Stoked for the next round of NCAA matches

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The NCAA Championships continue this weekend with the Round of 16 on Friday and the Elite 8 on Saturday. ESPN has all the coverage, which means for online viewing it will be WatchESPN for those in the States and ESPNPlayer for those of us abroad.

Here are the match-ups for Friday:

05:00 PM ET #2 Texas #15 vs. Colorado State
05:00 PM ET #4 Wisconsin vs. Ohio State
06:00 PM ET #1 Stanford vs. Oregon State
07:00 PM ET #5 Penn State vs. #12 UCLA
07:00 PM ET #7 North Carolina vs. #10 Oregon
07:00 PM ET #6 Florida State vs. BYU
08:00 PM ET #8 Florida vs. #9 Illinois
09:30 PM ET #3 Washington vs. #14 Nebraska

I think the Washington-Nebraska and Penn State-UCLA will probably get a lot of attention seeing as they’re match-ups of former champions. I will be interested to see how North Carolina does against Oregon. The Oregon offense is quite fun to watch – very fast!

You can see the full bracket here.

Prowling the volleyball coaching job market

Volleyball Coach

I mentioned on social media last week that I’ve started the process of seeking a move back into full-time volleyball coaching after an eight year hiatus.

Actually, if I’m being technically correct, I wasn’t full-time in my last NCAA coaching position as it was a 2/3 equivalency. That fact was contributory to my absence from coaching for almost six years. I was broke and had to go back into my former profession in the financial markets where I could make a lot more money to get my finances cleaned up.

It took me about five years to finally pay off all my personal debts (and then a couple more for my credit rating to be fully restored). During that time I literally forced myself to stay away from volleyball aside from watching the occasional match on TV for fear it would suck me back in and upset my financial reclamation efforts. Given how quickly the coaching bug got hold of me again in England, that fear was justified!

Why now?
I’ve timed my plunge back into the full-time coaching market for now based on a couple of factors.

First, my PhD funding will run out in August. I need to be done with my doctoral work by then, which actually means submitting my dissertation at latest in February because there’s up to 3 months from then to my defense (Viva) and potentially up to another 3 months to make corrections before final submission. I have personally been targeting December/January for initial submission, which at this point is looking to be January.

Second, this time of year is when a lot of coaching jobs in the States start opening up because it’s the end of the women’s collegiate season (the Division I championships will conclude next weekend). Now is when contracts are not renewed, coaches resign or retire, etc. Schools are particularly eager to fill head coach vacancies relatively quickly so they have someone in place to recruit and work with the team through the Spring semester.

The options
As I mentioned above, I’m funded through the Summer, so there’s no actual need for me to rush into things. I can be patient from that perspective. In fact, there are really three potential career paths at this point.

With a PhD I can obviously go the academic route. I could also return to the financial industry. Either one of those choices would be quite lucrative, and I have not entirely ruled either out. The reason coaching volleyball tops my list, though, is the lifestyle suits me better. I’m physically fitter and healthier as a coach. And of course I find it very rewarding. I probably won’t make as much money in coaching, but I think my overall situation will be better.

Within coaching there are a couple of ways I could go. The most obvious would be to return to the States and rejoin the collegiate coaching ranks from whence I came. The other would be to enter into the professional volleyball arena, which I gained some nice exposure to back in August (see Three weeks in professional volleyball). I am considering both options, though the European professional season runs until March/April, which isn’t ideal from the perspective of having parallel job searches.

Head vs Assistant Coach
At this point I would say a head coaching job is probably the best option given my experience, how my coaching has matured, and where I’m at in my life generally. To the latter point, I’m no spring chicken. I need to keep in mind my long-term finances at this stage, so I can’t afford a lengthy period of low pay. I don’t live a particularly lavish lifestyle, so I don’t require a large salary from that perspective, but I do need to be able to save toward retirement.

In the US it would be no problem to take over a program as head coach. I spent 7 years in Division I, and during my time at Brown I was involved in all aspects of running the program (which is what happens with a small coaching staff). Every position is different, of course, but I am confident that I have sufficient understanding of how the system works that even after the time away I’ll be able to work effectively in it once again.

I have what I think are realistic expectations in that regard, though. I can’t imagine I’m a strong candidate for a head coach position in one of the big conference schools. I wasn’t an assistant at that level and don’t have NCAA head coaching experience. Not that the postings for those jobs list those credentials, but the candidate pool will certainly reflect it. My prospects are better in the more middling and lower ranks of Division I, or in Division II.

