In a nutshell, I’m over elitist culture. From Washington D.C. to Stanford University I am tired of people and institutions that play by different rules than everyone else and create an ever widening gap between perception and reality. This was my thought as I watched the new Netflix documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal. My optimism was more than dampened with the realization that Stanford does not stand behind the character building grind required to achieve the high academic standard and level of play that are required to wear a Cardinal jersey. The story of fallen college admissions consultant Rick Singer and his side door approach to college entrance that got the kids of affluent families into the universities of their choice, upon the six and seven figure donations by their parents, testing scandals, and blatant lies that the students were athletes in sports that they had never played, hit a major nerve in me…like a sciatic nerve, so big it knocks you off your feet.
When the original story broke, I followed it because I lived in the backyard of schools and people who were involved in this scandal, and because two of my kids were approaching college. But as with most of the news these days, I tried not to sink too deep into the story because it was incomprehensible. At the time, I had two kids headed toward college. After making a transition from indoor volleyball to the beach, Lauren knew she was going to TCU to play. Luke had his sights set on Stanford, a place he had been attending football games in ‘fear the tree’ t shirts with his siblings since he was eight years old. I watched as he sacrificed sleep, increased his workload, and focused on his grades, while he waited and hoped for a chance to play volleyball for the Cardinal. Finding out he had a shot was one of the greatest days of his life, although he still had to wait for admissions to let him know he was in as a student…Stanford athletes are expected to maintain the schools standards for excellence in academics too, and he was told if they don’t hit the mark, they can’t wear the jersey, whether the coach wants them or not. I remember thinking at the time that for this age, these are the real pressures, what I don’t remember thinking was that as his parent, there was anything I could do about it besides support his efforts, be there to talk, and encourage him if he needed it.
The release of this documentary shed light on Stanford at a time when they they are already suffering in my book after turning their back on 240 athletes from 11 sports that they recruited. These athletes learned through their athletic experience how to show up, to crush it, to have a bad day or game, and learn to fight back, and yet they face a hypocritical university that will not show up in the same way for them.
Although it’s hard to stop talking about all the things we learned in 2020 from everything that we lost, as I watch this young Stanford Men’s Volleyball Team battle for what the university wants to be their last season (one that looks nothing like a real college volleyball season, with it’s incomplete schedule, training, and apathetic coaching) the irony of Stanford’s proclaimed value system and the gap between perception and reality is astounding. A school that is known for the amazing things they do to serve underprivileged and deserving students has a dark side. Stanford, with a near $30B endowment, that made $1.6B in 2019-20 alone, has decided that it can’t afford 11 sports?! On July 8, 2020 in the midst of everything else that these athletes had lost during the pandemic, they were told by the school that recruited them (that they each had to work incredibly hard to get into on their own and gave up other opportunities to be able to wear the Cardinal jersey) wouldn’t have a home for the sport that they have spent the majority of their lives playing. Reportedly, they didn’t want to continue programs that couldn’t compete for National Championships (way to answer back Shane Griffiths). No warning to the alumni or staff that their program was in danger…no amount of money raised would save them, no side door opportunities for these student-athletes, not that they would have needed them anyway.
Growth requires challenge and pain produces progress, so in the long run, Stanford can’t take anything from these athletes, they will be tough as nails and know how to battle no matter what path they choose to walk. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right thing to do…and Stanford hasn’t done it. These athletes deserve the support not only of their families and the outstanding alumni of these programs, but for the university that brought them on campus for an opportunity that was pulled out from under them to continue to provide them with a chance to lead and grow in the sport that they committed to play. Watching from the volleyball LiveStream on the screen, I see the athletes battling with all the heart that they have, even with a lackluster coaching effort that these players do not deserve. When the character of the athletes far surpasses that of the university that they were recruited to play for, something is very wrong. Stanford has proven that the entitled can buy their way in, and the endowment will help educate those who can’t afford to pay but are deserving, but they deserted the hard working student/athletes that committed to them, and it’s inexcusable. In the end, it’s not my ultimate decision if my son will stay at Stanford, I trust his decision making process 100%, but one thing is for sure, Stanford doesn’t deserve these athletes, or our support. When the gap between perception and reality becomes so great, Stanford is teaching the wrong things, and everyone loses.
