Stanford volleyball: Hambly bringing a unique approach to Palo Alto
Every day, the members of Stanford’s women’s volleyball team take three surveys. The first is early in the morning. The players are asked to summarize their sleep (good or restless?) and then to preview their day: How stressful do you think today is going to be? Is it academic stress or personal stress?
Then the day begins, and when the Cardinal reconvene for practice, a second survey is issued: How did your day go? Was it as stressful as you thought it might be?
After practice, the final survey is given: How was practice? Was it too intense? Did you like the drills? And most importantly: How do you feel?
Kevin Hambly has been developing this system of surveys for years. He used it when he was the women’s volleyball coach at Illinois, winning 163 games in eight years, and he’s using it in his first season at Stanford.
To Hambly, it makes perfect sense. His job isn’t just to field a winning volleyball team, but to field a successful group of human beings.
“We want to have a sense of how they’re doing,” Hambly said. “Our job here is to make sure they’re having a great experience, and make sure they’re managing all the things that are going on in their lives.”
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Hambly’s staff distills these surveys, measuring the players’ anticipated stress in the first survey and comparing it with their realized stress in the second. If the staff notices a big gap in the two answers, Hambly knows he should ask that player how she’s doing while she’s warming up.
“I try to connect with every player, every day, some kind of conversation,” Hambly said. “But if it can be a real interaction, and it’s about something I can help them with, that’s more valuable for both of us.
“Some student athletes aren’t ready to have that conversation and say, ‘Hey, look, I’m struggling,’ or, ‘I had a rough day.’ They’re not going to walk in the gym and tell me that. They might be worried about how I’m going to respond.
“But we can show we’re actually responding when asking ‘How can I help you?’ When they say, ‘It was just a rough day at school. I got hit with an unexpected quiz that I bombed,’ I can say, ‘Oh, alright, if you need help, I’m here.’ Or if something really bad happened, I can say, ‘Hey, go take care of that. Get out of here. Get out of the gym. It’s OK to do that.’”
At least once every two weeks, Hambly also asks each player to his office for a one-on-one conversation about something — anything — other than volleyball.
“I want to know how they’re doing, how school’s going, what are your relationships like,” Hambly said. “Just life stuff.”
He’s also interested in their relationships with each other. During the preseason, he’s asked his athletes to break up into rotating groups of three and go out to dinner, with four rules:
1. Go to a restaurant with no TVs
2. Put cell phones away
3. Face each other
4. Stay for at least an hour
It’s a decidedly antiquated approach to meal time.
“What happens in those conversations is, the first 20 minutes you get the questions like, ‘How many kids are in your family? Where are you from? How was high school?’ and it’s all a bunch of small talk,” Hambly said. “Then you’re sitting there, and then there’s an awkward silence. And then you start to talk about some things.”
Sophomore setter Jenna Gray said she's a big fan of the required hang-out time.
“I’ve had really, really great dinners with upperclassmen, and also the freshmen, just talking with them for a while and getting to know them,” Gray said.
Hambly said he thinks there is value in the art of conversation, both between teammates who have to communicate in games, and between human beings.
“I see families at tables at restaurants, and they’re all on their phones,” Hambly said. “And I just ... it’s not how I want to live. If I can have some influence on some of these players and say, ‘Hey, there’s a different way to live than always being stuck to your phone,’ and they can actually enjoy their time, maybe that’s another little part of it.”
It’s the extra special touches that make a coach great, and that's part of the reason why Hambly, widely regarded as one of the best in the country, landed the Stanford gig in late January.
Welcome to The Farm Coach Hambly! https://t.co/DhqmUcdWrg— Stanford Volleyball (@StanfordWVB) January 30, 2017
“I was worried it might be a little too into their lives, a little too intrusive, but as we started to do it, I think they appreciate we care about them,” Hambly said.
It turns out they do.
“He’s brought in a lot of stuff about our physical health, and the meetings with us, and also just caring a lot about our interactions with each other,” Gray said. “We fill out the surveys about how we’re feeling physically. We meet with him about our personal lives.”
Senior opposite Merete Lutz agreed. She appreciates Hambly treating them like people first, asking about things that aren't volleyball schemes and statistics.
“He wants to get to know us, because we weren’t his recruits,” Lutz said. “The conversations we’ve had together aren’t about volleyball, they’re about ourselves, and himself, and what he’s gone through. It’s been really cool.”
For Hambly, it’s also practical.
“A lot of it is about what you do with the information and how you use it,” Hambly said. “I’ll walk up to a player and say, ‘Hey, you had a rough day, what’s going on?’ They’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re actually paying attention.’ Well yeah, I wouldn’t just ask it to ask it. I’m not going to waste your time and my time.”
Stanford won its seventh title last season, the third under John Dunning, who coached the Cardinal for 16 years. Dunning won 888 games in his 32-year career, 451 at Stanford, before stepping down in January.
Enter Hambly, who now has to figure out how to sustain the success while answering questions about repeating as champions with a team he didn’t even lead to the title.
Hambly and his players are looking at the change in eras as an advantage. The Cardinal aren’t spending too much time on last year’s accomplishments.
“When you win one championship, and the next year there’s lots of talk about repeating, obviously lots of people get stuck in the pattern of wanting to do the same thing,” Lutz said. “But what’s unique about our team is so much has changed, and so many people have been switched out. We lost three girls who played this past year. So I don’t think it’s the same team, and I don’t think we’ll fall into the trap of wanting to do the exact same thing because so much is different.”
Hambly emphasizes they aren’t running from the championship. After all, he says with a chuckle, there’s a giant mural in the gym reminding the team of the title each day.
Luckily, amid all the changes, the Cardinal return some bona fide stars, including Gray and Lutz, as well as First Team All-American and Freshman of the Year Kathryn Plummer.
Stanford notched a No. 2 ranking in the AVCA preseason coaches’ poll, behind last year’s national runner-up Texas.
As they are every year, the expectations of Stanford volleyball this season are clear: a national championship.
“Win or lose, you have to reinvent your team every year,” Hambly said. “It’s a different team. I think if I’d been here, I’d have the same approach, looking at it like a unique season with its unique problems and its unique dynamics. But the expectations don’t change.”
After a whirlwind seven months transitioning from the Midwest to the West Coast, teaching new players new methods and plotting his next steps, Hambly finally feels settled with the season just around the corner. He’s a Stanford guy now. That’s the reality of his situation. And he likes his reality.
“This feels like home,” Hambly said. “I would say that for a while it didn’t, necessarily. It felt like I was trying to sort through it all, and my family wasn’t here, and all of that. But now it feels like home. I love it. I love Stanford. I love what it means, what they’re about, being in Palo Alto. I love all of it. It feels very much like home right now."