November 4, 2013
By Mike Killeen
You're a coach of a highly ranked team, and suddenly your team - while still winning - isn't having any fun and feeling pressure to win.
To break them out of their lethargy, you could:
A. Work them hard in practice;
B. Critique them by watching game films, or;
C. Make a team video.
The choice of College of Saint Benedict volleyball coach Nicole Hess? Try "C," making a video.
"Ever since that point in time - and hopefully this trend continues - we look so much more relaxed and we're having fun," said Hess, whose team finished the regular season 24-2 overall and ranked No. 7 in the most recent AVCA Division III volleyball poll. The Blazers begin the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference playoffs Tuesday, Nov. 5 against Hamline at Claire Lynch Hall.
Let's backtrack a little bit. On Oct. 2, the Blazers suffered a three-set loss to defending Division III national champion St. Thomas. Even though four wins followed in the next week - three at a tournament in Winona, Minn., and a conference victory over Bethel Oct. 9 - something wasn't right.
"I think if you would have asked anybody how we felt after that (Bethel) game, we were happy we got a win, but it just wasn't fun. You could really see the pressure," Hess said. "When my group is playing well, they are so much fun to watch. They bring a lot of emotion to the game, and they are jumping around and having fun.
"It was bugging me, and it was bugging our coaching staff," Hess said. "We - my assistant coaches and I - had conversations about what we wanted to do. We talked about it for a long time and then came up with this plan."
Their plan was to create a video based on a "hashtag" comedy skit night-late TV host Jimmy Fallon did with singer Justin Timberlake. After briefly watching a bit of video from the Bethel match where the coaching staff told the Blazers to concentrate on their body language and posture, they showed them the Fallon-Timberlake video and told the Blazers they had 30 minutes to come up with their own script.
"I think from a record standpoint, we probably would be very similar to where we are now. But I know that our players are enjoying it a whole lot more and I know our coaching staff is enjoying it a whole lot more," Hess said.
Since that loss to St. Thomas, the Blazers have won 10 games in a row. Included in that streak was a three-set win over Gustavus Oct. 19 - Hess' 150th career win since becoming a college head coach. She spent six seasons as head coach at St. Catherine University (2003-09) before coming to CSB for the 2010 season.
Hess was asked what she took away from the milestone.
"I think the first thing is it brings me back to when I started coaching at St. Kate's," Hess said. "I won a total of nine matches in the first three years, so to be sitting here now at 150 wins, I'm pretty proud of that, because at the time, I wasn't sure I was going to hit 20, let alone 100 or 150."
Hess, who was a four-year All-MIAC player at St. Olaf College, graduated in 2002. She then spent a year as an assistant coach at St. Thomas before taking the job at St. Kate's as a 23-year-old, coaching players she had competed against only two seasons earlier.
"That was an interesting year," Hess said. "You see people write letters to their younger selves. Back then, I thought it would be the easiest thing in the world. You just show up, teach them how to play volleyball and off you go. There were some things that were very enjoyable, but It was humbling and trying as well.
"The thing with coaching is that sometimes you have to go through some of those things to really figure it out, and I learned so much about myself - especially those first three years - than I have probably in most my life. I still have a lot to learn."
She's also thankful for her husband, Paul. "We were married right after college, and he endured those three-win seasons right along with me," Hess said. "We have three kids, and he brings them to everything. So I definitely would not be able to be in this profession without that."