Culture In A Program
Many of you who read my blog know that I was a Spanish teacher for 10 years and that I have been coaching for nearly 20. What you may not know about me is that I am also a real estate investor. How does that have anything to do with a beach volleyball coaching blog though? Well, investing is investing. College coaches are investing 4 years of their time, their team, and often times, the school’s money into an athlete. When they do this, they are looking to make an investment that will pay off big for them. While they are, of course, looking for great volleyball players, they are just as interested in what type of person they are getting.
The world of sports has changed drastically in the last couple of years. A quick google search will give you all kinds of stats on how the NIL deals have changed the landscape of college sports. There has been a major increase in athletes entering the transfer portal as they try to find the spot that best fits them and now money is often attached to that. That massive shift has made those conversations with club coaches, high school coaches, and even teachers, that much more important. I have never heard the term “flight risk” used more in conversations with coaches than I have in the past couple of years. Coaches want to know what a kid’s loyalty has been to their club or their school. They want to know if they have bounced around at a bunch of different clubs or transferred schools multiple times, or if they have stuck it out when things got hard and been a part of the solution to make things better. There are OBVIOUSLY situations that warrant leaving a team or school or club, but in order to be not considered a flight risk in the eyes of a college coach, there has to be something pretty obvious there. When kids change clubs and come over to RPM, Ryan usually has a conversation with them. Just like a college doesn’t want kids coming and going, we don’t either. We invest our time and energy into their success and we want to make sure that we are a good fit for them so that they don’t just end up leaving our club as well.
For committed athletes, that commitment is important as well. When a coach has committed one of our athletes, they check in with us. They want to know how they are progressing, but they also want to know how their behavior changed once they committed. If we ever want another athlete from our program to get committed, we have to be very forthcoming with those coaches when they ask. If a player has stopped showing up to practice as much, or has pulled back from the team once they commit, that player may be considered a flight risk to a coach. If that player is no longer invested in the program that helped them to get to where they want to go, who’s to say that player won’t get to the next level and then decide to enter the transfer portal once they do. A college coach’s livelihood and the livelihood of their family absolutely depends on the success of the program they are running. Winning in college is as much about recruiting as it is being able to develop the players that a coach recruits. There isn’t a single college coach out there who is willing to take a player as a freshmen that they think might leave after a year. They are literally investing their livelihood in an athlete and can’t afford to be wrong. While a coach may have already committed an athlete and that athlete may have already signed, the trust that a coach has to have in that athlete to want to do everything they can to develop that athlete and risk their livelihood on that athlete’s development has to be there. Colleges commit kids all the time that never see the court. Kids don’t work so hard for so long to get to where they are going to want to get to that school and never see the court. Seeing the court is more than just about how well they pass, set, and hit.
The absolute best compliment that I can ever give a college coach is that the player they are getting from us is a player that the coach can build a program around. This player is a very rare find because it isn’t just the player who is a great volleyball player, it is the kid who does all of the things that have to be done for a program to be successful. It is the kid who is selfless not because they know other people are watching, but because that’s just who they are. It’s that kid who sets the expectation. Day in and day out for a program. It’s the kid that continues to choose the right thing to set the example. It’s the kid that, when the chatter starts and it is negative, always takes the high road.
What is culture? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture is defined as:
: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
So if culture is a SHARED set of things, then that means that it is the responsibility of everyone involved to foster that culture. In sports, the coaching staff is responsible for setting the tone of the culture. Coaches can make or break good culture before it even has a chance to grow. You hear that, long term, the most successful programs in any sport or even in business are those that have a good culture. So what kinds of things make up a good culture on a sports team or within an organization?
We have been really fortunate to have a lot of incredible kids and families come through our organization over time. We have tried hard to welcome each athlete and family with open arms. We have set a standard within our program of encouragement and growth and we have always tried to continue to put athletes into situations to help not just their game to grow, but to help them to grow as people as well. For some players it is a challenge to just get outside their comfort zone and talk to other kids. For others playing with different players with different personalities is a challenge. We try to create as many different situations for kids as possible where we see a need for them to grow. Some take on the challenge head on while others are more hesitant. One athlete in particular took on the challenge of the growth of a positive culture in our program as her own personal challenge.
Claire Coppola made the main draw at the AVP on multiple occasions. She was part of the winningest pair in LSU beach volleyball history having won more than 120 matches in college. She was a 2x BVCA pairs national champion. She was a first team all-American on multiple occasions. She represented the USA in the College World Games. She did more things in the sport of beach volleyball than most players could ever dream of doing. She is an absolute RPM Legend! But where did the story of Claire Coppola start? Let’s back track a bit.
