A Volleyball Lesson: To Be Fearless

I ask for your patience, as you’re about to read the story of an old man; but the context is important.

It was 2011, the inaugural year of the UVC Conference. My team (New Paltz) was the 7th seed in the UVC Tournament. We were 3-6 in conference play as a 20 win team, and Nazareth, Stevens, Medaille, D’Youville, and Vassar were all strong at the time.

As the 7th seed, our team battled through a gauntlet unlike any I would ever experience again during my time in college. We were good, not great, but good. On the first day of the tournament, we upset 2nd seed Medaille in a 5-set battle, it was the talk of the tournament that day. Nazareth essentially ruled the UVC with an iron fist, but the Medaille team with Dan Jackson, Nick Johnson, and Erin Kelly was the sleeper pick to upset them in the finals. They would not get the chance, as they fell to us in the first round.

Our team was riding high over the upset. Radu had killed us physically for three weeks prior to this tournament, the week of rest he gave us had our starters playing at a level they had not reached the whole season. We did not have much time following the match, as Steven’s was ready and beginning to warm up for the semi-finals.       

Things didn’t look good at the beginning, as Stevens thoroughly trashed us in the first set, winning 25-13. During that set Radu pulled the starters and had our freshmen go in and play, as he took them outside in the hallway and spoke to them privately. I do not know what he told them in that hallway, but what I do know is what happened when they came back. They entered the gym with a look of fearlessness. They were relaxed yet determined; it was a different group of guys who returned to the court. We would win that match in 5 as well, another upset the conference and Division III was not expecting.

The next day, we faced arguably the best Nazareth team to ever exist. They were #2 in the AVCA Coaches poll, they had a collection of all-time D3 greats in jerseys, and they were essentially unstoppable in conference play. We won the first 2 sets 32-30 25-18. .

After going down two, Cal brought his team into the hallway much like Radu did the day prior. And much like us the day before, they entered as a new team. Energized, refocused, and hungry. They would win the next 2 sets, and our teams were headed for a 5th and final frame.

After trading points back and forth, we grabbed a 12-7 lead. Nazareth called a time-out and then sided out. Bill Gimello (OH) went back to the service line, and then did what all great players do. He played fearlessly. With tough serving from the line, Nazareth battled back and the momentum was shifting. It was 12-12 when Radu called a time-out, and how this time-out lead to one of the most defining moments in my college career that has shaped my philosophy on coaching.

With the break, Radu brought us in and says “the game is in our hands”. He was talking with our starters and I in the huddle and wanted this next ball to be a 3rd tempo set to the outside. To this day this was the only experience I ever had in a time-out where Radu specifically wanted area 4 to be the go to option out of a time-out, it’s significant for a couple reasons (anyone who has played against New Paltz in the last few years will know they emphasize opposite and middle attacks as primary options).

Kevin Stross -Photo Provided by SUNY New Paltz

In this rotation specifically, we had Mike VanTyne (Captain/OPP), Jakub Chleboun (OH2) and Kevin Stross (Captain/MB) in the front row. VanTyne was having a day and was hitting over .450 with 20 plus kills at that point in the match. Kevin was hitting over .300 and was largely winning his matchup against Ellis-Walsh. Jakub was a setter who was converted to outside, and honestly helped solidify our serve receive throughout the year to get us to this point in the tournament. He averaged a .132 hitting percentage for the season, but during this match he was hitting .250.

Mike VanTyne – Photo provided by SUNY New Paltz

Based on what Radu was seeing, he said “this ball goes to Jakub”. We were skeptical because Jakub was not the best option in this rotation with Kevin and VanTyne. Our setter Andrew wanted the ball to go to Kevin, as the last two points we had been able to get effective passes off of Gimello’s serve and he was confident we could put that ball the way in the middle. Kevin wanted the ball, and Andrew wanted to get it too him. Radu looked at me and asked, “Ramius what do you do”.

I was shocked when he asked me (I was a small role player with a broken hand). I took a moment, looked at the stat sheet, looked at Kevin, Andrew, the team, and nervously answered… “Coach, I think we should give the ball to Kevin”. Coach understood, said “ok, that is plan”. We brought our hands in, then the starters took the court.

Andrew Cassius – Photo Provided by SUNY New Paltz

We got a great pass from Keith McDonald (OH1), literally picture perfect. Ball gets to Andrew; we get a quick a first tempo ball, there are two Nazareth blockers waiting for him cutting off the cross trying to funnel his swing to Mowery (L) … and Kevin mishits the thumb away swing into the net. Nazareth is now up 13-12. The match continues into extra points, and Nazareth wins the first UVC Championship on a ball-handling error. Final score, 18-16. Nazareth would then go on to win the last NECVA Championship, and then win the last Molten Championship to be the best team in 2011. For us, it was a tough loss. We got hot at the right time, we played our hearts out every match, and after three 5-set battles, would ultimately lose the UVC Championship by two points. It is a loss I am grateful for every day.

