By Greg Bach
During his outstanding career Olympic volleyball champion Jon Root played in some of the biggest matches on the planet for Team USA.
And he knows all about the challenges of navigating pressure and performing under the enormous weight of expectations, both self-imposed and pressing in from outside sources.
They’re some of the same obstacles that the young athletes ages 13 to 17 that he coaches in Northern California these days confront on the volleyball court and in their lives.
“I’m trying to get kids to explore things that are not tangible and that are not right in front of them,” says Root, author of Heart-Sparking Performance. “How our mind works, what is a positive attitude, why it is so important and what are the things that contribute to us falling apart in big moments, whether it’s life or sports.”
Root was a key player on the U.S. team that stormed to a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, going undefeated in seven matches while winning 21 of 25 sets. He was also a three-time All-American at Stanford and inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
“I am passionate about change,” Root says. “I have an esoteric mindset and it’s been very rewarding to just try and affect how kids are learning and what is happening in these young age groups with mindsets.”
We caught up with Root in California to get some of his insights on coaching kids and impacting young lives. Check out what he shared:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Do you have a message you share with your teams before a season starts?
ROOT: Before the start of every season one of the things that I try to press forward to get my kids to think about is what is your sacrifice in this? What is the sacrifice that you’re going to make? What is the sacrifice that you envision having to make for the team or the team construct? And how do you see the service work going down? You’re a part of a competitive unit and you’re striving to make something happen, but you’re also in service supporting 11 other players. So what is your mindset about this? Trying to get kids to discern if this is all about me or a mindset of support the collective, which is an ongoing challenge because these days everybody is kind of in it for themselves.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s an important message for parents to keep in mind on their child’s youth sports journey?
ROOT: One of the sub-messages in the sacrifice and service work is I’m trying to always encourage the parents to teach their child how best to communicate. One of the things that I have witnessed over the last seven to eight years is a trend where parents will step in too soon where there is a challenge that requires the kid to have to kind of endure. So part of it is don’t be your child’s agent, so to speak. Work with your child on some life skills about how best to communicate, especially in challenging situations or where they feel it specifically relates to them. There’s one thing about complaining and there’s one thing about communicating, and I think giving objective markers based on those conversations is really important to continue to try to get these kids to understand and appreciate.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How do you help kids deal with pre-match pressure?
ROOT: I don’t give speeches. I try to stay very calm and cool and focused on that tenet of ‘we busted our butts in practice, today we just get to flip the switch and go. I’m not here to analyze anyone’s game, this is about us coming together as a unit.’
I’ve admitted to my kids that I have folded at times. It’s hard to say when it’s going to happen but because I’ve been there, because I have felt that relative humiliation, I feel I know how to support you so don’t worry, I have your back. This isn’t about failure and it’s not about success, it’s about moving through an uncomfortable situation if you feel it’s hindering you and I am here to support you.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s your advice for volunteer volleyball coaches to keep in mind as they work with young athletes?
ROOT: For the 10 to 13s it’s really trying to keep them motivated on the fun aspects of just being physical. If you’re a multi-sport athlete and you’re playing basketball and volleyball and other sports – that’s fantastic. But it’s also impressing on the kids that to make the game more fun there are things we have to learn and that’s the hard work.
At some point in the next couple years I want you to smile about this game because you’re not struggling to execute because you have done the good things right early. Competition is hard work and hard work over time is the definition of effort and it’s never easy. We want to keep you happy and have you play but also understand that not everyone is going to get a medal, and that’s just the way it goes. I try to incorporate these things in sports as life lessons because at some point you are going to encounter the exact same thing, it just has a different mask on it. It’s not a coach telling you something, it could be a boss.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s the key to helping players move on from a mistake?
ROOT: It was hard for me as a player because I would lose my cool if I didn’t get something done right or if it wasn’t perfect. But a couple of coaches who got ahold of me were good about breaking it down into blocks of progress. And so from those blocks, like anything else, you begin to see what the technical aspects are and that helped me to not worry about mistakes.
Some players I have freak out if they make a mistake, or if they are worried about retribution or getting pulled, they kind of go into this bad place. There has to be a core belief of self-worth that you are good enough and you’ve done the work and there is a lot of value there. As a coach, I’m not going to yank a player just to yank them because things are going wrong. So we always try to keep them uplifted. I personally come back to trying to get to the kernel of building a positive core belief in a player that, if I’m going to do this work and I’m going to make the sacrifice, what can be bad? I’m doing the work, I have good intentions, I’m trying to help my teammates - all those things contributing to an advanced mindset of how you approach challenge or difficulty.
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