If you’re a fan of New Jersey high school volleyball, it’s almost impossible that you haven’t heard of Maria Nolan. She’s currently the head coach of girls volleyball at Immaculate Heart Academy and prior to that was a coach at Secaucus High School.
Throughout her career, she won 28 state championships and held the title of #1 team in NJ nine out of the past twelve years. sportsYou had the opportunity to sit down with Nolan to discuss her successful career and what it took for her to get to where she is now.
sportsYou: What would you say was the highlight of your career as a coach so far?
Maria Nolan: There have been so many highlights during my career but one of the most exciting was receiving the Disney American Teacher Award in 1998. There were 12 categories, such as math, science and English, with three teachers in each. I won the Athletic Coach category. Disney televised the show internationally from LA and Scott Hamilton presented me the award.
Producers came to my high school, which at the time was Secaucus High School. My players and the rest of the student body were part of the video that they produced. It was just so exciting.
I can’t say there’s been one match or one year that stands out as the highlight because I’ve had so many fantastic memories through coaching. Once in a while a team will come along and I’ll think it was the best team I ever coached. But then I’ll think back to other teams that were up there with it. I’ve truly had remarkable experiences through the years.
sportsYou: What are your greatest challenges as a coach and as a teacher?
MN: When you get a new group, which will be happening soon with the start of the season, it’s always a challenge. You work with the players individually and as a group to help them become confident and believe they can achieve. You have to mold the group into a team that will get along and work together for the good of the team. That’s a big part of coaching and the greatest challenge for me.
One of the things I like to do is figure out how to put the right combination of players on the floor to get the best results. It’s not always the way the players or parents want it to be, which has definitely been a challenge over the years. But when you see it come to life and your team is doing very well, it’s so rewarding. The best is when you see the players gain confidence and really enjoy it. That’s what keeps me coaching year after year.
sportsYou: How do you communicate with and manage your team?
MN: We use the sportYou app. We used two other apps before and neither one was great. I had trouble with them. Harrison Hefele spoke at New Jersey’s athletic association, NJSIAA, and explained sportsYou. I mentioned what I didn’t like about the other apps and sportsYou was able to give me better results. Using sportsYou has enabled me to communicate better with my team and their parents.
Our calendar is on it, which is great. A fabulous feature is to send alerts if there are any changes. I’m also able to email and chat with people. Sometimes when I send an announcement, a couple of the parents ‘like’ it and will remark.
sportsYou: What are your strategies for helping players improve year to year?
MN: A lot of repetition, a lot of communication with them to let them know what they need to work on and communicating a lot while we are working with them. Sometimes parents will tell their children to find out what they need to work on. But our feedback is constant throughout the practices. They hear what we are saying to them on how to improve, so it’s doesn’t necessarily require a meeting.
However, we do sit down with the players and set goals. We’ll ask them what they want to improve on. The coaches then tell them what we think needs improving. We’ll then come to an agreement on what to work on for the next two weeks.
sportsYou: Is there anyone in particular who inspired you in your career?
MN: In graduate school the sports psychologist, Dr. Bob Gilbert, from Montclair State University was very instrumental in helping me communicate better as a coach and teaching me the importance of finding the right strategies. I actually invite him to my camp so he can talk to the campers every year.
sportsYou: Do you have advice for young coaches?
MN: I’ve mentored so many over the years. It’s gratifying when they tell me that they’ve learned so much and it’s been a great experience. I feel good about that. When mentoring, you have to keep an eye on them, train them, work with them and guide them. Sometimes you also have to tell them if things aren’t going well and how to change and improve and that’s not easy.
I don’t know that young people understand how much is involved in coaching. To be an assistant coach is very different than being the head coach. There is so much on your shoulders and so much to do and be concerned about. I’m constantly thinking of what I need to do next and what I might be forgetting, so it’s very consuming.
When you coach, you need to get in touch with the media, get all of the stats in right after you’re done playing while you’re tired and want to take a break. It’s not easy. There is a lot to it. You have to work along with players, parents and the administration.
Once you’ve had success, you want to continue to be successful. When you are on top, there is added pressure to remain on top. Last year was an amazing season because we didn’t expect to do that well since we had only one senior. We finished number one in the state the year before and we were concerned if we could do that again.
We just took it little by little, one day at a time and somehow we finished number one again. Now because of that, there is added pressure this season. It never ends as far as pressure goes. But despite all of that, it is rewarding. If it wasn’t, there is no way I would still be coaching.
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