This Seems Like It's Learning?
Don Flora has brought a different approach to the Red Raiders.
Sept. 13, 2011
by Jody Roginson
It feels more like a classroom than a practice gym. There's a white board with a daily syllabus and words like "cognizant" flow freely during lectures.
The lab section of this course involves repetition of tasks that coaches hope will become imprinted in muscle memory which will allow players to more efficiently process information that is happening in real time. There are quizzes in the form of specific drills that put each player in competitive circumstances they will face under real-time pressure. And all the tests are open, meaning the public is invited to watch, evaluate and cheer as these students perform in real time.
Real time. Like during a volleyball match.
When Texas Tech hired Don Flora as the eighth head coach of its volleyball program in January 2011, then Athletics Director Gerald Myers noted that in an extremely talented pool of applicants what set Flora apart was the fact that he himself was committed to learning. To develop as a coach, Flora sought out the greatest minds available to him and petitioned them either as mentors, coaches or friends, and then honed his philosophy and coaching technique by synthesizing all the information he gleaned from a life-time of that counsel and of loving his sport.
Born the son of a pair of coaches and educators, he grew up with strong female influences like his mother, aunt and sister. Flora himself competed in a number of different sports, football, basketball and tennis included. But, a product of Southern California, where volleyball is as proliferate as a beach, he found he thrived playing that sport. In his words, volleyball is the perfect blend of grace and power where nothing in sports feels quite as satisfying as "crushing the coconut" and then celebrating with that team of six who are on the floor. It is where he finds the "pitter-pat" of his heart.
What Flora inherited when he was hired was a Texas Tech Volleyball program which had a proud tradition of success -a total of 15 postseason trips from 1975 to 2001-but which had struggled mightily over the decade anyone matriculating on campus today can remember. The reasons for the struggles are multiple and include such phenomena as bad luck. While others saw a black hole, the new coach saw an exciting puzzle with nearly all the pieces in place: a young assistant coach with passion for the sport, the region and the team; an administrative staff with business acumen and a passion for the university itself; and a team of players who possessed leadership, raw talent, and, perhaps most significantly, the willingness to learn. He added a coach to his staff- one with an impressive head coaching resume of his own- in Jojit Coronel, who brought with him a reputation as an intensely smart competitor, both as a player and as a coach. The combination of personality styles and skills that his staff possess frame the team like corner pieces of that puzzle, and the common denominator seems to be educating.
When you ask a group of academicians who have been cited as favorite teachers by student-athletes, how they have developed their teaching styles to become successful, their responses are notably similar to what the students will tell you has been their best experiences with learning.
Brian Shannon, Professor in the Texas Tech School of Law and the Faculty Athletics Representative for the department, says: "I try to break down complex issues into more understandable subparts, and to use storytelling and numerous real-world examples to illustrate points."
Sophomore Sheridan Burgess remembers, "My toughest class [statistics] was very fast paced. The instructor made it somewhat easier by the way he presented the information. He'd go over it numerous times and if he felt like we didn't comprehend the material, or if someone asked him to explain, he'd go over it again in a very clear and detailed manner."
"For me, Spanish was a real headache! The teachers I had helped when they related a word to something I could remember easily in English," freshman Nicole Hragyil said recently, while freshman teammate Amy Rose noted that her trigonometry instructor, "would go over examples step-by-step so that we learned each piece to solve the puzzle."
While Flora and his staff insist his players stretch their vocabulary at times, he also offers his team ample opportunity for questions each time a new wrinkle is added to a drill or exercise.
Dr. Aretha Marbley, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Leadership, explains the key for her is all about relating to the person. "Relationship would be the one factor that has helped me better reach my students. From a cultural perspective, my experience has been sharing personal life-altering stories and those of my peers of lessons learned, etc., to allow my students an opportunity to know me. Consequently, they in turn are more willing to open up and take a risk and share of themselves with me. In other words, they are more willing to enter into a relationship as opposed to just stepping into a classroom or textbook."
"During one of my toughest classes, I realized that to succeed I had to come in extra because I am more of a hands-on learner. My instructor took the time to help me study with more practical examples and I learned that practice makes perfect, not only in math but in pretty much everything in daily life," freshman Sam Podraza noted.
One of the first things Flora did after arriving on campus in January was to reach out to each of the returning players to get to know them and to begin to understand who they were and how he might be able to help them reach their goals as people, as athletes and as students. Spring practices with those players yielded immediate results. Incoming players were treated similarly when they arrived on campus as the season began in August.
And what defines a good student?
Dr. Martha Smithey, Associate Professor of Sociology, notes that more than intellect and intelligence combine in the learning process. "A good student is one who believes in something and when the course material addresses that belief, the learning and enthusiasm flourishes. A student who believes in something has priorities and lives by them."
Dr. Lauren Gollahon, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Services, adds, "An exceptional student is one who not only demonstrates the stereotypic traits associated with excellence (discipline, diligence, reliability, an obvious desire to learn), but also the courage to take risks and think outside the proverbial box."
Don Flora, his staff and his team seem to be capturing every part of the academic fabric that surrounds the very best notion of being a student-athlete at an institution of higher learning. There are careful outlines for each practice, there are thoughtful examples that illustrate concepts in different ways, there are plenty of opportunities for repetition and there are expectations for each individual and for the team. There is immediate feedback on each step in the process and there is encouragement when even extraordinary effort doesn't yield perfect results.
"Good job on six of the seven things that it took to make that hit happen!" Flora bellowed after junior opposite-side hitter Miara Cave pounded the volleyball so hard that it made an impressive thud on the United Spirit Arena floor recently at practice. But the ball was hit out of bounds.
"Your read on the ball was perfect, the transitioning, positioning, footwork, timing and approach were dead on. There was one last step in the process that we can easily fix. You got six of those very complicated seven steps exactly right. You need to celebrate that success!" he finished as the returning player grinned and then went back to work.
In scholastic endeavors there are measures to success that we call grades. In sports there is a measure to success that we call the record.
The 2011 Texas Tech Volleyball team is currently 9-1 on the season with two tournament wins under its belt.
Cave was named the Most Valuable Player of the Louisiana Tech Invitational tournament after hitting for a staggering .421 average (which measures effectiveness and accuracy at a position where .300 is exceptional) in the final game of the event.
Yes, there is learning going on in this classroom.