A Cut Above

Illinois' Johannah Bangert said her listed height has changed from year to year.

There was no getting around it this time. Brady Starkey, the head coach of NCAA Division II five-time national champion Concordia-St. Paul (Minn.), had to break with tradition. When freshman middle blocker Katie Habeck joined the Golden Bears for the 2011 season, Starkey listed a six-footer, which may seem like no big deal for volleyball. But since Starkey took over as head coach in 2003, the official Golden Bear roster had never before included someone over the six-foot mark.

But the interesting fact is Habeck, the AVCA DII Freshman of the Year, stands closer to 6’1”. A few other Golden Bear student-athletes who played during the current championship run, some contend, stood at least six feet, but weren’t listed as such on their roster (they’re measured without shoes, so sneakers have a tendency to skew the figures in matches).

“I guess I probably would round down if I round anything,” said Starkey.

But let’s be honest, a difference of an inch or two doesn’t change the season outlook as the Golden Bears shoot for their sixth straight title this year.

Nor is Starkey, or other coaches for that matter, lowering height numbers to intentionally give an opponent a sense of overconfidence.

Dr. Nicki Moore, a senior associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma, formerly worked in Sooner athletics as a sports psychologist. During her tenure Moore said she encountered female athletes who were self-conscious about their height, feeling out of place and conspicuous if they stood over the six-foot mark. Height consciousness and feeling “too tall” is something some female athletes, particularly volleyball players, struggle with on and off the court.

“The conversations at this stage are more of a joking kind of thing like, ‘The pool of potential dates is smaller,’ or where they feel they have to make adjustments for their height in job interviews,” Moore said. “They recognize that their physical presence may feel intimidating, so they feel like they need to make adjustments in the colors they wear.

“It has so much to do with what kind of sense-of-self someone has,” Moore concluded.

According to Moore, a student-athlete’s lack of self-confidence can go on to create other problems as well.

“Typically, when anyone is walking around life with some part of themselves that they are simply dissatisfied with or uncomfortable with, it wastes mental energy. It’s a distraction and, typically, it will compromise your effectiveness.”

If there’s a message for the 6-foot-plus players, Moore said, it’s this: Stand tall, be proud, and don’t worry about the height number listed on the team roster.

Most of all, it’s cool, Starkey said.

When he attended a recent Division I All-American banquet, “Every girl was 6’3”, if not taller, and they had on the highest of high heels you’ve ever seen and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was impressive just to see them confident and flaunting the fact that they’re tall kids.”

Listed heights in NCAA women’s volleyball may be somewhat out of whack, but if you think there’s any sport with more inflated heights on collegiate rosters than men’s basketball, then step forward. However, where men’s basketball and volleyball coaches tend to inflate their players’ heights, there’s more of a tendency in women’s college volleyball to, as Starkey calls it, “round down.”

Third-year UCLA women’s volleyball coach Michael Sealy, having played on the Bruins men’s team before he later became an assistant coach for the men, has seen both sides of the height variance.

“On the guys’ side, you are begging and pleading for inches. You’re faking it. You’re on your tippy toes. You want the extra inch,” said Sealy, who directed the Bruins to the 2011 NCAA championship. “On the girls’ side, I feel like they’re trying to give an inch away. I think they would rather be 6’2” than 6’3”, they’d rather be 6’3” than 6’4”.”

When asked why, Sealy responded, “I think girls in general are more comfortable staying within the pack. You don’t necessarily want to be on the forefront.”

Sealy, who stands 6’7”, said he noticed it more than ever when he was the assistant coach for the University of Hawaii where during his tenure the Rainbow Wahine reached the national semifinals in 2009.

“When I was at the Final Four with Hawaii I was walking down the hallway behind a few players on one of the opposing teams and they were listed at 6’3” or 6’4”. They were my height. They were no doubt 6’6”,” said Sealy. “They were very impressive athletes. They were tall. But they listed themselves as shorter. I think that’s just trying to fit in.”

That seems to be the case everywhere. No Nebraska student athlete, said Huskers coach John Cook, has ever requested to alter a height listing, but he concedes, “Most of our girls, the tall ones, would rather be shorter.”

Volleying for Scholarships

There is one time when female volleyball players have been known to over-inflate their heights: before they set foot on a college campus. At that time, they are less concerned with height-related self-esteem, and more concerned about earning a scholarship with a college volleyball program.

Q: Do you feel listed heights are routinely inaccurate during the recruiting process?

What coaches had to say about the height issue

“I think that’s where I’ve seen it hyped up and more inaccurate to promote kids.” – John Cook, Nebraska

“100 percent. We judge it on our own. You get a highlight and coaches will say, ‘This kid’s 6’3”.’ When you walk out there, you’re like, ‘She’s not 6’3”.’” – Kevin Hambly, Illinois

“Oh, heck yeah. I think it seems like every kid that we look at is over-inflated in their height.” –Brady Starkey, Concordia-St. Paul

“There’s no question about it. [Prospects] exaggerate their height. They exaggerate their vertical [jumps], so you really have to take a look yourself.” – Dave Shoji, Hawaii

A Player's Perspective

Let’s get this straight: Middle blocker Johannah Bangert didn’t shrink in size during her senior year at the University of Illinois. The 2010 Illini media guide suggests otherwise; she was listed at 6’1” as a senior. “In my senior year, I changed it,” said Bangert. “When I got my new [driver’s] license, I changed it on my license, so it says I’m 6-feet instead of 6’1”. It’s silly why we can’t just put the truth down there.”

Silly, but even Bangert’s listing on her driver’s license is a gray area – the measurement was taken while she was wearing shoes. She agrees with her college coach, Kevin Hambly, that without shoes she stands 5’11”.

“But I wear shoes all the time,” she said, adding that she thinks it only right that she be measured in what she will be playing in.

Bangert will tell you she’s a lot more mature since entering the real world. But she didn’t go through the transition without her own adjustments.

“For the past four years, I was told I was short, ‘Oh, you’re a short middle. You’re a short middle,’” said Bangert. “Now that I’m out of there, I’m back to, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so tall!’ At first, I was like, ‘No, I’m not. I’m short. I’m short.’ That transition of realizing again that in real life outside the volleyball world I am tall. I’ve gotten a lot of attention for that recently.

“It took me awhile [to adjust]. At first I was upset with people who told me I’m so tall.”

But as those comments start to wane, and she feels more and more comfortable in her own skin, Bangert now wonders what all the fuss is about.

Originally published in November 2012


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