Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing  William Butler Yeats

At LMU we play in the West Coast Conference. And it is a tough this year…really tough.  The teams that finished towards the bottom last season are greatly improved. Two teams are ranked in the top-20.  BYU has entered the conference this year, and with it, greatly enhanced the competitive level. Basically, every night is a battle.  Having competition like this is great. There is no doubt every team will be severely pushed and tested, and in the process learn a lot about itself. There are lots of challenges to all this, but possibly one central one:

“How do we keep our team, and individual players, on a course of improvement through such a turbulent process?”

Already, our team has managed to come from behind from some major deficits, as well as seen a few slip away we wish wouldn’t have. We’ve had some victories that felt great, and some defeats that have left the locker room in a sober silence. How do we ride this rollercoaster without being one ourselves?  I don’t have a simple answer to it, only some thoughts. But here are a few:

1 – There is no bigger role for me as a coach and a teacher than teaching my players how to learn: 

Maybe I should just stop with that comment, because I believe it’s at the core of everything. I believe everything is a skill, whether it is emotional, mental or physical, and everything has a lesson. If we can model and foster a mindset that challenges are an opportunity for growth, we will always be learning. If we are learning, we’re improving. And if we’re doing both of those things, we’re most likely highly motivated.

Sounds so simple, and yet is so difficult. If you’re skeptical, spend a day in a gym and chart the feedback of coaches and players. Make one column “process” and the other “result”. Which is praised more? Can people tell the difference?  If we can’t, if a good result means a good process, and an unfavorable result always means a bad process, the rollercoaster of the season might take us down with it. I know I’ve fallen there more than I like to admit, and as these young ladies’ teacher, I have to be better.

2 – We are a part of something bigger:

This is often said and communicated, and it couldn’t be truer. I believe this is one of the central reasons organized sports are so popular. Whether we’re an extraverted life of the party type or a loner with our nose buried in a book, we all want to feel we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves. This is a basic human need.  Do we have a team goal? Does it reflect this desire? Is it based on behavior we can control or is it based solely on results? Does everyone clearly understand how it is being measured?

3 – Back to Yeats

“We are happy when we are growing”. As much as this is a team game, players have to see and feel how they are improving in order to stay motivated. A player’s path of improvement, their ownership and understanding of it, is an anchor that should be there through all the results. I believe this is a compass through the highs of winning and the pain of a loss. And as we all know, losing hurts. It really hurts. We need that anchor.

This can be where organization and clarity comes in. Are there a few specific, clear items each player has to work on within their game? Do they have daily opportunities in practice to work on it? Are there video sessions for them where they can “keep score” of their progress? One of my most rewarding moments since I’ve been at LMU was when I had an older player come into my office crying, saying she felt she hadn’t improved at all. She wasn’t being dramatic; she was profoundly upset, and was wondering if this whole process-thing might just be too hard. Luckily, I was ready for her, and had picked up some old film of her, as well as a series of recent clips of her playing. Watching the look on her face as she recognized how much she had grown was a wonderful moment for both of us.

As many coaches have said, “results matter” and none of us would disagree. One of the central issues for all of us might be – how do we give ourselves the best possible chance at these results, continue to improve, and have a rewarding experience through such a challenging, competitive experience? Maybe some ideas from above will help, and if you have some yourself, I would be grateful to hear them.

Tom Black – LMU Women’s Volleyball