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Finishing Games

Having been in education for 10 years I always heard people saying that education these days is broken because of all the testing that goes on in order to tell if teachers are doing a good job or not. They say that instead of educating kids, teachers are essentially forced to “teach to the test” in order to show high scores because the scores are what teachers are being judged on. So teachers teach the specific material that is on the test to make sure students master it so that the test scores can be high, but what about all of the rest of the things that kids could be learning about as well? It is a cycle that, unfortunately, also carry’s into life for many people. Sure, I can ask a question in practice about where to pass to or where to attack and a kid can answer it. Does that mean that kid can execute it? Beach volleyball is a completely reactionary sport though. So how do you “teach to the test” in the manner that so many kids are used to these days? The answer is, YOU DON’T. You can’t control it all, so you have to teach kids how to process for themselves.

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity". Atrtibuted to Roman philosopher Seneca, this quote basically tells us that we make our own luck. So then if we make our own luck and their are only two key ingredients, we have to figure out how to control those two things.

Wouldn’t we all love to be up 19-18 in a match and know deep down that we can finish the match? That “luck” is on our side? Wouldn’t we love to just have that little bit of swagger that it seems to take to be able to close out an opponent when we have the lead and the end result is within reach? This whole process is learned! Often there are so many factors that prevent us from having that confidence that we never even realized were affecting us. One of the most obvious pieces of finishing out matches is the physical preparation piece. It is having gone through the reps so many times that when only that one shot is available, that your opponent has given you, you have done it so many times that it is muscle memory at this point. A good opponent will see your strongest shot and in a crucial moment, will take it away from you. They will likely also take your second favorite option, and the circumstances of that particular play might dictate that your third favorite is not available either. So how much have you repped out your 4th or 5th favorite option to score?

Next we have the mental side of things. I heard a pro athlete recently call it, “the story you tell yourself in your head”. It’s that voice inside your head that either builds you up, or tears you down. It’s the voice that has the solution in the moment, or the voice that doubts they do. It’s the voice that says let’s go! It’s also the voice finding an excuse not to. It’s a voice that can often times be the combination of so many other outside voices that have told us things about our game. From parents who give us feedback on how we play to our coaches telling us things about our game. Sometimes it can be trash talk by other players on the court or, sadly, even coaches of other teams that have made comments to us along the way about things they say we aren't good at.. It all plays a part.

We all have this voice not just on the court, but in life. You would be incredibly surprised at the things that affect this voice, this narrative we each tell ourselves about who we are. Feeling confident comes not just from those outside voices, but from all kinds of things. It’s the pride of knowing we have prepared well and studied hard for a test over time instead of trying to cram the night before. It’s knowing that we are the person who sees something through from start to finish because we choose to make it a priority for us. The outside noise that affects our confidence sometimes isn’t even all the talk going on around us. Sometimes it is truly just our confidence in ourselves to know that we are the type of person who takes something on, works hard until it is done, and doesn’t continually seek out those around us to take parts of our task to make things easier. It is the confidence to know that we are fully invested in ourselves and in our own process. We have ALL heard the athlete or the parent, or the coach that says, “it’s ok, they practice full time and this is just a part time thing for you.” Or, it’s ok, if I was 6’3”, I’d be great too! (Tell that to 5’9” Sarah Sponcil or 5’9” Hailey Harward, or how about 5’6” Kristen Nuss) How about, I just didn’t have time? That’s a valid excuse but it is still an excuse! The point is, we can all find an excuse or we can choose to fully invest in who we are and what we bring to the table and use what we have to be the best versions of ourselves that is possible.

