Volleyball Tournament

Last Saturday was the company picnic and the culmination of all of the recent volleyball practice. Most of our team arrived at the picnic venue, a huge park at the foot of Mt. Si, as soon as it opened in order to start warming up and practicing our serves and passes one last time.

That’s me in the long-sleeved white T-shirt. I had just astonished myself by getting under a spiked ball and returning it over the net—though I didn’t manage to do that in an actual game.
Pretty soon the young volleyball-player officials took their posts and the tournament started. My knees felt weak with excitement and nervousness. Was I really doing this? Had I actually chosen to expose my shaky new skills and my tentative new enthusiasm to a group of acquaintances and strangers in a competition? Was I out of my mind?
During the first game, I was so overwhelmed at being involved in a volleyball tournament (even one that was only at a company picnic) that I had a lump in my throat the entire time. I felt happy, proud, thankful, and relieved to be able, finally, to participate in a team sport at a competent beginner level. And I felt vindicated. If sports in school had been better supervised, I would have been able to learn to play decently instead of cowering while others were too aggressive. I also felt an echo of sadness and embarrassment (as if back in school) at having been the one who was always the last picked for teams, at having somehow fallen into the role of a kid who was always humiliated during games. Of course, I wasn’t the only one, and I know now that it wasn’t my fault.
We lost the first match, which put us into a bracket with other losing teams. We practiced until it was time for the second match, which is now a bit of a blur; I think I sat out the first two games so that someone else could play, and the team won one game and lost the other. I played in the third game, which we won, taking the match and progressing to a match with another team.
Our opponents for the third match were raucous and edgy and intimidating, with a cheering section of men holding beer cups and singing songs. We beat them, and I felt good because a series of my serves had brought us from behind and into the lead by a point or two.
Speaking of serves, all week I had been practicing an overhand serve, but I could only make it about 75 percent consistent before the tournament. But some of our teammates had inconsistent serves too. So if I risked my overhand and missed, I wouldn’t be the only one who had ever flubbed a serve. I used the overhand serve several times in the tournament with about fifty percent success. When we were behind and I was tired, I used the underhand, which was reliable.
We would lose our fourth match and be eliminated from the tournament. Most of us were tired from being out in the sun, and probably mentally tired as well—I know I was. Our three most skilled players became more aggressive to try to compensate. This is one of the reasons I didn’t dig out any spiked balls in an actual game: in practice sessions with only a few of us on the court, I had a clear path to anticipate the spike and get under the ball. In matches, more aggressive players always lunged for the dig.
A challenge came up in the fourth match when I was in the position of setter (front center—the person who sets the ball up for the attacker). One of the most skilled players was in right center, a nice guy who I like and have enjoyed practicing with. He announced, right before a serve, that he was now the setter. I was speechless. Did he really just preemptively take my position? He did.
I decided to wait until my next turn as setter to say anything. Did I have a right to object, or should I back off? Would I be making a scene if I let him know what I wanted? The team had planned to play our rotating positions, and not specialize. I kept asking myself how I would feel if I passively let him take my position. It became clear to me that I truly wanted to play the setting position, because I felt that I was good at it and because I was entitled to.
When I rotated into front center again, I let the player know I wanted to set, because then I would know I have a purpose in the front center position. He agreed immediately. Still a little angry, I went on to say thank you, and I don’t think I’m all that bad at setting, if you don’t mind. He seemed surprised at my vehemence and was gracious about it. We had two unremarkable volleys and quickly rotated out of those positions. Later, between games, I told him I was sorry I might have overreacted. He smilingly brushed it off and I felt fine again.
I don’t really think I overreacted exactly, because the player should not have assumed it would be fine with me for him to take my position. I had been doing well as a setter. I apologized because I wanted to make sure he didn’t think I was so prickly as to be a lost cause as a teammate. Maybe it wasn’t necessary; maybe in a sports setting, little flare-ups come and go and don’t need to be mentioned. I don’t know. It’s not only playing the game that’s new to me, but also the “language,” or the accepted communication style.
Inexperienced players like myself aren’t the only ones who have more to learn about teamwork. Skilled players can learn to resist the urge to jump out of position to retrieve a ball that’s heading to someone like me. They can learn that when they get out of position, they don’t just diminish the fun for new players. They also are less likely to hit the ball accurately and are less prepared for the next volley. It would be much better to play strictly in position for as long as it takes to bring weaker players up to strength. Then the whole court would be full of competent players.
Even though the tournament is over, Tom and I and our teammates are looking forward to more practice sessions starting this Saturday. It seems I’m not alone in finding this to be an exhilarating new experience.

2 thoughts on “Volleyball Tournament”

  1. I’m one of those skilled players. I’ve found the best remedy is simply never to play competitively with non-skilled players.
    Because volleyball seems easy, what with all you have to do is hit the ball over the net – everyone thinks they can play, or at least play well enough.
    It is painful to watch. Rules are constantly broken, and the game rapidly degenerates. “But we’re just having fun,” the unskilled or less than skilled people say.
    Try going to a basketball court and playing a game of pick-up, but never dribble the ball.
    Play tennis, and count serves that hit the net.
    Go running, but catch a ride halfway through the race.
    Play baseball, but require the pitcher slow down his pitches so you can hit it.
    Same thing. Sorry if I sound like a jerk – but this is a pet peeve.

  2. Thanks for reading. What I’ve been doing is using practice sessions to learn to pass and set, etc. in order to play my position effectively, and I expect to be allowed to do that. I don’t like games in which everyone just tries to whack the ball over the net either.

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