“Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.”
John Wooden

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Difference Between Talent and Skill

This is the third in a series of articles discussing various chapters in Terry Pettit's book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams.  Mr. Pettit served as the head volleyball coach at Nebraska for 23 years and his teams won 21 conference titles and the 1995 NCAA national championship. The book is a collection of  "...essays, columns, poems, and letters (that) reflect my own journey into coaching. Each entry is part of a story of how I came to see the challenges in my coaching development."

By Jim Freeman
December 26, 2014

Megan Hodge in the 2008 National Championship match.  Megan was a two-time NCAA Finals MVP and a four-time All-American. (AP)

“Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” - John Wooden

For the purposes of this discussion we'll agree that a skill is "something that we can teach someone to do."  A talent, as the quote above states, is something we're born with. "Skills are patterns that can be learned.  Talents are by-products of our genetic makeup."

We've all heard and uttered such keen assessments as "you can't teach height" or "you can't make chicken salad out of chicken...feathers."  When we evaluate a player's talent we're often discussing things like size, speed, power, and coordination.  Some of those things can be improved upon but athletic greatness isn't generally conferred on those with merely average or below-average physical gifts.  We can improve an athlete's power but we can't make them elite in that regard sans the possession of certain genetic characteristics. We all remember instances when we saw someone who immediately stood out from the crowd based on their obvious physical gifts.  For example, I can still recall the distinctive sound a volleyball made when it hit the floor after being struck by Megan Hodge (it sounded like a gunshot). Megan was the sort of competitor that attracted even non-volleyball fans to her games just so they could witness genuine athletic greatness. I remain grateful for the opportunities I had to watch someone as wonderfully talented as Megan play volleyball.

A lack of physical talent places certain limitations on the athlete...whether we like to admit that or not.  We often hear statements like "you can be anything you want to be" or "you can do anything you set your mind to". I may have wanted to grow up to play centerfield for the New York Yankees but a distinct lack of physical ability kept that from happening.  That being said I believe it is vitally important that we expand our notion of what we think constitutes a talent.  Pettit states, "Being inclusive is a talent.  Caring about your teammates is a talent. The willingness to be uncomfortable as you work to learn or refine a new skill is a talent."  I like to think that we can all improve in those areas but I also think that some athletes naturally bring huge doses of those sorts of gifts to their teams.

Just as we all remember seeing athletes whose physical attributes allowed them to stand out from the crowd we can recall those players who were exceptional in other ways.  The contributions to team culture and team success by such players cannot be overlooked and should not be underestimated.  

Joe O'Connell in 2009.

A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to know a basketball player named Joe O'Connell at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Joey had cystic fibrosis but he was the starting point guard on the JV basketball team for two years despite the fact that he was very slight in stature as a result of his illness.  As he approached his junior year in high school he knew his chances of making the varsity team were not good.  He wrote a letter to Dean Monroe (the head coach at the time) saying that he would do anything to make the team.  He didn't expect any playing time, he would work as hard as anyone, he would cheer the loudest, he just wanted to be on the team.  Joey was a member of the varsity squad his last two years in high school and he was named a team captain as a senior.  He received enthusiastic support from the crowd any time he got to play in a game and he was such an inspiration that the Raleigh News & Observer did a feature article on him during his senior year (1994).  Joe eventually graduated from college, married and had a daughter before he finally passed away at the age of 32.  I'll never forget the throng of people who attended his funeral.  There were hundreds of people that had been inspired by a young man who possessed tremendous talent.  It wasn't the kind of talent that was immediately obvious but it was the sort that contributed greatly to his team's success.  It was the sort of talent that moved people and was never forgotten by those who were touched by it.

Pettit writes "I believe that training skills is critical to the success of a team, but leveraging individual players' innate talents is the step that moves good teams to become extraordinary teams."  An expanded view of what constitutes talent will help us insure that we are not overlooking qualities in a player that could prove invaluable to our team's success.

More on Megan Hodge:

More on Joe O'Connell:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Don't expect Penn State dynasty to end any time soon

By Mike Wolf
December 21, 2014

Penn State's Micha Hancock, right, hugs coach Russ Rose, left, after Penn State defeated BYU during the NCAA women's volleyball tournament championship match in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. Photo: Sue Ogrocki, AP / AP
Penn State's Micha Hancock, right, hugs coach Russ Rose, left, after Penn State defeated BYU during the NCAA women's volleyball tournament championship match in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. Photo: Sue Ogrocki, AP

For the sixth time in the past eight seasons, the Penn State Nittany Lions are national champions. 

