Thursday, 23 May 2024

It’s Not Where You Are, It’s Who You Are

This article takes inspiration from a message initially sent to the top five U.S. beach volleyball teams vying for a spot in the 2000 Olympic Games. As a team leader, I found joy in preparing these teams and equipping players with what they needed to succeed on the sand in Sydney.

Originally titled “How to Excel Under Any Coach,” the article now bears the name, “It’s Not Where You Are, It’s Who You Are.” This title was inspired by a memorable quote from Marv Dunphy, which perfectly encapsulates the essence of the article. The sub-heading, “It’s not how tall you are; it’s how tall you play,” further emphasizes that skill, speed, awareness, and anticipation trump height in sports. While some thoughts in this article are volleyball-specific, the majority apply to all sports and convey important lessons for young athletes.

In this article, we will explore what it takes to achieve your best performance and unlock your athletic potential. As an experienced coach, my burning desire is to help athletes accelerate their personal development and foster a philosophy of excellence. The ideas presented here have been accumulated over decades of assisting players in achieving personal greatness.

Your Journey to Excellence

The Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” or “Swifter, Higher, Stronger,” serves as a guiding principle for both the staff and athletes. Winning requires pushing ourselves to give our all, for as long as we can, and then, if possible, going beyond our limits. However, this motto signifies more than just being the fastest, highest, or strongest. It symbolizes a pursuit of personal improvement each day, both on and off the court. Remember this: “If it is meant to be, it is up to me.”

While I’ve learned from many people, experiences, and books over the years, John Wooden has been the most influential figure in my coaching journey. “The Ultimate Guide to Life, Leadership, Friendship, and Love” by Neville Johnson beautifully encapsulates Wooden’s ideas and his pyramid of success. I highly recommend reading this book, as it contains insights that can benefit anyone, athlete or not, striving to reach their full potential. Additionally, Marv Dunphy and Doug Beal, both Olympic gold medal coaches, have significantly contributed to my education. To quote Marv, “It is not where you are, it is who YOU are; it is not how big you are, it is how good or how great you are.”

Now, let’s dive into the key lessons that can help you become a winner in life, regardless of the sport you pursue.

Lessons for Success

There is Only One Champion

In our championship division, every team is vying for the same trophy. However, winning must be defined beyond the individual level in a team sport like volleyball. It’s about doing all you can to be the best version of yourself, knowing that winning is beyond the control of any single player. John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success highlights the statement, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” By embodying this mindset, achieving victory on the court becomes more attainable. Even if you play your best and lose, you can still find satisfaction in knowing you gave it your all.

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Teach Others to Teach Yourself

As a coach, you become a better player. This applies regardless of age. Take the opportunity to coach others who are less skilled or experienced than you. By doing so, you contribute to growing the game while simultaneously enhancing your own skills. Implement this approach not only during camps but also in your regular practices. Make players coaching others a fundamental part of your training program. It’s a win-win situation that benefits both you and your teammates.

Compete With Yourself

True competitors demand more from themselves than from their teammates. To be the best you can be and help your team win gold, focus on self-improvement first. Whether it’s in the weight room, training room, physical testing, or on the court, always seek ways to get better. By pushing yourself to your personal limits, you also inspire those around you to improve. Remember Dan Jansen’s words, “I do not try to be better than anyone else, I try to be better than myself.”

Talent is a Job, Not a Gift

While talent may give you an initial advantage, true greatness can only be achieved through hard work. Volleyball is a complex sport that requires years of learning and practice to master. Avoid expecting things to come easy, as the path to excellence is paved with dedication and perseverance. Research shows that high performers are those who expect to put in long and arduous hours to develop their skills. Superstars like Karch Kiraly and Kerri Walsh Jennings exemplify the intense drive and work ethic necessary to become the best. Remember, you must BE, DO, and HAVE in that order.

Learn Emotional Intelligence – Stay in Control

Emotional control is a hallmark of successful athletes. They know how to stay focused and disciplined, even under immense pressure. Take inspiration from Karch Kiraly, who would stay on the court during timeouts, maintaining a determined gaze on the opponent’s empty court. It’s your responsibility, not your coach’s, to control your emotions. Develop strategies that allow you to focus on what you can control and keep a “right here, right now” mindset.

Make Sure to Get Rest

During preparations for the Olympics, one crucial lesson stood out: there is no such thing as “over-training.” While hard training is essential for greatness, adequate rest and recovery are equally important. Every aspect of your journey towards a gold medal is significant and meaningful. As distractions increase, especially during a long season, prioritize rest. Remember Jerry West’s words, “You can’t get much done in life if you only work on the days you feel good, for work beats talent unless talent works.”

Be a True Teammate

Being a teammate means being accountable not just to yourself, but also to your team’s obligations and goals. You are solely responsible for your actions, both on and off the court. Cultivate honesty, trustworthiness, and strong communication with your teammates and coaching staff. If you have questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to seek clarification. It’s crucial to have everyone pulling together towards the same end goal.

Teach Your Coach How to Help You Learn Better

Coaches use different coaching styles and methods for each player, taking into account their unique strengths and weaknesses. Skilled coaches strive for consistency while tailoring their approach to each player’s needs. They are present for every practice, providing guidance and feedback when necessary. However, they understand that their role is to help you become a player capable of making decisions independently. As the athlete on the court, you must think for yourself during gameplay.

