Writing it Down

December 14, 2018

At Bettendorf (Iowa) High School, Head Girls’ Volleyball Coach Diane Lichtenberg has been a steady rock for 32 years. Last year, she became the ninth active high school volleyball coach in the state to reach 700 wins and was inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Her squad captured state titles in 2012 and 2013, and had runner up finishes in 2006, 2014, and 2015. And her program hasn’t had a losing record since 1990. How does she get the most out of players each and every year?

Lichtenberg says it starts with setting lofty goals, an approach she learned as a player at Iowa State University being coached by Mary Wise (now legendary coach at the University of Florida). “I was a very competitive person, and I really liked the hard work and physical exertion that she expected,” says Lichtenberg. “Mary instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic and high expectations, and I carried those into my coaching.”

But Lichtenberg also understands that you can only ask a lot from players if you show your commitment to them. One way she does this is through journaling—writing back and forth with her players—which has become a mainstay of the Bettendorf program.

At the beginning of the season, Lichtenberg buys each player a composition notebook. She asks the athletes to write down their thoughts, questions, and goals, and she responds to what they have conveyed. It allows her to connect with her players in a thoughtful way, while giving them the opportunity to stop and consider their progress and needs.

“It helps them reflect on what did and what did not go well in a game,” says Lichtenberg. “At the same time, it gives me a chance to respond to whatever they wrote, so they know I hear them. I might say, ‘You did a great job with that! But let’s work on this.’ I will then incorporate the things they are struggling with into our practice plans.”

To get their wheels turning, Lichtenberg provides a slip of paper with prompts. For example, before games, she asks players to write down their goals, and they revisit these afterward to reflect on how they played and whether or not they achieved each objective.

“Sometimes we will do it as a rating chart,” says Lichtenberg. “They may even have to rate themselves on certain categories within the mental side of the game.”

Typically, Lichtenberg has athletes journal once or twice a week. Notebooks might be due on a Monday after a weekend tournament and she does her best to return them by Friday, so athletes can read them and be ready for the next competition. “It does take some time to work through 15 or 16 journals, but I feel it is worth it,” Lichtenberg says.

Not all the journaling focuses on volleyball. “Sometimes I ask them a couple of personal questions,” Lichtenberg says. “I might ask about their grades, if they had a good weekend, or if they plan to attend homecoming when it’s coming up.

“And I always finish up by asking if they have any questions or concerns,” she continues. “If they do, I will give a longer response. Or I might have a face-to-face conversation with the player about the issue rather than trying to write it down.”

Lichtenberg has been incorporating the journals into her season plans for more than 12 years, continually tweaking the process. Two seasons ago, she split the task of responding with her assistant coach, to save time. But she found that she prefers to do them all herself, as it helps her get to know every player.

This past season, Lichtenberg experimented with having the players write their thoughts in Google Docs, and both she and her assistant coach were able to read and respond to every player. However, Lichtenberg found she prefers the hard copies and plans to return to them—especially since she is going to be dealing with quite a few new players next year.

“Last year, there were eight girls who were my primary players, and seven of them are graduating,” says Lichtenberg. “I feel like going back to the original format will be important with next year’s girls.”

Lichtenberg’s focus on communication continues with the players’ parents, as she works hard to keep them informed and feeling appreciated. “I send out weekly emails that provide a rundown of our plans for the week, including games, practice changes, travel plans, or any other information they may need,” she says. “I also remind them if we are having a team dinner, and I usually thank the parent that hosted the week before.”

Call-outs continue through the season, up to the very end, when she asks players to write a letter to their parents thanking them for their support. She then composes a letter of her own to parents, and gives them out at the team’s award night.

“I don’t think we let people know often enough how much we appreciate them,” says Lichtenberg. “Our parents have gone out of their way to help their children. Getting a thank-you makes them feel good and I think it’s an important gesture.”

It also circles back to her coaching philosophy. “There are so many life lessons that we can teach through volleyball to develop the whole person, not just their volleyball skills,” says Lichtenberg. “Part of that is being a good person, learning responsibility, and trying to think of others.”

 

 

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