Saturday night in Oklahoma City, Penn State capped off another historic season by winning a record seventh NCAA title. No program in the country has had as much success in women’s volleyball as Penn State. The straight set win over BYU proved once again that the Nittany Lions had the best collection of players in the nation, as well as the greatest coach in the game. 

Nothing is ever a forgone conclusion, but after the national semifinal victory over No. 1-seeded Stanford on Thursday, winning title number seven was close to it. Thanks to a balanced effort against the Cougars, led by NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Megan Courtney, the Nittany Lions swept BYU to cap off another miraculous run for a Russ Rose-coached team. 

The all-time winningest coach in Division I has always placed the credit on the shoulders of his players, and rightfully so. But the 36-year veteran has created a trend that is staggering even to those who have never watched a volleyball match. More than half of the last decade has ended with a Nittany Lion championship. Winning national titles is no longer just expected at Penn State, it is the norm. 

There is no secret to the continued success of Rose and Penn State; it is a simple formula that has paid dividends for years for the legendary coach: out-work every opponent on the schedule. Whether it is in practice, in a match, or while scouting, Penn State’s effort as a program is consistent, and to have success in Happy Valley, the players have to meet that standard. 

Rose has an expectation for that level of effort at every moment for a player wearing the Blue and White, and if it does not meet his standard, Rose’s brutal honesty let’s them know. It can be difficult for some, but for those who can take it, it aids in molding them into players who can handle any pressure situation, even when a national championship is on the line. 

“He’s always been hard on me and he knows that I want to push myself,” said Nittany Lion setter Micha Hancock last season. “When he sees that in a player, he really wants to push them farther than they think they can go, and that’s one of the best things about him.”

 - See more at: http://btn.com/2014/12/21/volleyball-report-dont-expect-the-penn-state-dynasty-to-end-any-time-soon/#sthash.RxepkRod.dpuf

Rose's Penn State

Russ Rose started at Penn State in 1979 and has built a dynasty in the years since

NCAA • Lee Feinswog • 12/20/14

Penn State coach Russ Rose, left, talks to his team during a timeout in the NCAA women's volleyball tournament championship match against BYU in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. Penn State swept BYU to win the program's 7th national title and sixth in the last eight years. Photo: Sue Ogrocki, AP

That first season, in 1979, Russ Rose made $14,000 as the Penn State women’s volleyball head coach.
“I just turned 25,” Rose recalled. “I was happy I got a job. I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't have an office. I didn't have a telephone, I didn't have anything. I had 16 or 18 classes to teach a year, no assistant coach. I thought I had a good deal.”
Penn State, as it turns out, had a good deal.
The 1979 Nittany Lions finished 32-9 and were not invited to the postseason, but Rose nonetheless got a raise.
A $400 raise.
“I was feeling good,” Rose said.
He’s feeling better now. Penn State plays BYU on Saturday night for the national title in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship, and regardless of the outcome Rose has established himself as the greatest coach the women’s game has ever known.
Now, three weeks past his 61st birthday, Rose leads everyone with six NCAA crowns.
The next closest? Two have four national titles: John Dunning won two at Pacific and two more at Stanford, which got sent home by Penn State on Thursday in the semifinals, and his predecessor, Don Shaw, who won four at Stanford.
What’s more, Rose still teaches at Penn State.
“It’s an ethics and issues of athletic coaching, which I usually start with a disclaimer for the students,” Rose cracked.
These days Rose doesn’t have to disclaim anything. As he finishes his 36th year in Happy Valley, life is good. His four boys are grown, he makes way more than $14,400, and perennially has the team to beat in women’s college volleyball.
Penn State finally broke through and won it all in 1999.
Then the Nittany Lions put together the best run ever, winning four in a row from 2007-10.
In 2012 Rose’s team caught a bad break when setter Micha Hancock tore up her ankle in the national semifinal in Louisville. Without Hancock being herself, Oregon moved on to the championship match, losing to Texas.
Then last year, led by Hancock, Penn State won it all again.
There are competitive, driven people in sports. Few could match the intensity point-in and point-out that Hancock generates. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine a coach with higher standards and more pointed sarcasm than Rose.
Love-hate between Hancock—on Friday named the AVCA National Player of the Year—and Rose would be an understatement at times in those first two and half years.
When she made her visit to Penn State, Hancock recalled Rose telling her, “It’s going to be a challenge. You’re probably going to hate me for your career here, but I’m going to make you a really good player.”
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