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Effective communication is key to improving as a team. Talk and listen to your teammates and the staff supporting your development. Share any information that can help the team be their best. Don’t shy away from expressing your thoughts or concerns. Additionally, enrich your own learning by reading books and watching movies that provide new ideas and inspiration. Focus on finding solutions to problems rather than dwelling on them.

Know Your Role

Understanding and executing your role is just as important as mastering technical skills. Our coaching staff is dedicated to helping you be your best. The players who earn their place on the court will be determined by on-court performance. Mistakes happen, but it’s crucial to put them behind you and focus on the next point. Remember, success is a journey, not a destination.

Play Singles in the Garage

Playing over the net is crucial in developing your skills in volleyball. Even during winter months, you can set up a rope or a net to play one-on-one or small-sided games with friends or family. These smaller games on modified courts help you anticipate and read your opponent’s moves. Every opportunity to touch the ball, whether in practice or a game, contributes to your growth as a player.

Focus on What You Can Control

In a team sport, you cannot control every aspect of the game. A setter cannot control the passer or the hitter, and a passer cannot control the server. Even what your teammates say, think, or do is beyond your control. Instead, focus on yourself and what you can do to contribute positively to the team.

Focus Point by Point

To alleviate distractions and mental clutter during a match, concentrate on the present moment. Each match consists of the past, present, and future. While you cannot change the past or predict the future, you have control over the current point. Embracing a point-by-point mindset allows you to focus entirely on the task at hand.

Embrace Change for Improvement

Sometimes, improving requires making changes, even if they lead to temporary setbacks. Celebrate the small successes you achieve along the way. Transform your setbacks into opportunities for growth. Remember, in a global arena with 220 nations and countless teams, 50 percent of teams playing today will experience defeat. The key is to keep pushing forward.

Be a Powerful Presence

Your demeanor on the court matters. Avoid negative behaviors such as complaining about calls, turning your back on teammate errors, or displaying frustration. These actions only energize your opponents and weaken both you and your team. Instead, focus on what you can control, maintain confidence, and project yourself as a powerful and self-assured player. As Bill Neville says, “Play like junkyard dawgs.”

Better What Was Given to You

It is your duty as a teammate to make the most of every ball, regardless of its quality. Every contact, whether by you or your teammates, presents an opportunity for improvement. Strive to better the ball, both on and off the court. If you have ideas that can enhance other areas of your development, share them to benefit those who follow in your footsteps.

Relentless Pursuit

There are two simple rules for pushing yourself on the court: Go for EVERY ball, and if it seems out of reach, refer to rule number one. Embrace high effort and a relentless approach. Winners never fear risking losing.

Watch Those Better Than You

To learn and improve, watch video footage of high-level competitions such as the Olympics and NCAA Championships. Observe players who possess the skills you aspire to develop. Instead of focusing solely on the ball during a rally, pay attention to their actions before, during, and after each contact. What are they looking at? How do they read the game? By analyzing their choices and movements, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the sport.

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Share Your Secrets

One of the most valuable aspects of the Prep for Sydney meetings was the opportunity to exchange ideas with other Olympic-bound coaches and support staff. Take advantage of each chance to share your knowledge and learn from others who share your passion for the game.


Q: How can I define winning in a team sport?

A: In a team sport, winning is not solely about individual achievements. It’s about doing everything you can to be the best you can be and contributing to your team’s success.

Q: How can coaching others enhance my own skills?

A: Coaching others, regardless of their skill level, provides an opportunity for growth. Teaching reinforces your understanding of the game, encourages leadership qualities, and improves your own performance.

Q: What can I do to compete with myself and constantly improve?

A: Focus on personal improvement and challenge yourself to be better with each training session. By pushing your own limits, you not only become the best version of yourself but also inspire others to improve.

Q: What should I do if I have talent but want to be great?

A: Talent can only take you so far. To become truly great, you must combine talent with hard work and dedication. Embrace the challenges and put in the necessary effort to develop your skills.

Q: How can I stay in control of my emotions during intense competition?

A: Emotional intelligence is key. Develop strategies to stay focused and efficient, even under pressure. Concentrate on what you can control and maintain a present mindset.

Q: How can I balance training and rest?

A: While hard work is essential, rest and recovery are equally important. Strive for balance by prioritizing rest and understanding that training alone doesn’t guarantee success.

Q: What does it mean to be a true teammate?

A: Being a true teammate means being accountable for yourself and contributing to the collective goals of the team. Hold yourself and others to a high standard of honesty, trustworthiness, and dedication.

Q: How can I improve my learning experience with my coach?

A: Effective communication is key. Understand that each player is unique, and coaches should tailor their approach to suit individual needs. Take advantage of your coach’s expertise and ask questions when needed.

Q: How can I focus on what I can control?

A: Accept that you can’t control everything in a team sport. Instead, concentrate on your own actions and contributions, channeling your energy into what you can do to benefit the team.

Q: What should I do to improve my game outside of practice?

A: Seek opportunities to play and observe higher-level competitions. Analyze the actions and decision-making of top players, focusing on what they do before, during, and after each contact. Additionally, share your own insights to help others improve.


In this article, we explored the essential lessons for success in sports. From defining winning in a team sport to cultivating emotional control, each lesson contributes to your journey toward excellence. Remember to focus on personal improvement, take advantage of coaching opportunities, and never shy away from sharing your knowledge. Being a true teammate and embracing continual growth are the keys to becoming the best version of yourself. So, go out there, be relentless, and let your passion for the game shine.