SportsProf

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Watching Middle School Girls' Volleyball

It's an old gym, one with the pull out bleachers that look like they came from the Nixon administration, a high ceiling, steel beams, and a floor that might predate Nixon (perhaps from the Lyndon Johnson era). The scoreboard doesn't always work, the officials are rather grey, and the other team didn't bring its whole squad, just 6 starters and one substitute. Two parents were there to support the visitors, while parents of about eight of the fourteen girls on the home team were present to cheer their girls on.

It's a pure game, a game that requires communication and teamwork, and a game whose roster reflects returning veterans and promising newcomers, none of whom has any connection to a coach or league president (unlike many travel sports). There aren't any travel volleyball programs for girls who aren't in high school, so they either pick it up in gym class or at a summer camp, the latter experience sometimes more resembling a glorified game of newcomb than volleyball. Lots of kids try out -- and I'm sure that some good jumpers and fast runners don't make the team, if only because the coach has a good way of seeing who's a team player and who cuts corners in drills. They practice hard -- they do aerobic exercises (dozens upon dozens of squats), and they practice bumping, hitting, serving and digging. The coach experiments slightly with his lineups. He has a core 4 or 5 players and has been trying to find the right player for the final starting position.

Today, my daughter's team played a weaker opponent. She's one of three captains, and she vowed at the beginning of the season to show better leadership than the eighth graders did last year for a .500 team (last year, the eighth graders didn't mix much with the seventh graders and didn't pass the ball to them; two of the captains from last year showed up today and were astonished as to how well this year's squad is doing). So, we hosted a party after the first game for the kids to bond, and the three captains go out of their way to encourage the rest of the team. The results are proof of the better leadership and teamwork -- halfway through the season, the team is 6-1, and the one match that they lost had two very close games. In that game, the team made too many mistakes to win. Today, they didn't call balls out (and therefore not go after them) that were in, and balls didn't fall among the players. They were prepared, they were hungry, and they got to every ball and had many good serves and returns.

What I liked about the match particularly was the smiles the girls showed after good points and after winning each of the two games. They had their game faces on when they needed to, and they were confident enough to try more advanced serving techniques, even if there was a risk of failure -- hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds. It's amazing what they can do -- set, serve, save, pass -- and they did it all pretty well.

As a parent, I just sat there and watched, silently rooting for my daughter and publicly applauding everyone for their good play. Volleyball is a great game, and you realize that even the best players can make mistakes. And then those who win come back from them.

My daughter played a key role today. The team had experimented serving overhand with mixed results, and after winning the first game handily her team was tied at 11 in the second game. The only reason the game was close was because her coach had instructed her teammates to serve overhand. But now it was her turn to serve, and I recalled something that my late father had offered years ago when watching a baseball game -- that it's much easier to win when your pitcher throws strikes. My daughter reverted to her underhand serve -- I advised my wife that it was brilliant on her part to switch tactics when the overhand serve still needs some work -- and she reeled off ten points in a row with low line drives and sank quickly after crossing the net. After her serve was over, the game was no longer close, and then her team pulled away. After the game my daughter advised that it was her coach who instructed her to serve underhand -- she had been ready to continue serving overhand.

This type of team sport is very rewarding. The kids enjoy it very much, you don't have to get up at 5 a.m. to drive 45 miles for a game, your life isn't dependent on every call of an umpire, and you don't have to worry where your daughter will play because his oh-for-the-spring daughter has to start somewhere.

Middle school sports are both a pure meritocracy and pure, precisely because there isn't a way for the parents to get involved and mess it up.

The pace isn't nearly as electric as good high school volleyball and college volleyball, both of which I recommend for their speed, teamwork and grace, but it's a very peaceful and enjoying time nonetheless.

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