One of my favorite things is to wake up to an inspirational text from my friend Chrissy. She is an amazing writer and mom (check out her blog Life with Greyson + Parker) and when we met 10 years ago, we were trying to figure out the ins and outs of having kids on the autism spectrum, even though neither of us actually had diagnosis’s yet for our children. She is one of the best silver lining humans that I know, we are kindred spirit introverts that just get each other. As we went back and forth this morning, waxing philosophical even before we had had our coffee, our words pointed to what I was already writing about this week…our tendency as humans to compare ourselves to one another and the jealousy that it can create. I’ve learned over the last few years that there are so many ways to do life, and once we find the courage, it’s just easier to be ourselves, without apology, than think we need to copy anyone else’s journey.
For me that has meant connecting deeply to the world of sports…a place that has always been an outlet for my nervous energy but also one where I feared that I couldn’t hang. As a younger athlete, I lacked confidence and it became the thing that I most wanted to teach my kids, not just on the court, but in life, so they could find and pursue their passions, whatever those passions may be, and nothing makes me happier than to see them learn to lead doing what they love to do. We all need that place in life. As athletes my older two have had some of the highest highs, like achieving their dreams of playing at the Division 1 level, and also battled through lows like injuries (I think Lauren inherited my weak ankles) and heartbreak, (let’s get this reinstatement taken care of @gostanford), but above all have come through difficult circumstances on and off the court that shape their character and build their resilience in life in a way that makes me so proud. Through my parenting journey, I have seen how much the world of coaching and parenting intersect, and how comparing our lives to anyone else’s, diminishes our potential to make the impact we were meant to make on the world. Even saying you have the desire to make an impact is scary. It brings out the fear of failure and the dreadful feeling of imposter syndrome, that “who am I to" (fill in the blank).
As humans we have a tendency to compare and even be jealous of what other people seem to be or have in their lives when all that does is contract our own unique path. It’s got me thinking about the impact comparison and jealousy have on our happiness and performance, individually and as part of any team. Teams come in many forms…work, families, sports, clubs…anything that has an established culture that we are a part of, for better or for worse. This week I had the privilege to get the feedback from an masterful Championship winning volleyball coach and a 2016 Olympian on how they handle these concepts in their own lives, and on their own teams. I’m so grateful for these conversations and connections, here is what they had to say:
“Everyone on a team has to feel like they are an integral part of the team. People may have different roles on a team/organization, but each individual needs to feel appreciated, they add value to the central mass, and that they have freedom to fulfill their individual role. As the leader, I need to convey to the troops what is the environment that THEY would like to be part of. I then give verbal praise in front of the entire group whenever I see actions of the culture we want. Then almost a competition can develop of who can do the most “positive actions”, because generally people like to be praised! One of the first messages I will say after saying “hello” is that we are not going to have jealousy for one another. If I give praise to someone for positive actions, we are NOT going to talk negatively about the “doer of good deeds”. I ask for each team member to take a symbolic one step forward if they agree to not to be jealous of the doer. Then when I give the first positive comments to someone in front of the group, I will IMMEDIATELY joke and say to the group something like, “hey, we’re not mad at so and so are we?”. At the end of the practice, I ask for players to nominate one another as the “player of the practice” and the players have to be SPECIFIC why they are nominating a teammate (“Suzy reassured me after I mad an error”, “Sally’s servers were on and scored many points”, “Sam had that one incredible dig”. I make a point we want to honor physical plays AND selfless actions as well. This makes the less athletic kids know they can be honored by being selfless teammates. -Tommy Chaffins, Prep Volleyball Coach of Year, Max Preps Coach of Year, Daily Breeze 11x Coach of Year, Redondo Union High School Head Coach (and someone I have seen personally create culture where teenage girls learn to both support each other and compete!)
