The Fundamentals of Relationships

When traveling with the Men’s National Team, there is inevitably a significant amount of downtime.  I try to be as productive as possible while waiting for the next flight, bus ride or meal by reading a variety of non-fiction books that might help my coaching.  Two weeks ago while in Puerto Rico for the NORCECA Zone Championships, I read my favorite book of the summer:  Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How Can We Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old, by Claudia Worrell Allen and Joseph Allen. It was a wonderful overview of a teenager’s developmental process, a historical view of how that process has changed over the last century, how some of those changes have created problems and how we can help teenager’s better transition to adulthood.

Most of us who coach volleyball manage and observe teenage behaviors.  Whether you coach a 12’s club team as these players enter their teenage years or coach the National Team with recent college graduates attempting to cling to their teenage years, their behavior patterns can be frustrating and confounding.  I always hesitate to jump on the stereotype bandwagon, but in conversations with many coaches, many of us believe there have been significant changes in the way teenager’s act and communicate from just a generation before.  Escaping the Endless Adolescence validates many of our opinions and gives fascinating insight into the reasons for these differences.

While reading this book, I found myself highlighting section after section.  But one of the most striking observations from the authors was the inherent value in the job we have as coaches, specifically with the attention we give our players in the form of non-parental adult relationships.  “Other than the misguided notion that teens’ immaturity is just hardwired into their brains, the idea that most teens don’t want or need strong relationships with adults is perhaps the single most damaging belief we hold about adolescents today.”  The authors continue, “Connections with adults outside the family can be among the most inspiring connections teens make in their lives.  And finally, “Often it only takes one of these relationships to make a difference. They bring out our best—far more than we thought we could do, actually—not just because of what they ask, but because of the connection we form. Parents, as we’ve mentioned, tend to offer teens many more lectures and nuggets of wisdom than they could possibly want. The problem isn’t that the advice is bad, or that teens don’t need advice. When so much advice comes from one source, though, teens find it hard not to feel too dependent on that source, especially when it’s a parent. Most parents know the exasperating experience of listening to their teens come home repeating the advice of some admired adult—advice the teen had previously been ignoring from the parent! These other adults can play a crucial role in teens’ development.”

As a coach, you can be this “admired adult” and play a “crucial role”.

I think it is very easy for coaches, myself included, to become distracted by the day to day busy-work of the job.  It is also very easy to become distracted by some of the finer details of what we teach.  Is it important to know where to stand on the court or how to hold your hands where you pass?  Absolutely.  But in my observations the great coaches manage the relationships with their players before they manage anything else. And it doesn’t take much time!  “Student after student recounted stories in which teachers or coaches had simply pulled them aside after class or practice to talk. Sometimes it was because the student had been visibly upset. Sometimes it was to tell the student they had great potential. Sometimes it was to follow up on a point the student had raised in class. Typically, the conversations lasted twenty minutes or less. Rarely did any students describe conversations lasting more than an hour.”

We spend so much time talking about fundamentals of volleyball but do we spend enough time discussing or studying the fundamentals of relationships?  We pour over the stats in an effort to understand how we won or lost a match but do we critically evaluate if the relationships with our players affected our teaching efficacy?  Speaking only for myself, I’m not sure that I always do.

Our job as coaches is an important one.  We have the opportunity to make a real difference in the personal development of our players.  It is a gift to have that kind of influence on a young person.  I hope you use that gift to know the fundamentals well so you can teach your student to become a great volleyball player.  I hope you use that gift to understand the science of sport so you can teach your student how to win.  I hope you use that gift to explore the power of your relationship so you can inspire those whom you teach.

John Speraw, UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball