In June 2018 I got a notice from Facebook that it was the 25th birthday of one of the players I coached at Exeter – a young woman named Anja. A Croatian, Anja was one of the approximately two dozen non-English players I coached during my time in England. In 2012-13, my first year there, she was one of the two club co-captains. In 2013-14 she was part of the team that reached the UK university national semifinals in Edinburgh.

Anja was easily the tallest player in the squad. Her jump was practically non-existent, though. It was something of a running joke, in fact. Anja also had a cannon for an arm, and terrified her pepper partners. It wasn’t the power, though. It was the fact that she hit the ball with no spin. You couldn’t be sure quite where it was going. Even really experienced players were scared to pepper with Anja. 🙂

My first year at Exeter Anja was our third string middle, and she seemed quite happy with that. I got the impression from the few times she did play that she would have been fine staying on the bench. Despite her size and power, she was inexperienced – and not particularly skilled either.

The Anja who returned for the start of the 2013-14 season was a different player. She’d clearly worked out over the Summer, and was eager for the team to do great things that year. There was still a tentativeness to her play at the beginning, though, and she still had much to learn. As a result, she was one of 3-4 players all competing for the second starting middle spot.

Two decisions made all the difference

Something that really helped Anja that year was a club decision from the prior Spring. The newly elected club captains and I decided to add second teams to both the men’s and women’s side of things. While the first teams competed in Division 1, the second teams would play in Division 2.

Now, I should clarify something about when I say “teams”. You see, we trained everyone together. There was no first-team-only or second-team-only type of practices. We had one squad of I think 14 players that we split as needed for matches.

A second decision from the Spring was to enter the team in the Southwest Regional league. The year before they played in the Exeter city league, but that was co-ed on a men’s net and low quality play. It was a joke in terms of helping the players get better. In the Southwest league we got I think 14 matches on a proper women’s net. The opposition was of mixed quality, but it was good experience.

Those Division 2 and Regional matches were massive for the team overall, and certain players specifically. Instead of a select few getting the vast majority of the playing time, the whole squad got to play quite a bit.

Impact on Anja

Playing time is usually not a switch that makes a player better. They generally have to cycle between training and playing for the lessons to get learned and for them to reach a kind of tipping point in their development.

During the first half of our season in 2013-14, despite the playing time, Anja made all the mistakes you’d expect of an inexperienced middle. She took balls that weren’t hers and let other go that were. Her movements sometimes caused problems on the court. I remember her teammates’ frustration with her during the Student Cup qualification tournament in November. At that time Anja was probably the #5 middle in the rankings.

Up to that point, Anja had played in several matches as a starter – mainly in the Regional league. While her skill development still left a lot to be desired, one critical element had changed. Anja was now a confident player on the court. Gone was the young woman who played only reluctantly the year before. This made a massive difference in her development. It gave her much needed focus.

Anja becomes a starter

At the end of the first term the team held its annual holiday dinner. During the event there were some awards. One of those was Most Improved.

No. That didn’t go to Anja. It went to one of the players new to the team who, like Anja, was a major beneficiary of the added competition and playing time. She was very inexperienced and made really big gains. If I remember correctly, though, when we held the year-end banquet in March it was Anja who got the award.

I can’t remember at this point when Anja finally took hold of the second Middle starting spot for good. I do know she had it totally locked in before we went to Edinburgh for Final 8s in March. Between the Student Cup in November and then Anja got to play a bunch more matches. She smoothed out those rough patches that caused problems and became a very consistent performer. She wasn’t a star, but you knew what you were going to get.

The cherry on top

And to top Anja’s season off, we did the completely unexpected. The Exeter Women reached the national semifinal. Honestly, our goal was really just to put in a respectable performance at Final 8s, since it was the first time in anyone’s memory that the women’s team had gone that far (if ever). So when we accomplished what we did it left us all floating on a cloud. And Anja started all four of the matches we played.

She’d gone from near the bottom of the depth charts to starting on a team that accomplished something historic.

Going out on top

Anja graduated from Exeter that year. She went on to do grad school in London. I asked her at the time if she was going to keep playing, but she said she wasn’t. Her feeling was that she couldn’t possibly match the 2013-14 season’s experience. She’d prefer to let that be her final volleyball memory.

When Facebook told me it was Anja’s 25th birthday I sent her a message joking that it was all downhill from there. She replied, “It was all downhill from Edinburgh!

The moral

It was, of course, a young person saying that. Those of us who’ve got a few more years behind us know there are a lot of significant events in our lives after 25 – even if we do joke that that’s when we peaked. 🙂

Still, there’s no doubt that whole experience was a meaningful one for Anja. It’s something she probably will remember for a long time, and I’m willing to bet some of the things she learned along the way will serve her for years to come. This is something we coaches need to be cognizant of in our work.

There’s a good chance you mainly work with young people. That means you are helping to create experiences and facilitate lessons learned that could influence their lives for years to come – positively or negatively. You are helping to shape the person they will be.

Think about that – the trust you’ve been given. Be responsible for it. Make sure you are doing everything you can to further your players’ development in a positive, meaningful fashion.

It’s not about you.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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