Claire came to RPM Sand with a passion for volleyball. She had gone through the indoor world and it just wasn’t for her for a multitude of reasons. Many players who come to us from indoor complain about how toxic the environment was and name that as their key reason for choosing to leave. Honestly, though, there are toxic environments in ANY sport. When Claire came to RPM, she didn’t bring over all of her baggage from indoor, she came in and saw beach as a fresh start and as her opportunity to help to build something great. RPM had already won a national championship by this point, we had already committed players to D1 schools. We were already on the map as a beach volleyball program. Many players would come into a program like ours and be very content just to follow in the footsteps of so many great players and even just doing that would be amazing. Claire was just different.
Let me preface this by saying again, we have had the honor over the years to work with literally hundreds of incredible kids and families. Kids who came in and followed the rules and never complained. Kids who worked hard and had an incredible work ethic. Kids who were kind and genuine and cared about their teammates. Kids who would mentor kids who were younger than them and set a great example as teammates of how to be. So then if we had all of these amazing kids, how could Claire have set herself apart in our program?
I have often tried to imagine what Claire’s motivations might have been. Could it have been the indoor coach who told her she wasn’t good enough? Could it have been the fact that she was a goofy footed player whose style was just different than others? When it comes down to it, though, it wasn’t a motivation thing. It’s just who Claire chose to be. When she came into the program she wasn’t the dominant force that she would become. She had a lot to learn and even all the way through her senior year in college, she would come home and go to work with Ryan or I on some skill that she wanted to be better at. Our program already had a positive culture, but as Claire improved and grinded through to be the best she could be, she was getting attention from schools all across the country. LSU became the place she chose to go and it was like the minute she committed, the work truly started. I’m not talking about working on her own game, because she did that too. Her work became to see how many other players that she practiced with each day she could help to get committed.
Claire understood that while she had friends at other clubs across the valley, and while it is totally common for players to play with partners outside their clubs, that it was the players she practiced with and who pushed her every day at practice to be better who deserved to be her partners. She knew that being a commit to a top 5 school would draw the attention of colleges and she wanted to help to draw that attention to the players that she was grinding with day in and day out, not players at another club who would essentially just be using her to get noticed. Claire played with multiple players who, after playing in a recruiting event with her, got offers from schools. Sure, she played in, and won a national championship with Hailey Harward, but she also played in major national events with other partners to help them to get noticed. She knew that what those players lacked in their game, she would have to make up for with hers in order for the team to be successful. She took that on as a challenge instead of looking down on her teammates. If a player wasn’t the best setter, she knew she would have to work on her patience as a hitter to make sure she never over ran the set. If the player wasn’t the best attacker, she knew that she would have to be more accurate with her sets to lead her partner into successful shots.
In the era that Claire played in RPM, she made it the norm to do this and kids took great pride in trying to help their teammates to get committed to schools instead of helping kids that didn’t practice with them every day to get committed. People that were putting the work in right along side them that were there on the days THEY struggled, to work through those struggles with them. Kids took other kids under their wing and played with them over and over until ultimately those kids got committed as well. The pride those kids had knowing that it wasn’t just about them, and that they had truly helped other players to chase their goals and dreams too was absolutely priceless. It wasn’t just the other players that were on the same level as them either. It became about trying to help every last player in their class and in the class behind them to get that opportunity. It became about family and understanding that it’s lonely at the top if you don’t bring others with you as you go.
When LSU head coach Russel Brock got updates from us as a club, we were able to give Claire the biggest compliment that you can give a player. “Russel, Claire Coppola is a player that you can build a program around. She is that kid who truly understands that her greatness is only truly great if the team can be great too.”
Claire went on to college at LSU and started every year of her career in the lineup at either the 1’s or 2’s for LSU. She took a 5th year due to Covid and in her 5th year, LSU had a young lady by the name of Taryn Kloth who was a grad transfer. Claire had been playing in the 1’s spot for essentially her entire career at LSU where she was incredibly successful winning the pairs national championship twice. In her 5th year, because it was what the coaches thought was best for the team, Claire played in the 2’s spot. By this point she was already an AVP pro but her pride was never more in herself than it was in the success of her team, so she played in the 2’s all year to try to help her team to win a national championship.
The fact that Claire Coppola has graduated college now and is off in the working world, no doubt, making a difference for her company, and I am still talking about her as a legend, means she did something special. The fact that when you walk into the LSU beach volleyball locker room, you see a huge mural with Claire’s likeness forever enshrined there means she did something special. How do you build a team culture and environment that you can be proud of? You don’t wait for others to do it. The only way to build it is to purposefully participate in it like Claire did wherever she went. The only way to live forever is through the legacy that you leave behind. What legacy are you choosing to leave when you go?