Maintaining Positivity When Learning New Skills

“Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

~Muhammad Ali


As I transition to yet another beach season from indoor, I am taking some time to reflect on the process and how this year looks different from past years. Melissa and I had a really good season last year…. like, the best season in either of our careers thus far. With 7 semifinal appearances in 8 events played, 4 medals including GOLD in Poreč, and finishing the season ranked #2 in the world, it was definitely a year to be proud of.

As we prepare for the 2018 season, we have talked at length about how we don’t want this year to be like last year; we want it to be better. Improving on last season means winning more tournaments, elevating our individual and team games, and holding the #1 ranking in the world.

The foundation has been laid, and we obviously have the skill and team dynamic necessary to be among the best. To make the jump to be THE BEST, though, tweaks and adjustments have to be made. As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This may not be insanity in the literal sense, but in taking a look at where I am now and where I want to go, I’ve decided that changes need to be made.

So what can I do on an individual level to help our team reach our potential? The first thing is to start hand setting. On the beach, the rules for setting are different than they are in indoor, and the ball must come out with little to no spin without being called as a double touch. There aren’t nearly as many women who hand set compared to men. If any of you have seen my partner set, you can tell how much easier it is to hit a hand set than a bump set. I’m a lucky hitter 🙂 The ball’s trajectory is more true, the set is more deceptive, and it is easier to hit the ball over on the second touch when your hands are already in the air to set.

Another thing I can do to help our team is to generate more points when I am serving. Obviously, the more pressure we put on our opponents from the service line, the easier our defensive jobs become. So, that means that I need to be more aggressive with my float serve, and start incorporating jump serves into games. Jump serving also limits a setter’s ability to hand set because the pass is usually spinning a lot more than with float serves. Jump serving indoor is not the same as jump serving on the beach, as the wind makes things a little more interesting. It’s also a more up-and-down jump instead of the usual jump through the ball that we see indoor, so the toss is even more critical on the beach.

Since our preseason started a few weeks ago, I have been making a deliberate effort to incorporate these new skills into technical and competitive practices as much as possible. Now, both of these skills are new to me on the beach, so there are a lot of days where they just don’t feel right, or they don’t work for me. At. All. I seem to cycle between feeling great and confident in these new techniques, and wanting to run away and never try them again.

There are days when I feel terrible setting Melissa because I don’t feel as smooth as I do when I’m bump-setting, and I don’t want to mess up her attacking. There are days when I want to bump set because we are in a competitive practice, and heaven forbid if I give up a point by getting called on a double touch. There are days when my legs are tired and I don’t feel like I can jump serve.

I feel insecure. Often. I worry that I will cost our team points. I wonder if I will ever get to the point where these skills feel natural, and that I won’t have to think about everything I’m doing to execute them properly. I want to do what I know I can, and what I know has worked in the past. I don’t want to fail or look stupid. I want to be safe.

What has being safe ever gotten me, though? The answer is nothing. Nothing I have ever done to get me to where I am has been safe. Even though I am experiencing frustration and leave practice some days doubting myself and the process, I know that this is what I need to do to get myself and our team to the level we want to be. For fear of sounding like a massive cliché (but I’m going to say it anyways), I know that in order to reach levels I never have, I need to be willing to do things I have never done.

So…. I am choosing positivity. I am choosing to see each baby step as an accomplishment, and each instance that I decide to try these skills instead of bailing out and doing the easy thing, as a step to GOLD. Am I progressing as fast as I would like to? Absolutely not. I know it’s not perfect, and it never will be, but I am in this for the long haul, and now that I’ve started, I’m not going to allow myself to turn back. I am doing these things now and risking failure at this moment in order to feel confident and in control when it really matters, which is at the 2020 Olympics. For me, it is totally worth it.

I see this same struggle everyday with kids I train. Everyone wants an immediate solution, and if the results aren’t seen NOW then what is the point in changing? The key is to see past the now, and to look at what these small adjustments will do for you in the long run. It’s incredible to think back to how many kids were “stars” when I was young, but had terrible form and awful habits. These “stars” weren’t the ones who went far in the sport. The ones who ended up excelling were the kids who made small gradual improvements, step by step. They may not have been great at performing the correct skills when they were young, and they may have failed more than they succeeded, but in constantly training the correct movements and techniques, it all came together for them when it really mattered.

If you find yourself in the same position that I find myself in right now with my hand setting and jump serving, know that you aren’t alone. Instead of looking to feel comfortable and get everything right all the time, get out of your comfort zone, take a risk, and do what needs to be done to get you to where you want to be. Reframing these moments as positive learning experiences, and steps toward a bigger goal, will make it easier to keep pushing through those tough practices. When you come out on the other side, I guarantee you will be so happy that you did.

xo, Sarah


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