Bump, Set, Coach

You know how sometimes you wake up in a weird location? Sometimes it’s a dark hotel room when you turn the wrong way while looking for the bathroom. In my younger days, I found myself sprawled out on my living room floor with the front door still wide open. I’d managed to make it all of two steps inside my domicile.

In a similar fashion, I recently looked around, bewildered, coaching my daughter’s volleyball team.

An odd place to find oneself, to be sure. At least when I passed out in my living room, I knew how I got there. But coaching a sport one never played beyond maybe junior high takes a gargantuan lack of organizational skills. Surprisingly, in this instance, not my own.

We figured Daughter had more chance for success in volleyball than in the standards like soccer and softball. Sports that required endurance and precision, or even a general awareness of where your body is at any moment, were never going to be her forte. 

First we tried soccer. She was okay with it, except for the fact that it was a co-ed team. The boys were mostly ball hogs and the girls had little desire to assert themselves. The following year, it would’ve been girls only. Not sure why they wouldn’t do that from year one, but whatever. Daughter wasn’t opposed to trying soccer again, but also wasn’t gung-ho to return to the pitch.

In softball, she was already a year behind some of the other players. Then everything got shut down for Covid. In 2021, when it returned, we still weren’t sure it was the best idea, so by now she’d be three years behind other players and, even worse, at the age of eight, she’s at a point where she’d notice being behind, and Daughter ain’t the type to use that as motivation to catch up.

Volleyball, we figured, was a better option for her. She loves playing keepy-uppy with a balloon, which is the basic concept behind volleyball. Don’t let the damn thing hit the ground. She’s also, somehow, always been tall for her age. Don’t ask me how. I’m 5’8″ on a good day and my wife needs tip-toes to reach 5’5″. Neither our parents or grandparents come from tall stock. A bunch of diminutive Irish and Italian ancestors. Yet Daughter has consistently been above the 90th percentile for height. Her birthday is in May and she’s usually the same height as her classmates whose birthdays are in September and October. 

Allegedly my dad was one of the tallest kids in his elementary school classes. Then he stopped growing in eighth grade, and by the time I knew him, he was 5’6″ and looking up at the gents the ladies call handsome. So maybe Daughter will peter out in time. Maybe she’ll be the blocker in elementary school before transitioning to the digger in high school.

And no, basketball never entered into the equation. Remember, she has virtually no coordination. Basketball requires not only running up and down the court, but bouncing a ball at the same time. If it’s possible to trip over both a foot and a ball at the same time, Daughter would find a way.

So it’s volleyball or curling. And I don’t think many colleges offer curling scholarships.

I still wasn’t planning on coaching, though. That came much later. Much, much later. As in, two days before the season started.

We signed Daughter up in January and, apart from an initial acknowledgement of registration, we heard nothing for a good eight weeks. It got so bad that my mom thought we lying to her about having no schedule, trying to finagle out of her visiting, but it was legit. We were less than two weeks from opening day and were still on radio silence.

I was on my curling club’s Board of Directors for six years, and ran the league for a good portion of that time. I totally get that these endeavors are chaotic in the best of times. You can tell people when the sign-ups are, you can email them repeatedly, and you’ll still get a whole lotta “Wait, when does league start?” Noting’s more infuriating than, a week after the “deadline,” when you find yourself with an odd number of players/teams, you contact someone asking if there’s any way they can spare the time, expecting an ”Of course not, otherwise I would’ve signed up,” but instead getting a “Yeah, totally. Sounds great.” Umm… then why didn’t you… You know what? Never mind.

But at least when we were rearranging teams 24 hours before the start of the season, we were still sending out information. “Don’t forget we start this weekend.” “Here are the dates, but we might be assigning byes, so let me know if there’s a date you’ll be out of town.” “We’ve got more teams than skips, does anyone want to try their hand at a new role?” In reality, we were still recruiting ten players while those were going out, but from the members’ perspective, it seemed like it was ninety percent set.

