My left arm swung at a perfect arch, tracing the movement of a clock face, just passing the 10 o’clock mark. It’s in that moment that I realized several things:
The set had been off, but my step forward before the jump compensated, precisely.
My jump was perfectly timed, giving me an altitude and angle better than I could have hoped.
The volleyball would reach the peak of the arch just as my hand made contact, with a hell of a lot of force.
The spike would be unblockable, or close enough not to matter.
And, I realized one thing more…
The plan was absolutely perfect for “Net Sports,” an after-school/extracurricular “class” where I “teach” tennis, badminton, and volleyball. I had researched drills and warm-ups precisely geared toward turning my students into Olympic-class athletes. I was good-to-go for a great day of training.
While the students didn’t say anything about it as they walked into the gym, I could feel it in the air: hours of school are demanding for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade boys—especially on Mondays.
“Hey, Ok guys. So, we’ll just start setting the ball around the circle.” Umm… Hello?! Can anyone hear me—we’re starting. “Gentlemen, stop shooting hoops with the volleyball.”
“Right, Ok. If you can, try to set the ball. Remember to use your fingers. Control rather than power.” Oh come on. It’s not a contest to see how far you can hit it—Are you even listening?
“It’s good you passed it to him, but try not to catch the ball and throw it.” Man, he’s not even trying.
“HEY! Hey… It’s a volleyball, not a dodgeball. Gentlemen, let’s tone down pegging each other.” Please calm down. The last thing I’m in the mood for is breaking up a fight.
“So, when you are ready, go ahead and transition to either a set or a bump… Ok. Nice, now we’re getting the hang of it. Good.” OK—we’re back on track, finally.
“Around the circle please. Hey, HEY! Let’s pass it so everyone gets a turn. Not just you two.” And, of course, now we’ve lost it. In a last-ditch effort, I decide to abandon the drills and start a game.
“That’s in. Nice hit… Their serve. Go ahead and send it back.”
“Yo. This is…” And he mumbled off, chunking the ball as hard as he could at the back of the gym. I had a strong feeling that I knew what he said, but I was out of the energy or patience needed to argue over another call. So, I let it lie and moved on.
A few serves and a few hits later, I had to make another call: “Ok. That’s back to us. A carry. Remember, in volleyball we can’t catch and throw the ball.”
“I didn’t catch it! Nah, that’s our point.” At the net, the boy yelled that we were cheating—though, he had clearly caught and dunked the ball over. A student on my side stepped up to the net to argue.
Face to face, the net dividing them, it was only a matter of time before one pushed the other—I could see it all about to happen. Damn, this wasn’t how today was supposed to go.
Thankfully, the smack of contact from a serve echoes. The ball flies over the net. The arguing pauses, and the ball is returned. And then… my chance to regain the situation, to prove myself.
I launch myself towards the ball, and everything is perfect for one hell of a spike. The jump is precisely timed. The ball slows at the peak. My arm swings in full force.
But, I realize something… I’m in perfect position for a hard spike. I’m about to show them how it’s done, show them I know volleyball. But maybe, the game isn’t the reason the boys are upset and misbehaving. Maybe, it’s not about my calls or even about volleyball. Maybe, that’s not why I’m here.
I slow my arm’s acceleration and pull my fingers forward to soften the hit. I make contact, and the ball gently sails upward rather than towards the ground like a comet.
The volleyball is returned, it goes back and forth, and eventually someone scores. The game continues, the arguing comes and goes. But, something’s different: it’s not about me.
It’s not about my game calls, or the frustration or arguing that follows each of them. It stops even being about volleyball, or the way the game frequently devolves into some hybrid version of basketball crossed with dodgeball. It stops being about me proving myself, or teaching something, or even trying to enforce my plan. It starts being about them.
I forget it far too often, but my being there at the school has nothing to do with volleyball or me. It’s about them, and it’s about how much Mondays and some days just suck. It’s about the energy, exhaustion, and frustration of being in class all day.
With my spike that almost-but-didn’t happen, I turned the day over to them—to whatever they needed it to be. Because maybe, just maybe, serving others isn’t about the perfect spike, amazing volleyball, spectacular planning, or even proving myself. Maybe I serve them, not by spiking the ball but by giving them the day.
The cover image, by Flickr user kyle post, can be found here.