“Mac, scoot over here a little bit more.” As Mackenzie bounced the volleyball on the gym floor, one of her coaches encouraged her from the sidelines. “You’ve got this: straight over the net.”
As a left handed server, Mackenzie is learning the importance of where she places herself on the back of the court as she starts to serve. She doesn’t stand in the same place as her friends who serve right handed. Her placement helps her ensure the ball doesn’t go out of bounds. As she prepares to take each serve, you can almost feel a collective inhale breath as all of us parents and grandparents in the bleachers watch expectantly, hoping that the ball will have enough power to make it over the net. When you are first beginning to learn how to play volleyball, sometimes the games are won and lost by how well your team serves the ball.
I’m not sure who was more eager to see the volleyball soar over the net: Mackenzie, her coaches, her teammates, or her family members. Like players of the old school Nintendo gaming system who would try to physically move their bodies as if it might help their characters move on the game as they tried to hit the right buttons, I couldn’t help but notice my arms move in small motions to try to vicariously will the ball over the net for her.
The beautiful thing about the way Mackenzie’s coaches modeled encouragement and celebrating with one another is that it didn’t matter if the ball sailed over the net and scored a point or fell short into the net. After each serve, the coaches taught the team members to rally around the server to congratulate her or let her know that they saw the good effort she put into the serve. Whether you saw the teammates run over and give the server a hug and say, “That was a good try!” or hear the girls excitedly chant “Mackenzie’s on fire, Whee-oo, whee-oo” and “A, C, E, Ace, ace, ace.” Their voices flood the gym with excitement whether they lose a point or score a point. Win or lose, these girls support one another. As parents and grandparents in the crowd, we often laughed to ourselves wondering whether the girls liked playing volleyball or chanting the volleyball cheers for one another better?
The camaraderie our girls experienced this season was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Most kids get competitive become frustrated with one another when they make mistakes. Instead, this group of kids rallied more intentionally when they saw a teammate make a mistake. To think that two months earlier, Mackenzie hadn’t ever watched or played volleyball to now being able to successfully bump the ball to a teammate or send the ball over the net with a set or spike amazes me. Not only did she grow in her volleyball skills, but she also gained ten new friends who welcomed her from the first day at volleyball camp.
When I reflect on why this growth in skills and friendship happened so quickly, I attribute this to the intentional, encouraging, and deliberate phrases Mackenzie’s coaches gave to each teammate after every play. They helped the players visualize the parts they were doing well and imagine the next steps they needed to take to keep advancing their skills. Not only did the coaches speak encouragement to the girls; they taught the team members how to extend that same type of encouragement to one another. When you have two incredible coaches and a whole team of girls believing in you, chances are you are going to thrive in this environment.
If only we all had people in our lives who could give us those same types of feedback. Thinking about this experience inspires me to continue to give this kind of life-giving feedback to those who I teach each day and to encourage my students to do the same thing for one another. The more sports that our children participate in, the more I want to take on the mindset of an athletic coach as I work with children:
- Looking for those real time moments to provide both helpful feedback and encouragement to help them grow a little bit more each time.
- Empowering children to support and encourage one another as they try new skills.
What about you-do you have a coach or teacher who provided a similar life-giving, encouraging, “just in the right time” feedback that helped you grow? Is this reminding you of people in your life who rally around you no matter if you win or lose? May we all be a little more like Coach Moss and Coach Craft, voices of encouragement and helpful feedback, as we interact with those around us. You never know, our encouragement might be just what the people around us need to soar over life’s “nets.”