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Learning from Experience
The following article first appeared in the second issue of Flames Illustrated, which was sold at the Vines Center between Dec. 3-17. Vander Pol and the Flames will host Southeastern (Fla.), Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
Every seasoned athlete knows the value and impact of good experience.
A teacher that repetitious drills and solo gym sessions simply can't match is time spent in the heat of real competition, which enhances all aspects of an athlete's game. Experience, simply put, is the core of athletic growth and Liberty Flames center Joel Vander Pol determined to gain as much of it as possible during his offseason.
After an injury riddled 2012-13 basketball season, the redshirt senior, along with teammate Ethan Layer, boarded a plane to Germany, where the pair spent three weeks serving with a sports ministry by day and playing professional basketball teams by night.
The experience Vander Pol gained on the court was, predictably, beneficial.
A self-described back-to-the-basket post player, Vander Pol has spent the better part of his Liberty career with a clear-cut role. Fundamental post moves, an emphasis on rebounds and strong screens are expectations game in and game out.
Given the opportunity, he enjoyed the chance to cut loose a bit and simply experiment on the court for a change.
"I don't think Coach Layer would want me playing for him the way I was playing over there, putting up a lot of threes and trying out stuff like that," Vander Pol admitted, laughing aloud. "At Liberty, my role has been defined and what I do here is what best helps our team – but it was great to be able to expand my skill set and my game a little bit and just try different things."
He noted that though he might have been playing a different style than that he employs in a Flames uniform, the extra games and challenge of playing against professionals slowed the game down even more for him, improving his cognitive grasp on the game as it happened. Leadership, energy and general health were also key aspects of his game the center developed while playing overseas.
Assistant coach Brian Joyce, too, noticed results of the center's summer work on the hardwood.
"I think some of it is not just skill improvement, but mental improvement in terms of your understanding of the game and confidence in having gone against older guys," Joyce relayed.
According to Joyce, the mental gains are a necessary complement to the physical, making preexisting skills more efficient.
"Having the energy, size and skill level that he does and adding experience just expands his game," the assistant coach stated.
Off the court, though, Vander Pol found the time abroad to be as valuable to his life on the whole as it was to his basketball ability.
"Just experiencing another culture was a lot of fun for me," he declared.
Vander Pol eagerly recalled even subtle details of the trip. "Instead of having cereal for breakfast, you might have salami, cheese and a hard pretzel with apple cider or something like that," he shrugged, grinning. He also expressed his appreciation for an increased knowledge of the world.
Spiritually, the missions work in which he assisted had a profound impact on Vander Pol.
He and his teammate ran basketball camps for local YMCAs in Germany, building relationships with their young participants and, ultimately, sharing the Gospel message with them.
"At Liberty sometimes we hear stuff like, ‘You're going to run into people who have never heard the name of Jesus,' and here it's difficult to even imagine that," Vander Pol stated as he looked around the Vines Center and the thousands of seats so often filled to the brim with students in worship or prayer.
"But we encountered kids every single day that had never heard the name of Jesus before and it was amazing," the center recalled. "Because I'm an American basketball player, they've placed me on this platform where they're going to trust what I say. Through broken English or a translator I was able to preach the Gospel to these kids."
"I think anytime you go into settings where you have to be open about your faith, you gain more confidence in owning it as your own as opposed to whatever your parents believe or whatever is taught at Liberty," Joyce noted. "Joel's always been confident, and he's always been confident in his faith, but his ability to share it has definitely grown."
"It was so cool to see God work there, and so encouraging just seeing that basketball put me in a position to share my faith in that kind of way," Vander Pol said.
With his final season suiting up for Liberty now underway, Flames fans can watch for signs of growth in Vander Pol's game as he takes his place on the block each game. Combined with the impact his summer in Germany had on him spiritually and culturally, it's safe to say that Vander Pol gained the experience that he was looking for.
Ryley Rush is a Liberty University junior and is a freelance writer for Liberty Athletics