Ely: A Coach's Motivation

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(Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
(Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Almost every volleyball coach for the travel team is young and has personal skin in the game: one is a setter’s mother, another a libero’s uncle whose arm had been twisted only slightly into service. The girls are 11 and 12 years old, and they can’t reliably aim the ball yet.

Those glamorous beach volleyball heroines they watched on TV never mentioned the hundreds of hours of drills in a sweaty gym with nothing more than a chocolate popsicle at the end. This is not the same bikini world.

Almost every coach is young — except for one assistant.  He’s white-haired and wears the team shirt a little tightly around the waist. Sometimes he limps, chasing wild balls. He’s early for every practice and has never missed an away game, no matter how dreary the interstate commute or winter weather.

Most girls on the team probably don’t know he has a daughter, and that she played volleyball herself 10 years ago. They certainly wouldn’t know she loved it so much her high school boyfriend inked his prom invitation on her ball. They might or might not care to hear she was once a captain, and that setting the ball in beautiful arcs was her great joy — and his.

“Maybe she’ll come back someday — maybe she won’t. But he’s still in it with her.”

He was a father then, not an assistant coach. Up and down the East Coast, he drove to every game, sat on every bench and sometimes left the building to gather himself when he disagreed with the referee. He didn’t approve when coaches favored their best players, and he makes sure these girls play equally now.

You wonder what the players on the travel team make of this older man with white hair and endangered joints. He comes home after practice, takes a nonsteroidal, wraps a bag of frozen mangoes or peas around his knee and opens his book to the page where he’s been reading about best coaching practices and positive techniques for motivating young players.

His daughter is far off, on the opposite side of the country. Maybe she’ll come back someday — maybe she won’t. But he’s still in it with her.

This segment aired on September 15, 2018.


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