Volleyball Parenting 101

Jeff Putz, November 30, 2004

So you’re a volleyball parent! Congratulations! This article is intended to be an introductory guide that will help you understand your daughter’s participation from every angle, in grade school, high school and junior Olympic ball, leading up to a possible spot on a college team.

Girls are getting more and more opportunities to play volleyball at younger ages. It’s difficult to say, from a developmental standpoint, when a girl is “old enough” to start playing volleyball, but there are plenty of youth programs, 12 and under J.O. and middle school programs that allow 12-year-olds to play. Generally the younger programs use lower nets, lighter balls and an allowance to step into the court on serves.

I’ve observed strong skill development in 12’s, but more often than not girls appear to really start to “come into their own” around 14 or 15 (in my unscientific opinion). The level of their skill development is dependent on their coaches, natural ability, work ethic and, most importantly, their own desire.

Your role as a parent is obviously to do whatever is in your daughter’s best interest. I think that starts with having realistic expectations and listening to her needs. I’ve coached kids that have little reason to play other than the desire of their parents, which makes them miserable. Encourage your children to be successful with volleyball, but don’t force it on them. If they really lose interest in volleyball, but remain involved in other activities, it’s probably best to let them discontinue the sport.

Your involvement as a parent is important to your child and coaches. Teenagers frequently seek approval as a means to bolster their self-esteem. Attending your child’s events demonstrates to them that you care about what they’re doing. I’ve had kids that gave night-and-day performances based entirely on the attendance of their parents.

Volleyball can be a very technical sport. You don’t need to become an expert in the sport to be a supportive parent. The fundamentals are easy enough to pick up. Beyond that, your daughter is actually a good resource for repeating what they’ve learned. In fact, asking her about some of the technical details provides another opportunity for you to show interest in her participation.

Coaches are teachers. Like teachers, some are better at what they do in others, and people become coaches for various reasons. Most coaches I know are largely driven by the thrill of competition and the enjoyment of watching kids develop their abilities.

To the athlete, the coach can be a mix of an authority figure, mentor, parent figure, older sibling, etc. The relationship varies greatly depending on the personalities involved. For you, this can be a challenging proposition, because you have to trust that the coach is working in her best interest, in what can be an emotional and stressful situation.

Girls will encounter decisions that they don’t agree with, or decisions that make them upset. In most cases, it’s important not to contradict or discredit the coach, no matter how bad you might think the coach is. That’s tough for me to say, because I’ve seen some coaches do some really stupid, self-serving and ego-driven things. I think that allowing your daughter to deal with difficult situations helps build character. The turning point, I think is when the coach is clearly having a drastic and negative effect on her self-esteem. At that point, a one-on-one conference with the coach should be your first plan at resolving the situation.

When meeting with a coach, keep a cool head. Avoid playing the “customer” card. In other words, don’t enter a meeting feeling you’re a taxpayer or the person paying club dues, and therefore you’re owed something. Taking this approach is a sure way to get the coach to tune out entirely. In most cases the coach will explain his or her actions to you as long as you don’t put them on trial. Coaches, like anyone else, don’t like to be backed into a corner or put on trial.

If after a meeting you don’t get some piece of mind or understanding, the next step is to meet with the athletic director or club director. At that point, you run the risk of permanently changing the dynamic between your daughter and the coach, so be very certain that it’s worth it. Obviously if there’s something inappropriate going on, you have no choice.

The flip side of building a relationship with your coach is the positive collaboration that can come from working closely with the coach and the program. Coaches are rarely paid a lot of money, but do the work because they love the sport; they love the act of teaching. For that reason, any little bit of help you can offer is surely appreciated. Club coaches in particular often don’t have the resources that school coaches do, so hosting a team dinner or bringing the team food at an all-day tournament can make the coach’s life easier. Going that extra mile also shows your girl that you’re interested (see a pattern forming here?).

In the United States, junior Olympic programs, organized under USA Volleyball and its many regions, are quickly becoming a strong compliment to high school volleyball. In some cases it may even be a replacement. If you haven’t been exposed to it, it can seem a little overwhelming compared to high school.

J.O. is frequently more competitive than high school, in part because it only includes kids that want to be there, that love the sport and want to further develop their skills. However, it often lacks the “team spirit” associated with a school or a town. It involves practices at odd times, and all-day tournaments that require travel. It can cost a thousand dollars, and often more. There’s a national tournament that can bring the best volleyball athletes in the country to once place.

The benefits of participating in a J.O. program vary. A lot of kids and parents see it as a way to better qualify them for their high school teams (ironic in some ways, as many J.O. teams are more competitive than their high school teams). Others see it as an opportunity to get more exposure to college recruiters. On a more simple level, a lot of kids enjoy it because of the traveling and social opportunities. The relationships between the athletes, coaches and parents are frequently much deeper.

Some girls will want to play in college. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s important to manage expectations in this regard. Compared to the number of high schools and J.O. programs, there are relatively few colleges. Of the colleges out there, only some of them are division I or division II, the levels that offer athletic scholarships. That means the relative number of kids that get to play at that level number in the hundreds every year, out of the tens of thousands that play in high school.

Overall, having a volleyball kid can be a rewarding experience, and it doesn’t involve sitting on aluminum bleachers for three hours at a time in rain or snow. When your little girl is all grown up, it probably won’t be the team records or trophies that they remember, but rather the good times and social opportunities that come from being involved in organized sport.