How picking fruit impacted leadership

February 25, 2023 3:00 am

A conversation about picking apples later evolved into a leadership lesson for a young volleyball coach. (Dana Womald/New Hampshire Bulletin)

When I was a senior at Manchester College in 1968, I decided to spend the winter quarter as a visiting student at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. At Alma I would have the opportunity to study under Dr. Robert Wegner, a published author and graduate of the renown Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Dr. Wegner had written a book on e.e. cummings, a poet whose poems had motivated me and many other novice writers to consider writing poetry.

Dr. Wegner was in his late 30s. He had only one arm, a physical characteristic that seemed to give him more confidence in the same way that a pirate might wear an eye patch, not to cover a missing eye, but to enable him to see better in darkness.

We would meet several times in his office during the quarter. I would bring in a handful of poems, and he would read them. He would offer suggestions but rarely told me that I should remove something from a poem. He was kind.

We had our final meeting in late March while there was still snow on the ground.  I would be leaving soon to return to Manchester for my final quarter and graduation. Before I left Dr. Wegner’s office, he asked me what I planned to do during the summer. I told him that my best friend I were considering going to New York City for the summer or to the Palouse in Washington State to pick fruit. Both were hopelessly romantic options. But he was kind again.

He said, “Picking fruit, would be good only if you took care with each apple to do it as well as you possibly could without bruising the fruit.” It was an interesting response. I thought he would comment about the pluses and minuses of going to the East or West Coast. But he responded with a comment about intent. An act is worth doing only if you do it as well as you possibly can.

I don’t think I fully understood what he meant until I began coaching several years later. In 1974 I began teaching freshman English and coaching women’s volleyball at Louisburg College, a small junior college in North Carolina. I was not particularly good at either one to begin with. My degree was in creative writing, and I had never considered being a coach.

That changed with implementation of Title IX. The president of the college noticed on my resume that I had played volleyball for Dr. Jim Coleman on a club team in Chicago. Coleman was the 1968 Men’s Olympic team coach, and so it gave me credibility where none was warranted. I was a “scrubini,” someone who was learning the game as an outside hitter on the third team. That limited experience, however, meant that I was the most qualified person to coach Louisburg’s first women’s volleyball team.

We lost the first set Louisburg ever played to Chowan College, 15-0. We didn’t even rotate. Not once. None of the players had ever played volleyball, and I had never coached. We didn’t know what we didn’t know until we played an opponent.

But we got better. Two weeks later, we played Chowan on their court and won. I coached with more purpose during those two weeks. I challenged the team members to practice with intent. It is one thing to work hard. It is another thing to do something as well as you possibly can, especially when you are uncomfortable learning it.

In those two weeks of practices, we trained with specific goals and behaviors in every drill. Players stayed in the drill until they got the behavior right. They had to communicate with every touch of the ball. My practice plan and their intent resulted in what Anders Ericsson refers to as deliberate practice. Everything we did was more purposeful than the practices we had prior to the first match with Chowan.

Eventually we had enough success with the volleyball program at Louisburg that I had an opportunity to come to the University of Nebraska as the head women’s volleyball coach. The two critical factors to building a program in Nebraska were talent and deliberate practice. There were plenty of young women who could run, jump and throw within 400 miles of the university. Talent was a given. Our job was to inspire, lead, coach and push each one of them and ourselves to do everything as well as we could. It was a vision that began with a conversation about picking fruit with a creative writing professor in Alma, Michigan.

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Terry Pettit
Terry Pettit

Terry Pettit is an author of three books and a presenter on leadership and teambuilding. He is a former head coach for the University of Nebraska women's volleyball program and the host of the podcast "Inside the Coaching Mind." Pettit's webpage is