A Personal Insight into David Zelenock’s Volleyball Program
Would you take on the challenge of turning around a team that has placed last in its conference three years in a row? Turning a team around is no easy task, yet just two years into his tenure, first-time Head Coach David Zelenock took Tennessee Tech’s Volleyball Program from 12th into the top four. We asked Coach Zelenock what has been key to this transformation.
Underpinning David’s success is his holistic approach to coaching. The Zelenock Coaching Philosophy focuses on all areas of his student-athletes’ development, not only the on-court tactics. In doing so, David executes one of the fundamental elements to success in the sporting environment; maintaining great coach-athlete relationships.
“I think our role is to help improve the people who want it. So if a player needs help with academics we teach them study skills and time management. If they have money trouble I sit down and help them build a budget. As college coaches we are kind of their parent version 2.0.”
David has a unique approach to leadership. He sees every student-athlete as a leader, regardless of their age or technical skill-level. This was an important factor in addressing the challenge of the 2014 season where five of the seven starting players were first year college volleyball players. Coach Zelenock stresses that there are no captains on his team; everyone influences one another in their own unique way. One of his key team mottos is: “If one fails, we all fail.”
“Our youth was a huge challenge for us. But there were matches that on paper we were supposed to lose and everyone but those young kids counted us out… Every kid on our team can be a leader in their own way, so we talk a lot about how each of them can lead,” he said.
Another skill in David’s coaching kit is his adaptability. He knows that, like every sporting team, there is going to be a diverse range of personalities and behaviors evident within a group. For this reason he believes that rules and expectations of player roles and behaviors should be assessed each season. This results in a team environment where his student-athletes feel as though they have greater ownership over their performances and can contribute to the best of their ability on their own agreed terms.
“Our rules are ever changing with each new group. We never want to have a rule that is unreasonable, so we talk about them each year and eliminate ones that don’t seem to fit or modify them.”
However, there are two qualities David will always instill in his players: honesty and punctuality.
The Tennessee Tech Volleyball Program has dramatically improved in performance since David’s appointment as Head Coach. Not only does David want to see scoreboard improvements, he is also committed to developing his student-athletes as people through sport. When taking over, Coach Zelenock set about making some “radical” changes to the team’s culture. Although he views his team culture as a work in progress, he is clear that all of his players are expected to be mature and he vests a large amount of responsibility in all of his student-athletes. This approach aims to develop mature and responsible young women on the volleyball court, as well as off the court as members of their university and wider community.
An example of the kind of responsibility he gives his players is shown during the recruiting process. At the end of the day he as the coach has the final word, but unlike the traditional approach to recruiting, he seeks the advice of his current student-athletes on each and every recruit that trials for TTU’s Volleyball Program. Giving his players a greater ownership over their environment has been one way to increase their responsibility and produce a culture of accountability.
One major strategic change to the Golden Eagles’ program has been the implementation of DISC Profiling with Athlete Assessments. Coach Zelenock has seen his student-athletes and staff develop a stronger understanding with each other and are connecting on a deeper level at practice.
“For me it’s been great with training. We took the models and applied it to practices. So our staff took a lot of time studying the players by position to see how to train effectively…”
And how has it helped the players?
“I think they understood each other so much better that all the little fights and annoyances that happen during a season are pretty much taken care of with no drama.”
Off the court, David credits his family for giving him the ability to pursue his coaching passion.
“Starting with my parents who never tried to get me to change course, even when I was living on ramen noodles volunteer coaching.”
And now in his Head Coaching role he lauds his wife for taking on so much responsibility to allow him to put in the hours at the gym. Last, but not least, are his young boys.
“I have two boys – one 2 and a half and one 3 months – it’s all they know. They know Dad is leaving before the sun comes up and sometimes there will be 15 very tall girls in their house eating. They know twice a week they go to the arena and people are cheering for their dad and those girls, and after they get to run around on the floor.”
David is quite frank about his future ambitions. He wants a National Championship. He describes this goal as his daily driving force. He does understand though, he may have to wait a few years before this is achieved. “For now, we need to recruit great players and people, train them, have fun and win.”
Coach Zelenock’s Three Keys To Success
Work Ethic – I see a lot of coaches who don’t put in the time. When you’re recruiting it’s 7am until the gym closes, with headphones on to keep distractions out.
Self-Assessment – I never want to be the smartest guy in the room. If I am, it’s a room that isn’t going to help me get better. So I seek out the opportunities to have others critique me or disagree.
Powering Down – I have a unique ability to instantly shut down my volleyball mind. Some people say it’s a bad thing, but for me it’s huge. Once I decide I’m done for the day, I turn it off completely. I don’t sit around and obsess about it or worry; I just stop and am in the moment. I’ll keep my phone around of course in case a player needs me, but when I’m done for the day that’s it, it’s family time.
About David Zelenock:
- 2010 AVCA Top Thirty Under 30 Coach.
- Heading into his third year as Head Coach of Tennessee Tech’s Volleyball Program.
- Arrived at Tennessee Tech with a 107-78 winning record as Assistant Coach at his alma mater, Central Michigan University.
- Won the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Team Academic Award for 2013-14.
- Both recruiting classes at Tennessee Tech’s University have been nationally ranked.
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