Of Practice

I hold that a man should be cautious in making an estimate of himself—whether he rates himself high or low makes no difference. . . . To say less of yourself than is true is stupidity, not modesty. . . . To say more of yourself than is true is not always presumption; it too is often stupidity. . . . No particular quality will make a man proud who balances it against the many weaknesses and imperfections that are also in him.
MONTAIGNE, “OF PRACTICE”

Tuesday and Thursday evenings after dinner, I gather my daughters and their friends at the park, set up the net, toss out the balls, and teach them the basics of serving and bumping and setting and, recently, spiking. For some this is habit, and their skills are quite refined for their ages, but for others it is a first encounter with volleyball, and they struggle to train their bodies to crouch and their legs to propel them and their arms to stay together and not to swing. The drills are sometimes tedious in their repetitiveness, but all the girls are eager and teachable, and every simple volley elicits their joyous cheers, as well as mine. We play until the wind whips up with the fading light of day.

I myself learned volleyball relatively late in life, having caught the bug from my friend Chris Petitto, who ran an all-night charity fundraiser tournament during high school. We gathered our tall friends from the track team, took second place my junior year, won the next, and bought portable nets and professional balls to play doubles all summer in my backyard. Concurrently with this long-term mania, I graduated and went off to Notre Dame, where I tried out for the men’s volleyball team and failed to make the cut. A kindly pe teacher there allowed me to attend all her volleyball classes throughout the day and across the semester, and my old high school added girls’ volleyball for the first time in its history, hiring a cagey old stork of a baller named Pat Hall to coach the players, including my sister. My mother mentioned to him my budding interest, and that summer, when I was home, he took me to the beach and drilled me at the park with all the basic, uncomfortable skills until they felt comfortable and we began winning Band then A-level tournaments, and in the fall I tried out again and made the Notre Dame team.

From then on I majored in volleyball, keeping my knee pads in my backpack and playing every chance I got, not only with the team three nights a week and at matches and tournaments, but on the quad whenever the weather was nice, and at home all summer, with friends and Coach Hall, in my backyard, at the local school, on the beach. Although I sat on the bench my entire sophomore year, the incessant, callous drilling at the hands of the coach and the goading from my teammates molded me into a more aggressive, better skilled player, who could use his height and jumping ability quite well. By my junior year I was a starter and able to cover three different positions when necessary (primarily I played opposite, but also outside and middle), and I contributed to a successful team ranked nationally among all collegiate club teams. My senior year I was the team’s president and captain. Each year we flew or drove to collegiate club nationals, where we tended to do well, though never as well as we’d hoped. I dreamed of playing beyond college, perhaps professionally, as my teammate Brian Ceponis did in Norway, or on the beach, taking to the next level what I’d been doing all summer already.

Thanks primarily to Malcolm Gladwell, most of us are aware of K. Anders Ericsson’s “ten-thousand-hour rule,” which states, basically, that to become expert in an endeavor, a person must put in about ten thousand hours honing the skill. In addition to citing the research, Gladwell refers to the Beatles’ years playing steady gigs in Hamburg and Bill Gates’s precocious computer programming to anecdotally prove the point….

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