Sunday, September 17, 2006

After School Skills

Constructivism has been spreading gradually into my coaching philosophy lately. After a frustrating four consecutive losses, I decided that my freshman volleyball team needed to regroup. As individuals, they each showed skill and athleticism that should have made it easy for them to challenge and beat the teams that we had played. But the problem is that volleyball has little to do with individual skill--it's about three touches on a play, team movement, and constant communication. In short, we were playing like six individuals instead of as a single team.

I think that trusting your teammates is something you have to practice; esepcially for freshman girls, learning how to treat each other is a skill to be learned as much as passing, setting, or hitting. Since I'm not there to monitor how to they behave towards each other in the locker room before and after practice, or in the hallways during the way, nor do I remember very clearly what it's like to be a 14-year-old girl (I think I've repressed most of my 8th and 9th grade years as a survival mechanism), I decided that they needed to come up with their own pre- and post-practice rules.

We had a meeting in a classroom during practice last week where I told them what I had been observing in the past two weeks, and then I set down two rules: (1) That they treat each member of the team with respect at all times, and (2) That each player must believe deep down that we can win, and that she must show that belief through her intensity and attitude at practice.

Then, I left them in the classroom to create their own specific expectations for how to treat each other on and off the court. About 30 minutes later, they emerged with a typed list of seven very specific expectations. Their list made it so clear what they needed of each other and of me--I could never have anticipated nor articulated their feelings and ambitions as well as they did. I asked the captains to explain each one, then after we agreed that they were fair, we all signed them. I read them again aloud at the end of practice, and I intend to keep reading them at the end of every practice.

The next day we had our next match, and we played like a team--that was our greatest victory. And yes, we did score our first official win. It was a start.

Our biggest challenge will be to uphold these expectations instead of giving into the old ways ingrained in them by the big middle school bullies--Gossip and Insecurity. I really want our team to be a safe little circle for them where they know they can be themselves, and they feel protected from the darker side of high school.

In volleyball and many sports, it's easy for the coach to dominate. Two girls walk instead of run to get balls? Ten pushups. One girl's late to practice? Three sets of stairs. And all of those strict rules for keeping intensity high are important. But why not let the players establish and enforce them? If we want them to be aggressive, confident, and self-disciplined, then why not let them be the creators and enforcers instead of just the recipients?

For many students at Arapahoe, their biggest lessons are not learned in the classroom. The volleyball court, the football field, the stage, the bandroom, wherever--these are the places our students choose to be. If our philosophy is to prepare these teenagers to be valuable members of a future society, then I think we need to recognize the windows of opportunity that don't open until 2:13.