Let’s contrast a couple of different types of athletes. Athlete 1 trains hard. She sees a weakness in her game, gets some tips on it at practice, goes outside of practice and gets a ton of reps at the park and at home to improve that skill, comes back and asks how to fine tune it, and then goes on to do that too. She doesn’t need a hundred private lessons because she takes the feedback and makes the time to get the reps. She manages her own schedule, she reads all of the emails sent to her by her coaches, and prospective colleges, and responds accordingly. When asked in practice about the specifics of some information that went out, she is the first to be able to tell you what the information was. This athlete is truly and genuinely FULLY invested in her own process. Her parents help her when she needs it, but they have helped her to own her process by putting the responsibilities of it on her, letting her fail, at times, to live up to those responsibilities and helping her to understand that there are consequences to not owning them. Because she owns her own process, early in her career when she wasn’t finishing games, she would go back and watch film, figure out what went wrong, and try hard to fix it. ONLY after going through it herself and not being able to fix it did she come and ask for help. While we were always interested in helping her to fix things, helping her to own her own process was an even more important tool that we were trying to help her to build as an athlete and as a person. It was easy to tell she had tried to diagnose things because she would tell me all of the different things she had thought about and tried that didn’t seem to be working and then we worked out the details together. She would also share all of the solutions she had come up with so that she could get feedback on those too. Just the fact that she had spent so much time trying to process it and figure it out means that she got probably thousands of mental reps of “what if” situations in her head and those situations are the ones that she relies on in those big moments at the end of matches.

Athlete number 2 is also a great athlete. She works hard in practice and trains hard. She has a great attitude and is super fun to work with. She constantly asks for feedback at practice but the feedback seems to always be about the same things. While she gets the reps in practice it is very evident that she doesn’t take the things she has been trying to tweak in practice and go home to get the reps to master them because so much time goes by and she is still in the same place with a skill. When an email goes out and we talk about it in practice, she says, “I don’t know, my mom reads the emails, she will tell me.” That statement right there tells you all you need to know about this athlete. This athlete, while a totally hard working kid who has put probably thousands of hours into her craft and loves the game, is not fully bought in to her own process. When she leaves practice or tournaments, she may process and think about the tournament a little bit, but she isn’t spending the time processing the very specific things that could have changed in that final few points to close out the game so that when that situation arises again she is ready. She is probably listening to what her mom or dad (who have probably never played the sport) think went wrong. She is asking her coaches what went wrong. She is not having a discussion about it but, rather, she is wanting someone else to tell her. This is taking away from her own processing of what happened because now the thought process is not her own. When something goes wrong, she is the athlete who is constantly looking for someone to give her the answer because in her experience, everyone else has the answer and that is the easiest way to get the answer is to ask someone else for it. “My mom will read the email and tell me.”

Many athletes have a passion for their sport. They work so hard at it at practice and truly do give 100% while they are there. Being fully committed to their own process not only requires a lot of work, but it also requires the team that is around them to care about them enough to start to let go and let them, as they say, “fail forward”. Always fixing things for kids gives them this false sense of security. In the sport of beach volleyball we are not allowed to coach during play. This means that no one is going to be there to give them the answers when that opportunity is supposed to meet that preparedness and they either have the answers or they don’t. If all they have ever done is rely on “mom to read their emails and tell them” will they really have the confidence to finish the match?

So now it’s 19-18. You used your timeout early on after the other team made a run. The technical timeout is long since gone as well. You have worked so hard to get to this point but what is the story being told to you by your own head? Are you relieved that they are serving your partner? Are you giving yourself the excuse that if you don’t win, it’s because they didn’t serve you? Have they been serving you the whole game and you know it’s coming again and you are terrified? Or are you the partner that is walking over to your partner in that moment not just with encouraging words because they are being served, but with a confident plan of exactly how you are going to finish the game together?  Are you the partner that has the confidence to know that no matter what you see come at you from the other side of the net, you have a solution in the moment because you are prepared for it? Because your moment is here. Your moment to push those last two points without the help of someone else. Have you bought in enough to your own process to know what to do or are you frustrated that someone else didn’t give you the answer? If not, what’s your plan to get there because this moment doesn’t just come along once. It will keep coming at you. All those reps, all those practices, all that time thinking about the different scenarios in your head and what you would do, all that time spent either working through problems yourself or relying on other people to fix them for you, every experience is about to play out in that moment. What is the story you will be telling yourself when it comes?

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