Coach Spotlight: Mackenzie O’Connell

Coach Mackenzie with her team

Helping More Kids Play Sports

This past January Mackenzie O’Connell received a surprise phone call.  It was the athletic director at the Palomar YMCA, a local afterschool program serving the low-income neighborhood of Escondido in San Diego. She had been coaching a volleyball team there for one season through Coaching Corps.  Mackenzie thought maybe the director was calling to deliver the new team roster, or new practice schedule.  But she wasn’t expecting was to be personally asked to take on a second team.

Apparently, the volleyball program at the YMCA was so popular that more kids signed up, and the YMCA was short on coaches.

In addition to volunteering to coach her primary volleyball team, Mackenzie juggles a full-time college student schedule and part-time work.  And still, she didn’t hesitate to take on the second team. “A lot of these kids have stressful lives, so playing volleyball is their chance to be kids and not have to worry for a few hours a week. The more kids I can help have that opportunity the better,” Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie’s personal goal is to make the kids fall in love with the sport like she did as a child. Starting off with basic moves, like underhanded serves, Mackenzie and her players work hard every week during practice. Her players’ excitement is contagious, she says, and they are always working hard every practice to get better. Her athletes were so committed, in fact, that they asked Mackenzie if they could practice more.

Not wanting to tamper their excitement and never shying away from a challenge Mackenzie made it happen.

She personally reached out to the parents of all her young players and secured the extra time in the gym. Today, Mackenzie spends an additional thirty minutes practicing with each team every week.

To Mackenzie, the extra time means she is reaching her goal.  Mackenzie has watched her players grow and fall in love with volleyball over the season. “It’s indescribable” she says, “just watching them become better players, but also better teammates and friends, it’s the best part of coaching.”

That transformation was visible in all her players, especially with Laura.  At first, Laura was quiet and shy, and she didn’t want to push herself during practice. Mackenzie knew she had played volleyball before, and wondered what was causing her to shy away from playing.

Following a conversation with Laura, Mackenzie discovered that Laura’s previous coach hadn’t paid attention to her, and never bothered to learn her name.

“That really impacted her” Mackenzie says, “you could tell she just felt like she didn’t matter.”

But she mattered to Mackenzie, who made it her mission to call out Laura’s name during practice.  After practice one afternoon, the two of them came up with a special nickname for Laura. From that point on Laura would go by “SoSo.”

“After that she really blossomed, she was so much more enthusiastic, and willing to try new things,” said Mackenzie. “Laura went out of her way to start challenging herself with harder shots and working on her overhand serve.”

For Mackenzie coaching is about being positive, and giving her players a chance to relax and be a kid. She knows some of her players have stressful lives, and hopes that the few hours a week when they are playing volleyball is a time when they won’t have to worry. A time they can just have fun with their friends playing a sport they love.

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