Volleyball and Losing: It's Not So Bad Anymore

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In my early years of playing and coaching, winning matches came easily. Back then I knew that if we worked hard, we were most likely going to win. During my college career we won at least 20 matches each season. In all my years as a Division I volleyball player, I never experienced a losing record. Losing meant failing - and that was unacceptable. I was not a failure! I realize now that this mentality kept me from truly growing personally and professionally for many years - but I'll get back to that.

I landed my first college head-coaching job at the age of 24. Hired 11 days before preseason, I began my work at a small Division II program that had only one win the previous season. I saw this as the ultimate challenge and proceeded to approach my first full-time coaching gig like a toddler running towards a glass wall. Our first season we went 3-28 - my first EVER losing season. Each loss chipped away at my confidence and self-worth, and I started to experience stress and anxiety like never before. It didn't matter to me that in my second season as head coach we went 14-16. To me, I was still a failing coach with a losing record. I was beat down mentally and physically. I lost my joy of coaching and eventually stepped away from volleyball to get my Master's Degree in Counseling, and to figure out who I was outside of being a volleyball player and coach.

During this time I also discovered the work of Dr. Brene Brown...

I first stumbled upon Dr. Brown's now infamous TEDx talk titled The Power of Vulnerability through a Google search on "Empathy." She was able to articulate my feelings and experiences for the first time and at that moment I started to see my experiences in a different light. I also had the incredible opportunity to see and meet her at a conference prior to her famous "Super Soul Sunday" chat with Oprah Winfrey last year. Dr. Brown's work focuses mostly on vulnerability, shame and worthiness. In her most recent book, Daring Greatly, she quotes the following excerpt from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 that many refer to as the "Man in the Arena" speech:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

I began to realize that I if I was going to find my way back to volleyball, I had to allow myself to experience the vulnerability I ran away from years ago. So, I returned to coaching and later began consulting with players and coaches on personal and team development. It was difficult at first, but I welcome the chance to experience whatever comes my way. Now, each day is filled with new stories, relationships and the opportunity to reconnect with the people and the sport I love. All my trials, errors, triumphs and setbacks (volleyball-related or not) have led me to this place. I'm still scared to death to get in the arena - whether it's having an uncomfortable conversation or writing this article - but I usually enter it anyways by keeping the following in mind...

  1. Taking a risk and trying new things knowing you might fail is the true definition of courage. Allow yourself to be fully seen. Putting yourself out there means also experiencing criticism and failure as well as connection, love, and creativity.
  2. To love yourself unconditionally as you are, win or lose, is a gift. You are not perfect and that's awesome. Yes, you make (and have made) mistakes, but it does not make you a bad person. You might have a losing season, but instead of internalizing it as a reflection of WHO you ARE, you can reflect back on your actions and strategies, solicit constructive feedback, change tactics and keep moving forward.
  3. Constructive Feedback is an opportunity to grow. When encountering or asking for feedback, spend most of your time trying to understand the other person's point of view using reflection statements and asking open-ended questions and less time defending your point of view. Who knows, you actually might learn something - or you might not... The most important part is that in order to really connect and learn from others, we have to show we care and validate their experience.
  4. When you inevitably face the critics - they should also be getting their butt kicked in the arena. Email, text, comment threads do not create meaningful dialogue. A criticism that starts off as an email should end with a face-to-face conversation. If a critic (parent, player, other coach, etc.) isn't willing to get out of their cushy seat and have a real live conversation about something, then it's not worth your time.
  5. Finally, most likely your harshest critic is YOU. No matter how much you try to perfect and protect yourself from the bad stuff, there's no way around it - if you want to get out there, then just GO. There's something safe about doing your work and staying just under the radar, but if you really want to challenge yourself and experience the really good stuff, you've got to be comfortable with discomfort. Let go of comparing yourself with others. We all have our own journey and there are a lot of great things you have yet to accomplish.

These days when I coach or consult with teams or organizations, it's because I want to help the individuals and groups reach THEIR potential - without the expectation that I'm the EXPERT of their lives or that I know what they need. If I get a question or encounter resistance through criticism, I see that as an opportunity to relate, explore and learn about the person in order to see if I can turn a criticism into something constructive.

My goal now is to help players and coaches see that as scary and uncomfortable the arena can be, it is the ONLY place where we can really grow, create and become our best selves. The wins and losses come and go, but true worthiness is something that is always within you - and the arena can bring it out. Otherwise, we're just sitting on the sidelines watching and critiquing others in our cushy seats.

Salley (left) with Dr. Brene Brown (right)

About the Author:

Salley Ouellette is the Executive Director of Early Start Volleyball and an Independent Consultant in the areas of personal, career and team development. You can contact Salley directly via email at salley.ouellette@gmail.com.


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