Today I had the chance to coach a little volleyball. It doesn’t always work out where I can do this, but every time I do I am reminded how much I love it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love coaching the really good players. The ones everyone knows are gonna be good.
But my favorite moments come when there is this one little player who doesn’t realize that they have it yet. They don’t quite believe in themselves and these little ones are easy to spot.
My group was working on hitting.
After going over footwork for about ten minutes we gave them a ball and had the players toss the ball, approach to the ball and then catch it – not hit the ball, just catch it. It is the equivalent of watching paint dry for a volleyball player because all anybody wants to do it HIT THE BALL!! Footwork is pure torture. But it’s totally necessary.
Most of the older girls could do this easily. Approach, approach, approach. Toss the ball, approach, catch. Easy peasy. Then we got to the group of younger girls. Most of these girls needed more time on footwork, but because we sometimes have to try something new and difficult in order to catch the mechanics of it, we had the younger group toss and catch as well. Not so easy peasy.
Most of the younger players struggled with getting both footwork and the hand/eye coordination of catching it in the same movement. The athletic girls took a few attempts and eventually got the timing of it. Even if they had wonky footwork, they were athletic enough to be able to get their feet close enough to catch the ball. We could tweak the footwork, after all. The smaller ones had a more difficult time.
One little girl caught my eye. She was frustrated. Cutest thing I have ever seen, but frustrated. I had worked with her on the footwork portion just minutes earlier and she was frustrated there too. Her feet seemed to betray her and when we added the ball toss, it was just too much. I heard her say “I can’t do this.” After a few minutes of this, I gathered the girls together and told them to hold up one hand.
“Hold up one hand. I want you to come up with five things (one for each finger) that you believe about yourself. These can be good things or bad things, we all believe both kinds of things about ourselves,” I said.
I could see their little wheels turning.
“You don’t have to tell me what these things are, but what I want you to do is focus on the good things that you believe about yourself. If you have yucky things you think about yourself, I want you to take your other hand, grab them out of the hand you are holding up and throw them up into the air. Get rid of them, right now we are just going to focus on what we CAN do,” I continued.
More little wheels turning and little hands tossing yucky things away. I dismissed the huddle and had them take a few more attempts at the toss and catch, then we moved on to another drill. A few minutes later, I saw the same little girl working on serves from the ten foot line. She was frustrated and looked as if she were about to cry.
I went over to her and said “you are doing great!”
She looked at me with tears welled up in her little eyes and said “no, I’m not.”
I said “Are you having fun?”
She put her head down and nodded yes.
“Do you love this sport?” I asked.
With eyes still downcast, she nodded yes.
I tilted my head to meet her eyes and said “Do you love this sport…?”
This time a verbal “yes.”
“Then pick up the ball and try again. If you love this sport, you will be good at it. I promise,” I said.
You see, that little one was me more than thirty years ago. My feet mocked me, my small, skinny frame betrayed me – but my heart…my heart…my heart didn’t freaking care.
I loved that sport. I believed that I was going to be good before I ever was. I believed (even when I doubted) before any coach ever did.
Eventually, there were coaches who believed in me, but that small, timid nine year-old on the verge of tears found a place in my heart to believe that despite the odds and despite what people told me – that I was going to be good just because I loved the sport.
I love talented athletes. I love natural ability and when I see it, it is beautiful. Amazing athletes doing amazing things with their bodies will always be something I am drawn to.
But those little ones with tears in their eyes and lions in their hearts? That is the real stuff of sports. That is the stuff I live for.