5th Anniversary!

Five years ago today this blog was launched upon the world. What a ride it’s been!

Since the blog began in June 2013 about 300,000 visitors have tallied nearly 700,000 page views. That’s a far cry from what I expected when I launched the site. Can’t say I’m disappointed, though. The platform the blog created has led to many opportunities for me in the global coaching community.

Career stuff

Think about this.

Thanks to our mutual blogging interest, I connected with then fellow blogger Oliver Wagner from Germany (he’s since stopped blogging). In 2014 Oliver pointed me in the direction of another blogger, Mark Lebedew. That led to me visiting Mark at his then club, Berlin Recycling Volleys in the Spring of that year. Mark then played a critical part in my visiting the German pro teams in Potsdam and Bühl during their preseason that year. In Bühl I became friends with head coach Ruben Wolochin, an Argentine. In 2015 Ruben provided me with a connection that saw me hired to coach in Sweden. I also went back to Bühl that summer to help Ruben out with his preseason once more. Ruben later connected me with Santiago Gabari, who was the in-country coordinator for the Midwestern State Volleyball team trip to Buenos Aires in August 2017.

Winding things back to Mark, after my trip to Potsdam and Bühl in September 2014 he took me along for a day of World Championship action in Poland. That was my first ever major intentional volleyball event. In 2015 I visited with him again in Berlin for a longer stay during his German season. That trip featured my first ever CEV Champions League match. I later returned when BR Volleys hosted the Champions League Final Four that year. In 2017 I once again visited with Mark, this time in Poland at his then club, which hosted the Australian National Team’s training camp.

One more rewind needed. In 2015 Mark and I started work on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. That year, one of the interviews I conducted was with Ruth Nelson. It ended up in the first Wizards book. Ruth was later instrumental in my move to Midwestern State.

Expanded influence

The blog has also given me some interesting opportunities in terms of writing and coaching education. Other websites periodically pick up my content for their own purposes. Actually, from the early days the AVCA used some of my posts in their digital magazine. Later, I contributed a couple of articles to the print magazine as well. I was also invited to sit in on the Education committee meeting at the 2013 convention.

Parents?

Here’s something I definitely didn’t expect. In recent years I’ve heard that the parents of my players read the blog. That kind of blew my mind. I guess I can understand it a bit in that things like my coaching logs do necessarily provide some commentary about the squad. It’s a different perspective on things than parents get from match reports and the like. Still, it’s always a surprise when I hear about it. After all, they aren’t exactly my target audience.

Humbled by the breadth of readership

Another thing that surprised me early on, and continues to do so, is how many people I’ve spoken with from different parts of the world who read the blog. When I was in Germany in 2014 one of the staff coaches at SC Potsdam told me he was a reader. Last year in Argentina the head coach for the women’s team at Boca Juniors told me he reads the blog. Given the stats I reported at the top I should expect this sort of thing, right? For some reason, though, it’s still surprising and humbling every time it happens.

Where’s it going?

So where is this blog going? Honestly, I can’t say for sure. Part of that is because things are in flux for me professionally at the moment. Necessarily, where I land next will influence the direction of the blog moving forward – at least in terms of content. The one thing I do know is that I don’t have any plans to stop posting.

With any luck, in five more years I’ll be looking back on a decade of blogging with a bunch more interesting stuff having happened. 🙂

Don’t just cite the research, actually read and understand it!

I came across a post on social media regarding an academic study of serve-reception. Here’s the full quote.

A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences by Paulo et al. (Paulo A, Zaal FTJM, Seifert L, Fonseca S, Araújo D. Predicting volleyball serve-reception at group level, 2018) showed that, about serve-receive success “decreasing alignment of the receiver with the ball and the target increased the chances of using the underhand-lateral pass, and that the use of the underhand-lateral pass was associated with lower quality receptions”. So, if you play volleyball do not be lazy, move your feet fast (you will only move fast if you lower your hips and stay on your toes), place your body and platform BEHIND the ball, if you want to increase your chances to succeed in serve receive. Do not trust side passes. Science is saying that!

The last couple of sentences jumped out at me. They are clearly interpretations of the paper findings, ones seen to support the idea of center-line passing. Focusing a lot on that is something I’m not a fan of beyond introductory teaching, as you will see if you follow the link.

But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the analysis side of things.

