Stephanie Schleuder | AVCA Hall of Fame Coach
There are many intangibles that can help make a gifted athlete an indispensable team member who will add more to your team than simply great skills. In fact, I think someone with these attributes can be more valuable than the greatest athlete.
Many times, coaches overlook or discount the value of these qualities. I’m here to tell you they are critical to success and good team chemistry. And if an athlete has these intangibles, they can be taught to be leaders, even if they initially appear to lack leadership skills.
So, as you watch a recruit in competition with their high school or club team, pay close attention to the following attributes:
- Empathy. This quality is essential. Look to see if players are responsive to their teammates. Do they seem to identify with and have an understanding of how to connect with teammates in good times, but especially when someone is struggling? If they show indifference toward their coaches or teammates, it’s going to be difficult to integrate them into a well-functioning team.
- Stalking opponents. Some of the best players I’ve ever coached were those who meticulously studied their opponents, trying to figure out how to get points. A player who is fully engaged with their opponents knows what it will take to stop their success. These players show great attention to the coach’s comments about the opponents during practice, scouting reports and time-outs. And if their plan isn’t working, they’ll try to figure out a new way to be successful. You will often see these players talking to their teammates at the net or in the back court and pointing out the key players. They don’t dwell on mistakes. They try to immediately get back on track.
- Attention to detail. The best time to look for this characteristic is usually during practice, but it can also be observed during warm-up. I would usually arrive at a practice or game very early so I could observe these traits. A player who pays attention to detail will finish each drill or activity as it is supposed to be finished, regardless of who is watching. They play hard through the end of each point without slacking off. It’s a great attribute. Additionally, attention to detail is seen in those who arrive on time or early, who have every piece of clothing or equipment and encourage others to get ready to go.
- Curiosity. I have always loved players who want to know why we do things the way we do. It’s as if they want to make sure that what they are being taught has a purpose. While some coaches might find these players irritating, to me, this indicates their engagement in learning. It also indicates their self-confidence – questioning a coach is sometimes intimidating. Watch the end of timeouts to see if they’re asking their coaches a question or clarifying something they said.
- Integrity. This one is difficult to see in practice or a game, but it’s so important. Can teammates rely on this person to respond honestly and honorably to issues within the team? When the situation is the most difficult, will this person tell the truth in a way that displays mutual respect? Lack of trust/integrity can destroy a team. I have often checked out this quality by asking recruits if they would tell me about how they handled a situation when a teammate or friend asked them a tough question about some personal behavior.
- Respect. Watch for this quality when you’re around the recruit and their family and parents. Do you see eye-rolling when their parents or family members speak, or do they cut off their mom or dad when they are speaking? Also, watch how they respond to directions from coaches. Do they pay attention and acknowledge them? Are they talking in a time-out while the coach is talking? Finally, do they appear to respect their teammates, especially when they are struggling? Are they dismissive or encouraging to a struggling teammate?
- Sense of humor. I don’t want players who are clowns or who randomly joke around at inappropriate times, but I do want players who can laugh – especially at themselves. To me, self-deprecating humor shows self-confidence and a willingness to accept your own imperfections without being rendered powerless. I also find that people with an appropriate sense of humor can break the tension on the court, allowing mistakes to be left behind to focus on the next play. I’ve never understood coaches who demand joyless, stoic, poker-faced play. This rarely produces long-term positive results because it inhibits the critical energetic interconnectedness of players to each other.
- Resilience. A player who is resilient might not be the best player on the team, but in critical situations you can see them connect with individuals on the court and rally them. This player can bring energy to the court and inspire others by making eye contact, talking to them briefly and touching them (human touch is critical … slapping hands, etc.). Players who lack resilience will become quiet, look down and dwell on mistakes, making them slow to rebound after errors. I also want to watch any family members who might be watching. Are they focused totally on their kid, maybe taking stats during the game? That’s a bad sign as they can pass on those traits to their kids. I want players who play for and support each other, especially in tough situations. For players, the focus should be on the team, not themselves. It’s very difficult to be resilient when you’re on an island by yourself.
- Listening skills. This trait plays out in a number of situations. Do players really listen to their coach’s directions? Are they actively engaged during time-outs or between games? During games and practice are they responsive to comments from their coaches by looking at them and acknowledging their comments? Players who do not acknowledge comments from coaches or teammates are a raising a red flag. Part of being a valuable team member, despite their skills, is the ability of a player to listen and really acknowledge or validate a teammate’s comments. This social engagement is critical.
- Leadership. Being the team captain isn’t necessarily a mark of leadership, so I don’t put too much stock into that title in younger athletes. It often depends on how captains are chosen. You might at some point ask the coach how they chose the captain or captains. It may be a popularity contest or a mark of seniority or athletic skills. But if you notice an athlete who shows confidence, communicates with teammates during play, who teammates look to for direction or encouragement, who rallies the team and maintains an optimistic demeanor through both the good times and bad – then you might have someone who has the makings of a good leader. Perhaps you can mold that person into a real leader. Watch closely to see if your recruit displays potential for authentic leadership. My favorite definition for a leader is someone who assumes responsibility for the performance of others and the outcome of the quest. If you can find a player like this, you have a gem.
Stephanie Schleuder coached college volleyball at Alabama, Minnesota and Macalester. She retired in 2009 with 702 career victories and was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame in December. Her new book, Brain Training for Volleyball, will be available soon on www.TheArtof CoachingVolleyball.com.