Building Fearless Competitors

Creating a Culture that Teaches Players to Be Confident, Think for Themselves and Lead on the Court and in Life

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A critical aspect of coaching and teaching is creating the right environment for learning. How is the learning environment established in your gym? If we truly want to help young people become fearless competitors, we will spend time creating and cultivating a gym in which mistakes are welcome in order to cause growth. Let's explore practical applications for building confident leaders, competitive teams, and celebrated programs.

Understanding How Kids Learn
In one of our first practices following tryouts, I "teach" our players – all 320 of them – to juggle. Thanks to my role in my 6th grade class play as the juggler in the circus, I can juggle but it's a new skill for most all of our athletes. We have the kids break off into teams and give it their best shot with the limited instruction I provide. Coaches are instructed ahead of time to simply observe (which includes listening to) the learners in front of them. None of them actually learn to do it in the 10 minutes I provide for them to practice. Observing a learner attempt a new skill is fascinating for me as an educator and provides our coaches and athletes with a starting point for building fearless competitors.

There are several common actions that are observed:

  • Frozen By Fear – the learner holds two balls in one hand and one ball in the other just as they were instructed. Then they stare at their hands and continue staring. Nothing happens.
  • Self-sabotage – "This is going to be bad." "I can't do this." "I'm going to mess up."
  • Catch and Stop – The juggler finds joy – or relief – in simply getting through one cycle of toss-catch, toss-catch. They stop, thinking they have succeeded but in reality, they have just arrived at a safe place with no "mistakes."

Unfortunately, very few of our athletes (and I'm guessing most athletes) just go for it and start tossing balls in the air. Yet, this is exactly how one learns to juggle or learn any new skill. This activity has caused me to work harder at understanding how we teach, what roadblocks the learner has created, and what we reward.

What Do We Reward?
Especially in a group setting, most athletes are naturally and culturally averse to risk. Yet, isn't this what we want them to become very comfortable doing?

Athletes don't receive feedback that tells them that it is great to take risks. Think about what is rewarded in our sport at younger ages:

  • "Just get it over" is a phrase I've heard time and again. This is heard mostly in the bleachers but unfortunately I've heard it from the sidelines as well. If the mentality is to "just get it over," we are in essence penalizing a young player from taking a big swing, being aggressive on defense, or making the difficult set.

  • At the younger ages, the lower skilled team often wins. It is the nature of the game at younger ages. What happens when teams win? They receive praise, medals, a bid to nationals, ice cream, etc. They feel good and it reinforces how they played – quite possibly, they just got it over the net and the other team made mistakes. When a team loses, they ask what went wrong and may look to change how they played the game in order to win next time. If they are trying to use three contacts, that is three opportunities for a mistake.

  • There are too many whistles blown at younger ages. Kids don't learn to set anymore because they fear being called for a double contact. Combine a second contact that is more often than ever a forearm pass with an attacker who just wants to get the ball over, and a free ball war breaks out.

In all of the above scenarios, safety and caution are rewarded. It is our responsibility as coaches to reward behaviors that encourage taking necessary risks for growth. We will explore some practical ways to do that. Warning: you may have to clarify/redefine how you measure success as a coach.

Teaching Confidence
THE MOST common discussion topic I have with athletes and parents centers around confidence. While I believe strongly that we are responsible for our own confidence, there are a number of factors that get in the way of a young person truly taking ownership. To me, there is a direct correlation to what we reward and a player's level of confidence.

Here is a recent example to explain my point. I met with a player recently who had just accepted a position on one of our #2 teams. Her goal was to be on our #1 team in her age group. She explained that she walked out of our tryouts feeling as if she played the best volleyball of her life. Then, she received her team placement and her "confidence was shot."

I don't fault this athlete for one moment but here was my explanation... Confidence should not be tied to circumstance. Her team placement is a circumstance. She can't control the other athletes' performance in the gym or the coaches' evaluations in comparing them. She can't control her height or her high school experience leading up to tryouts. She can't control how many kids were trying out at her position. In the future, she won't be able to control a number of factors – on or off the court. What is important is that we don't tie confidence to circumstances that are out of our control. Confidence is a fancy name we use in sports for belief. I asked her if she believed in herself? She said she did. I asked her how it felt when she left tryouts feeling as if she played her very best. She said it felt great. I asked her what changed between that moment and now. She replied that the only thing that changed was a phone call – a phone call offering her a spot on our #2 team. She nodded her head, understood, and is going to work harder than ever. I will check in with her periodically as, like most things we teach, it is a process for a player to build confidence.

Training vs Teaching
Are you a teacher or a trainer? Maybe it's a matter of semantics to you but I believe there is a difference. A trainer, by my definition, is one who prepares an athlete to respond to situations. A teacher, by my definition, is one who prepares an athlete to recognize situations and respond based on what he/she sees.

To be clear, neither is bad. However, I think teachers have a longer view of developing players who are self-sufficient on and off the floor. They provide principles upon which to operate but they don't give them all of the answers – or even all of the potential scenarios. Instead, they give them the freedom and confidence to make decisions on their own.

IF we are curious about giving athletes tools to think for themselves both on the court and off, we will be more interested in giving them the keys to making decisions, understanding why, and dealing with the consequences. It is the consequences that can sometimes provide the best lessons. There are a few things to understand when coaches give decision making responsibilities to their players:

  • They WILL make mistakes. How are you going to work with them and help them through the mistakes? Your response is critical as to whether or not they will be willing to take a risk again.

  • YOU will get better at giving them the necessary information to help them become a better decision maker.

  • YOU will discover that asking questions is more important than providing information. THEY will get better at discovering the answers.

  • Ultimately, THEY will be well prepared to become fearless competitors.

Catch Mike's presentation at the upcoming AVCA Convention in Columbus on Saturday, December 17th at 10:15AM in GCCC Short North Ballroom B titled "Building Fearless Competitors: Creating a Culture that Teaches Players to be Confident, Think for Themselves and Lead on the Court and in Life.

For more education for junior volleyball coaches, click here.

About the Author

Mike Schall is the Associate Club Director at Triangle Volleyball Club, a JVA member club in Raleigh, North Carolina. Mike is also a Court and Classroom Blogger, inspiring teachers, coaches and parents in building up young people.

"I derive great joy from helping kids and coaches discover the unique gifts inside of them to better serve others. My most special gifts are my beautiful wife of 18 years, Sarah, and my four children (Belle-14, Sam-12, Andrew-9, and Mia-6). I am the Associate Director of Triangle Volleyball Club in Raleigh, NC where I help lead a staff of more than 80 coaches, 300 athletes, and 600 parents. I am fortunate to have traveled the world to coach and teach, to give and receive, to lead and serve. While my experience in coaching ranges from introducing 10 year olds to the game of volleyball to serving as the Assistant Coach for the national champion Penn State Women's Volleyball Team, my greatest prizes on my coaching journey are the people – all of them – that I now count as friends. My goal is to create a learning environment in the gym and on this site where questions are welcome, mistakes are encouraged, and curious lifetime learners are created."


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