Coaching Management, 14.11, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1411/qaburbridge.htm
When Amanda Burbridge finished her playing career at Arizona State University in 2001, she had set a single-season school record for kills with 599, had twice been named to the All-Pac-10 team, and was honored as a second-team AVCA All-American. A starter since her sophomore year, she had led the team in kills for three years running and is ranked third in school history in kills. But as her playing days drew to a close, she knew she wasn’t ready to leave the game yet.
Four years later, Burbridge was standing in the winner’s circle as the head coach of a high school team being crowned state champions for the first time in school history. Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., captured the state’s Class 5 Division II title in 2005 under Burbridge’s direction as a first-year head coach. She had served as the team’s assistant coach two years earlier, before leaving to pursue her master’s degree. When she returned to a teaching position at Desert Mountain, she found the head coaching position available as well.
A teacher of world history at Desert Mountain, Burbridge talks in this interview about her transition from the court to the sidelines, her learning curve as a new coach, and avoiding club-high school conflicts. She also discusses how she plans to capitalize on her team’s recent success, her approach to goal-setting, and the experience of losing a player to cancer.
CM: Desert Mountain won its first volleyball state championship last year. To what do you attribute the success?
Burbridge: It started three years ago with a little bit of luck. For most of its history, the program has struggled, winning one to four matches a year. In 2003, when I was an assistant coach, four very special freshmen came in, and they have literally taken the program to another level. They’re seniors this year. One has a full volleyball scholarship to the University of Nebraska, and another has a full ride to New Mexico State. A third is a two-sport athlete who has a softball scholarship, and I feel confident the fourth will have a volleyball scholarship soon.
With that core group graduating, how will you continue the team’s success?
When we talk to our younger players, we use our seniors as an example of what it takes to succeed: They take volleyball seriously, they are in peak physical condition, and they work hard outside of practice. They also knew early-on that they wanted to play at the next level, and we use that to show our younger kids that if they work hard, college volleyball can be an option for them, too.
We also encourage our team members to play outside of school and do extra physical training. Club participation and outside training and conditioning is a big part of the reason this team has been so successful.
When players are participating in both high school and club, how do you guard against burnout and overuse injuries?
I strongly encourage them to take the month between the two seasons completely off. I tell them not to look at a ball, touch a ball, or think about volleyball.
The reality is that volleyball has become so competitive that players who are able to participate outside of school are simply going to develop faster and get better than those who don’t—I’m not sure there is any way around that. A lot of getting better at volleyball is repetition. Those who play club get more ball contacts and more time on the court. Because club can be expensive, if I have a kid who wants to play but whose family can’t afford it, I help them find a club that is affordable or that offers some kind of scholarships.
Do you encourage your players to participate in more than one sport?
Definitely. However, those are also the kids I worry about when it comes to injuries and burnout. I went through this myself—I played softball and volleyball, and I had shoulder surgery as a senior in high school.
What was even more difficult for me than the injury was the conflict between club and high school sports. I remember once being forced to run five miles at a softball practice because I had missed practice for a volleyball tournament. It was very difficult to handle that as a high school student.
How do you approach those conflicts with your players?
I am the first one to give in. I will never punish a kid or make her choose. If there is a conflict, we talk about it and try to find a compromise. Maybe she can do half with us and half with them. Or if the other sport is her primary sport, I will just bow out.
I know that is not the way a lot of high school coaches handle it, but that’s how I handle it, because I don’t want to make them choose the way I was forced to choose by my softball coach. Ultimately, I chose the sport that didn’t penalize me for trying to do both.
What was it like to transition from being a celebrated college player to being a novice coach?
There was a little bit of an identity crisis. I saw myself for so long as primarily a volleyball player and an athlete. After college, a lot of my friends got married, had kids, and moved on with life. I was not ready to leave volleyball. I love it too much.
But I realized I had lost the desire to be coached. I was playing on a team after college, and I thought, “I just don’t like this drill” or “I don’t think this coach is teaching this skill correctly,” and I realized it was time to step away as a player. At the same time, my coaching side was developing. I looked at my teammates and thought, “I could fix this kid!”
