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Choosing to be Uncomfortable in Coaching – Terry Pettit

It’s President’s Day and I am sitting in a purple coffee shop on 4th Ave. in Tucson, Arizona. The password for the internet is buysomething. I did. I am enjoying a cinnamon bagel with cream cheese, a mocha and an occasional licorice scottie to celebrate my last regular column for Coaching Volleyball.

You are not here. And why should you be? There are junior tournaments in St. Louis, Omaha, Detroit, everywhere really, where you are either coaching, parenting or recruiting. Not so long ago I was there too as a coach for our daughter’s 17 open team. That was seven years ago.

The other night I reviewed the final scores of every match that I coached at Nebraska, and there was not a year that I couldn’t identify at least a few matches that I could have made better decisions. Even though I have not coached a college match in nearly two decades, I think I understand the game better now than when I was coaching. And you do to. And it brings me to this point which I have made repeatedly in columns and books:

Experience is only valuable with reflection.

If you are like me, you may find it difficult to watch the last match each season, particularly if your team did not perform well. But if you can watch the match with a certain detachment, you are likely to see that it didn’t play out quite like you thought it did.

There are some players you thought were disasters but the video shows they played better than you thought. You may notice that your team’s base position wasn’t effective against transition. You may see that you lost the match much earlier when your schedule didn’t include someone with the athleticism of your final opponent. If you are really lucky, you may begin to see that there is a pattern that appears in several of the season ending matches that you’ve coached. This is where courage comes in. Unlike your players, you are not likely to have someone pushing you to adjust.

When I work a head coach, the first question I ask is, “How do you keep yourself from reaching your goals?” It is a deceptively simple question that does not allow for excuses. If I phrased the question, “What keeps you from reaching your goals?”, it would be easy to deflect responsibility by saying the following:

• I don’t get enough support from my athletic administration.
• I can’t get a tough opponent to play outside our conference in November.
• Millennials don’t want to separate themselves from the group. No one wants to take charge.
• The better athletes all want to leave this state.
• My middle attacker refuses to communicate with my setter.
• My Athletic Director is only interested in women’s basketball.
• Our academics are so high we can’t get the better players in school.

There may be some truth in any of these observations just as there is some truth in angina. But the truth doesn’t lie in symptoms, it lives in the heart. And the heart of a great coach is his or her ability to adjust after recognizing patterns in their own behaviors and decisions that keep a program from moving forward.

Every coach needs a dark night of the soul where they are willing to ask themselves and others who care about them, why they are not getting better. The coaches that need it the most are the coaches who have experienced success and have enshrined a system, a way of relating to players, their use of data, or their philosophy of recruiting. Because something worked in the past they cannot bring themselves to change.

Last night I watched as Olympic downhill skier Lindsey Vonn was interviewed after her second practice run. She was watching her closest competitor come down the hill as she spoke. When the announcer asked her what she would do on tomorrow’s practice run she answered, “I noticed that Sofia Goggia took different lines than I did on the middle section of the hill. I will try those lines tomorrow and see if they work better.”

Lindsey Vonn was two days from her final Olympic downhill competition. She has won four World Cups, an Olympic gold medal, and was the number one rated women’s downhill skier in the world, and yet she was watching her competition to see if she could learn something from them and perhaps make an adjustment.

The coaches who aren’t stuck when they are in the second half of their careers are the coaches who have chosen to be uncomfortable. They continue to learn. They continue to explore new ways of training, preparing and relating to players. They coach as if they are on a balance board, a tight rope or downhill skis. They keep their eyes on the target but with each breath they are making adjustments and looking for different lines to get better.

Terry Pettit


  1. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

    I have been coaching girls in club for 20 years and now I am coaching college men as well. As I get older, I realize how some things I believed were fact…. are not … not at all. It’s quite humbling, actually. I find myself wondering what coaches like you know… that I do not have a clue. Little things that make a real difference. Would I be X% better if I were in their gym watching and learning? It haunts me a bit.

    I am teaching the younger coaches in our club, as I am the Director of United in Glenwood Springs. I like to say that I drew the short straw… but I do love it more than I can describe.

    What I have enjoyed the most… is that I now question things that I never questioned before. I learn with my coaches all over again. It is like Christmas morning… every practice.

    The cherry on top, is seeing a young lady “get it”… figure it out… and know that you did that. It’s like magic… and addictive.

    I got to learn from you last year at the CSU AOC meeting. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for giving back to our small vb world.

    • Terry Pettit Terry Pettit

      The coaches with an open mindset become their own university. They constantly are looking for ways to do something better. We can all look back and see an interaction with a young player that we might handle differently now. Fortunately, players are much more resilient than coaches so that when we make mistakes, as long as they sense that our motivation is healthy, they get better even when we are not perfect.

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