Wednesday, 22 May 2024

A Letter to My Younger Self

Lost in Reflection

Losing a dear friend is always a sobering experience. Last month, I bid farewell to Dan Apol, an exceptional referee who touched countless lives with his skill and presence on the court. The news of his passing reverberated across the globe, prompting a moment of silence from players everywhere. Dan and I had made plans to ski together this season, and we had a fantastic time at the Rio Paralympics, where he officiated for the Rio Beach Olympics. His untimely departure at the young age of 44 has left me pondering life’s fragility.

A Journey of Growth

Regrettably, I wasn’t able to attend the gatherings held in his honor, nor could I join in celebrating our first Paralympic gold medal in Oklahoma City. Teaching CAP 1 in Atlanta kept me occupied. It’s incredible how times have changed in the last two decades. Back then, very few in the United States knew about sitting volleyball or the Paralympic sport. I spent weeks organizing the Sitting event during the 1996 games, where I witnessed one of my heroes, Mike Hulett, coaching our sitting men’s team. Fast forward to today, USAV is the NGB, our women’s team clinched the gold medal after three previous Paralympics, and Mike has received the prestigious Friermood award.

During my time teaching in Atlanta, I had the honor of working alongside Tom Tait, a coach who has been in the game almost as long as I have. Tom’s coaching career began in the early 1970s, when he pioneered both the men’s and women’s Penn State teams. It was Tom who hired a certain someone named Russ Rose, which allowed him to focus solely on the men’s team. We shared stories of our training and competitions back then, reminiscing about the memorable uniforms our teams wore. Thankfully, my Colorado College team didn’t have to suffer through the discomfort of the white nylon shorts worn by the PSU men. Instead, we settled for practical pinnies over matching t-shirts.

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A Letter to Young John Kessel

As I spent two full days teaching alongside Tom, I found myself contemplating the most important piece of advice I would offer to my younger self when I first embarked on my coaching journey at Colorado College nearly half a century ago. So, here is my letter to that ambitious and eager young John Kessel.

Dear Lefty,

You are well aware that being left-handed comes with its challenges in a predominantly right-handed world. From navigating scissors to enduring coaches referring to the right side as the “weak side,” you’ll encounter a plethora of opinions. But amidst the sea of voices, strive to listen and filter through the noise. Combine your dedication to scientific research and the facts with a healthy dose of laughter, for humor is essential in this process. In the spirit of humor, I thought I’d compile a Top Ten list for you, inspired by a late-night TV show host you’ll come to adore.

1. Learn How to Never be Your Athletes’ Last Coach

To ensure lasting impact, gather knowledge and wisdom from skilled coaching craftsmen in all sports, not just volleyball. Equip yourself with an arsenal of techniques and strategies.

2. Success is a Journey, Not a Destination

Remember, the process is far more important than the outcome. Embrace the journey and trust that the score will take care of itself.

3. Make Your Gym a Fun Exploratorium

Bill Neville, an Olympic coach, will introduce you to the concept of an “Exploratorium.” Emphasize practicing for performance rather than the mere appearance of practice. Use stories to convey facts, as players tend to retain information better through narratives.

4. Focus on the Science, not Opinions

In 1975, you’ll have the privilege of meeting Carl McGown. Through him, you’ll gain valuable insights into Motor Learning Science. Embrace the scientific discoveries and stay committed, even if they go against popular coaching opinions.

5. “We’ve Always Done It This Way” – The Most Dangerous Words

As the first female admiral in the Navy once said, these words are powerful and stifling. Embrace change, grow, and learn from failure. Use your words to inspire, not insult. Eliminate words like “try” and “don’t” from your vocabulary, and replace them with belief and positivity.

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6. Play, Listen, Watch, and Praise More; Drill and Criticize Less

Guide your players through discovery by asking thought-provoking questions rather than dictating what they should do. Understand their motivations and aspirations. Criticism may become obsolete when you foster an environment of mutual respect and guidance.

7. Relationships Trump Victory

The true measure of success lies not in the win-loss column but in the development of outstanding leaders and individuals. Create a culture of empowering and guiding players, and befriend your opponents, building valuable relationships that transcend the game.

8. Culture Transcends Talent

Emphasize hustle and a growth mindset. Cultivate a team culture that values effort above all else. Mistakes are opportunities for growth, not intentional errors.

9. Measure What You Value

Highlight the positive aspects of your players’ performances, catching them being good. Be a realistic and positive force in their lives.

10. That Which You Teach, You Learn

Encourage your players to become teachers themselves. Engage them in teaching younger players, fostering a sense of responsibility and growth.

Becoming a Philanthropist

Lastly, young John, I must tell you about a remarkable opportunity that will arise. The Department of Defense will develop a groundbreaking teaching tool that will revolutionize the world. You’ll be an early adopter, putting up the first USA Volleyball website with the help of a brilliant coach named Tom Jack. You’ll witness its recognition as one of Yahoo’s first 1,000 websites. Although your CEO and COO will doubt your decision to join Yahoo as its 35th employee, take the offer. Leaving USA Volleyball will come with sacrifices, but it will also bring immense wealth. With your millions, you’ll be able to give back and grow the game you love. Your impact will be immeasurable, and your donation will change countless lives. Remember to involve your fellow millionaires, and together, you’ll make a significant difference in the world of sports.

If you’ve made it this far, I implore you to reach out to anyone you know who wants to make a meaningful impact in any sport, major or minor. Together, we can accomplish incredible things. Let us honor the memory of Dan Apol and support those who have chosen this career path. Consider assisting organizations, such as the Paralympics and Deaflympics, that ensure equal opportunities for both men and women. Financial rewards may pale in comparison to the passion and emotional fulfillment this profession offers. Your contribution, regardless of size, will make a significant impact and give meaning to the question, “What can I achieve with my resources that will be meaningful to me?” Thank you for your consideration. If you have any additional advice for our younger self, please share it in the comments. Happy holidays to all.

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Q: What inspired John Kessel to write this letter to his younger self?
A: John Kessel wrote this letter in the wake of the untimely passing of his friend Dan Apol, a highly respected referee. Reflecting on his own coaching journey, Kessel wanted to offer guidance to his younger self and share valuable life lessons he had gathered over the years.

Q: What is the significance of the Top Ten list in the letter?
A: The Top Ten list is a lighthearted way for Kessel to convey important advice to his younger self. Inspired by a late-night TV host, he uses this format to make the advice more memorable and engaging.

Q: How does John Kessel emphasize the importance of relationships in coaching?
A: Kessel believes that building relationships and empowering players are key to coaching success. He encourages coaches to foster unconditional relationships with their players as individuals, while also maintaining conditional relationships based on performance.

In this heartfelt letter, John Kessel reflects on his coaching journey and imparts valuable advice to his younger self. He emphasizes the significance of continuous learning, the power of relationships, and the importance of embracing scientific research. Kessel also shares his experiences and insights, from the early days of coaching to the transformative impact of technology. As he concludes his letter, Kessel invites others to make a meaningful difference in the world of sports by contributing their resources and supporting various organizations. Let us honor the memory of those we have lost and nurture the next generation of athletes and coaches.