Being the curious sort, and having lots of experience reviewing this kind of research from my own PhD work, I read the paper in question. Not surprisingly, reading the paper produced two significant issues with regards to the social media post.

First, the results don’t make a strong case. Yes, the authors of the study did find that receiving the ball in the center line – what they refer to as “underhand-frontal pass” – did produced better passing results than passing outside the center line (underhand-lateral pass). They described the difference, however, as being weak from a statistical perspective.

Second – and this is the bigger problem – the causality is unclear. By that I mean we don’t know if the passers opted to pass outside their center line, or whether they were forced to do so by the serve. Given that the sample is from international level men’s players and includes topspin jump serves, I’m inclined to believe it’s not really a question of choice.

I think we can agree that a ball hit hard outside your body line is harder to pass than one hit straight at you. You simply don’t have as much time to get a well-positioned platform in place. Forget about moving your feet! Naturally, we expect these more difficult serves to produce worse passes on average. Despite this, the authors of the paper don’t see a big difference, statistically, between lateral and center-line passing performance.

Could it be that in fact lateral passing would prove superior if considering equally difficult serves? Well, we know in terms of hard serves going outside the body that center-line passing is basically impossible. What about slower or closer serves where you could get the ball center line, though? Could it be that lateral passing would show better results? This paper provides no insights in that regard.

So the poster of the item above has attempted to use as support for their own views research which at best only offers weak evidence. Really, it provides no evidence at all because the analysis of technique does not control for serve characteristics (i.e. difficulty).

There’s more issues

There’s also a major issue with this paper in that the sample the authors use is extremely narrow. It includes only four passers. They all come from the Portuguese Men’s National Team. So we’re making judgements based on the performance of just a few male players of a certain caliber in one team receiving serves from servers they’d probably passed against many, many times before in training.

Can you see how this might be a problem in terms of being representative?

That automatically says you should draw no real conclusions from the findings. I’m not saying there isn’t some quite interesting stuff. There certain is, both in this paper and this one the same authors did focused on single receiver passing. What I am saying is the best you can do with this kind of research is to say something like, “That’s interesting. We should explore it more deeply.”

Don’t be that poster

Please, please, please take the time to actually read any research presented to you. Don’t accept what people say about the research at face value – especially if that person might have an agenda, like supporting their own position. That was what tipped me off in this particular case. Also, don’t cherry pick from your own perspective. Don’t just present research that you think supports your case and ignore or downplay the stuff that contradicts you. Confirmation bias is a real issue for us all.

There’s a phrase I heard a while back that I think is a good one to live by in this sort of context. It is “strong views, loosely held”. That means you are strong in your belief, but able to change your mind on things when presented with good evidence. It’s not about being right. It’s about getting it right.

An Englishman at the AVCA Spring Conference

My friend Alex Porter, who heads up the volleyball program at the University of Essex (I visited him there in 2017) in England attended the 2018 AVCA Spring Conference that took place in conjunction with the NCAA men’s championship at UCLA. I thought a non-American’s perspective on the experience would be interesting, so I asked him if he’d be willing to write about it. He did, and here it is!

To my knowledge I’m only the second English man to visit an AVCA event – the first to visit their Spring Conference.

I’ve heard many things about the AVCA Annual Convention, over 2000 coaches and 400 plus exhibitors, “the world’s largest volleyball coaching gathering”. The Conference is a very different event with a little under 100 attendees and offers a more personal touch.

I’ve attended the Volleyball England Coaches Conference a handful of times and always felt there was a lot left on the table. This is not to put down their efforts, but until you go outside your comfort zone you don’t always know what is possible. I went into the AVCA Spring Conference with an open mind, ready to learn on and off the court, to learn what data they use to improve their athletes/programs, how they market the sport and how to get more bums on seats.

Prior to the conference I contacted AVCA Executive Director Katy DeBoer and at the Friday night networking event she was keen to hear about the university and coaching structure in the England. She was very open about the development of coaching and volleyball in the USA and how the AVCA mission statement helps facilitates both.

I arrived at the Marriott on the opening day and was expecting to see a fan fair of banners, product stools and the hustle and bustle of lots of coaches. I needed to remind myself that this was the Spring Conference and not the Convention. The welcome I received from the staff was very friendly but it felt a little underwhelming due to the size of the room and the number of attendees.

