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Establishing Policies and Guidelines

This is an excerpt from Thinking Volleyball by Mike Hebert.

Policies and Guidelines

All teams have policies. Some call them guidelines. They are an important part of the team's infrastructure. Many of them are generated by the coaching staff's identification of issues within the program that are in need of a solution. They can arise from a simple, innocent observation such as “Let's make sure that the players bring their championship manuals to every team meeting.” Or they can take shape over a longer period, eventually requiring a programmatic solution. Here is one such episode that provides a glimpse into this process.

Many years ago I received a phone call in my office from one of my starting players. She wanted to tell me something, and it was very important. “Of course,” I said. “Come right over.” This type of phone call rarely brought joy to my life. So I felt relieved when I saw her disarming smile appear in my doorway. This would be no catastrophic issue thrown on my desk. She was smiling. How bad could it be? My naïveté was on display.

She was almost in tears as she told me that her sister was getting married. And furthermore, she was going to be in the wedding! It was then that I realized that she had not come to ask me if she could miss any team responsibilities. She had come to inform me of her decision to miss our matches on the upcoming wedding weekend. In her mind this was a no-brainer. Her smile broadened as she started explaining the details of the wedding, the shower, the reception, and her dress, never realizing that she had placed me in a state of shock.

I started backpedaling immediately. It was inconceivable to me that a full-scholarship athlete would be allowed to miss practice and competition to attend a wedding. My answer was no. I told her that her sister would have to find someone else to be in the wedding so that this player would be available for our match. It was approximately at that moment that I learned about the sacred status of weddings among family members. For a moment, she simply stared at me. Her tears of joy gave way to tears of anger and disbelief. She was too distraught to discuss it any further. Her parents would be in touch with me, she said. And she got up and left.

A Guideline Is Born

I'm not sure who was more dumbfounded by the outcome of the conversation, the player or me. Neither of us could believe that the other was serious. But when I was called into the athletic director's office the next morning, I knew that something had gone wrong. Her parents had threatened to pull her from the team permanently if I refused to let her miss the match. I went to the team before practice that afternoon and conducted a straw vote. Should Jane (not her real name) be allowed to go to the wedding? Yes, they bellowed at me. And they looked at me as if I were a dictator without feelings for his players' emotional well-being. I looked back at them in silence. I realized that this was not a battle I was going to win. My speculation was confirmed when the AD called to inform me that Jane would miss our matches and attend the wedding.

This occurred many years ago, and I am certain that the issue might be handled differently in today's climate. I am also certain that this is an issue that is not confined to the college level. But the incident stands as an example of how normative guidelines can evolve to become a part of the program's infrastructure. Beginning with the following season, this policy was in place.

Wedding Policy

The staff understands that the wedding topic can be a sensitive one. Most players feel as though they have a right to attend weddings, especially the weddings of relatives or close friends. We agree with this, except when it conflicts with a volleyball activity such as practices, meetings, and matches. Players will be expected to be present at all team activities.

Your job is to anticipate that a wedding might be taking place and to tell the newlyweds-to-be that you will not be available during your season. If they want you to be a part of the wedding, ask them to schedule it for a time when you will be available.

Program Guidelines as Part of the Infrastructure

Identifying issues in need of a solution was never a problem. Issues were readily available. Solutions, however, were often in short supply. I viewed each issue as an opportunity to invent a solution. The wedding policy is an example of this process. These solutions would morph into guidelines for managing the issue each time it would appear.

The use of cell phones is another issue that eventually led to the formation of a team policy. For the team, cell phones posed no problem. This was because all of the team members had been swept into the cell phone generation.

We should have been more prepared for what was to take place in American culture as a result of the proliferation of electronic communication technology over the past 50 years. One of the iconic voices during the 1960s period of student unrest in the United States was the Canadian social psychologist Marshall McLuhan. His signature contribution, explained in Understanding Media (McGraw-Hill 1964), was the quote “The medium is the message.” His new-age thinking introduced my generation to the concept that the literal exchange of ideas that might occur in a face-to-face conversation was being replaced by the invention and widespread use of TVs, radios, land-line telephones (along with a hand unit called the telephone remote), and then later by the emergence of headphones, pagers, personal computers, e-mail, cellular phones, and texting.

The new devices allowed us to communicate more efficiently. But over time these new forms of sharing information established a new reality among each generation of techn-savvy Americans. It became clear to many observers that, as McLuhan put it, the medium indeed became the message. Face-to-face conversations have been replaced by electronic conduits that allow users to enjoy immediate access to each other. A new language (lol, u r next, bff, and btw are examples) has been steadily evolving, which is an additional expression of the impact of newly adopted forms of communicating.

In the athletic arena, this tension is felt whenever a coach old enough to have been enculturated in a previous era comes face to face with players molded by today's matrix of communication methods. The coach is considered old school when she attempts to slow down the pace of what appears to be a runaway train. New gadgets are being developed at a sizzling pace, and players routinely absorb each of them into their lifestyles.

When the coach wants to conduct a team meeting to teach players how to appreciate the use of critical thinking in making decisions on the court, she is confronted immediately by the expectation among players that for best results, the coach needs to speak in short, information-only segments. Any attempt to explore a topic beyond its bare bones content will be met with restlessnes and impatience. If it can't fit on a texting screen, it is too cumbersome to be processed. Players are perfectly content with this version of the medium being the message. This is what they know, and they are comfortable with using it as their primary method of communication.

But coaches are rarely comfortable when attempting to communicate within these new parameters. Coaches would rather reach back into their own era for guidance when formulating a communication style that would be effective between and among their players. But therein lies the cultural collision that prevents the smooth sailing we all are seeking as we attempt to build our programs. This is an inevitable consequence of members of different communication generations joining hands and marching toward the finish line together. Unless someone decides to resolve the dilemma before it undermines the possibility of mutually pursuing team goals.

This is where cell phone policies take center stage. By regulating the use of cell phones, the coach can guarantee that there will be certain blocks of time free of the invasive presence of the cell phone. For example, the coach who is annoyed, rightfully so, when everyone reaches for her cell phone and lays it next to her plate at team meals can create a policy prohibiting cell phones to be used at team meals. Instead, the time can now be used to converse with one another in a relaxed, uninterrupted setting. And by providing specific times when the players are allowed to use their phones, the players know that the cell phone embargo will be only a temporary inconvenience.

The advent of the texting feature of the cell phone has complicated things. Before texting, it was easy to spot violaters of the no-cell-phone policy. But now the new generation has honed their texting skills to a level where they can converse and text at the same time, with two different people, all the while concealing the phone's location. It is truly something to behold.

The battle rages as we speak. For every cell phone policy drafted by a coach, there are cadres of cell phone zealots dedicated to finding ways to circumvent that policy. The coach has to stay at least one generation ahead of the players. This is the only way to manage today's coach-player communication issues. By making the attempt to understand the communication patterns of your players, you should be able to secure their support in your effort to establish meaningful cell phone policies.

Just remember that you are powerless to stop the relentless drive to create new forms of communication. Right now we have Skype and other forms of face-to-face electronic communication filtered only by how clearly your computer or cell phone can present screen images. What about 10 years from now? What new devices will be available in the marketplace? If you wish to avoid the worn-out posture of the coach who constantly berates the newer generations of players for being selfish, lazy, and unappreciative, make sure that you do your homework. Pay attention to how players communicate and learn to understand the waves of cultural change that have shaped their being. You thought you were through taking foreign language classes, didn't you? Well, more lies ahead. Suck it up and learn the language of each generation. Yes, it's that important.

Learn more about Thinking Volleyball.

More Excerpts From Thinking Volleyball