Cabrini athletes build leadership, ‘followership’

By Beth Donze

Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the acronym “GRIT”– Greatness Requires Internal Toughness – incoming and veteran members of Cabrini High’s volleyball team momentarily interrupted their summer break to work out their bodies and spirits inside their home gym July 21-22.

More than 30 volleyball players – everyone from incoming eighth-graders to senior members of the varsity team – took part in a “Strive” leadership retreat that combined routine practice drills with pointers on goal-setting, team-building and how to become more resilient and prepared for games, especially in intense situations.

On the retreat’s concluding day, the athletes’ parents accompanied their daughters to receive the same information, so the strategies could be reinforced at home.

First teachers brought in

“No matter what we do here at school or in our gym, the girls go home to their parents,” said Kasey Laird-Dennies, Cabrini’s third-year volleyball coach. “If they’re not hearing the same thing across the board, they’re getting mixed messages. We’re all pushing towards one goal,” the coach said, sharing her mission of coaching “the whole athlete.” She expects her players to be great students, leaders and people, as well as athletes.

“Yes, winning is always a goal,” Laird-Dennies said. “But my goal as a coach is to always develop these young ladies into women of character, integrity, empathy – all the things that make a great adult. That’s my job and their parents’ job, as well. We’re all fighting for them to become these types of women.”

Gauging ‘fuel tanks’ critical

Raven Scott, the retreat’s facilitator and a former college volleyball player herself, began by showing the student-athletes and their parents the “Cabrini Crescent” school logo and asking the teens what the symbol meant to them. Their responses included education, sisterhood, family, love, excellence, pride and respect.

“Every time you wear the Crescent (jersey), you have to exemplify what you want other people to see when you wear it,” Scott said.

But what are actions that can help athletes live up to their school’s spirit?

One concrete way to build this culture of excellence is to continually be on the lookout for when a teammate’s “fuel tank” is running low – when she seems unhappy, distracted or tired –  and then help the teammate “fill the tank.”

For example, someone might arrive at school with drained tank due to lack of sleep, skipping breakfast or a family disagreement. Or perhaps she might be downcast because she feels guilty about making fun of a fellow player, or was ignored by someone.

“It does no good if everyone in the team has a low tank. How can we change it?”  asked Scott, sharing easy ways such as offering encouragement, listening more intently,

The volleyball players and their parents take part in a team-building exercise – a Paper, Scissors, Rock competition in which the adults continued to cheer on athletes they didn’t know as the field of contestants narrowed to two.

being inclusive or simply smiling.

Adopt a ‘growth mindset’

One helpful strategy the athletes were taught was a “self-talk” technique Scott called “the power of yet.” For example, instead of having the fixed mindset of “I’m not good at that,” be the person who says, “I’m not good at that … yet.”

Scott observed that people who feel they are “as good as they are going to get” at a given skill tend to become easily frustrated and threatened by others, whereas those who adopt a “growth mindset” embrace challenges, continue to try when things get difficult, welcome constructive criticism and are inspired by others’ successes.

So instead of saying “This is too hard,” say, “This could take time and effort.” Rather than thinking, “I’ll never be as smart or as good a player as she is,” say, “I’m going to figure out how she does it so I can try it, too.”

Need leaders and followers

The student-athletes also considered what a good teammate “looks like,” listing attributes such as a player who is motivational, unselfish, encouraging, pushes others to their limits, respectful and accountable for her actions, both on and off the court.

“We’re in practice every day but we might not play every day,” Scott noted.

Those sitting on the bench can be good teammates by learning “followership” – striving to be the one who rallies the team, incites others to listen to the coach and gently yet firmly corrects those who might be undermining the team’s spirit.

“So, practicing followership is really practicing leadership,” Scott said.

Cabrini volleyball players create a reminder of the leadership retreat: a construction paper “fuel tank” with a moveable arrow  that can be pointed to the owner’s corresponding energy level.

Specific, monitored goals

Scott also urged the student-athletes to share their personal and volleyball-related goals with their coach, parents and good friends – and then deputize these people to monitor their progress in meeting those goals. One suggestion was to tape the list of goals prominently to a mirror at home or inside a school locker.

Goals also should be specific, Scott advised. So instead of simply striving to become “a better basketball player,” your goal might be to dribble the ball up and down the court twice using your weaker hand, or practicing your serve 20 extra times on Monday.

Or if your beginning-of-the-school-year goal is to meet new people, check your progress at Thanksgiving by making a list of the people you introduced yourself to and had a conversation with.

Be ‘all ears’

All people, especially young people, have a deep desire for others to hear their stories, Scott observed.

“It engenders trust when people have their stories listened to, but most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” she said.

Scott challenged the volleyball players to practice active listening by focusing “almost 100 percent” of their attention on the things they could control, while disregarding the things they are powerless to change. For example, a volleyball player may not be able to control how long she is on the court, where the setter sends the ball, the noise in the gym or the referees, but she can control factors such as the amount of extra practice time she puts in, reporting to the game with all her gear, having her feet ready on the court, calling the ball and what she ate before the game, Scott said. During the game, she can listen intently to every direction.

Parents cheer on the teenage volleyball players during the Paper, Scissors, Rock contest. The exercise was designed to illustrate the importance of team spirit, no matter what six girls are on court at a given time.

All can contribute to success

“They come out of this experience walking a little taller, having a little more self-confidence in themselves and their team,” said Laird-Dennies, hailing the summer retreat as a wonderful way for her incoming eighth graders to meet seniors and have their “rookie” voices heard before school even starts.

“Just having your voice heard is a huge team-builder,” Laird-Dennies notes.

Laird-Dennies’ teaching of the “whole athlete” also includes engaging them in service. Last month, her players prepared and served lunch to 150 homeless individuals at the St. Jude Community Center. They also attend Mass as a team, pray together and serve their parents lunch at events such as the recent retreat.

“It’s like one big happy family!” said incoming eighth grader Raelyn Mornay. “I should cheer my teammates and motivate them more – I’m doing that already, but I could always do it more.”

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Beth Donze can be reached at

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