[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 beyond. This piece was written six years ago, after her eligibility at Stanford was up. It has been edited, not materially, to reflect the current state of the game].
USA Volleyball held its Junior National Championships over the weekend for 18s teams, which consist mainly of current high school seniors. Soon, many of them will be reporting to preseason, excited to start something new and probably more than a little bit nervous to take that next step. Because it is a big step. I would love to tell all of you that it will be easy, that it will be a smooth transition from your club or high school experience to your new college gym. But really, the nature of that transition depends a lot on what you do to prepare for it. There is no complete guide to entering college volleyball, but, having made the transition myself four years ago and having watched plenty of others do the same, I have compiled some ideas about how to make it smoother. Though this issue is the most urgent for seniors, those of you with a little more time have an opportunity to get ahead of the game if you start observing some of these points now.
The most important consideration, coming into college, is health. It’s quite simple: if you aren’t healthy then you can’t play. From my experience, health is an ever-growing factor in the success of both individual players and college teams. The sheer quantity of volleyball that many girls have played before even coming into college is a common source of overuse injuries. It is great to get reps and play a lot of volleyball but you need to be smart about how you do it. Improper mechanics are also a huge problem in club volleyball. Go to a club tournament some time and pay attention to how many girls land on one leg when they hit, block and serve. Or to how many are out of balance when they hit so that they consistently have to contort their bodies in unnatural positions or exclusively use their shoulder to hit instead of their core. Ask your coach to hold you accountable for proper mechanics. Just because you have always landed on one leg when you hit and have been successful doing so does not mean that it is not an ACL tear waiting to happen. When you enter college in the fall you want to be thinking about learning a new system and finding a way onto the court, not learning new rehab exercises and finding your way to the training room.
In the same vein, to be fully prepared for college it is important to have some experience in the weight room. College volleyball is faster and more physical than club volleyball. You are going to be playing against girls who have gone through two or three full years of working out at the college level and will be much stronger than you. I am not saying that you have to try to catch up with those girls before you even step foot on campus but the more experience you have in the weight room and the better the shape you are in, the more prepared you will be to go up against those older players. Preseason is going to be hard enough; there is no need to add stress to your body because it has never had to deal with a true workout before. Also, if you know your way around a weight room that is one less thing you have to learn; therefore you will have more time and mental energy to spend learning volleyball skills. Finally, the stronger you are going into your first college season, the more prepared your body will be to handle the additional physical stress and the more likely you are to stay healthy.
So far we have discussed some of the ways you can prepare yourself physically for the transition into college volleyball. There are also many ways in which you can prepare yourself mentally that could turn out to be just as important. There are a lot of players who get to college and still do not have a strong understanding of the game. You do not have to touch ten feet or be able to blast the ball to make a difference on the court. There are many aspects of the game that have nothing to do with physicality. A great player needs to understand the rules, the strategy and the flow of the game. The great thing about the mental side of the game is that, unlike certain physical attributes, these are all things that you can learn. Talk to your coach about how volleyball works; not just about how to do the skills he or she is teaching you but why you do them that way. If you understand the why, then you will get better at the how. Think about your decision making process. The game of volleyball comes down to a series of situations. Each situation presents you with a choice and how you make that choice could be what makes you a great player. A lot of hitters, for example, just go up and swing, usually hard and somewhere around the block. Every time that you get set, that’s a situation in which you have a choice. If you can learn how to make an educated decision in that moment then you could set yourself apart from ninety percent of other club hitters. Most younger players concentrate on developing their skills physically. If you spend some time developing the mental side of your game then that is one more way that you can contribute on the court when you get to college.
There are a lot of junior players who work very hard to be good volleyball players. During that process, though, there is often some authority figure, whether it is a high school or club coach, or a parent, who is pushing you along. There are times, in college, when someone is there to hold you accountable. In practice that might be your coaches, in weights your strength coach, or perhaps your older teammates. Most likely, though, there will be times when you will just be expected to do what you are supposed to do to the best of your ability. That means that, in order to be the best player that you can be, you need to learn how to motivate yourself. You are the only one who knows how hard you are working and how much more you can do. That means that you are in charge of holding yourself accountable for doing everything you can to get better. Most players, even the ones who have gone through four years of college volleyball, will never learn how to do this right. We often lie to ourselves, claiming that we are tired or sore or we have done all we can when really we can push ourselves so much farther. If you do keep pushing yourself, beyond the limits that you pretend exist, then I promise you will be a greater player than you ever thought possible. But to do that, when nobody is watching or keeping score or recording your activities, is extremely difficult. Learning to motivate yourself, then, is one of the best things you can do to prepare for the next level.
Chances are, when you dream about what is coming next year, you see yourself on the court. This is an excellent goal and you should absolutely work towards it. There is a possibility, though, for many of you, that this will not be result in your first year. If this is the case and you still want to help your team then it is important to have the right mindset going into the season. The first thing to understand is that your coach’s job is to put out the best team possible. Since you chose which school you want to attend and for which coach you want to play, I am going to assume that means you respect the coach’s knowledge of the game. Therefore, if you are not on the court come September, your first assumption should be that the coach believes that the lineup that is out there is the best option. Whether or not you are playing, you need to understand that the most important thing is the team. If you are not in the starting lineup, then do everything you can to push your teammates in practice so that they are prepared for the games. Be the loudest one on the bench so that your teammates feel supported when they play. Never think that, just because you are not physically on the court, that what you do or how you act is insignificant. In fact, it might be the most important thing. Conversely, if you are on the court, it is still about the team. Recognize the efforts made by your teammates who are not playing and respect them by continuing to work hard at all times even if your spot is essentially guaranteed. If everyone in the program is truly working towards one common goal of being the best team possible then there should be very few interpersonal problems.
Finally, enjoy your last few days as a club player. Play hard and have fun. You want to enter college excited to play and learn, not jaded and burnt out. In order to work as hard as you need to as a college player, your motivations are going to have to come from the heart. You have to really love to play. So, before it’s time for college, figure out a balance between training hard and cultivating that love for the game. Because at the end of the day, all the training and workouts are just a means to an end, where the goal is to continue playing the game. I hope this all helps some of you prepare for the transition. I certainly was not perfect, and there are many other sources of advice to look towards who probably know more than I do. These are simply some of the things I have learned to be important in helping players come into college ready to be both a great player and a great teammate so that you can start contributing from day one.