The order of service for the day was a The State of the Sport keynote from Kathy followed by two 90 minutes sessions. Each session had three options Training Technique, Fan Engagement and Tracking Performance. I was interested in all three and thankfully they were being recorded and are accessible via the AVCA website. After this there was a networking event by the pool.

I found Kathy’s speech very eye opening. The AVCA has collated a lot of numbers on the growth of the sport, on how and where this growth has occurred and more importantly how traditional marketing companies/departments target sport and why it’s different in volleyball, especially women’s volleyball. She went on to explain how in recent years incoming university recruits are now arriving with chronic injuries and this is something the sport needs to look at seriously. This was followed by some of the opportunities and successes that the sport is receiving. Over the last 7 year men’s volleyball has added 88 men’s college varsity programmes mainly based in tuition focused institutions and beach volleyball is flourishing.

Focus
Training Technique Fan Engagement Tracking Performance
Session 1 “Making a Good Setter Better” – Mick Haley “You are the Media!” – Katie Gwinn Hewitt, University of Michigan “No Numbers? No Clue!” – Guiseppe Vinci
No skill has more theories and methods, and no player gets more attention from coaches. What works, how do we train it, and what cues resonate with skilled setters? Social media has allowed programs the ability to reach the community directly without solely relying on traditional media to cover them. What are we training to? What numbers? What standards? What pacing? Without these metrics, we are guessing at the training regiment to prepare for elite performance. See what we know.
Session 2 “Serving: The Only Solo Skill” – Brian Gimmillaro “Not Your Parents’ Recaps” – Aaron Sagraves, Cornerstone University “Integrating Volleyball Injury Data into Performance Training Decisions” – Kyle Norris, MS, ATC, LAT, avcaVPI™ Biomechanics Consultant
Elite serving is a combination of physical and mental execution. Getting both right scores points. Reworking the standard press release to encourage more interaction Individual player mechanics impact injury risk. Strategies to protect the most vulnerable areas.

I stayed for the “You are the Media!” with Katie Gwinn Hewitt. In England we need some serious help with marketing our sport. Katie’s message was very simple- stories. People like stories, sponsors like stories and fan’s like stories they can relate to. Look at who is on your team, the ethos of the team and tell a story to create some traction. If you have an athlete studying social media let them have a Snap Chat take over. Do you have a budding journalist on your roster, let them create a number of pieces on their team mates that you can drip feed over the season. Every programme has a different approach to social media and fan engagement. I’ll be scanning the NCAA teams to see if there is something that will work for us. Once our reach increases, the traditional media should start to take notice.

The University of Essex is a research based institution and our HPU (Human Performance Unit) conducts numerous research projects each year, our staff share research papers with each other hence my reason for attending the Integrating Volleyball Injury Data into Performance Training Decisions with Kyle Norris.

Kyle covered a number of subject areas including sleep deprivation, postural and scapular control, glut med activation and “normal” biomechanics. Most of this I have read before in research papers but it’s great to revisit it and to be able to ask questions around these areas. I plan to contact Kyle to discuss our programme and the avcaVPI™ database which I never knew existed. To quote Guiseppe Vinci of Volley Metrics “No Numbers? No Clue!”

Most of the attendees and staff attended the networking event for some hor d’oeuvres and beverages by the Marriot poolside. Having an English accent meant I stuck out and people were very inquisitive.  I spoke with Kathy, club coaches and owners, teachers and the AVCA Hall of Famer, Mick Haley. I knew of Mick from watching the Sydney Olympics but I hadn’t put two and two together, Mick and his wife were great fun, his stories were as relevant today as they were when they happened the first time.

I spent the evening in the hotel bar with other university and college coaches. It was nice to hear they faced similar challenges to a greater or lesser extent.

DAY 2

Session 1 “General Session: Promoting Volleyball Player Well Being” – Aaron Brock,  USAVolleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Director
Training Technique Fan Engagement Tracking Performance
Session 2 “No One can Pass!” – Brian Gimmillaro “Media is Friend, Not Foe” – Tom Feuer, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism “How We Track Performance in the USA Volleyball Gym” – Jimmy Stitz, USA Volleyball Women’s Sports Physiologist
From basics to subtleties of higher level technique – why are so few players great at passing? What exactly should you be doing to ensure the media has everything it needs to best cover your program? Learn how to be more proactive than reactive. Managing repetitions in an efficient way is critical to preparation, rehab, and injury prevention.
Session 3 The Mechanics of Attacking” – Mick Haley “Story-telling: Going Beyond the Box Score” – Katie Morgan, The University of San Francisco “Training Jumpers” – Tim Pelot, United States Olympic Committee Senior Sports Physiologist
Footwork, load, swing – we all think we know it -yet even elite players have flaws Your team is more than stats, so you’ll learn the best methods to tell the story of your student-athletes and coaches Techniques for training jumpers can be counter intuitive. See how the senior teams physically prepare their jumpers
Session 4 “It’s not the Drill, It’s the Feedback” – Mick Haley and Brian Gimmillaro  “Putting Butts in the Seats” – Aaron Villalobos, Grand Canyon University “Injury Prevention – Keeping Them in the Gym” – Tim Pelot, United States Olympic Committee Senior Sports Physiologist
Engaging players in game-like training is the fastest way for them to become proficient in matches, yet simply running drills just reinforces bad habits. Where is the balance, when do we switch, how do we provide feedback? How do we engage our community to increase attendance? What kind of in-game promotions are run to ensure the audience stays “into” the match? These questions and more will be answered. We will not turn back the clock on specialization or earlier training; our task is to counteract the negatives of overuse. Teaching athletes to take control of their health and showing them ways to strengthen their weak sides is critical to keeping them in the gym.

The next morning we all met for breakfast. If I had to pick the worst part of the conference it was the breakfast, this coming from an Englishman, I know. Let’s get this right. It wasn’t bad, but after spending a week in the US and staying at a Marriott let’s just say you would expect more.

We headed over to UCLA’s campus for the rest of the day.

The first session of the day was with Aaron Brock, USA Volleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Director on “Promoting Volleyball Player Well Being”. This was the slickest of all the presentation and to be honest this should be at the forefront of any programme. Athlete and coaches well-being are super important, not just for the few years they are involved in a programme but also the rest of their lives. I enjoyed this session, it was thought provoking and I will adjust my programme after considering how best to use what I learnt.

I then headed over to the “How We Track Performance in the USA Volleyball Gym” with Jimmy Stitz who is the USA Volleyball Women’s Sports Physiologist. I love my data and this was an insight into what, how and why the USA Volleyball do what they do. There are lots of gadgets out there, Jimmy went through different tools they have used including different ways they’ve used them and the results that have and haven’t worked. For example basic assumptions on power and power/weight rations related to jump height and how/why you use video feedback and the flaws with it. Jimmy knows what his talking about and his insights are again thought provoking.

I keep saying it’s thought provoking and that’s because they were. These aren’t session where you’re going to find the exact solution for your situation. They make you think about how your programme is structured, why it’s like that and how things can be modified for the better etc.

I then attended two court based sessions with Mick Haley about “The Mechanics of Attacking” and with Mick and Brian Gimmilaro for “It’s not the Drill, It’s the Feedback”.  These confirmed a lot of my thoughts…every athlete will execute a skill differently but you must do the basics well. The last session of the day with Brain and Mick went a bit off topic but that’s what the group wanted so we got more out of it. It became more of a Q&A and attendees were about to pick their brains. Afterwards some of the attendees, including myself, continued the conversation with Mick and Brain.

When the Conference finished everyone went to the D1 Championship match. I watched the game for enjoyment sake, trying not to analysis it too much. I was a commentator for the BBC at the London 2012 final and this year’s D1 finals were up there with it. The game was fast paced and exciting. The 7,000+ fans supporting two local team were active, vocal and supported their teams in the right way.

But there was something special about this game (sorry Ryan it wasn’t the fact we had our first English athlete in a D1 final). It was the entertainment factor. The crowd hadn’t gone to watch a volleyball game, they had gone to support their teams AND be entertained. The compere got the crowd involved, the YELL squads livened up not only the student section, but got the rest of the crowd going. UCLA were giving out free tickets to their students 30 minutes before the game started and they were climbing over each other to get them. This was an event that had a lot of hype around it and the buzz and wow factor made it special.

After the final everyone went their separate ways which was a shame as there would have been value in reviewing the final as a group. I also think the Conference could have been over the weekend instead of Fri/Sat so there could have been additional sessions.

Would I recommend it? Yes! Was it worth the investment of time, money, etc for a international coach? That’s a bit trickier. A $1,000 airfare, plus $300 fee and $250 hotel, and suddenly it gets pricey for a two day event. I was already in America and only staying at the hotel for two nights, so it became more manageable. If I was in the same scenario I would, without doubt, attend again – even if it was just to spend more time with Mick Haley.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Kathy DeBeor and Mick Haley. They both took time out to speak with me. They were genuinely interested in my opinions and my reasons for attending. Actually, everyone I met was very welcoming and that’s another reason to attend, as the groups were small there were opportunities to speak with the same people if you wanted to carry on those conversations.

What to do on half a court during warm-ups

I got the following question from a reader named Mike.

I have a question about useful activities that can be done sharing half court with the other team–you know–that 15 or so minutes before the refs call for captains.

Most of the teams I see just do pepper or hit down balls to 3 passers. But I’m wondering if there might be something that will get in more game-like reps even without the use of the net.

This is an interesting subject, and one I’ve had a lot of thoughts about over the years. In the Improving pre-match warm-ups post I sort of touched on it.  Mainly, though, I focused on what you can do when you have the court to yourself. So let’s look at what we can do before that time – or the shared hitting time if that’s the structure you have.

Pepper has a purpose

We all know the pepper isn’t very game-like. It does have a purpose during warm-ups, though. First, it replicates some of the physical movements the players will do in the match – especially arm-swing. As such, it does have a physiological use. Second, it has a mental element. The players use it to connect with each other on the court. This can actually be very important time for them, even though what they’re doing (like bouncing the ball off the floor) might not accomplish much in other respects.

A suggestion from John Kessel

My immediate reaction to Mike’s email when I saw the “game-like reps” was to think of something John Kessel often suggests. It’s something he likes for when you don’t have use of a net. He calls it something like “loser is the net”. Let me explain.

Imagine you’re playing Winners (Queen/King of the Court). Normally, you’d do it over a net. In this case, though, one or more players act as the net. For example, you could have three players. Two of them play 1 v 1 while the other is the “net” they have to play over. When the rally ends, the loser and the “net” change places.

You could do something similar with doubles. Two players are the net, perhaps by holding a rope between them. When the rally is over, they rotate out and the losers form the net.

You can probably fit at least three mini doubles courts on your side during pre-game warm-ups. Playing this game would certainly be a way to get game-like reps.

Stuff you want to work on

Something work thinking about as you ponder your pre-match time is what you might want to use the time to reinforce. You don’t want to be teaching new things before a game starts, but you can work on things you’ve already introduced. For example, lots of teams do blocking footwork during their warm-up. It can help reinforce those patterns, especially if you’re providing feedback. You don’t want them working on the wrong patterns, after all.

Mike brought up the idea of the coach hitting balls at three passers. There are lots of variations on this sort of thing. I’m not a huge fan, broadly speaking, but it can have its uses. One of them might be to reinforce team defensive movement and positioning.

While they won’t be particularly game-like, there are lots of little things like this you could potentially work on in the pre-game time. Maybe there’s some eye work for your setters, or transition footwork for your middles. Whatever it is, just make sure it doesn’t distract from match preparation. You don’t want your players thinking about something other than playing the game once the whistle blows.

Remember the purpose

Remember that what matters most during your warm-up is that the team is prepared to play – both collectively and individually. This is your primary objective. What they need to be there can vary from team to time. There is obviously a physical element. That’s pretty consistent across team, possibly with small variations for individual player considerations.

It’s the psychological aspect which varies more.

Some teams are ready to go mentally as soon as they walk into the gym. Others need some help to get themselves in the right mindset. It’s up to you as the coach to figure out what your team needs – realizing that it can change.

Be consistent

One thing players don’t like in their warm-ups is change. They can be easily rattled if you change things up unexpectedly. Should it be that way? No, but such is life. As such, it’s generally a good idea to introduce significant warm-up changes beforehand so they are prepared.

Selecting a team captain – one view

While reading the Nikolai Karpol biography, I came across the following quote.

“An important element in any victory is the team captain, the leader of the team is my main helper. She, both in life and on the court, has greater rights and greater responsibilities than the other players. The captain must be a player who understands the game and the coach’s thoughts, so when I choose a captain there is no democracy for me – I choose. The players have no say in it. There are sportsmen and women with a great deal of authority with their fellow players, but if they don’t understand me, they can’t be captains of the team I am leading. The captain must lead the team at training sessions and in the game, must know what to say to the referee, just as I would, she must know how the team is organised both on the court and in life. The captain is a player from whom I learn the problems in the team, both private and interpersonal conflicts. The captain knows more than the coach, she must know which problems should be hushed up and which ones need to be shared so we can solve them together.”

This is basically my own philosophy, as I wrote about before. I also wrote a post on the qualities of a good team captain which feeds into all of this. This is not the only approach, of course. That was the subject of a Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast episode. And team captains aren’t necessary in all situations. This particular approach works well for me, though.

Book Review: Karpol: Lunatics – That’s What I Need

If you’re like me, you probably know Nikolai Karpol as the Soviet/Russian women’s coach notorious for screaming at his teams. If you’ve read any of my posts about yelling, like this one, you know I’m not a big fan. From that perspective it’s hard for me to have a lot of respect for Karpol. The fact of the matter, though, is he’s been extremely successful through his career – both internationally and at the club level. That’s why I decided to read Karpol: Lunatics – That’s What I Need. We tell our players to go outside their comfort zones. This is one way we can do it as coaches.

I should note, a Croatian journalist wrote this book. The version I read is obviously an English translation. As such, there are some places where phrasing and meaning could be a little unusual. Generally speaking, though, it’s not hard to comprehend.

Also, Karpol is a product of his environment – as we all are. As such, there are places where his comments seem to quite strongly reflect a different mentality than might be the case of someone from a different part of the world and/or a different era.

The first part of the book, not surprisingly, is a biographical look at Karpol’s career going back to the late 1950s. After that it’s set up kind of like a series of short essays. Each chapter – of which there are over 30 – has it’s own general theme, but there isn’t a real sense of a defined progression. At only a bit over 100 pages, it’s a short, quick read.

There’s an interesting chapter on the way players were selected for and progressed through the club Karpol coached. One of the things it talks about is how you can influence a players height through how they eat and where they go. Of course there’s no scientific evidence offered. I did find it interesting, though, how much cross-training he said they did. The players didn’t just train volleyball. They did a lot of different things.

Karpol is, as I mentioned, well known for his yelling. Interestingly, he does address yelling in a chapter about midway through the book. It’s brief, and probably doesn’t go too far in really explain something many in the world see as his biggest attribute. You might find it both interesting and surprising, though.

The feeling that you get throughout the book, however, is that Karpol truly loved his players. He always wanted the best for them – even after they stopped playing.

In the latter part of the book Karpol bemoans how the world – and to a degree volleyball – has changed. Honestly, it struck me as fairly typical of someone on in years talking about how things were better before. I’m not saying he’s wrong, necessarily, but it was a kind of predictable mindset.

Here are some interesting quotes I came across in the book.

“It is the coach’s job to get everyone to go one step further, to go beyond their limits.”

“The coach’s task is to motivate the sportsman. Some children simply love sport, and in others that love can be nurtured. Let us say that a child is brought to the training session by his father, but he resists, he does not want to exercise, he almost hates sport. However, the coach can make the child love sport so much that he never wants to give it up. The same is true for teachers in school.”

“Young girl players, and the same is true for men, need to get involved in training with older players as soon as possible, for they will then be able to put together the little stones of the understanding of the game into a mosaic. It reminds me of the many little pictures that make up a film. Even by just watching the best players, those they admire, young players can learn a great deal. Not to mention training with them.”

“There is no volleyball on television because there are no stars. As soon as a true star emerges, television will be interested. However the creation of a star is not for a national side, but for the clubs. These days there are a lot of international matches and when the national sides are in action, the clubs take a break. The championships are put on hold. That is why the clubs are not interested in creating players, rather they try to buy them. If there are no quality players, that is stars, television will never broadcast volleyball matches. However much we change the rules of the game and shorten the match time to make volleyball more suitable for television, whatever we do, televisions will not be switched on until we create stars.”

With respect to that last quote, Karpol was very critical in the book of the major international organizations for their marketing of volleyball. We must realize this book was published in 2009, though. Some things have changed since then, hopefully for the better in that regard.

All in all, I think Karpol: Lunatics – That’s What I Need is a book worth reading. I wouldn’t put it at the top of my list, but it’s worth the time.

Looking at scoring streaks, odds, and service strategy

I like to engage with other coaching bloggers when I can. It’s a form of networking, which is never a bad idea. It also helps to foster communication and the exchange of ideas in our coaching community.

To that end, I want to address a post I came across. The author is Jim Dietz, though his name isn’t actually anywhere on the site (at least as I write this). Jim coaches at the junior college and club levels in the US. Like me, he’s also a book author.

In Jim’s post he takes on the subject of scoring points in streaks in volleyball, having looked at some numbers about bunch scoring in baseball. The conclusion that the post eventually leads to is that once you’ve scored two points in a row there’s an argument to be made for focusing on getting the next serve in to sustain the streak.

Baseball first

A quick thought on the baseball comparison Jim makes before shifting to volleyball. My immediate question about teams scoring in bunches being more successful is whether it’s a function of getting more players on base. I don’t know the statistics, but that’s the first thing I’d want to look at. If that’s the case, it means they are giving themselves more opportunities to score in general. As such, it’s not a case of winning because of scoring in bunches, but rather scoring in bunches because that’s what happens when you get a lot of runners on base, which produces more runs generally.

Scoring streaks required

Now, let me address the volleyball side of scoring streaks.

First, you simply cannot win a set in volleyball without scoring points in a row. This is the no-brainer aspect of Jim’s analysis. At the end of the day, points scored when you serve are what decides the game. In order to score a service point – aside from when you have the first serve of the set – you must first side out. That’s two points in a row – a mini streak.

If teams could only score at most one point from serve, then the team that had the greater number of mini streaks would win the set. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Teams can run off multiple points when they have serve.

But with regards to Jim’s analysis, there’s a major causality question – as there could be in the case of the baseball stats. Does a team win because they score in bunches? Or does the better team just tend to score in bunches?

Looking at the odds

Jim’s analysis of randomly generated scores are actually very predictable. Even when you have something like a coin toss you will get streaks. Given enough tosses, it’s guaranteed. And when a streak does happen, the odds aren’t in favor of a comeback, so to speak.

Let me drill down on that. Say it’s 15-15 and one side has a 3-point streak to get it to 18-15. If the odds of siding out are 50% for both teams, then you’d expect them to score basically the same number of service points over the rest of the set. That would mean something like a 25-22 score line. Is there a chance that the losing team gets a streak, or even more than one? Yes, but it’s just as likely the leading time does so. That means the odds of the leading team winning are quite high.

The above provides a good basis for going along with what Jim says about trying to go for streaks. The problem, though, is that this is all based on the idea that point scoring is entirely a random process with fixed odds. If that’s the case, then nothing we do really changes things. But do we really believe the odds are fixed? Maybe when looking at large numbers of observations. At the set level, though, there are a lot of factors that can alter the odds.

Impact on serving strategy

And that brings up the big point I want to make.

Jim talks about not being as aggressive on your 2nd serve as on your 1st to increase the odds of getting that 3-point streak (counting the original side out). There’s a major flaw in Jim’s thinking, though. In theory, if you dial down the aggressiveness on your serve you lower your chances of scoring. Jim speaks as if doing so increases the odds of scoring. If that were the case, wouldn’t you just use that less aggressive serve all the time?

That said, I do think it can be the case that you want to focus on getting your serve in in certain circumstances. These, though, are situations where you believe the odds have shifted more in your favor – going back to the earlier point of odds changing. For example, the other team is looking error prone and you don’t want to let them off the hook by making your own. Again, though, if you believe that’s the case already then your 1st service strategy should already reflect this view.

On proving yourself and winning

There’s a really interesting quote from Nebraska coach John Cook in his book, Dream Like a Champion.

“As coaches gain experience, however, that pursuit of winning goes away. Your work becomes more about coaching: the journey of each unique team and seeing individual players develop. You begin to enjoy all of those things a lot more and they become more important than winning. Winning is still important, of course, but you stop making yourself miserable over it. I enjoy coaching more now than ever before and I am able to learn so much more about myself and my role as a coach because I am not so worried about proving myself every day.”

This is a very insightful quote. At least it strikes a cord with me personally. Somewhere along the line I stopped fixating so much on winning and losing. That isn’t really in my control, so why stress about it so much?

I think Cook’s last sentence, though, begs a question. Is winning the only way we can prove ourselves, especially early in our career?

I touched on this subject before in terms of who we must prove ourselves too. I didn’t, though, really get into how we do that.

Let’s face it, most of the time people – including ourselves – tend to think in terms of winning. This is why we have youth coaches specializing kids early rather than developing them as all-around players. I wrote about that in the post Coaching Youngsters Like College Players.

Yes, sometimes winning is how you prove yourself. Not always, though. I’d actually venture to say, not even most of the time. Yes, if you’re at Nebraska, as Cook is, people expect you to win. If you don’t, you’re out of a job. When you think about the vast majority of teams, however, you’ll realize having fun and getting better are really the main focus points. As a coach you prove yourself by accomplishing those objectives. At least that should be the case. The problem is people tend to forget that in the heat of battle.

Actually, this is how coaches get in trouble sometimes. I have a coaching friend whose professional club fired him because he was overly competitive. He was focused on winning as how he would prove himself when the club leadership had a different focus for the team. Just goes to show that you need to know what matters to those who count.

Making the practice planning process easier

I once came across a question from a fellow coach.

Has anyone set up a database of drills/games/etc with a template for practices? e.g., in your template you can select from a variety of warmup items, then pick an individual skill, then a group skill, etc… so you wouldn’t have to a) remember every single drill since they would be in a database, b) hand write practice every day, etc.

I understand why something like this would be compelling. On the one hand, when I first got into college coaching I worked for a woman who was very structured. She was a facilities planner, so she liked her practices scheduled out basically to the minute.This sort of practice organizer is right up that alley.

On the other hand, there are definitely lots of options for drills and games. It can be hard to remember them. I’ve got some thoughts about this, though.

Why so many?

First, there is something I wrote about in the 1000 different drills post. Some coaches proudly have a large drill collection. They constantly swap drills in and out of their practices. As I talked about in that other post, though, this could actually hamper player learning.

Perhaps more meaningfully, always using different drills means time spent explaining them. That’s time not spent practicing. Remember, the more you talk, the less they train. If you have limited practice time, you need to get the absolute most out of it.

It only takes a few

Having said what I did in the last section, I definitely get the desire to mix things up and keep it fresh. We do need to keep player attentions in mind in our practice planning. That means changing the challenges and the focal points. Jan De Brandt and Teri Clemens, who we interviewed for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, both are proud of never running the same practice twice.

Here’s the thing, though. You can create an ever-changing practice plan using only a handful of exercises.

This starts with the understanding that you want to make things as game-like as you possibly can at all times. This is a simple function of the science of motor learning. You can’t always create actual game situations, or do things in a 100% game-like fashion, but you want to get as close as you can. If you have this idea in mind, it will likely cut down quite a bit on the number of possible drills you might use.

The second thing to understand is that so long as you make the exercises as game-like as you can get them, then what really matters isn’t the drill or game itself, but the feedback. That means you can use the same exercise for multiple different purposes simply by shifting the focus and feedback.

Finally, bonus points and other scoring systems can let you use even a simple 6 v 6 game in any way you like. Want to work on serve reception? Consider something like the points for passes system. Want to work on first ball sideout? Give a bonus point when the team does it, and/or to the serving team when they can prevent it. Want your servers attacking seams? Give them bonus points for doing so, regardless of the pass quality.

And of course you can also focus on something by having each rally begin in a certain fashion. Or if you want to run a wash game, you can have the follow-up ball(s) work a certain way. Let’s say you want to work on out-of-system hitting. You could start the rallies with a ball hit at the setter so a non-setter has to set the ball.

The point is you can work on just about anything you want in a simple 6 v 6 game by changing the way rallies are initiated, how you score them, and where you focus your feedback. And you can get really focused by using a second chance approach.

Get the point I’m trying to make here?

My own approach

I’m like Jan and Teri in that I probably don’t ever run the same practice twice. Teri actually goes even deeper in her interview (featured in the first Volleyball Coaching Wizards) and says she never had a list of drills. She just created whatever she needed when she planned practice. I approach things in a similar way.

Yes, I do have some standard drill and game structures that I use. By that I mean they are 6 v 6, or small-sided, or have a winners rotation, or something along those lines that is familiar to the players. This avoids the need for teaching new drills all the time. From there, though, I set up the ball initiation, scoring, and feedback so it focuses things on what I have for my priority that session.

I’m not saying this is the best approach for every coach. We all need to have a practice planning system that works for us. This one works well for me.