Labor of Love: The Nation's Top High School Volleyball Coach on Building Better Team Culture

Jennifer Darty, the 2018-2019 NHSCA Volleyball Coach of the Year, reveals how she strives to put her players in the best position for success.

Oviedo volleyball was under pressure.

Entering the 2018 season, their roster included five returning starters from a team that finished 25-4 a year prior. Quite frankly, anything less than a state title would be a bit of a letdown. When expectations soar so high, the pressure can be crushing. Fun can become secondary to results, and teams can crumble under the weight of it all. Instead of exacerbating the issue by making the team's focus "perfection" or "domination," Oviedo head coach Jennifer Darty chose a different theme—love.

"Every year, we kind of have a theme or something we're really focused and locked in on. This year, that theme was love," says Darty, who was named the 2018-2019 Volleyball Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association. "We talked a lot about it. The love for your teammates, the love for the game, the love for competition, the love for your school. The love of every moment and opportunity you have in front of you. Because so often, they've been playing this sport for a while, so it's easy to go through the motions and forget that they have a really incredible opportunity.

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Oviedo volleyball was under pressure.

Entering the 2018 season, their roster included five returning starters from a team that finished 25-4 a year prior. Quite frankly, anything less than a state title would be a bit of a letdown. When expectations soar so high, the pressure can be crushing. Fun can become secondary to results, and teams can crumble under the weight of it all. Instead of exacerbating the issue by making the team's focus "perfection" or "domination," Oviedo head coach Jennifer Darty chose a different theme—love.

"Every year, we kind of have a theme or something we're really focused and locked in on. This year, that theme was love," says Darty, who was named the 2018-2019 Volleyball Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association. "We talked a lot about it. The love for your teammates, the love for the game, the love for competition, the love for your school. The love of every moment and opportunity you have in front of you. Because so often, they've been playing this sport for a while, so it's easy to go through the motions and forget that they have a really incredible opportunity.

"I printed a heart on the sleeve of all their warm-ups and all their jerseys as a little reminder of (that) and to play with their heart on their sleeves and pour it all out there."

But don't let the hearts fool you—there's nothing soft about Oviedo volleyball. Darty runs a tight ship, and the players are extremely well-trained. Competition permeates the program, as even warm-up drills are often structured in such a way that there are winners and losers. Practices are planned so players get as many game-like touches as possible.

"Usually my kids say practice is tough and they leave pretty exhausted, both mentally and physically. I think that's a good thing," Darty says. "I want them to be challenged throughout practice so when we get to a game, they're prepared for every situation and they've been through the grind and the hard stuff, to where the game is fun and they know they're prepared for every moment."

While the ultimate goal of a state title was in the back of everyone's minds last season, Darty ensured they never stopped celebrating the little victories. That culture helped the players stay locked in on improving each and every day.

"We've got a lot of celebration in our gym," Darty says. "We always celebrate the success. I'll praise them in the drill or in the practice or in the game at that moment. (Then) at the end of practice or a game, we continue it in our team talk, giving the girls an opportunity to share as well. That's another time to bring up who had a good day, who successfully accomplished a task or a drill, or whatever it (might be). But there's a lot of praise and a lot of celebration for little things along the way."

Darty knew she had a special team on her hands when she found her players holding one another to a high standard on and off the court, and doing it in the right ways.

"They hold themselves individually to a high standard, and they're not scared of holding each other accountable. Which is something that I'm so proud of, because it's not easy to get a group of teenagers to hold each other accountable without (someone) taking it too personally. They pushed each other to max level and they just refused to have anything less than anyone's best in anything—practice, games, anything," Darty says.

Oviedo came to the Florida Class 9A state tournament sporting a 23-4 record. To take home the hardware, they'd have to rattle off five consecutive victories. One loss, and their state title hopes would be dashed. Darty devised a tactic to help her team avoid the all-too-common trap of looking too far forward.

"It takes five matches to win the state tournament," Darty says. "When they got back to the locker room before the first game of the state tournament, I had put five rocks in their locker. Those rocks were meant to represent each game ahead of us and be something they could see, that they knew they were there and within reach. But they were only allowed to grab one rock at a time, (and) the ones left, had to remain in their locker. And with that one rock, they wrote one word of what they wanted to be that night. We focused more on 'to be' goals rather than 'to do' goals in those words. They focused on it and signed the back of the rock in a gold marker as kind of a symbolic thing."

"Then, before they exited the locker room to take the court, we had them put (that rock) in a jar. Once they put it in the jar, they were all in on that one rock for one game. They couldn't look ahead to the next game, or (the) next rock in their locker, until we accomplished what we wanted to do in the present. We took that jar and the rocks on the bus with us, they did it before we got off the bus when we were on the road, and it was a pretty special thing. That jar of rocks is still sitting in my office and it probably will for a long time."

Oviedo rampaged their way through the state tournament, losing just two sets on their way to the program's second state title. They last won it in 2013, also under Darty's guidance.

"It was kind of an unspoken thing that we were striving for a state championship. We all knew it was in the back of our mind, but we really didn't talk about it too much," Darty says. "Because you can't win a state title in August, you can only win it in November. So we didn't put too much emphasis on that this year. (Our) goals, it was mostly loving the game, loving our teammates. And being the best we can be."

Photo Credit: @OviedoVolleyball on Twitter

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Topics: LEADERSHIP | MOTIVATION | VOLLEYBALL | COACH | YOUTH SPORTS | HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS | VOLLEYBALL COACH