Spike hard, dig deep – Why I play Volleyball

This surprise in the eyes of people when I answer their question about “So what do you do in your free time?” is something I am used to by now. It became the standard reaction to my answer over the past 20 or so years. Sometimes it is matched with a smile (the disapproving kind) or a “really?”. Once in a while I would even still get a ‘isn’t that a girl’s sport?’. When I was young I would have felt somehow offended or mocked but as time went by I learned to become more patient and not to care about those statements. Something I learned while playing & studying the game.

Trying something different
I started playing Volleyball when I was 12 or 13 years old. I didn’t do much sports before (team-wise) and simply wanted to be part of a team and do more than just the occasional soccer or basketball matches with friends after school. I didn’t grow up in a necessarily rough neighborhood were you had to defend yourself on the court neither did my parents push me into sports (actually they seemed to be afraid of me, being small and shy and stuff, joining some competitive sports). Our school then started to offer Volleyball courses after class and I gave it a go. It wasn’t intense volleyball training though. More something like a ‘move and play some ball’ class. That’s why lots of people joined the program who didn’t really know what else they should do (me included).

And this actually wasn’t the worst of ideas. To be honest, Volleyball in sports class sucked. Your arms would hurt and all your sport teacher would tell you was ‘maybe you do it wrong then’. Very comforting. Now while just doing “something” with the ball you got used to it, used to the red marks on your arms while having fun.

Soon that wasn’t enough anymore though. I appreciated that fun but it didn’t feel like ‘real’ sport. Therefore I gave the new formed Volleyball team a try. The team would also train at our school and with a few friends also joining I figured I would give it a try.

And that’s when I fell in love with the sport
That’s what you expect to hear then, right? Unfortunately that wasn’t exactly how it went along. Well I do I liked that you were sweating and that you were able to have fun with friends and play some ball – but I didn’t really learn much – heck I wasn’t even able to do a real overhand serve for quite a long time. My coaches back then were nice but no real volleyball coaches. They made us move and showed us how they play but weren’t able to analyze what you would have to do to improve. Besides that we kept on playing school style volleyball. Meaning 6 people stand around in some kind of a circle, one guy in the centre at the net trying to set to one of the two others in front. The rest would try to dive after balls that come back and somehow get them up. Somehow fun but also a bit frustrating since no improvement set in.

I remember when we went to a tournament and got our butts handed by other teams who seemed to do something different. Back then I wasn’t able to understand what that was but I remember that I was really annoyed and felt like either to quit or to change something.

Luckily change then happened soon. And yes, that’s when I fell in love with the game.
We got a new coach during the summer and in his first assessment of the team he would assign certain positions to each player. Positions we asked? We didn’t really have positions before. That changed. We introduced fixed positions and a “system” and tactics. All of a sudden we stopped just standing around and jumping and diving after balls. We had a tactic, we changed our system, we studied how to run, what to do in certain situations, and so on.

We even had a playbook. If A, then B or C. And so on. Volleyball became complicated. And I loved it. When my coach back then told me that he would want me to be the ‘setter’ of the team I, unless most others, felt super happy with that suggestion. For the non-Volleyball players. The setter is the guy who passes the ball to his teammates so that they can hit the ball and hopefully score while doing so. Most guys in their teens think ‘If I set, I can’t hit. I don’t want that. I want to hit.’. I thought “If I set, I dictate the game, I decide what’s going to happen. I want that”.

With great power comes great responsibility
As it is with every sport, most players think that their position is the most important. Of course. And that’s a good thing since it gives you a bit of extra motivation. You should never underestimate others though of course but putting a bit more pressure on oneself doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

That’s what I did. I figured if I am the guy who makes decisions on the court, I have to understand the game. I have to understand it better than others. I have to know more and I have to be able to make decisions more quickly and also be able to understand what the opponent is doing, how they are playing and what I have to do if they change their strategy, tactics, etc.

This whole process of analyzing, preparing and planning helped me a lot. Not only in becoming a better player (my coaches also were highly involved in that of course, more about that later) but also in becoming more structured and focused. I spent so much time analyzing volleyball stuff, checking opponents stats, watching volleyball videos, reading volleyball books, understanding tactics and strategies, talking to coaches and players all over the world (thx, internet) that I had to become more structured in my everyday life in order to manage all that. It worked perfectly well. My grades actually increased, my self esteem grew and my analytical skills became better. All thanks to a sport that, at first sight, doesn’t look like a ‘real’ sport (another stereotype we have to face once in a while).