Also, I’d had such dynamic coaches that I wanted to give back some of what I had been given. But it took a little while to figure out how to be a coach and not a player. At first when I watched my players, I wanted to just get out there and do it for them.
Did players or parents question your youth and inexperience?
Yes. When I first started coaching, a parent said to me, “You know, just because you were a good player doesn’t mean you’ll make a good coach.” I said, “That’s valid. But give me a chance.” I think it helps to acknowledge that you’re new, that you’re going to be learning.
I needed to focus on having confidence in myself and not worrying too much about what other people were thinking. I believed my biggest asset was that even though I hadn’t coached, I’d had so many coaches—good and bad—that I knew a lot about what kind of coach I wanted to be. For example, I had one softball coach who was extremely aggressive. He made great athletes out of us and we won junior nationals. But I knew that was not the kind of coach I wanted to be. It worked, but it made me feel terrible.
On the other hand, I had a phenomenal volleyball coach who never yelled. He was extremely patient and focused on the technical side of the game. If the ball did what I wanted it to do, but my footwork was wrong, he’d have me do it again until I got it right. That is a big part of my own philosophy now: If my players have flawless fundamentals, they will be prepared to take the next step, and I’ll have done my job.
You coach Arizona’s top player, Tara Mueller, who recently made the cover of Volleyball Magazine. What is it like to have such a celebrated player on the team?
It’s interesting. I make sure I don’t treat her any differently. She works hard, is a sweet, funny kid, and definitely doesn’t have a big head. So it’s more that I have to look out for her, actually. She was injured this fall, and reporters were asking her a lot of questions. I took that opportunity to call a team meeting and talk to all my players about dealing with the media. I reminded them to remain positive, and that if they don’t understand a question, they can ask to have it rephrased. I told them they can politely decline to answer questions if they prefer. We also went over good answers to certain stock questions.
Last year, you lost a player, Ashley Anderson, to cancer. How did you handle that?
Many of my players had gone to school with Ashley since kindergarten. The day it happened, I made sure they were all together. It was a school day, so once we found out, we got them all into a room. There was a lot of hugging, and not a lot of words. My job was primarily to hold them and allow them to cry together.
In the following months, I focused on just being there for them, listening to them, and encouraging them to talk about her and share their memories. In the spring, I put together a dodgeball tournament in her honor, and that ended up being a great thing for our team and her parents. It gave her mom a way to celebrate Ashley’s life and connect with her daughter’s friends. We did it as a fundraiser and split the proceeds between our team and a children’s hospital.
Then this year, we continue to do things to celebrate Ashley and keep her close, especially as her class plays its senior year. We have her name on our T-shirt, and while we can’t officially retire her number, no one wears it.
What do you tell your players in pre-game speeches?
First, we talk about what we know about our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Then I have them tell me three very specific things they are going to work on as a team during the game. Last, I have each player pick one thing they are personally going to work. I say, “I don’t want to know what it is. That is your personal goal, just for you.”
With a lot of your current athletes getting scholarships, do you encounter parents who think their children have NCAA Division I potential when they don’t?
Yes, and that is very hard. In those situations, I try to get them to broaden their perspective. I tell them, “There are so many places your child can play volleyball around the nation. D-I is not all there is. There is also D-II, D-III, and NAIA.” I try to get them to think about academic scholarships. I believe if a kid really wants it, there is a place for her and there is money. They just have to be willing to take their eyes off Division I.
How do you approach team goal setting?
The girls make the goals. We get together and make a commitment poster. It lists all of the goals they have for the season and what they pledge to do to reach them. This year, repeating our state championship is the big goal. Some of the commitments are to keep their grades up, manage their time well, work hard in every practice, not hesitate on the court, and maintain an even energy level during matches.
The poster hangs in the locker room, and I definitely use it when I see things faltering. I remind them of the promises they made to each other and to me.
What are your goals for yourself?
To make sure the game is always enjoyable for them and for myself. My biggest goal is to teach them to love the game the way I do, whether we win or lose. Winning is great, but mostly I enjoy the relationships and watching the kids succeed. Seeing a player get something in a match that she has been struggling with in practice—that is the high point for me. If I can grow as a coach and keep that perspective, I’ll be on the right track.