With volleyball, it was a whole lotta nothing until about ten days out, when an email gave a generic list of days, not dates. “Every Thursday and Saturday, starting next week.” No mention of which days are practice, which are games, but if I know anything about youth sports, the games gotta be on Saturday morning. Just maybe not the first Saturday? Cause Daughter doesn’t know shit about volleyball yet, and given that they don’t allow any kids younger than her, for once she won’t be the only clueless kid.

Buried in that first email was a brief mention that there were still coaching spots available, so hey, if you’ve ever thought about maybe wanting to help out, they’d love to have ya.

Yeah, no thanks. Looking forward to letting someone who knows what they’re doing take the reins.

As a bonus, the email went on, the coach gets, not only their own kid, but one other player of choice to ensure your child’s with their friend. Considering we didn’t know anyone else signing up, that wasn’t much of an incentive. Also, while I was unaware at the time, they only had enough kids for one under-nine team, so whether I coached or not, Daughter was going to be on the same team as everyone younger than fourth grade.

Another week went by before we heard anything else. This time they were a *little* more focused with their messaging. We need fifty coaches. We only have ten. As of now (three days before the first practice (or maybe game), your child’s team does not have a coach.

Okay, that’s a little different. If they were forty coaches short, one wonders what the numbers looked like when they sent out the, “Hey, have we got a great opportunity for you” email. Maybe they should’ve been in four-alarm fire territory long before the eve of play. 

While the email never explicitly said that if we didn’t step up, the season wasn’t happening, I took it as such and signed up to assistant coach. So did one other parent and one older sibling who’s in high school. Wow. A team of thirteen and, even after a “you have no coach” plea, only three sign up to assistant coach. Maybe if there’d been more regular communication, they might find more buy-in.

At least no other parents better bitch about my coaching. Cause they all coulda had the position.

Ironically enough, when I followed the link to sign up for assistant coaching, I had to provide two references, particularly people to attest to my volunteer work and work ethic. Uh huh, sure. It’s Wednesday and you are hoping to get forty-plus coaches “hired” before Saturday. I’m putting my hooker and drug dealer in the field and daring you to tell me no.

Instead of a “sorry, but no” email, I get, predictably, a “Hey, thanks for your interest in being an assistant coach. Wanna be coach?”

To which I reply, “Not really. I’ll miss at least one practice and I am bad with names, to say nothing of my propensity to beat small children.”

“No problem,” they respond. “Welcome aboard, Coach!”

Evidently, Adolf Stalin Beelzebub must’ve given me a great reference.

They sent me and another co-coach (Who also reluctantly signed up to assistant) a couple YouTube videos, and wit twelve hours to spare, we were set to teach a bunch of seven-year-olds how to spike a volleyball.

Wait, spiking is first? Not bumping? I thought every volleyball instruction started with bumping. Maybe this is why they only recruit coaches two days before the season starts. Fewer questions.

Coaches were told to come a half-hour early to help set up nets, for which there was also a YouTube. When I showed up early, however, it was absolute chaos. We gravitated toward a few parents who had volleyball t-shirts, meaning it’s at least their second season. They showed us how to set up a net, but there was little guidance beyond that. 

By the time the hour was up, and all the peons (ie parents smart enough to not bow to last minute, passive aggressive recruitment) showed up with children ready to play volleyball, only half the courts were set up. Parents and children practiced bumping to each other during the delay. Bumping, that skill that won’t be covered till the third or fourth practice. After setting. How the hell does one set without first receiving a bump?

There was supposed to be a coaches meeting ten minutes before practice started. In reality, it took place ten minutes after practice was supposed to start. My co-coach and I already had our kids in a circle playing the “name game” when we were called away. Um, so maybe let the kids keep playing the name game amongst themselves? It’s not like we coaches need to know their names or anything. 

The coaches meeting, it turns out, was only to go over the agenda for today’s practice. Like the name game, which we were already doing because they’d sent the agenda out the day before. We’re to spend ten minutes playing the name game, then fifteen minutes spiking, then thirty minutes serving. Except now we only have about thirty-five minutes left for the whole practice.

Again, I understand these volunteer organization difficulties. At the curling club, we throw a number of events that come off by the skin of the grace of God’s teeth. There are league games where the rocks sink into the ice because we forgot to bring them down to temperature first. Or learn-to-curls with five instructors and forty students. 

