Play Like a Girl!
My wife Lisa coaches girls’ recreational league volleyball for ages 10-13. I love all kinds of sports, but no other sport comes close to girls’ volleyball in terms of sheer excitement and drama. Volleyball is intense. It’s physically and mentally demanding. Volleyball is brutal, which is probably why there is no boys’ volleyball, at least on the east coast, where boys are content consussing eachother in helmets.
Coach Lisa is an incredible coach and a great ambassador of the sport. “It’s one thing to coach volleyball players,” she says, “but it’s a lot more fun just helping girls become volleyball players.” That transformation is one of the most amazing things to watch, and I get to see it year after year.
Her team is the Carrboro Blue Jays, and each year, the Blue Jays start out like the Bad News Bears of volleyball—a few strong returning players, and a ragtag bunch of new girls who can barely identify a volleyball let alone make meaningful contact with it. Many have never played sports of any kind, and these girls are usually the ones whose parents enroll them in volleyball because they think it will be easy. Oh, you just swat at the ball, what’s so hard about that, right?
Those parents are in for an education, which usually starts the first time little Sally comes home with a big red volleyball imprint on her face. Early on, any contact with the ball is accidental. Receiving a serve, they look at each other expecting the other to take it as the ball hits the floor. “Talk talk talk,” Coach Lisa will say. “Have something to say about every ball, every contact!” Very next serve, they look at each other in silence as the ball hits the floor. “You’re a volleyball player,” Coach Lisa will say, firm but encouraging. “That’s your ball! Go get it!”
And each year, somewhere around the middle of the season, the magic starts to happen. The endless drills start paying off, and guided by muscle memory and new instinct, the new girls start going to the ball. They start making not just contact, but deliberate contact. They get more and more confident in themselves and their teammates. They start defending. They start passing and setting. They start running their offense and attack. They bump and dig and ace serves. Most important, they talk—uncertainly at first, than louder and louder. “MINE!” “Abby!” “OUT OUT OUT!!!” They start winning games, and then winning matches. Coach Lisa keeps at them. “You’re a volleyball player. You know what to do! Go get it!” “Talk talk talk!”
Something else happens each year. In what has now become the stuff of lore and legend and an annual Carrboro tradition, every year, the Blue Jays, just reaching their stride at the end of the season, pick off team after team in the tournament, and end up playing the Ravens for the league championship. The Ravens are an institution, and a perennial favorite. They always have the tallest, most experienced girls, many of whom already play for their school and travel teams. They have great skills, mature play, and great communication. This year’s no different.
So, there I am, just the other night, watching one of the greatest volleyball matches since last year, when the Blue Jays came back from behind to beat the Ravens for the championship. Once again, the Ravens are long and strong, and look like a varsity team compared to the scrawny Blue Jays. The gym is packed with Blue Jay parents who are not quite sure of what to make of all this—their daughters, who just a few months ago were terrified a ball would come near them, are playing for the championship. The girls are confident, poised, relaxed. Parents are a wreck. So much pressure! One Raven has a college-level jump serve that is incredible to watch and nearly impossible to defend, but the Blue Jays defend it over and over. They call each other’s names as they pass and set. “Emily!” “Lauren!” “MINE!” Parents are hysterical.
First game is close, but the Ravens take it. Second game is back and forth. After a particularly exciting volley, our smallest and most inexperienced player defends a blistering spike with perfect form. The mom sitting next to me is astonished. “She’s, like, playing VOLLEYBALL!” I’m grinning from ear to ear. The Blue Jays are talking, calling each ball. They hi-five each other not just after a kill, but after they shank one into the bleachers, too—something boys would never do. When one gets out of position to save an errant ball, they all adjust to cover. It’s a thing of beauty.
It always makes me a little envious to watch girls playing at this level. Thinking about my work, why can’t we be like these ten and twelve year-old girls, I wonder. Conquering fear, taking ownership, facing risk, hard work, commitment, communication, leadership, teamwork, trust, these girls have it all.
In my world, many get skittish when facing risk or responsibility. These girls square up to it. We look around and ask “Who can take that?” These girls call it, “MINE!” We hoard information. They communicate their every move. When things don’t go well, we get defensive. They hi-hive each other. Their coach trusts and encourages them to do what they’re trained to do, inspires them to be what they’re capable of being. “Play every ball,” she says. “Go get it!” When we look over to the sidelines, we often see our coaches fussing at each other, trying to decide what to do. In the end, there is a lot of headshaking and waving off. Let that one go. Too risky. Not so fast. CYA. We watch as balls hit the floor. Where is our Coach Lisa?
The Blue Jays play great volleyball, but on this night, it’s not enough, and they eventually lose the match to the Ravens who are just too powerful and too deep. At the end of the night, the girls are spent, but they are beaming. In a few short months, they have become the volleyball players Coach Lisa knew they would, and they go home, each one having learned not just a skill but an ethic many of us struggle with our entire lives. Go to the ball. Under pressure. Square up. Call it. Play it. Attack. Give it everything you got. Trust each other to do the same. Encourage each other to succeed, support each other when you don’t. Look out for one another. Play like a girl.
That’s not just how you win—that’s how you succeed.
Follow me and the Blue Jays @CarrboroMan.