Chess with 180 mph 
I once watched a volleyball match on Eurosport and the guy on commentary compared volleyball to chess. Just faster. Like at 180 miles per hour. I liked that comparison since it perfectly shows what it’s about. You need a high level of understanding of the game, being able to analyze even under pressure and, more often than you think, you won’t go for the straight way towards the obvious goal but try to set up ‘traps’ that would enable you to win the match on the long run. The execution of complicated strategies (different kinds of ‘runs’ and ‘combinations’ for example, just like in American Football) at a high pace made Volleyball more and more enticing the longer I played it and the better I got. The better you get, the cooler the stuff you can do – of course. The urge of doing ‘cooler’ and better things on the court kept pushing me forward and, again, helped me to improve not only on the court but also in studies and personal life.

When, for the first time ever, I had the chance to train under coach who used to play and coach professionally I had to adjust my approach towards the game once more. Before that I heavily relied on my talent. I simply seemed to have ‘good hands’ and somehow a decent understanding of the game. That however wasn’t enough when my new coach tried to take our team a few steps further. The ‘good hands’ and understanding of the game were considered the base and just normal, especially for someone playing my position. I didn’t have any credit for being the guy who makes ‘smart’ decisions (or stupid ones sometimes) since that was my job. Just as my teammates had to hit the ball and score points. That was also just ‘normal’. So you’re an outside hitter and hit the ball super hard? Good on you, that’s your job. You’re a middle blocker and you blocked the other guy? Nice. Your job. Still you could have done better.

This constant striving to improve combined with my coaches tendencies to introduce new aspects of the game to us every now and then showed me that, no matter how good you are (or think you are), you always have a long way of improvements ahead. Not only on the court, also in life.

Lessons in Leadership
Another, very valuable lesson that I learned while playing volleyball was what it takes to lead a team. To be the captain, being in charge and having teammates following you. In this case I like the term ‘leadership by example’. When your teammates see that you are doing the things that you expect them to do yourself, they are more likely to listen to you and do what you ask them to do. A successful team needs to have faith in one another without questioning each other in critical situations.

Furthermore you sometimes have to do something that might be against your own nature but if it helps the team, you do it. Once we had a match and somehow we didn’t seem to have our heads in the match. They dismantled us in the first two sets and we didn’t seem to care to much and couldn’t find lots of motivation. I figured I have to try something and when the ref made a wrong call (which happens often of course, usually you shut up and focus on the next point) I jumped on his decision and became very emotional. He then showed me the yellow card (yeah, I’m an ass – had to be in that case. But I didn’t insult anyone or so) what somehow seemed to wake my team up. We then went on to win that match 3:2.

Other examples of leadership learnings: Staying strong also during losses. You can’t always win. While it is easy to be angry, mad or disappointed when you lose it is important that you, especially as leader, stay focused and do the right thing. This includes acknowledging the success and abilities of others and shake their hands and sincerely congratulate them on a good match.

Respect is earned, not given.
That’s another nice saying and it is oh so true. That comes along with the aforementioned point. Accepting and acknowledging others. Over the years you will see your opponents several times. You will face off over and over again and while doing so you will meet and see lots of talented players. You will be impressed by someone’s skill, you will be impressed by someone’s conduct or you will even dislike someone and somebody’s going to dislike you. That’s normal. What is interesting though, you will also find to have respect for opponents. You will see talented players becoming better and doing great things on the court. Same goes for your opponents having respect for you when you improve your skills and your conduct. This feeling of mutual respect is something valuable that, once more, can be transferred into the real life off the court.

After becoming a volleyball coach later on that was something I focused on a lot when talking to my players. It’s not only about short term success, it’s about the overall and longterm picture and it’s not only about becoming a better player but also a better person.

Connecting through Volleyball
I’ve been moving to different countries and several cities for quite some time during my life and the best way of connecting and finding new friends has always been Volleyball. Sports helps to connect, we know that. Volleyball, in my case, even more. Every time I set foot into a new city I would check where I could play volleyball and then go there as soon as possible. If you meet peers with similar interests it’s just much easier to connect and to exchange ideas and thoughts.

Having that said I now, while traveling into so many different countries, realize over and over again how much I learned from my previous coaches. So far, thanks to the hard work my prior coaches urged me to put into the game, I usually was able to understand new teams and their strategies quite well and adapt to new situations fast. This might sound strange but, especially in a country where they don’t speak English or your mother tongue, is a big help to communicate and bond with new teammates. When you understand what happens on the court without the need of having someone explaining everything to you it makes everything much easier.

Therefore I have to say thank you to all my prior coaches and teammates. I learned a lot from each and everyone and I still am. Volleyball is more than just a game, it’s one of the biggest parts of my life and I wouldn’t want to miss it. Even though I suffered from lots of injuries (it made me learn how to listen to my body, how to prevent injuries and how to take care of myself) I wouldn’t want to trade in any of those experiences. I take a volleyball wherever I go. Almost everywhere I travel, a volleyball goes with me. So if you ever see me somewhere, let’s just pepper for a bit and play some high-speed chess.