NCAA women's volleyball: Wisconsin's Hilley learns leadership lessons from former Badgers
Translation: What would Lauren do? What would Nelly do?
The questions arose a couple weeks ago as University of Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield and his freshman setter Sydney Hilley were watching a video of former UW quarterback Russell Wilson, who was miked up as he talked with his Seattle Seahawks teammates.
Hilley pondered what it would be like if she could've listened in like that to her predecessor at setter, Lauren Carlini, or former middle blocker Haleigh Nelson as they talked to their teammates. How did those two celebrated leaders inspire their teammates? What did they say in pressure situations? How did they say it?
Only way to find out is to ask. So the next day they called Carlini in Scandicci, Italy, where she is playing her first season of professional volleyball and the two setters discussed their craft for more than an hour on FaceTime.
The next day Hilley called Nelson in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she is attending grad school and playing beach volleyball for LSU.
"Every minute of it Syd was soaking up knowledge," said Sheffield, whose main job was to hold the phone during the Carlini conversation. "Learning takes place when there's a need to know, and Syd needs to know. That's why she's the player she is right now. And even more exciting, why she's going to continue to get better.
"She wants to max out and you've got to be willing to put yourself out there if you're wanting to be great at something. That requires searching out information, searching out people that have been where you want to go."
Sheffield said that Hilley has been able to put the advice she got to immediate use and teammates have noted a difference in her communication during recent matches. That progression could play a role as the Badgers (20-9) begin NCAA tournament play Friday against in-state rival Marquette (22-9) in Ames, Iowa.
Hilley said she had different goals in each conversation, although communication was a common theme in each.
Much of her talk with Carlini was about technical, setter-specific issues and how best to communicate with individual teammates.
"One of the biggest things I got is how selfless she is and how she noticed every little thing," Hilley said. "She's in Italy worrying about her pro stuff and she can still remember what I need to tell (Lauryn Gillis) in certain situations. I think that shows how selfless and how good of a leader she was to pay attention to every little detail about people to try to get them to play their best. A lot of people don't do that and they don't see that in Lauren."
One of the topics Hilley addressed was how to manager her own play while simultaneously organizing the team in those quick huddles between points.
"She said it's always the team first and when you're walking back to your position that's when you can think about what you need to do," Hilley said. "I think it's pretty cool how she helped me learn that there's time to do all of it. You just have to be efficient with it."
From her end, Carlini was struck by the volume and the specificity of the questions Hilley asked.
"It was her really probing into things," Carlini said. "Whether it was, where do I set this person in this situation? How do I get people to know that we are going to win this game? How do we get everybody onboard at this point in a match? It was really just specific things she was asking.
"I'm so happy that Syd reached out. That's what I'm here for. When I was younger I never asked for help. I wanted to figure everything out on my own. Maybe I could've been a better player when I was in college or made a few different decisions if I had reached out and asked questions like she is now."
Carlini said she had less of a leadership role than Hilley has as a freshman because the team in 2013 had established leaders in Annemarie Hickey, Courtney Thomas and Dominique Thompson.
"I wasn't really much of a leader then," Carlini said. "People weren't looking to me to be the main strength or the person that rallied the troops. My job was to set and be the best player I could be because we had some strong personalities on our team. We had older girls who had been through this before and they were good at taking the reins on it.
"I know Syd wants to be a bit more of an active leader than I was in my freshman year. She was asking questions about that. I think this group is a little more quiet than the 2013 group was so I think she has the opportunity to step up and talk a little bit more, be a little more active with everyone, where I was kind of just the quiet, steady one who played the game."
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The conversation with Nelson dealt more with the inspirational aspect of leadership.
"The biggest thing from Nelly was just her optimism and her belief in her team and how she got everyone to believe in their own abilities because she was so positive and believed in them so much," Hilley said. "I think that's something we didn't have at the beginning of the season and I think Nelly was a huge reason why there felt like there was a void of that.
"No one is going to be a Nelly but I think if we have a little bit of Nelly in everybody then maybe we can make up for that. I think we've gotten a little better with that, just staying positive when we're down."
Nelson was impressed by the difficult questions Hilley asked, like how did you get everyone to believe they were always going to win?
"I didn't really know how to answer that type of question," she said. "I just tried to tell her that I tried to make sure that my teammates knew that I believed in them all individually and I always expected them to be the best version of themselves. I was just trying to give her an answer that would help give her some guidance. She asked a lot of tough questions."
Fostering leadership skills is a major focus of the UW program. One of the tools used is the DiSC profile, in which players take a survey designed to reveal how they best process communication.
"I think that learning how (Kelli) Bates wants to be communicated to in a game situation versus how M.E. (Dodge) wants to be talked to is important," Hilley said. "You have to think about what you're saying to people to get them in the right frame of mind and I think that's really cool."
The departure of Carlini and Nelson along with the injury that sidelined Molly Haggerty for the season, created something of a leadership opening this year. Despite being one of the youngest players on the team, Hilley says she had no issue accepting that role after having played with older players throughout her club career.
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"I think one of the biggest things is that Kelly allows younger people to lead," Hilley said. "When we were voting for captains he was like it doesn't matter how old you are, if you're a leader then you're going to be a leader. He allows for anyone on the team to have a leadership role no matter what their role is.
"Some people are naturally good leaders but it's a skill you can improve on every day. That's something I've really worked on. I always thought I was a natural leader, but getting here I just realize how much goes into actually being a good leader."
Nelson went through a similar process when she came to UW.
"I felt like was considered a leader on the teams I played on in high school," she said. "When I came to Wisconsin I realized there are so many more intricacies of being a good leader on a stage like that that I didn't even think about in high school.
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"Once you get to a certain level you have to know when not to say anything in the huddle and know when your teammates need to be built up versus when they need to be held accountable. The most important thing is you need to walk your talk. You have to focus on yourself first and make sure you're doing all the right things before you expect to hold other people accountable for doing the right things."
And whenever doubts or questions arise, it's always nice to have others who have been there to turn to for advice. And there is no shortage of alums ready to step up and provide the benefit of their experience.
Thomas and Thompson met with the team earlier this season and provided "unbelievably powerful messages," according to Sheffield. Some of the veteran players have been bouncing ideas off former libero Taylor Morey from time to time.
And when junior Amber MacDonald's younger sister Anna, a 2019 UW recruit, was traveling through Italy with her Atlanta-area club team, Carlini met with them to share her story.
"We've got a group of people who have been through this program that are paying it forward in a big way," Sheffield said. "It just accelerates the growth and the learning process."
This article is written by Dennis Punzel from The Wisconsin State Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.