“I think jealousy is a good teacher. Usually when we feel bouts of jealousy they are signals that someone else has something we would like to have ourself. I think recognizing this before it becomes detrimental to yourself and/or your team is the number one key. Since feeling jealousy reveals those things we wish we could have, it can act as a gateway to walking the path to finding the best version of yourself as a player, teammate, athlete etc. If you feel feelings of jealousy because your teammate is starting and you aren’t, what actionable step can you take to improve your chances of seeing playing time more? Do you need to spend some more time getting extra repetitions at a specific skill? Do you need to spend more time in the weight room building foundational strength? This is just one example of how we can turn feelings of jealousy into positive actions. Another way to look at jealousy is through the scope of building your own internal confidence and high self-worth. Your feelings are ultimately in your control. When we are in an environment where jealousy is at the forefront it’s a signal that there is inner work yet to be done. There is never anything anyone is doing outside of us to make us feel jealous, those feelings are solely felt because of our own perspective of what is going on or what is being conveyed to us. Within a team we want to feel connected, and build trust and have a foundation of confidence from the coaching staff to the training staff to the players. Valuing one another and treating others with respect and full support is the main goal within a team. So those very fragile feelings of jealousy can easily be released if we focus the right kind of energy on them and take actionable steps to rid ourselves of them too. - Carli Lloyd, 2016 Olympian, Professional Indoor Volleyball Player, expecting mom, May 2021, writer of her blog, Show Up With Me - and someone who has the one of the greatest blends of compassion and competitiveness I have ever seen.
We find our purpose when we use our passion to create something unique to us that has an impact on something larger than ourselves. When we connect to our higher self on the most intimate level, our goals become so specific, there is no way to compare them.. Every week that I write, I get closer to making that impact that I want to make: to raise generational consciousness and teach life lessons through sports so we can make our greatest impact and develop deeper empathy for all of the stories of the human condition. My challenge to you this week is to get so clear on the impact that you want to make on this world that you can see who adds beautiful connection and collaboration to your life and that you you would never again dream to compare yourself to anyone else.
With love & optimism,
Photo credit: Anthony Moore (@amoorephoto_)
Brenda Cash (@brendacashphotography) for the photo in my email if you get my blog updates there;)
And because there is always a song that comes to mind. when I write….
There is a new piece of art that hangs over the doorway in my living room. It’s a rustic wooden sign from @HarperGrayce that reads:
It’s become my mantra to back up my life philosophy and I love the imagery it brings to my mind in just two words. From my deep valley roots, the word cultivate reminds me of deep rich soil that grows sustainable, high quality things, and calm is the state I recognize as my gateway to peak performance. My new sign reinforces my life philosophy:
“To create calm and connection with every breath and movement.”
Understanding the value of deep calm in my life and home helps me channel it and take it out into the world. Zeroing in on your life philosophy is a fun, creative exercise that helps us drill down on what is truly unique and important to us. Once I realized that feeling of deep calm is where I feel most myself and perform at my best, I looked for more opportunities and techniques in my life to tap into it. Breath work, yoga, writing, mindfulness, and daily movement, are just a few of the ways that I have learned to help me find flow in my life, no matter what is going on around me.
For so many years, I didn’t know I was operating in a state of fight or flight, sympathetic dominant, always waiting for the shoe to drop. That wasn’t a place I could flourish, my body and mind were guarded most of the time, and I wasn’t able to capitalize on my own strengths. It impacted my performance on the court and in my life. Learning how to recognize my state and work with it has been a game changer (thanks @BrianMckenzie and @intrinsicway)! Although understanding myself on a deeper level has cultivated calm in my life, one of the greatest benefits has been being able to walk the walk and help other people understand what they are about by being real and sharing my own story. No one achieves anything great alone and the culture we surround ourselves with is an integral factor to the levels of success we will achieve.
When we know who we are, more and more we find ourselves in places that align with our interests and values, and the conversations and experiences just flow. For me these days, they almost seem to fall in my lap, and I feel the greatest sense of freedom to be myself. Alignment is a magical feeling.
