[Editor’s note: Cassidy Lichtman was a first-year assistant coach in 2016 when she won a national championship with Stanford University, her alma mater. Lichtman, a two-time First Team All-American during her playing days, wrote thoughtful articles for PrepVolleyball.com during her high school days at Francis Parker, where she was a two-time California state champion; and after she graduated from college. This piece was written in 2012 while she was a professional playing overseas].
There is one thing in the world that is entirely under your control: You control yourself.
You control your reactions towards imperfect situations. You control your attitude towards all of those other people and towards life in general. And because of all of that, regardless of what anyone else does, you control the kind of player you are and the impact that you have on your team.
As a player, you don’t get to write the numbers into the lineup card. You don’t get to decide who plays and how much they play. Therefore, you have no direct control over your playing time. Being on the bench is one of the hardest things for athletes to deal with. And it should be. Who doesn’t want to play? But just because you don’t get to decide your own playing time doesn’t mean that you can’t determine your impact on the team. Let’s talk about what you can control:
First, while you don’t get to write yourself into the lineup card, there are clearly ways to make yourself a more compelling option. When I was trying to choose a college my club coach asked me if I was sure that I would be happy at Stanford. They recruit the best every year and there was a good chance that I might not see the court very much. I told her that if I wasn’t on the court then it was going to be because I wasn’t good enough and that was my fault. But it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. My freshman year I was on the bench more than I was on the court. When I did go in I tried to make the most of my chances. If my only job was to go in and serve then I was determined to be the best serving specialist there was. As the season went on, I saw more and more of the court. My senior year at Stanford I was the only person to never come off the floor. Your first reaction to being on the bench should never be to question the coach’s intelligence or to get angry. Why bother? You can’t control any of that anyway. Your first reaction should be to figure out how you need to improve in order to be able to help the team when you are on the court.
There is a common misconception, however, that you have to be on the court in order to help your team. Like I said, playing time does not determine your impact on your team. If you ask me about the best teammates that I’ve ever had, some of the people I tell you about will be All-Americans and future Olympians. But others will be girls who had limited playing time. They never got set on match point. They never got awards. But they were invaluable to our team and they have been some of the most impressive people I have ever met. Each of those girls stands out because of the unwavering support they showed their teammates, on and off the court. Maybe you don’t think that makes a difference. But when you’re standing in a gym, packed with 15,000 opposing fans, and it feels like it’s you against the world, there is nothing more important than knowing that your teammates have your back. So you can stand there on the bench and mope about not being on the court. Or you can cheer your teammates on from the sidelines, give them tips on how to score and be the best possible teammate you can be. That choice is what you can control.
Whether or not you are on the court during games, there will be other situations that are out of your control. It is likely, for example, that at some point in the match, the ref will make a call that you don’t agree with. I’m not going to tell you not to get angry because, honestly, that would just be hypocritical on my part. You can be mad and even express your frustration but there’s a line. And when it’s all said and done, you better be ready to move on to the next point. Because while that call was outside of your control, the next point is not. You have to understand yourself well enough to determine what the best way to deal with that situation is. Personally, I play pretty well when I’m angry, as long as I’m under control and I stay focused. That doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need to be able to laugh it off or stay calm. You have to control your reactions based on what works best for you in order to give your team the best chance to win the next point.
We’ve all played against teams that rub us the wrong way. Maybe they’re your rivals, or they’re rude, or maybe you just don’t like their spandex. Whatever the reasons, the same concept applies. The best way to handle a team you don’t like is to beat them. In order to do so, you have to channel your feelings in a productive way. Regardless of how the other team acts, be the better team and be respectful. By all means, crush them, but do it with some class. Stooping to their level only takes you out of your own game and gives them the control.
Even within your own team, there may be times when you get frustrated by your teammates or coaches. I’ve had a few teammates who just bring clouds of negative energy with them into practice and I’ve had coaches who make strange and irritating decisions. Sometimes I let it get to me and bring me down, but not often. Most of the time I find a way to laugh or I play my own games in my head or I focus on getting better. I make the choice to be happy. And I think that, generally, it is a choice. I believe that there is no such thing as an entirely negative situation. There is always something to make me laugh or something to be grateful for or a lesson to be learned. It’s just up to me to find it. That’s the part I can control.
So you can’t control how much you play but you can control how much impact you have on your team. You can’t control the refs or the opponents but you can keep them from controlling you. You can’t control your teammates or coaches but you can control your experience. And aren’t those really our goals? Don’t we all want to have a huge impact on our teams, to play our best in every point and to have a fun, productive experience? All of that is under your control. You make choices every day about your attitude in approaching or reacting to situations. Make choices that allow you to be the kind of teammate and person that you want to be, because ultimately that is what only you can control.