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February 28, 2015

Since January 20th, our team has been in the gym for the start of our second, non-championship spring season (the regular fall season is called the Championship Season as results count toward your team’s record and champions are crowned). I always tell the girls that while fall season is the most fun, spring season is my favorite both as a player and now as a coach. Spring season is when we go back to the drawing board, slow things down, break things down, focus on the process. Priorities shift from performance and results to technique and fundamentals. And though the raw excitement and emotion of volleyball packs the stands and gets my heart feelin’ some type of way, there is another dimension to the game that affects me on an entirely different level.

Due to NCAA regulations, we have only been allowed to work in small groups, which we divide by position and/or skill. I work with all positions in all skills but, currently, I am fairly autonomous in designing/directing development of our liberos/defensive specialists and our team blocking systems. The position of defensive specialist/libero (DS/L) requires mastery in three essential skills: serve-receive, defense and serving. Success in two of the three skills (serve-receive and defense) is measured by a player’s ability to consistently take the first contact of a possession and get the ball to the predetermined target area, i.e. in front of the three-meter line, on the right side of the court where a setter transitions to take the second contact. Though teams have differing philosophies for the tempo/height of that first contact/pass, the target area remains unchanged in the system.

Feedback on the performance for the DS/L position, therefore, is immediate and rather unforgiving: you either get the ball to target or you don’t. And while there is a definite benefit to having the unchanging target area as an end-goal, measuring success in this way (get the ball to target = success; don’t get the ball to target = failure) severely impedes long-term performance and consistency. There is only so much we can do during season to error correct technique when our overall team’s success is also measured in the black-and-white win/loss column. So this is why I love spring season: we get to redefine performance, our successes and our failures.

To inaugurate this new phase in our development, I shared with my players the fable of the Zen Archer. A Zen Archer, of course, has a target to hit – a bullseye, an end-goal. That end-goal is unchanging and the Zen Archer knows that his success is measured in how consistently he is able to guide the arrow to that end-goal of the bullseye. But once the Zen Archer understands and sets his target, he forgets about it entirely. Instead, he focuses on the clarity of his vision, his shooting stance and posture, the nocking of the arrow, the raising of the bow and drawing of the arrow, the aim, the release. He considers his target only when he is ready for the feedback that it provides about the sum of the parts of this complicated process of shooting a bow and arrow. Until then, he focuses wholly on the pieces, the process. Because he trusts that when he does all of those pieces with precision, mindfulness and beauty, the arrow has no other choice but to go to target.

In my approach to coaching, I have borrowed heavily from Eastern teachings but there are two specifically, outside of the Zen Archer, that I see at work here in my philosophy on spring season. One concept is the Japanese idea of kaizen. Punch the term into your Google machine and it spits back a definition that goes “Kaizen (n): a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.” I do not run a business but I am part of an organization, a program that actively engages itself in this process of continuous improvement. Kaizen demands involvement by every team member, from the CEO or coach to the custodians or student workers.

A culture of feedback must be cultivated and animated into regular life; the key to kaizen lies in its continuity and relentless application. Improvements, therefore, tend to be smaller, more incremental changes rather than large overhauls to system-wide processes. Measuring success must also be played using a long-term approach; humility, patience and restraint – which are inarguably not widely-celebrated traits in modern America – are cornerstone values of kaizen. At its core, a path toward kaizen is one in which great attention to detail, efficiency and organization trumps speed, prolificness and standard measures of success.

The second concept I have also borrowed from Zen Buddhism: the ensō or at times called the Zen Circle. I first stumbled onto Zen Circles years ago when I went down the rabbit hole of YouTube looking at calligraphy tutorials (watch this and tell me you’re not mesmerized). For the same reason I admired calligraphists, I became enraptured with a video in which a Martial Artist discusses and practices ensōs in his studio. By definition, an ensō is a circle that “is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment, when the mind is free to let the body create” [Wikipedia]. Drawing or painting Zen Circles is seen as both an art and a discipline. Continuing from the same post, “the ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe and mu (the void).”

When I share the video of the Martial Artist (who is a guy named Ray Carbullido) with people, their first reaction invariably is, “Wait, he’s only drawing circles?” And then they continue watching, attention focusing in on the brushstrokes. “Man, that actually looks really hard.” Carbullido shares the ways in which the principles of his preferred discipline of martial arts carries over into the world of calligraphy, putting brush to paper. Drawing an ensō is a process of self-discovery and self-realization: once the ensō is put to canvas, one does not alter it in any way as the product, as is, captures a snapshot of everything that the creator is at the time, i.e. her character, her context, her perspective, her imperfections, her grace.

Watch the video here.

And so it is with these concepts that I have approached every session with my players and how I have designed the overall curriculum of this spring season. Our successes have been measured in the players’ movement, their posture, their decisions, their technique, their mindfulness. We seek not perfection but rather efficiency, improvement and non-judgement. Our failures have been shown in our reluctance to let go of our desire to focus on the target, to demonstrate humility, trust and gratitude in the process. We fail when we pass judgement on ourselves and our skills; the circles may not be perfect but beautiful they remain. For goal-oriented, high-achieving young women, this is a major paradigm shift but one that they have embraced and to which they have committed themselves. I tell them that in order to be successful in this paradigm, they must humble themselves and relinquish control of the results. And in relinquishing control, you can actually find greater agency, greater success and greater satisfaction.

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