I remember gushing to my husband after the first day of practice with our girls in July. It was my 7th season as an assistant volleyball coach at Cookson Hills, and two things were immediately apparent:
This was exciting because most of our girls have only played volleyball for one other season! So, we trained hard.
In early August, it was time for our annual pre-season Cookson Hills Invitational Tournament. Our girls were incredible! They hustled, encouraged, and swiftly worked through their issues on the court. After six straight wins over the course of two days, we lost the championship game.
The loss hurt, but as a coach, I was incredibly excited to see where this season would take us because if the tournament were any indication, it would be amazing.
But then we saw it; distrust. And if you don’t trust your team, you are done. A sports team is a lot like the body of Christ. Each player has a different job. If we all had the same job, we would be ineffective. Sure, we could win a couple of points, but ultimately, you need everyone to be a great team.
Each year, we take our volleyball players to the barns for team-building activities with the horses. There’s problem-solving, frustration, giving up, and a few lightbulb moments by the end of the session. The horses have an incredible way of bringing out the best and worst in all of us. As usual, this led to some interesting revelations.
The girl who tries to get every ball and take control of every play- she didn’t like being told what to do in the arena. Ironic.
The girl who was playing volleyball for the first time and wasn’t sure what she was doing was also left out of knowing the rules of the team-building game. Interesting.
The ones who were silent on the court took charge in the arena. Fascinating.
Often, the coaches are aware of these dynamics, but the girls get to experience and discuss them during the debrief. It leads to fascinating conversations as they realize things about themselves for the first time.
After an activity like that, problems don’t just fix themselves. Oh no. Now you have the gift of coaching your athletes through character development. Practice after practice.
But just when it felt like the lessons would never sink in, the girl who wanted all the control stayed in her zone and noticed that her teammates were also capable.
Someone else showed grace in the heat of the moment instead of anger.
The quiet ones on the court found the voices they had in the arena.
And nine individuals became a team again. Just in time, too, because the State Tournament was right around the corner.
Our state tournament is an all-day tournament that starts with round robin and moves to single elimination. Having won the last four games of our season and being the number one seed in the tournament bracket, our girls felt pretty confident.
Game one came, and it was a disaster. We were trounced! Our girls let their nerves get the best of them and reverted to distrust. In game two… we also lost miserably.
Before the next game, we had a team meeting. I shared, “Girls, winning is awesome. But what makes us coaches really feel successful is watching you play with JOY, no matter the outcome.” The girls talked about what joy does and doesn’t look like. They pointed out to each other how negative body language can squelch an attempt at joy. And then, it was game time. This was our first game in the single elimination round; if we lost, we were done.
A team must win 2 out of 3 sets to win a game. Our girls were determined, if nothing else, to play with joy. So we set out for our first set… and lost.
But the other team couldn’t take their joy. The girls started trusting each other. They celebrated the highs and encouraged each other through the lows. And we won the game.
Next game, we win in two sets.
Now, we are in the Semi-finals against the team who completely obliterated us during the first game of the day. We win that also.
This brings us to the State Championship match against the team who beat us at our pre-season tournament. Our teams were evenly matched; joy and endurance would set the winning team apart.
We lost the first set, but our girls refused to relinquish their joy. We won the second set. So it came down to the third and final set. The game went back and forth, point by point… until finally, the score was 15-11- COOKSON HILLS WINS!
The whistle blew, and the tears began to fall. We shook hands with our opponents and celebrated with great zeal and some disbelief. The awards were presented, trophies handed out, and many photos were taken.
On the way to our celebratory dinner, the girls started singing a song that filled my eyes with tears yet again. It’s a song we often sing on campus, and it goes like this.
“You give me joy down deep in my soul… I’ve never been so free, caught in your love for me. I’ve never been more secure, knowing your heart Lord.” – Joy, by Housefires
They were happy. But they didn’t have joy because they won.
They had joy because they corrected their attitudes after two significant losses.
They still made mistakes, but they bounced back because joy changes how you see the world around you.
This was so much bigger than a championship. I pray each girl remembers that finding joy can change everything. Joy is not determined by your circumstances. It’s determined by a decision. And true joy, the kind that’s really deep, only comes from our Creator.