A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to run a couple of training sessions for two young pros. While they have already accomplished so much in their short collegiate, professional, and international careers, Sarah Sponcil and Hailey Harward are still incredibly eager to learn and it is really inspiring. While each has their own coaches, I was honored to have the chance to get to give them some reps in the sand and give them some feedback here and there.
Often I think younger athletes look at collegiate, or pro athletes and especially Olympians as being finished products. After all, they are at the pinnacle of their sport and have proven them selves to be better than 99% of others at their particular craft. While running the two sessions we did that week, the conversations we had were incredibly insightful. With Hailey returning to USC and Sarah working with a new coach, the things they were personally working on were very different yet the conversation between the three of us was valuable for all parties involved. As a coach, or athlete, your growth stops when you can’t be humble enough to learn. As a coach It doesn’t matter if you are learning something from an Olympic athlete or the 10 year old in your program, if you can be humble enough to take it in, process it, and figure out how to use it, then it is valuable in your growth. As a player, while certain things you learn may not be useful for YOU as an athlete because you aren’t physically capable of implementing it into your own game, something you may learn is quite possibly being used by another athlete and even if you don’t use it as part of your skill set, the recognition of it in other athletes can help you to understand the game of those other athletes and in turn help you in your pursuit of beating them. Humility to understand that, listen when someone is giving you some sort of feedback, process that feedback, and put it somewhere in your mind that it is useful to you will help your growth process. Any coach, teacher, or parent can tell you that there are times when you tell a kid something and you can immediately tell that they did not process what you said. Heck, it happens to adults too. In order to grow, players and coaches must both be “present in the moment”. As a coach, never be afraid to give your humble opinion and as an athlete, never be afraid to ask someone their opinion on something. If you find something that you think might be useful to your game, talk to your coach about it. Your coach may have a reason he/she has not taught you the skill or strategy you are asking about and most likely can give you the reasoning for it and how you can take the steps to get there. Many times it is because they see a need for you to master one skill first in order for that next skill to build off of it. You have to learn to walk before you can run and this can be said for players as well as coaches.
I said multiple times this week that I have never had the opportunity to be on the court working with two more athletic players than I did this week. Sarah and Hailey can physically do things that many other players can not physically do. As pretty much any teacher can tell you, in a classroom you have to teach to the level where the majority of your class is at. You can give the brighter, more motivated students more challenging work within the same skill but often times there just isn’t time to do so. With athletes, often times when a coach has players on a team that are physically more gifted than the others, unfortunately, those players can get overworked yet under pushed. Coaches that get a really great athlete also often assume they have been taught certain things because they are already so gifted at what they do. Sometimes they skip over how to do them or why to do them that way because the athlete is already so successful at them. In my conversations with Sarah and Hailey it was incredibly clear that somewhere along the way they missed pieces of the how and the why for some things and that they were so excited to learn them. We discussed the body mechanics piece of a skill and the why for it. In that moment, I think each of us had a bit of a lightbulb moment. For the athlete I was showing it to, it showed her the why and she told me that it made sense and that it would be helpful from a defensive standpoint to narrow down what options the attacker had based on knowing what her body WASN’T capable of from the position she was in. For me it was a moment that drove home teaching the why to ALL athletes and not just assuming that somewhere along the way someone already taught them the why just because they were already proficient at the skill.
For so many young athletes once they perceive a skill to be to basic for their talent level, they begin to go through the motions for that skill instead of trying to dive into that skill more in depth. Ryan and I truly believe in not skipping steps with our athletes. Sometimes the look in their eyes or the tone of their voice when we do a drill that they think is too basic tells me they have checked out before the drill begins. I try to express to them the importance of mastery of skills with good form, but as many coaches, teachers, and parents can attest to, unless an athlete places intrinsic value on something, they never fully learn that thing. Some athletes have to go back and learn those things later in their journey because they either were not taught those things, or they didn’t place value on them while they were being learned. Either way, it is on us as coaches to help them to understand that value in order to help with their development.
As we jump into this phase of our training at RPM, it will be incredibly obvious really fast who focused on the little pieces we were asking them to focus on during the last phase, and who just went through the motions to get the drill done. Last week at practice I had a conversation with players telling them that no one cares if you win the drill at practice. No one is there to see it, and no one is posting about it on social media for the world to see. While we absolutely encourage competition at practice, we also want to be sure that players are taking skills from a drill into competition with them. We try to encourage using the skill to help it develop. Being a huge superhero fan, Batman always comes to mind when explaining this to kids. Batman always seemed to have some sort of gadget in his tool belt to deal with any situation. I tell the kids that if they only know how to deal with a problem one way, and that way isn’t working, they will feel their confidence draining, but if o can give them multiple tools to deal with the same problem, when one isn’t working, they can be confident that they have more tools in their belt that will. Those that are humble enough to take the opportunity to implement more tools as a part of their game instead of thinking that they already know and just want to move on to playing, are the ones that will ultimately have more confidence in difficult moments. Those coaches that can be humble enough to continue to add tools to their tool belts instead of thinking that their way is the only way, will ultimately be more successful with a broader spectrum of athletes.