As I chatted back and forth with another beach volleyball player the other day, the words that came to me were
“The forties are a decade of incredible power.”
Maybe that’s by design, it seems that we hit a place in our forties where if we are willing to dig in and understand the layers of ourselves, and what our life has created, we have an incredible ability to step into our uniqueness and power and create culture around us. I call it finding your ‘Type Be’. When we find it, we open up opportunities to create culture around us that points us toward what we should learn (and unlearn) in life. My passion lies in telling the stories that are universal in their struggle and unique in their experience to help people connect their lives with others. Whether it’s a team, a family, a community, or professional environment, when we are able to provide vulnerable leadership, we can inspire culture, and that is exactly what great coaches do.
This week, I reached out to a few mindful athletes and legendary coaches to get their take on building team culture and loved the synchronicity of what I got back from them, both with my own message and between theirs, because they play and coach for different programs. Here is what they had to say:
“The concept of team culture has so much depth. In the world of sports, sometimes winning or losing depends on the strength of your team culture, and the unity of the players. To me, no matter what “team” you’re on, whether it’s your work team, your family, or an actual sports team, one of the key ingredients to success is vulnerability. Having this trait opens the door to so many other things that make or break team culture, like the ability to have courage, trust, be honest, and be whole-hearted in what you do. Being vulnerable with teammates allows them to understand not just the surface of your being, but the deeper layers. And when everyone on the team can see this in each other, the culture comes naturally.” - Katie Kennedy - Long Beach State Beach Volleyball
“At Long Beach I think we have the best team culture. I say so only having been a part of the Long Beach culture, but Alan does such a good job in this aspect. I think it all starts with the coach, manager, and parents. Culture is a huge thing we talk about at Long Beach and that not one person is bigger than the team. We talk a lot about carrying our own luggage, which is carrying your weight, so you can then help people along the way. We always have each others backs and any sort of confrontation/accountability is all from love. Open communication is key.” - Mason Briggs, Long Beach State Mens Volleyball
“For me a strong team culture starts with empathy for others and an understanding of yourself, and that others will operate differently, and that’s ok. Once they can understand that they will see things differently and react differently under stress, they can give each other the space to be who they are, and help to fulfill each other’s needs through that understanding.” - Stein Metzger - Head Coach UCLA Beach Volleyball
All of these quotes reinforce my belief that our ability to lead and build strong team cultures happen when we soften our ego, genuinely root for each other, and compete to be the best version of ourselves. Healthy, interdependent team culture is rooted in a ‘we, not me’ mindset and the ability to hone our own unique skills whether we lead from the sidelines, are the star of the team, or anywhere in between. Each of these quotes remind me of the ripple effect we have on each other and the importance of surrounding ourselves with great people with tireless work ethic who know how to work and love at the same time. Our choices, actions, and most importantly, our ability to understand our deepest motivations, make us leaders that create deep calm in others and inspire confidence to compete without the need to be anything more than who we are in this moment. Work hard, stay present, and trust that the path will appear…even in my most difficult moments, this formula for deep calm hasn’t failed my team yet.
With love & optimism,
Photo Credit: Anthony Moore @amoorephoto_
My song this week - piano and some great lyrics are tough to beat.
I was in 9th grade in 1990 when the AVP came to Lost Lake, just outside the Fresno city limits on the 41 freeway…the gateway to Yosemite and some of the world’s most breathtaking views. My family had always been more for the mountains, but I had been to the beach a handful of times and knew from my first breath of ocean air that it was my happy place. Fresno loves it’s sports, and although it was just for two seasons, we brought the beach to the edges of the San Joaquin River and just like Field of Dreams said:
“If you build it, they will come.”
And they showed up like Fresnan’s do. In the heat, with their umbrellas and water bottles. 20,000 deep off center court for the another Smith/Stoklos vs. Hovland/Dodd battle.