The difference is that participants rarely know when we’re skimming the tangent of disaster. In my eight years curling, six of which I was on the Board, we never once made a new learn-to-curler carry a rock to the ice. Even if we were still setting the hacks while they receive introductions in the warm room, the second they walked onto the ice, the picture’s pristine. After we rope them in to the game, then we can rope them into helping.

If Big Volleyball wanted to look like a well-oiled machine, the type of organization other parents would want to join, they probably should’ve had us fools who agreed to coach show up an hour early, not a half-hour. Then, when the average parent shows up ten minutes before the first practice, the courts are all put together and the coaches are off to the side at an ooo, aaah, special meeting that wouldn’t you really like to be part of in the future?

Other practices followed suit. The coaches meeting that is supposed to occur ten minutes prior to practice actually takes place five minutes after call time. My co-coach and I stopped going to them, because they only go over the practice plan, which was emailed to us at 10:00 last night, and which we’re going to promptly ignore. Unfortunately the damage was already done, because half our team doesn’t show up on time anymore.

The reason we ignore the agenda is because it isn’t what our kids need. I understand it’s hard to make a practice plan that fits teams ranging from ages 7 to 14 And far be it from them to come up with, I don’t know, two practice plans. So we’re stuck “teaching” our team how to block a powerful jump spike. Because that happens all the time with seven-year-olds. How about we focus on getting the fucking ball over the net instead? Or, I don’t know, maybe explaining the purpose of the game to them?

Their long-term planning is even worse than the short-term. The night after our second practice, we received the agenda for practice the following day when we were finally going to go over bumping. A coach replied-all that the invoice we were sent didn’t have the park reserved tomorrow. Does that mean we’re on Spring Break? An hour later, the “in charge” guy emails back that, hah hah, oh yeah, the next three practices aren’t actually happening. See you in two weeks.

Um, okay, but are you going to tell all the parents who I said “See you Saturday” to last night?

Damn, I really wish we had gone over bumping first. If for no other reason than I don’t want to spend the next ten days making my daughter work on setting, a skill that rarely shows up before varsity-level high school.

Later in the season we had another late all-call. “Reminder:” the text read, “Tomorrow is a game day. The game will last two hours, rotating fields every twenty minutes.”

Perhaps they don’t understand the subtle nuance of “reminder.” It’s usually meant to imply something we’d already known. For instance, I can “remind” my wife that I’m hitting the grocery store on the way home from work. I can’t “remind” my students about the fall of the Berlin Wall when we’re still studying the Enlightenment. 

Needless to say, when we showed up the next day, I had a whole bunch of parents coming up to me saying they had to leave after an hour. If only they’d known beforehand. I fired back that I was right there with them. As coach, I’d love to have more than twelve hours notice that we might have a game instead of a practice or scrimmage. 

That’s the particularly shitty thing about this arrangement. I’m somehow seen as an authority figure, as if I have any fucking clue about what’s going on. When I told them I was as surprised as them, they roll their eyes as if I’m just a slacker. Shit, they probably think I came up with the bright idea to hold off bumping until after Spring Break. I can only politely remind them that they could’ve had the fucking job.

Fortunately, whatever league was visiting us didn’t have a u9 team to play against, so the fact that I would’ve been down to three players after one hour didn’t matter. The guy in charge said they contemplated rotating us in with the 9 & 10 year olds but decided against it. Of course, they didn’t incorporate any of the coaches or parents to these discussions.

The guy in charge, by the way, says he loves teaching our age level. They’re so enthusiastic and their growth during the season is spectacular. In fact, he’s coached the u9 team each of the last four seasons. Really? Well then why the fuck did he leave it up to a couple know nothings who can’t even convince the kids that the goal is to get the ball back over to the other side of the net this time? How about he give us the 14-year-olds he’s currently coaching. I’ll have them setting like motherfuckers.

Although maybe not. Then I’d have to stay for two hours on game days, whenever the hell those things are. Probably with only half a team, all of whom were pissed at me for hoarding the information to myself. 

So maybe I should just stay over here on my court with a bunch of kids who have no idea what they’re doing. 

They’ll be in good company.

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