A volleyball nails Mary Jane Smith squarely in the chest, making a hollow thud. Play stops.
"You all right, coach?" asks the concerned Glendale College player who spiked the ball.
"I'm fine," gasps Smith, still trying to find her breath. "I've been hit a lot harder than that before."
Indeed, she has. An on-court blow that broke Smith's arm in January two weeks before the tryouts for an indoor professional league left her life in disarray. Although injuries are commonplace in pro volleyball, this one was a turning point.
"That put a damper on things and made me start thinking about retiring," said Smith, 34, whose life has been absorbed by volleyball for the past 18 years. "My desire--that win-at-all-costs attitude--was gone."
And with her desire to win, Smith lost her sense of identity.
"It all had to do with a process of letting go. Wondering if I still had it and if it was OK if I didn't.
"I had my self-image all tied up into my volleyball. I had to be a great player so that people would like me. I didn't realize that I was OK without it," she said.
Smith was women's and co-ed most valuable player at Pierce College in 1974 and Cal State Northridge's Athlete of the Year the following season. After her college career, she played in the International Volleyball Assn. Pro co-ed league for four years and was named to the All-Star team in 1979.
In addition, Smith served as a coach at Rutgers University and Corona Del Mar High. She also spent two summers conducting various volleyball clinics at camps around the country.
Instead of choosing to coach a program with a tradition of winning, Smith opted for the Glendale women's team, which finished 0-17 last year.
"There isn't any pressure now," she said. "We can only improve. I'd rather come into a program like this than come into a winning program and try to maintain it."
But things at Glendale didn't start out too smoothly. For the first week of practice, the indoor courts were closed to allow workers to remove asbestos insulation from the gym pipes. The team had to play on the "sand" courts in front of the gym.
"It's more like dirt than sand," said Smith, adding that the heat did little to help morale. "The team was kind of cranky."
In addition, Smith wasn't sure if the squad liked her.
"I thought things were going OK but you're never really sure," she said. Not sure, at least, until the afternoon she found her truck wrapped in paper towels.
"There was a big sign on it that said, 'We love you, M. J.' so I guess I passed the test," said Smith, obviously moved by the team's gesture.
"This is the first time I've really ever had fun coaching," she said.
And if the Vaqueros' recent performance is an accurate indication, the no-pressure approach is producing positive results. The team won its first three games, beating Cypress, Mt. San Antonio and Rio Hondo colleges in last weekend's tournament.
It appears as if Smith has successfully imparted her new, relaxed approach to volleyball to her players.
"She makes everybody feel more comfortable," said Kelly Figueroa, one of three returning players. "(Former Coach Dianne) Spangler tried to get the team more physically prepared. Mary Jane is more mental."
One aspect of mental preparedness that Smith stresses is visualization.
"It's hard, especially if they've never done it . . . . they might think it's silly," Smith said.
And don't think Smith just instructs from the sidelines, she participates in all team practices and scrimmages.
"It's important that they know I know what I'm talking about," she said. "I'm a good role model, I can demonstrate how to play and I have a good attitude."