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Beating the Odds

Setting the Tone for Practice

Why do some people have so much more success than others do?

Some coaches, for instance, come up with an outstanding team year after year, no matter who graduates or who walks through the door as part of the freshman class.

Maria Nolan fits into this category. She recently won her 20th state championship in volleyball. Most of them came at Secaucus High School in New Jersey, and the last few at Immaculate Heart Academy.

Nolan’s programs are the envy of the state. So how does she do it? In a recent phone conversation, she talked about some of the little things that go into building success and confidence. It turns out that the little things aren’t little things at all.

As an example, she spoke about purpose and the first few minutes of practice.

“You have to set the tone,” she said. “You have to be on top of the players or they start fooling around. They don’t have the self-discipline.”

At first, this advice hardly seems profound. It’s just common sense that players should be focused when they start practice. But coaches undermine the very thing they hope to accomplish. They stand around and chat among themselves, with a trainer, or any other visitor to the gym.

Meanwhile, the warmup gets sloppy, and the practice continues that way. That doesn’t happen in Nolan’s gym. There is a sense of purpose and focus, even in the most mundane activities. Players can think about why they’re in the gym — to achieve and to improve. These few minutes can make the difference between a great practice and an ordinary one. And great practices can lead to great seasons.

Nolan does many other “little” things to build confidence in her players. She emphasizes that building greatness is a process. It takes time. What she doesn’t say — but what is obvious — is that she thinks about excellence all the time. Whether she’s planning her day or writing practice or preparing a speech, she takes great care to do it right. And somehow she transmits this sense of care and quality to her players.

It all comes back to those first few minutes of practice. Whatever you’re going to do, do it right.


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