Cultivating Confidence: The power of a coach's encouraging words
By Greg Bach
One of the key moments in professional beach volleyball player Amanda Dowdy’s youth sports journey occurred in the most unlikeliest of places: a sun-baked softball field in Texas.
It was there, during the summer months leading into fourth grade, that her experiences punctuated the immense influence a coach’s words and actions have on bolstering a child’s self-esteem and confidence.
Or jarring it.
Dowdy experienced the best and the worst of coaching during that summer, which began with spending the bulk of her season stuck on the bench.
“The coach wasn’t that supportive, and I never really got the opportunity to be out on the field with my friends,” she says. “I rode the bench a lot. He would always say ‘she’s one of the best athletes but she’s just not a softball player’ so I guess he just didn’t believe in developing softball players.”
Dowdy’s team didn’t qualify for the playoffs that season, but a league rule enabled postseason-bound teams to scoop two players off the rosters of teams who didn’t make it.
Dowdy was one of the players chosen.
And, thanks to being given a chance, she flourished.
“The team that I went to, this coach was so supportive and he was telling me ‘you can do this’ and ‘I’m going to teach you how to do this,'” Dowdy says. “It really opened up a whole new world for me and I started to build confidence in myself because of that encouragement.”
Fast forward to the tournament, where Dowdy got that coveted playing time and manned centerfield. “I was working through all these barriers of what I was told before of ‘you can’t do this’ and ‘you’re not good enough,’” she says.
And then she made the play.
On a well hit ball to centerfield she tracked it in the air, dove, and landed with the ball tucked safely in her glove.
“I was looking at my teammates and looking at my coach and everyone was so excited, and I could hear my mom in the stands,” she says. “It was that breakthrough moment for me that I could do this, and it was so exciting.”
Dowdy’s team went on to win the tournament.
And she was awarded the game ball.
“This was a pivotal point in my journey of building confidence as a young girl,” Dowdy says. “It sparked the hunger in me that if I work hard, I can do this. So that was a big moment for me.”
Plus, it’s a moment that never happens without playing for a caring coach who was committed to helping every player on the team grow and develop.
A LOVE OF SPORTS
Dowdy didn’t start playing volleyball until seventh grade at her school, as she was busy playing a bunch of other sports.
“I was a multi-sport athlete growing up,” she says. “I ended up falling in love with volleyball as a junior in high school.”
She went on to star at Texas Tech, where she quickly announced her arrival as a player to be reckoned with by claiming Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors. A four-year starter, she became the first player in school history to earn All Big 12 First Team honors twice in a career. Her name is scattered throughout the Texas Tech record books too, including as the all-time career kills leader in the rally scoring era and most kills in a match.
She went on to play professionally in Germany and Puerto Rico, and then made the switch to beach volleyball, where she was the 2014 AVP Newcomer of the Year and is a consistent top finisher on tour these days. She’ll be in action later this month when the AVP Tour resumes with the Hermosa Beach Open in California.
KEY TAKEAWAYS TO TEACH YOUNG ATHLETES
As coaches and parents of young volleyball players, use these tips from Dowdy on dealing with mistakes, being a good teammate, staying positive, and more.
Stay grounded: Even the best players on the planet like Dowdy make mistakes, so it’s all about not allowing one mistake to snowball into a bundle of them. “It’s important to remember that volleyball is a game of mistakes,” Dowdy says. “Without a doubt you are going to make errors throughout a volleyball match, so it’s learning how to master the ability to stay present and stay in the moment.” Her go-to move when a mistake occurs: “I’m a very passionate player,” she explains. “So to keep myself grounded and present in the moment I’ll pick up sand and kind of rub it in my hands, or I’ll reconnect with my teammate.” It takes a concerted effort – and coaches of kids should help them work on their mental routines in practice so that it’s a natural part of their game day mentality. “Every point is a new opportunity and that’s actually taken me quite a bit of time to learn,” Dowdy says. “And it’s something that has to be practiced. I don’t think it comes natural to anybody.”
Be a good teammate: Dowdy remembers her college volleyball days where if she would miss a kill how valuable it was to have teammates there to keep her positive. “My setter would always give me that second opportunity,” she explains. “If I hit one out of bounds or it got blocked, she would go right back to me just to give me that confidence. Part of being a good teammate is lifting each other up and believing in each other.”
Dialing up diversity: Dowdy is thankful that she played a variety of sports growing up, which proved to be so valuable once she settled on volleyball later in her teen years. “I played everything,” she says. “Up until my senior year of high school I was playing multiple sports. It’s huge – it’s great cross training and your body doesn’t get burned out and your mind doesn’t get burned out. Plus, you learn different skills that help in the sport that you end up specializing in, so it’s definitely important to let your kid be a kid and allow them to do multiple sports.”
Position primer: Dowdy encourages youth coaches to expose their players to all the positions – and the skills and responsibilities attached to them – rather than limiting them to one position which often happens. “It’s important that you develop the whole athlete and have them learn all the skills and how to really understand the game from every position,” she says. “That’s going to help their development into high school and help their overall knowledge of the game.”
Focus on the positive: It’s easy for athletes to get tangled up in negative thoughts, leading to unproductive and disappointing performances. “It’s so important to be positive and that's something that I have had to be really mindful of for myself, especially coming into my professional career,” Dowdy says. “It’s important to realize that both positive and negative thoughts are very contagious so where do you want to spend your energy? I recognized when I am focused on the positives I’m performing better, I’m enjoying what I am doing, I’m building myself and I’m getting better because that’s where all my energy and my thoughts are going.”
You can follow Dowdy on Instagram and Twitter.
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Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance