Setting up your starting rotation: 5-1

How should I set my line-up?

I’ve addressed this in broad strokes in the Putting together a starting line-up post. Here, though, I want to drill down. I’m going to look specifically at how you place the players on the court by position.

Here’s the most common way teams line-up when playing a 5-1 system.

Let me explain the abbreviations.

S = Setter
M1 = Stronger Middle
M2 = Weaker Middle
O1 = Stronger Outside Hitter
O2 = Weaker Outside Hitter
OPP = Opposite

So, if someone (like me) talks about their O2 or M1, you know they are referring to positions relative to the setter. The 1’s are next to the setter.

Note: The fact that the setter in the diagram is in Position 1 isn’t meant to suggest that’s the best place to start them. There are a number of factors which figure in to whether you start there or in a different rotation.

Balance

The basic idea with the ordering of the player positions this way is balance. That’s how the above diagram came to be. The better middle is next to the setter and the weaker outside. Likewise, the stronger outside is also next to the setter as well as the weaker middle. Further, when the O2 and M2 are both in the front row, the opposite is also in the front row, providing three attackers, rather than just two.

Now, how you judge your stronger/weaker middles and outside hitters can vary. The initial thought may be balancing things offensively, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, if your setter is not a good blocker, you may put your better blocking middle at M1 to create more balance from that perspective.If your middles have similar attacking abilities, then looking at their blocking can be very useful.

Serve reception is another way you may try to balance things. I once saw a coaching friend of mine put his strongest outside hitter at O2 rather than O1. When I asked him why he told me it was about passing. In his system the O1 passed in the middle of the formation more often than the O2, but his stronger attacker was not his strongest passer. Moving him to O2 reduced his exposure in serve receive, helping to balance things out in that way.

Middle leads, or outside leads?

You will notice in the formation above that the M1 leads the setter in the rotation. We refer to this as a “middle leads” arrangement. Though it’s not as frequently seen, some teams do use an “outside leads” set-up.

Why is the middle leads system generally favored?

It comes down to serve receive. The system where the outside leads can create some awkward reception formations, and fewer options. The middle leads approach tends to offer more flexibility.

The above, though, assumes you’re mainly using your outsides and libero to pass. Most teams do this, of course, but you may find yourself in a situation where you can pull someone else in to pass. Maybe your opposite is a good passer, or even one of your middles. In that case, you may find it better to use an outside leads approach.

I definitely recommend that you take some time to write out each of your rotations. Map out a primary reception pattern and also look at alternatives. If nothing else, it’s good to know what your options could be if you need to change things up. Make sure you know how the overlap rules work and how they can actually be used.

Book Review: The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

While The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier, does feature “coaching” in the title, it’s probably thought of best as a management book. It’s not about coaching as we sports coaches would think of it. It is, however, about managing people. Since this is at the core of our work as coaches, I think you might find it worth a read.

The subtitle of the book, “Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever”, touches on the approach the author takes. I don’t think, though, it really provides a full sense of what the book’s about.

Basically, this is a book of questions. The idea is to use them to help get to the heart of issues. It’s also about helping people help themselves rather than solving problems for them ourselves. You may find at least some of them useful in working with your athletes.

There’s also a set of questions presented later in the book aimed at succeeding and achieving. I think they are foundational with regard to expectations and seeing your path forward. Here they are quoted.

What is our winning aspiration? Framing the choice as “winning” rules out mediocrity as an option. If you want to win, you need to know what game you’re playing and with (and against) whom. What impact do you want to have in and on the world?

Where will we play? “Boiling the ocean” is rarely successful. Choosing a sector, geography, product, channel and customer allows you to focus your resources.

How will we win? What’s the defendable difference that will open up the gap between you and the others?

What capabilities must be in place? Not just what do you need to do, but how will it become and stay a strength?

What management systems are required? It’s easy enough to measure stuff. It’s much harder to figure out what you want to measure that actually matters.

I won’t say this is a must read book. All in all, though, I think it’s worth a look if you’ve got a bit of time. It’s pretty quick to get through.

Book Review: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

If you’re a coach, or teacher, and haven’t read the The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, make it the next book on your list.

The book starts of with some serious science about myelin development, which is a major factor in skill acquisition. Don’t worry, though. It’s not hard to follow, and more behavior based concepts quickly come in to play.

Basically, the book talks about how we develop skill (deep practice), what motivates that development (ignition), and how coaching fits into that equation.

There’s a part of Chapter 9 that I think really hits on a major factor in sports coaching. It compares the coaching of Brazilian soccer players with the training of violinists in Japan. In the latter case the teachers are constantly providing specific feedback to the students. In the former case, though, the coaches hardly say anything. Why is this?

It’s not cultural. It’s about the requirements of the skills to be developed. Playing violin is about consistency of very specific execution. Playing soccer is dynamic. Situations constantly change. As a result, the player has to continuously adapt to stimuli and find the right solution for their current situation. The games the Brazilian coaches have the kids play both create the situations they want them in and provide the feedback.

To quote Coyle, “The lessons the players teach themselves are more powerful than anything the coach might say.” This relates close to what I wrote about in Teaching or facilitating? It is also part of our need to think more broadly about feedback.

The book’s epilogue provides a bunch of real-life examples of the ignitition/deep practice/coaching link. They are from a bunch of different parts of life and society. You definitely want to give this book a read. It could change how you think about your coaching.

That said, there are a couple of little things worth mentioning.

First, while the book clearly presents a path toward creating skill in just about everything, it doesn’t really address constraining factors. In the case of volleyball, height is an obvious example. A short player can develop maximum skill as an attacker. That simply won’t be enough, though to make the national team roster.

Second, Coyle walks a line with respect to whole vs. part training. He talks at a couple of points about breaking skills down into their parts. That may be fine when you’re learning to play a specific note on a violin. As the late Carl McGown preached for years, though, in terms of the science of motor learning in our arena, training in parts is not as effective. This also ties in with block vs. random training.

So, as much as this book has some really great information, realize it’s just one part of the whole set of factors.

Coaching Log – February 12, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

As I noted in my last update, the head coach here at MSU resigned her position. While the process to decide on a new head coach is on-going, I am basically in charge of the program, with help from our graduate assistant.

Recruiting

We have continued to work on recruiting on two fronts. One is completing the 2018 class. Adding a setter to replace the one who decommitted is the top priority there, but we continue to look for a middle to add as well. We definitely need a setter as we currently only have one. We have three middle blockers (MB), so we could potentially get away with not adding there, but we’d very much like to have a fourth for depth and competition.

Of course, the second front is the 2019 class. We don’t actually anticipate a big need there. A right side hitter, who also has experience at MB, has already verbally committed. We will graduate an outside hitter (OH) and a libero next year. We’ll have three other defensive specialists remaining, so adding another isn’t a priority. We’ll definitely want to add another OH, though. We may want to add a setter, but if we have four MBs then we won’t look to add another in that position.

The first weekend of the month we attended a pair of large tournaments to evaluate prospects in both the 2018 and 2019 classes. The teams of three of our incoming freshmen where on-hand, though only one of those athletes was playing. One was out sick and another was being rested for injury reasons. The following Monday we had a 2018 MB on campus for a visit.

Training

While we have 11 players on the roster this semester, not all of them are active. The OH who injured her knee during season will remain in rehab mode throughout. Another OH has a back injury that has her inactive for a while. We’ve also had players out due to illness. Between those considerations and player class schedules, it’s been interesting to manage the two hours per week of court time we have available to us with each of them.

Until a new head coach is chosen, I feel like it’s probably best to leave any system-related training for later. In any case, we’ll have a whole bunch of new players joining the team in August. As a result, we’d have to redo that work then anyway. Instead, my focus is on individual technical improvements.

One big area of need for the group is setting with their hands. To work on that I had them play some out-of-system games where points could only be scored on kills from hand sets. Mainly, it was about developing the confidence to take balls overhand. Was it ugly? You bet! But it’s all about climbing mistake mountain.

Last Thursday we played a game I called 3-2-1. I think Mark Lebedew gave me the idea. It’s a normal game but with bonus point scoring. A team gets 3 points for winning a rally on a first contact, 2 if they use two touches, and one if they use all three allowed contacts. We decided blocks and aces were worth 2 points. The idea is to get them thinking outside the box and having more situational awareness, while also encouraging better defensive readiness and awareness.

Other stuff

We are likely changing equipment suppliers after being with Asics. This is a department level decision, not our own. We’ll need to replace one set of jerseys, for sure, and will have some other stuff to get for 2018. So we brought the team together and let them loose on the equipment catalog. 🙂

Recruits don’t worry too much about coaches, apparently

Here’s something that might deflate the egos of some college coaches. 🙂

We recently had a 2018 recruit on campus for a visit. This is actually a girl who we brought to campus in Spring 2017. We made her an offer then, but she was at the beginning of her process. As a result, she wasn’t ready to make a commitment then. We then kind of fell out of touch with her over the Summer. Approaching the first Juniors tournament of the year we were going to for recruiting, we looked to see if she had committed somewhere else, but didn’t see any indication she had. That being the case, I stopped by her court to watch her play. She did well. Better than what I remembered.

We were all set to reach out to her again, but she beat us to it. She texted the head coach to express her interest, and that led to her coming back to campus again. This was mainly about giving her mom a chance to have a look as she wasn’t on the trip the first time. It also, though, gave her a chance to meet all our new players. We only have three left from when she visited the first time.

Now, in the middle of all this the head coach was getting ready to leave following her resignation. She made her announcement to the team two days before the visit and spoke this this recruit that same night to let her know as well in case it mattered.

Nope! Didn’t matter at all.

We got the girl’s commitment the night after her visit.

Further, of the four girls who committed to us earlier, only one decided to rethink things. She did ask to be let out of her commitment, making it sound like she wanted to stay closer to home. At the same time, though, we continued to talk with 2018 prospects and getting them on campus.

Guess the head coach doesn’t matter. 😀

Honestly, I think this is the way it should be for at least the majority of recruits. It should be mainly about the school.

Coaching Log – February 1, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

The new semester is underway. Time to get back to work!

Recruiting

They don’t wait too long to get Juniors tournaments going, so we were off and running with recruiting before school even started. This is the time of year when we get seriously focused on the next recruiting class. In this case, that means 2019. We did, however, still have to look at 2018 middles to finish that class.

Our first event of the year was the Tour of Texas qualifier in San Antonio. Annoyingly, it was spread over I think four different sites for just the 17s age group alone. Saturday was all about looking at 17s. We had a number of 2019 prospects who have reached out to us to look through. While doing that, though, we also tagged a number of other potential recruit prospects we saw along the way. On Sunday I continued looking at 17s, but the 18s began playing that day, so I watched some uncommitted 2018 middles as well.

Following the Tour, a middle we actually brought to campus last Spring, and offered, reached out to us. We hadn’t heard from her since I believe July. I made it a point to watch her play in the Tour qualifier, as she still came up as uncommitted. She saw me, and ended up texting the head coach a couple days later. That turned into plans for a second visit (unofficial this time, as she’d already done her official) so she could meet new members of the team (8 since her visit) and show her mom around campus. She ended up committing to us that evening.

Academics

The Lone Star Conference does a Commissioner’s Honor Roll for each academic term. A student-athlete must have a semester total GPA of 3.3 or better to earn selection. For Fall 2017 we put 8 players on that list.

Overall, the team did pretty well last semester. The team had a collective GPA of 3.0. Unfortunately, a few individuals dragged the average down with failing grades. For one of them it’s going to cost her eligibility in the Spring. She didn’t pass enough credits, so she won’t be able to compete for us this term. She can still train with the team, but she can’t play in any Spring competition.

Scheduling

Now is the time of year Fall schedules are made. This year it’s been a bit trickier than usual. You see 2018 is a Festival year for NCAA Division II. That means they have all the sports for a given season do their championships at the same time, in the same location. Unfortunately, the other Fall sports finish earlier than volleyball. That means they cut a week off our season. A proposal was made, however, to make up for that cut by adding a week back at the beginning of the season. That was voted on and passed in mid-January. As a result, we’ll start our season August 24th rather than August 31st.

We committed to tournaments for our first two weekends. We’ll go to Tarleton again the first week, as we did in 2017. It’s an easy trip with some good competition. We played two ranked teams there this year and look forward to something similar for 2018. One of the top teams in the country is on the list of attendees.

The second weekend we’ll be going to Nebraska-Kearney. We played them at West Texas early in the 2017 season. They are traditionally quite a strong team – as in top 10 in the poll. The other teams in the tournament, however, were ranked below us this year. Two of them, though, will be regional competition.

There is also scheduling Spring competition. Because we can’t play any of our MBs due to their academic eligibility, we are keeping things limited. We will host a tournament in April, but that’s it. We did the same thing last year when we had only one MB available. We’ve had five area teams commit for the date.

Team Meeting

We held our first team get together of the term the afternoon of the first day of classes (Jan 16). That basically involved going over the the training schedule for the first part of the semester (up to Spring Break). We also had to discuss our community service hours, study hall, and other stuff like that.

Training

The team started strength and conditioning work with our Strength Coach the first week of school. The first day he started off by having them do some simple agility work in the gym, and then some foundational exercises in the weight room to start getting them back into the swing of things. That sort of work continued in the second week.

We held off on starting the volleyball until the second week to let them settle in with classes and such. At least some of them, though, did take part in an open gym session on Thursday of the first week. The combination of injuries and class schedules looks like it will force to into having two 2-hour full team sessions per week rather than the smaller group work we originally had in mind for this part of the year. Spring can be really tricky like that.

Volunteer work

All athletes at MSU are expected to do a certain amount of volunteer work each year. Even if there was no requirement, though, most of us likely would make it part of our program anyway. It’s a difficult thing to get in during the season in the Fall, for obvious reasons. The team did, though, work a fair one day for a couple hours.

This Spring we will once more be involved with the Cafe con Leche program. It’s one which aims to help mainly minority kids become the first in their family to go to college. We helped out with one of their tutoring sessions last year. We’re doing the same again this year on a monthly basis.

And the big news

When she returned from the semester break, the head coach announced her intention to resign. This was not a major surprise as it was totally based on family considerations. It was a question of when, not if it would happen. She informed the team in a meeting on the 23rd, with a press release going up on the website the next day. She also reached out to all the incoming players to let them know. Fortunately, there wasn’t any drama.

Well, at least we thought so. Then we heard on the 29th from the setter we signed that she’s decommitting. Ugh! Scramble time to find someone else after we’ve been telling kids we’re done in that position for 2018.

The outgoing head coach’s final thing with the team was on the 30th. She showed them a short video on the team concept and we played a series of team oriented non-volleyball games.

Communicating playing time prospects to non-starters

A question recently came up on the subject of talking with non-starters.

So many times when the discussion of playing time comes up, either the player or parent is asking what they need to improve on, or the coach uses improvement in particular skills as a prerequisite for more playing time. Now the paradox: As a coach, don’t you expect improvement from Everyone on your roster? If everyone improves, including the non-starter, is your starting team going to change? (probably not!). So by tying more playing time to improvement, aren’t you setting this player up for more disappointment?

This definitely represents an interesting conundrum for us coaches. In order for a non-starter to become a starter they need to get better. Either that or a starter needs to have a dip in form. You certainly hope and expect that the starters will continue to improve, though. If that’s the case, then the non-starter should never get into the starting lineup. So how do we handle this?

Control what we can control

First and foremost, it is important to get the non-starter focused on what they can control. They cannot control what others do. They can only control their own effort and attitude. It’s about putting in the work with intention. A potentially big part of this is making sure you give them at least as much attention as you give your starters. That way they don’t feel left behind or left out.

Different rates of improvement

A major consideration in this whole scenario is a kind of assumption that players improve at the same rate. This really isn’t the case, though. Player’s progress at different rates. That means non-starters can definitely overtake starters over time. This is especially true when you’ve got players at different points in their development. Younger players tend to make gains more quickly than older ones.

Don’t tie playing time to improvement

Here’s the mistake coaches can make. We obviously want to see our non-starters improve. Even if they never make the starting team, their better play in practice will at least create a higher level of play in that context (see A-team vs. B-team), challenging the other players more. We cannot, though, tie playing time to improvement – at least not in a nominal sense.

By that I mean we can’t tell players they just need to get better because the reality is that they need to be better than the starter(s) ahead of them. Thus, it’s a relative thing, not an absolute. You thus have to frame it more along the lines of, “You need to be better than (or at least as good as) Jane in …” That gives you room to base things on the relative levels of the player rather than absolute changes by the non-starter.

Note that all of this can tie in with your decisions on substitutions as well.

Common coaching mistakes

There’s an article on Volleyball Toolbox which lists out eight coaching mistakes. I thought I’d take some time to address them myself. Here’s the list.

  1. Focused on Outcomes (Instead of Learning)
  2. Focused on Being Serious (Instead of Enjoyment)
  3. Tried to Inspire by Demeaning (Instead of Being Demanding)
  4. Took Credit for the Good and Blamed Others for the Bad (Instead of the Opposite)
  5. Did Lots of Talking (Instead of Listening)
  6. Acted Like a General (Instead of a Teacher)
  7. Used Fear as a Motivator (Instead of Love)
  8. Knew it All (Instead of being Humble)

Let me take these mistakes one by one.

Outcome focus

While I agree with the motivation behind #1, there’s a bit of nuance required in the thinking. Yes, there can be a tendency to focus too much on winning and losing as the outcome. We cannot, however, say we are just going to focus on the learning side of things, though. Why? Because the outcomes are – at least partly – why we are training. My point is that what our players are learning needs move them towards the outcome we seek. We are not just teaching them a set of skills.

Too serious

In terms of #2, there is a difference between being serious and being focused. You can have fun and be focused. Practice doesn’t have to be a serious thing. I know I personally prefer a bit of levity. Otherwise, it can be kind of dull. That’s not to say it’s all laughing and joking. It’s about allowing them – and us as coaches – to enjoy themselves. Allowing that while maintaining focus is part of our coaching role.

Demeaning

I think #3 probably doesn’t require much comment. Belittling has no place in coaching in my view. If we cannot get our point across without demeaning our players we have serious short-comings as teachers and leaders.

Credit and blame

There are a couple of factors that can contribute to #4. One is overconfidence – specifically, something referred to as misattribution or self-attribution. That means we think a given positive outcome (e.g. winning) is thanks to our own talent, knowledge, skill, etc. At the same time, we attribute negative outcomes (e.g. losing) to things outside ourselves (refs, players, court conditions, etc.). In other words, we don’t see correctly our contribution to the outcome, and also we fail to realize that sometimes random chance plays a major part.

The other factor in this is Mindset. If we have a fixed mindset, then our view of ourselves and our personal self-worth is closely tied with outcomes. That means we are going to favor things which tend to support that view (we’re a good coach). At the same time, we’re going to tend to discount things which don’t support this view.

Talking too much

Related to #5, I wrote previously in The more you talk, the less they train that especially newer coaches can easily fall into a trap of talking way too much. My main point in that post is that if we’re talking then they aren’t actually practicing. Beyond that, though, we aren’t giving them a chance to figure things out for themselves, which is much more powerful than being told what to do. Further, if all you’re doing is talking then you’re not paying attention to what’s happening. That means you could miss important things.

Playing general

The focus of #6 is on making all the decisions as coach rather than letting the players get on with it themselves. Basically, your trying to control everything. Think of it as micromanaging.

This is something I wrote about in Calling plays from the bench. We have to accept that we cannot dictate everything. Even more, if we make all the decisions we are short-changing the players’ development. In other words, we’re failing as teachers. This might be fine if you’re playing for gold in the Olympics. If you’re coaching a bunch of 14 year-olds, though, it’s a problem.

I should note that good generals know that they need to let those below them just get on with doing what needs to be done without constant oversight and interference.

Fear and intimidation

My thinking for #7 is similar to #3. If you require fear and/or intimidation to motivate your players, you’re failing as a coach. You need to find a better way. Coaching is about convincing – getting players to buy in to your perspective and sense of direction. Legendary coach Julio Velasco spoke about this very thing at the 2015 High Performance Coaches Clinic.

Know it all

One of the common themes from the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews is that as young coaches we don’t realize how little we really know. As the saying goes, the older we get, the less we know. This should both make one humble as a coach and motivate an attitude of life-long learning.

UK university volleyball options for Americans

I received a question from an NCAA Division I assistant coach asking about US players going to the UK to play volleyball as post-graduate students. In this post I will address that subject as best I can.

The 2017-18 figures released by USA Volleyball show at least 45 players receiving international transfer certificates to play in England. There could be more playing for UK universities who did not get an ITC because they don’t play in the top level of the National League (NVL) there. For example, I had a couple of Americans play for me at Exeter. Since we did not play in the NVL they didn’t need ITCs.

The point I’m trying to make is there are quite a few Americans playing in England each year. A number of them are even on scholarships. Mainly, those are post-graduates. Think players who finished their NCAA playing career, but weren’t quite ready to stop playing competitive volleyball.

If you’re looking for a scholarship you need to find a university where volleyball is a performance sport. Most universities have volleyball clubs that compete in BUCS, which is the rough UK equivalent to the NCAA (the NAIA might be a better comparison). The performance programs, however, are a different situation. They are much more akin to what we would call varsity sports in the US. There aren’t that many of them, though.

Universities with performance volleyball programs

Here are at least some of the universities that have volleyball as a performance sport. I’ve included links to their information web page.

On the women’s side, Durham and Northumbria have been the top teams for several years. For the men, Sheffield Hallam and Northumbria have consistently been at the top, but Bournemouth is a regular championship contender as well. Essex and East London in recent years have also pushed themselves into the conversation.

Bournemouth was in the same BUCS league as Exeter when I coached there. I also got to coach against Durham (men) and Northumbria (women) in Final 8s.

Recruitment

If you go to a university without a performance program – or you just want a less intense volleyball experience – you’ll simply be part of the school’s club program. Generally speaking, that just means turning up for their tryouts or something along those lines when school starts. Easy enough.

If you want to go the performance route, however, you should think of it like the college recruitment process. You’ll want to reach out to the program(s) you’re interested in, provide them information about yourself, give them some video, etc.

Placement service

Several years back a service was developed by a woman who herself played in the UK as a post-graduate. It is called TeamGleas. Think of it as an athlete promotional service that universities subscribe to. They don’t just cover the UK. If you, or someone you know, is thinking about playing and going to school abroad, it might be worth having a look.

There may be other services out there as well. I just don’t know of them.

Keep in mind

A word of warning is required here. You should not expect the same level of support and facilities in the UK as you see at US colleges and universities (especially the higher level ones). Volleyball just isn’t that big a sport over there. This goes doubly when talking about the non-performance club programs. Training for them might only be once or twice a week, possibly with no coach.

And the competition in BUCS won’t be spectacular. Since most teams are club programs, they just aren’t that strong. The performance programs, though, are generally linked in with a club playing in one of the top divisions of the National League. That’s much more serious, and in some cases includes professional (or at least semi-pro) players.

I bring this up not to discourage anyone from going to the UK to study and play volleyball. I just want to make sure the expectations are realistic. If nothing else, it’s could be a great experience on many levels. Certainly, it provides opportunities to do some interesting travel.

Questions?

I hope this post provides the information you need to at least start thinking about things and exploring your options. If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them if I can. If I can’t, I might be able to get them from my contacts among the coaches over there.