I remember the day before the action began they ran a players clinic of some kind, and I went, along with a friend from my volleyball team. I remember telling my mom after playing a mini game with Smith/Stoklos and my friend that I could die happy now. I remember having the biggest crush on an up and coming player…I wonder what ever happened to Eric Boyles? I had fallen in love with the game the year before the AVP came to town, laying on my bed, setting pillows in the air. I was the kid who only liked to go to school during volleyball season. Getting out of class early to go to games in junior high was the highlight of those two years for me. I love to tell my kids that I learned to play on blacktop in 6th grade with 9 players on the court and my favorite play by the 8th grade was to block serves…because for some reason you could do that. The game has changed a lot over the years but my love for the sport has only grown. I have a special place in my heart for the gentle giant, I can spot her from a mile away, often a middle blocker, like I was, and I want to help her feel comfortable in her skin, take up space, and unleash the power that is within her.
Since these early days, I have spent many hours in the gym and on the beach watching my own kids play. I feel so much connection with the conversation that happens surrounding the game, and, while I appreciate learning all of the technical aspects and love to watch high level execution of volleyball in all it’s forms, my passion lies with the life lessons, the mindset, and what we can learn about ourselves with the experience of every practice and game. Confidence, discipline, grit, resilience, non judgment, cooperation, presence, self control, consistency, compassion, kindness…I feel every one of these lessons pour into my consciousness moving my body through six games on any given morning without a dollar or a medal on the line. I feel so blessed to have learned enough to keep playing, keep growing and keep getting better…on and off the court. And yes, one definitely inspires the other. In between games, the talk is real about parenting, relationships, work life, and all the challenges that come with living life to the fullest. It’s one of the reasons I started The Optimists Journal…to share what I’m learning through life, encourage other people to be real with what comes their way, and create an intergenerational conversation through sports that inspires greatness and maximizes the human potential in each of us. Life never stops trying to teach us, we get to choose if we are going to dig in and do the hard work to understand the deepest parts of ourselves and do the learning (and unlearning) that has to happen if we want to level up, or ignore or try and go around the challenges, only to discover if we do, we keep swimming in the same small pond. Everyone has a story, and the world is better off when we tell them, bumps, bruises and all, so we can learn from them and elevate what happens going forward. What isn’t acknowledged is bound to repeat itself.
Over the last few years, writing this blog has been my constant weekly companion. It’s a joy for me to write whether one or a million people read it, but I’ve always had an energy inside of me that tells me to keep going, that I am supposed to reach more people to spread optimism and help them find deep calm in their lives. My favorite conversations happen one on one, and I love my life playing volleyball, parenting, and learning how to grow myself and others through coaching. Some days I’ve found myself feeling selfish that I want to go out and spend the first couple hours of my day playing volleyball…maybe there is something more productive I should do that little voice in my head whispers. But most of the time the pull is too great, so I tape up my knee and off I go. And lucky for me that I did a few weeks back or I would have missed an amazing moment of connection with Anthony Moore of @amoorephoto_ (check out his Instagram, it’s beautiful). We have become fast friends and have created an amazing collaboration with his incredible volleyball photography and videography and my ‘game of life’ stories to inspire generations of athletes, coaches, and families to level up…on the court and in their lives. We’re just getting started and I hope you are feeling as inspired as I am to follow along…more to come on that!
As I watched the YouTube video attached above of the 1990 Fresno Beach AVP Final, one of the commentary segments was an interview done years later, asking these four legends of the game to reflect on the Fresno Beach Open. It was shot at 16th St. next to the courts I play on every week. Life has a way of creating patterns that are hard to ignore. If you pay attention they will help you understand the impact you can make on this world. We all need a place in life that inspires us to dream big. Do you know where your place is? Find yourself a community of believers, and focus on the journey, and the destination will take care of itself. Life is art, and we all have a contribution to make.
With love & optimism,
If you are still getting to know me…I am a major country music fan. I love listening to Thomas Rhett, he’s been growing up in front of us for years, but he put the story in this new song.
Photo Credit: Anthony Moore @amoorephoto_ of Traci Callahan @callahanvolleyball