This season, Winthrop Volleyball found a good bit of success, an undefeated conference season (16 – 0) and a 22 – 4 overall record. All this success happened through hard work, but without a single physical penalty in the gym. No sprints were run, no stairs, no stadium steps, no push-ups, no sit-ups, etc. Part of my coaching philosophy is Positive Leads to Positive. If we recognize all the positive happenings on the court and encourage them, the culture develops into a will to win (not a fear to lose).
It took a long time for me to build-up to a no physical penalty gym. Seeds were planted along the way by USA Volleyball’s John Kessel, “We Coach the Way We Were Coached” and a mentor, Head Coach Carolyn Condit who I worked alongside for 5 seasons at Miami University. Carolyn has a very limited ‘penalty’ gym. This is something that has worked into her philosophy over time.
Growing up, I had great coaches, but all my practice environments incorporated some type of physical penalty for ‘wrong-doings’. Sprints for lack of effort or even a ‘bad’ loss, a push-up for a missed serve, etc. This is the way I was coached, and I certainly coached this way when I first started coaching. Ever see the movie “Miracle”, certainly an influential skating sprint scene in that movie because of a loss.
It’s in our culture. How to break a player, team, horse in order to ride it. Try watching the movie Buck (thanks again Kessel) and you’ll understand how a horse-whisper never once whips his horse and controls them perfectly. It’s about building trust and relationships.
When I began coaching, I coached a club with limited practice time, only two days a week, and I started to realize how much time was wasted in sprints. We eliminated sprints and we won more. Maybe it was a fluke or coincidence, but it resonated in the back of my mind.
In addition, I began to realize that my coaching eye started to refine. I surprisingly recognized more positive moments than negative ones. I could feel my own spirit slowly lift in the gym and the players in the gym interacted with me more. They were more willing to come to me, which meant more opportunity for feedback, feedback which I learned to make more positive.
In the early years of my coaching career, I was fortunate to work as an assistant coach under the extremes in positive and negative coaching. I was able to witness how both styles influenced teams. Ironically, both found success on the scoreboard, but not success with the overall well-being of individuals. The negative coaches had more injuries, players that quit, and apathy for the sport of volleyball (heck, seemed like life in general). It really wasn’t until my time at Miami University, under Coach Condit, whose mission is to empower young women, where I was able to see first-hand how an almost no penalty gym, builds a winning culture. Seems she has it figured out pretty well with 35 years at Miami University and the 15th winningest NCAA Division I Coach in history (who deserves to be in the AVCA Hall of Fame by the way).
After being a part of a positive culture at Miami University, it was an easy choice to incorporate a no penalty gym at Winthrop University. I was excited, but I can’t say it was easy for the team I just took over or even the coaching staff. There were certainly times where it was perceived that I wasn’t holding individuals accountable and even outright discussions about it. It was not as smooth or as welcome a transition as I had imagined. But culture takes time and you have to stick to what you believe in.
So does that mean our team does not do sprints? No. Sprints are handled by our strength coach along with push-ups, sit-ups, and all other physical training. We have to understand the athletes today are over-used single-sport athletes. Let the experts handle the physical training and we can take the time in the gym to be the experts at what we train.
The pendulum has swung to positive. I’m an eternally optimistic person by nature, so this fits my being, my style, and my coaching. I believe it ultimately cultivates an encouraging and empowering environment that develops strong women leaders that graduate as champions. It worked this season… hope it continues.