay out and celebrate to 3am on the overnight of a 2 day tournament and Sunday morning sometimes we would play great and sometimes not. The game is random. It is OK, in my humble opinion, that your athletes might stay up and be kids, talking about life and learning from each other well beyond the court. They should be in their room, and know that they need to get enough rest, as it is not about overtraining, it is about getting enough rest. Just remember, we chose a random game, and randomness occurs, and they will not play poorly just because they shared life lessons with their roommates.

That same year of 1988, I was in the stands watching the NCAA Women’s Final Four. Texas lost to Stanford in the first game 15-0, pre-rally scoring. NCAA Final Four level….15-0. If you go to look at the big qualifiers and three day tournaments where lots of matches are played, you will see these 0-25 and 1-25 games happening on a nice bell curve. Our game is random, and when caca occurs it is just as random.

You can win 25-0, 25-0 and lose 23-25-23-25 13-15, so that you score 115 to their 62, and yet lose the match. The randomness of our game, and helping kids be comfortable with playing one point at a time is an important lesson and skill to teach, part of the mental side of the game we need to teach better. The outcome of a volleyball game is out of one player’s control, only this point, then this point, is something we can do something about, as we develop that right now, right here focus.

In closing, although caca occurs, you do need to teach the kids the incredible value and importance of mindful learning, and deliberate practice, and of notmaking excuses. How real teams better the ball rather than blame teammates, and how all communication, both verbally and non-verbally, needs to be feedforward and about improving and helping one another. They say excuses are like bellybuttons, everyone one has one….but just in case your players need a chance to discuss the wasted time making them, view my handy dandy “Excuse List”.

Let us know how else we can grow the game together.

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About the Author

John Kessel is a Coach and Member of the Leadership Team at Beach Nation. He is known for his coaching innovation through positivity, motivation, incorporating motor learning with cognitive development and keeping learning fun. John served as USA Volleyball’s director of sport development, and in 2019 he became the 50th recipient in history of USAV’s highest award for a lifetime of service, the “Frier Award.” Kessel has “strived to help all coaches become more efficient, positive and creative, no matter what level – from the elementary school level to USA National Team programs”.

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