Chapter from Talent and the Secret Life of Teams
Not a day goes by since I left Nebraska volleyball that someone doesn’t ask me, “Do you miss it?” I could respond by feigning a blank look and saying, “Miss what?” But that would be unfair because even though I am asked the question all the time, it is fresh to them. My usual reply, is that “of course there are aspects of coaching that I really miss, but what pleases most is that I get tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from watching a great coach (John Cook) and his talented team continue to have great success building a tradition of opportunity and excellence.”
This response, while sounding a bit like a paragraph from the “Media Guide for Old Coaches” is helpful in several ways. First of all, it’s true. I do have a great appreciation that something I put so much of my life into continues to do well. What people are really saying is “Are you doing okay? We appreciate what you did. We appreciate how we felt when we became so engaged in the competition that we became part of the event.”
Yes, there are lots of things that I miss. I miss watching a player have a breakthrough in her understanding of the game when she makes the right decision at the right time for the first time.
I miss watching the players come on to the court, shy and alert as Zebras before they begin to share the intimate bits of their day with each other that coaches aren’t privy to, a network of communication and emotion that becomes the secret life of teams.
I miss watching videotape over and over until a pattern of vulnerability begins to emerge. Number twelve on Missouri doesn’t move as well to her left as to her right on a line to line serve. The setter at Kansas State will always go back to a hitter if she makes an unforced error early in a game but late in a game she’ll set someone else.
If Florida loses two consecutive points in the first rotation they will shift their reception pattern and set the outside hitter who is normally their third option.
It is like unraveling fishing line when you are standing in the middle of a spring creek and just around the bend rainbows are rising to caddis flies. The man who taught me to fly fish once told me, “If you want to get serious about this (fly-fishing) you’ve got to love to untangle knots. Not just be willing to untangle knots. You’ve got to develop a love for knots. I love and miss searching for patterns that reveal strengths and weaknesses in an opponent.
I miss going for early morning walks on the day of a competition on a road trip in a new city.
I miss staying up at night with the assistant coaches wondering whether or not the team realizes how difficult the next match will be.
I miss looking into the countenances of the players before the match and seeing their noses flared for competition, their eyes looking on past the game plan outlined on the white board to a place farther back where their focus and commitment are moving toward trust.
I miss sitting in the locker room alone after the team has left to go up to the arena. I do not smoke but I imagine the relaxation and anticipation that I feel sitting there by myself while the team is warming up above me is almost narcotic. We are prepared. We are ready. We are at home. Does it get any better than this? Not at least until the next time.
I miss walking out the door of the locker room moving up the stairs in a predictably unpredictable pattern. Moving among and with the fans, hearing words of encouragement floating through the air like maple seeds.
I miss coming out from behind the curtain and the Nebraska bench, past the security guards and the paramedics, and it is all there: The band is playing. The opponent is energized by the fact that they will be playing against the best team in front of the largest crowd that they will play all year.
The visiting coach is keeping time to the band with his left foot. His assistant coach, dressed in a sweat suit in the school colors, is warming up the team with more purpose than ever before this season.
The general admission section has been full for an hour. The season ticket holders are greeting each other with the familiarity of the fans of a rock group that have traveled to see every concert on this year’s tour.
The building is alive. This is a big match. This is a match we could possibly lose. The fans can hardly believe that they are this close to the court.. They feel like they are part of the game. The players meet to join hands and recite their litany of love and responsibility one last time.
No one can contain his enthusiasm. It is like dancing and watching yourself dance at the same time.
The whistle blows. We get to do it again.