I think about this moment constantly. Because it is a moment in my career which provided a lot of things to unpack philosophically and tactically.

With all the years of training, coaching, and learning I have experienced, I can safely say I have no qualms with the best hitters on any team getting the ball. Offenses thrive on getting the best hitters in positions where they will score, and teams that do not utilize this approach are ultimately just leaving points on the board and not playing optimally. Hitting efficiency is the strongest statistical predictor of a match outcome in volleyball for this reason; because hitters who can score often and efficiently help their teams win. This approach comes straight from the teachings of famed volleyball figures like John Kessel, Russ Rose, Jim Coleman, etc. This is not reinventing the wheel.

However, my coach wanted in this position to give the ball to our least efficient option. He wanted to do this in a moment where we needed a sure point to turn the tide of the match, when our two captains and best hitters in this game were in the front row. Why? Well, I do not know. I cannot speak for other people. But after nine years of hindsight, I can explain why I like the idea; statistically and philosophically.

Our offense at the time was incredibly predictable coming out of the huddle. Two of our best hitters were in the front row, those two options at that moment in the match combined took 45% of the total swings of our team during this game. Of the offensive options on the court at the time, it was 53% of total attempts. VanTyne had established himself as the premier back-row option as we had drifted away from Keith McDonald (OH1) later in that game as he was having difficulty with the BIC; this meant the odds coming out of the time-out were that either Kevin or Van-Tyne was going to be getting the ball in the front row. The Nazareth blocking scheme made sense, because if Kevin had two blockers camping on him, even if the ball goes to VanTyne the middle can still make that step-and-close to have two blockers on the Opposite pin. Nazareth had essentially planned on not blocking Jakub, and in an amazing amount of foresight Radu wanted to punish them for it.

Jakub was only hitting .250 for the match and only took 12 swings during 5-sets. Based on how we had played, if I was Nazareth, I also would have played the odds and not worried about Jakub getting the ball and loaded up my defense on Stross and VanTyne, the better offensive options. Now, Jakub averaged a .132 hitting % for the year. Hitting .250 in the UVC Championship was above average for him and shows a different level of focus and performance. As a firsthand witness I can say he did play quite well in this game, providing effective serve-receive, defense, and putting the occasional ball away here and there when called upon.

Jakub was both an exceptional teammate and a fearless player. When Coach wanted to give him the ball in that situation, he did not back down from the moment, and would have swung at that ball as hard as hypothetically possible if given the chance. When the team decided to run the middle, he did not complain about not getting a moment of glory, he wanted to win. In fact, he was the one who got the ball when Nazareth was up 13-12. He planted a ball down the line to side us out of serve-receive against Gimello (OH).

If I had to pick one moment which has defined my coaching philosophy up to this point in my career, this is the one I would use for a variety of reasons. It was a tense game situation, where the balance of the match was largely defined. In this moment, my coach chose to be fearless. He was fearless because he chose to take a chance on the match by doing something Nazareth would not expect. He was fearless because he listened to input from his team, the guys he trusted to win the game. He was fearless because he trusted us as a team to change his suggested strategy. He was fearless because regardless of the outcome he understood whether he made the call or we did, winning or losing the point would result in the momentum shift; he chose to let us take the game in our own hands. He was able to let go of the outcome to follow his own philosophy, something a lot of coaches would not do in a Conference Championship.

Looking back now as a Coach, this was easily the best time-out I ever experienced wearing a New Paltz jersey because of the philosophical and technical lessons of game play management I witnessed. The defining lesson I took away from it, regardless of the outcome, was you cannot be afraid to execute your decision according to your coaching philosophy. As a coach, I may make calls in a game that will affect the outcome of that match either positively or negatively. Whether I make the call or empower my athletes to make the call, my coaching philosophy will not allow me to be fearful of the outcome.

At the end of the day, if Jakub gets the ball at 12-12, he could possibly score; with the Nazareth Blockers bunching in the middle he most likely would have had a single block at best if we set him the ball. But, he could also hit it out, he could get blocked, we could shank the pass, the other team could miss the serve… there are an endless number of situations and variables that can alter any moment in a Volleyball match. It is a chaotic game and no two points are alike in any way.

You can’t look back and say “If only I had done this” or “what if…”, that is not fearless. To be fearless is to let go of the outcome, and perform in the moment knowing a vast amount of things can occur to change the trajectory of any action. Because at the end of every point, you will either execute an action successfully, or you won’t.

So, 2020 Ramius being asked; “Ramius, what would you do”, my answer is simple. I would still give the ball to Stross. When your Captain says he wants the ball and the senior setter says he wants to set him, I am going to trust my players to make that call. Is that wrong, I don’t know. Is it right, not really? But it is right for me, and the only difference is that I wouldn’t be nervous about the choice anymore.

You must be fearless to perform exceptionally. I won’t coach my athletes to be afraid of taking a game into their own hands and I won’t coach them to be afraid of what could go wrong. I encourage everyone to examine in their own minds what it takes to be fearless on the court, in the gym, and in life.