Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New Volleyball Season

My middle school volleyball season started four weeks ago when we started practicing. The season as far as games are concerned started yesterday for my 7th and 8th grade teams. My 6th grade team plays their first game today.

Our first game on tap yesterday was my 7th grade team. They were playing a team from Monroe Middle School. My players were nervous, excited and in a couple cases maybe even scared. I tried to calm them down before the game started but when the whistle blew they were still fidgeting on the court. The game stayed pretty close at the start but by the third rotation I had a player crank out four service aces and from that point my team never looked back.

It was a little stressful at the beginning. When the game was ready to start I was just taking my seat on the bench when my assistant coach started yelling corrections at the players to move their positions around on the court. She pretty much kept this up the whole game. I was going to try and keep the game pretty low key for two reasons. First, my players were nervous about the new season starting. I was going to let a lot of things go to let the players get comfortable on the court before I started changing things up on them. Secondly, I don’t believe in doing a lot of coaching from the bench. Players aren’t going to learn much during the game. My job, once that whistle blows is to be the head cheerleader, and to step in as coach if they get into trouble or start making big mistakes.

What really impressed me about my 7th grade team is the two 5th graders that were playing with them yesterday. In the first game one of those 5th grade players served 4 service aces in a row. In the second game the other 5th grader duplicated that feat.

The seventh grade won the first game 25-14 with nine service aces. They won the second game 25-21 but had 13 service aces in that game. In the second game they actually ran four pass-set-spike combinations with one of my 5th grade players actually scoring a kill on one of those rallies.

Immediately after the 7th grade game was our first 8th grade game. I was surprised at how nervous my 8th grade players were. This is their third year of playing volleyball together but they were acting like 6th graders who have never been on a court together before.

However once the game started they seemed to settle down to business. They were playing the team from Immanuel Christian School. Immanuel’s team suffered a setback this year when their coach moved on. They managed to get 10 girls to sign up for volleyball so their eighth grade team is a combination of 6th, 7th and 8th grade players.

I thought the first game was a good start for the new year. My 8th grade team won the game 25-15 behind 11 service aces and 6 kills. They managed to put together 10 three hit pass-set-spike combinations and scored kills with 6 of them. My starting setter, who led off the second rotation fired off 5 service aces in a row which I thought, was a good performance.

The second game was a mixed bag. We won the game easily. However it may have been too easy. When my other setter rotated into the serving spot as the fourth server in the rotation the score was 8 to 5 and I was looking for a couple good overhand serves out of her. 15 consecutive service aces later the score was 23-5 and it was really quiet in the gym. Our fans had stopped cheering about five serves earlier. The rest of my team was standing around flatfooted looking bored. My server was looking at me wondering what to do. My assistant coach was yelling at her to serve to the front row. The opposing coach was shooting daggers at me with his eyes. The opposing team’s fans were glaring at me like I was Satan incarnate. The four opposing players in the number 3, 4, 5 and 6 positions on the court were standing flat footed with their shoulder slumped, their head’s bowed and I think two of them were quickly losing a war with tears. Meanwhile I was telling my server to “just keep serving.”

She hesitated for a moment then decided to listen to the assistant coach and tried to serve to our opponents’ front row and failed – net serve. We turned the ball over to our opponents who served out of bounds. My next server calmly walked to the service spot and fired one last overhand service ace. Game over, 25-6.

I gathered my team up, yelled a cheer for our opponents they lined up to shake their hands. The other team looked and acted beaten, my team looked guilty. I love that about my girls. They have the empathy and caring to feel for their opponents like that. But as a coach I needed to make them understand that what happened in that game was not their fault. I gathered them into a circle ready to start talking when one of them asked “Do we have time to play another game?”

Caught off guard I paused for a moment to look at my watch. In that moment the rest of the team jumped on the band wagon and asked to play another game. So I sent them under the net to ask their opponents if they wanted to play another game while I checked to see if the match that was to follow ours was ready to take the court. They were not.

When I looked across the net I saw my 6 players begging their opponents to play another game. Their coach was shaking his head no, but all his players were nodding yes. So when the coach walked away both teams moved back onto the court. Since the referee and scorekeeper had walked away my girls asked me who was going to do those duties. I replied “No one, just play.”

I told my girls to set their own alignment and setters. Then I tossed the ball to the opposing team’s server and told her to serve whenever she was ready then I walked away also.

I don’t know how that game went. I didn’t watch. But 10 minutes later when the next match’s teams were ready to warm up the 12 girls on the court seemed to all be having fun. I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes the best cure for what ails girls this age is to let them just be kids and play for a while. After all, that is why these kids are there – to play volleyball.

I still need to have a talk to my players this afternoon about not letting up, and putting away an opponent. But I’m not sure what all I’m going to say yet. I have a lot of different things running through my head. I did get some advice from the assistant varsity coach at the high school last night. He told me that when my team gets a big lead like that and I have a hot server up, never tell her to back off, instead, give her signs of where to serve. He said I should take the responsibility for where she is serving and not leave it up to her. I was thinking along those lines already but it was good to hear it from another coach with more experience than I have. Now I have to find the right words to convince my players that what happened to their opponents was not their fault and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. I want them to be a tough team who can put away an opponent quickly. But I don’t want them to lose their compassion and caring natures either.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Jayme said...

Sounds like your team has got thier serving down... One of the biggest struggles we have at the hight school level (around here) is that when we get a lead, the girls let off. As coaches we preach to keep pushing but that is not always the case. The other issue we have is playing down to another teams level, instead of playing at our level. Usually by the end of the season things start to turn around but that seems to be a consistant struggle every year.
Good luck with the rest of your season, I'm sure I will come back and check out your blog.
Oh, and I think it was a good idea to have the girl serve to a specific area after making all those serves. We always tell our girls where to serve, but if they take a huge lead for us, we will have them jump serve. (most the players are not very consistant at this) Therefore they are still aiming for the ace, but chances are it wont happen.

David said...

Half my team has their serving down. The other half is serving overhand for the first time this year and they are not very confident of their abilities yet. But we are working on that.

My daughter's varsity team at the high school has the same "not putting teams away" problem. They get a 5 to 7 point lead and you you can watch half the players relax and start coasting. Then 5 minutes later they are yelling at each other to get the serve back because it is 22-21 and the other team is getting ready to tie the game up.

My 8th grade team has playing down to your opponents down pat. Yesterday in practice they came from behind to beat my seventh grade team 25-23 and 25-21. Trust me, my 7th grade team, while they were playing well, is not that good, yet.

I told my player who served the 15 aces in a row that she should be really proud of that accomplishment. Even if it was against a weak team she still had to get that ball over the net and onto the floor. Most young athletes will lose focus before that many serves go by. In my 17 years of playing volleyball I never managed more than 8 serves in a row and only a couple of them were aces. Opportunities like that don't come around everyday and you should be ready to jump on them when they do.