I would rule out the assistant coach route, though. In particular, if I were to move into professional volleyball coaching I would almost certainly have to start as an assistant. I simply don’t know enough about the workings and mechanics of that system at this point to expect to be able to be a good head coach. A couple years of assistant coaching would be required for me to gain that knowledge and experience. In the States, it would be all about the situation. I would have no problem being a long-term assistant in a good location with an enjoyable working environment. In terms of something that was meant to improve my credentials as a potential head coach, however, I would have to confine myself to looking at only upper level positions. A middling or lower level one wouldn’t do much for me, either in terms of my resume or my own development as a coach. Been there, done that.

What am I looking for?
On a certain level there’s a beggars can’t be choosers aspect to my volleyball coaching candidacy at this stage. From a professional perspective, I’m largely an unknown quantity, though my US coaching helps. From an NCAA job perspective, the fact that I’ve been away from that system for a while now doesn’t do me any favors. I’ve been able to get head coaching experience in England, with a good bit of success to boot, but I don’t know how that will be judged. I’ve also made potentially useful international contacts, but that is something which might only matter to a relative few.

From my own perspective, I’d like to end up at a place where I can build something – or help build it if in an assistant role. That means being somewhere the opportunity to work toward success exists. I don’t mind starting at a low point and working from there, so long as I can see how thing could growing and improve over time. I would not be happy in a place where management was happy with the status quo and unsupportive of my trying to elevate things.

I’ve said to friends that I wish the opportunity existed for me to stay and continue working with the Exeter University volleyball program. We’ve already had considerable success, especially when compared to the relative difference in support received by our competition, but there’s plenty more that could be done. I can see so many ways to make it stronger – to make it potentially one of the truly elite programs in the U.K. That is the sort of situation I’d like to find myself in moving forward. Unfortunately, the opportunity for me to stay in Exeter doesn’t exist, so I have to try to find something similar elsewhere.

Players today!

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“I really would not recommend the profession to anyone right now. Kids are different, kids, parents, administrators have way to much influence! Coaches hands are tied…..can’t push, can’t discipline…..parents and administration are one! YUK!”

Those comments are from a coach who’s been in the game at the NCAA Division I level for many years. They aren’t the only one I’ve heard these sorts of things from either. It even goes beyond volleyball – and beyond sports in general. I’ve heard similar sorts of views expressed by professors I know as well. They make me kind of chuckle in a way, because we always see the older generation complain about the younger one in some way, shape, or form.

Actually, from a coaching perspective the competitive part of me loves to hear that kind of stuff for two reasons because it means I might have an advantage over them in either the coaching or recruiting arenas (or both). :-)

The first reason is these last three seasons I’ve been working in a very player-centric environment while coaching in England. I haven’t had an administration to please (at least not directly), but rather a collection of student-athletes and their elected leaders. I essentially coached at their pleasure. I had to earn and retain their respect, both to coach them on-court and to be able to guide them in the off-court management of the club. I must have done at least something right as they presented me with a signed ball (a legit one too!) at the recent Christmas Party to thank me for my time with them.

The second reason is that I deal with my players as they are and am constantly asking the question of how to better communicate with, motivate and educate this team or this particular individual. It could be viewed as having a growth rather than fixed mindset as I discussed in How do you view your coaching exams? the other day. I just think of it in terms of looking at the situation I’m currently in, getting the most out of things, and trying to find ways to improve it.

So to all those coaches out there whining about players today … hope you don’t have to go up against me because I’m going to eat your lunch! ;-)

Setter start position and the passing target

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I saw the question asked recently whether as volleyball coaches we should have our setters start at the net, slightly offset from middle in the traditional target position (net zone 6 in the old USA Volleyball numbering system) or whether we should allow them to go to a spot a bit further off the net. The latter reflects a shift to have passes which aren’t as close to the net that’s gained traction in recent years, at least partly thanks to the spread of the Gold Medal Squared philosophy. I think the setter start position and the passing target are issues which deserve separate attention.

Passing Target
To my mind, where you have your passing target depends on a number of factors. Level of play is obviously a big factor. You don’t want to try to force a high level of accuracy on players lacking the technical skills, and if all you’re setter is going to do is set high balls it really doesn’t matter too much of the ball is off the net. At the same time there’s greater margin for error at the top end of the sport because of the skill of setters and hitters to allow for less precision. The result is that teams in the middling levels are the ones who require the highest degree of passing accuracy if they want to run a quick offense in the middle.

The reason coaches have begun setting their teams’ passing target a bit off the net is to reduce the risk of overpasses. It’s similar to the idea of having your target for digs being middle of the court around the 3m line. Keep the ball on your side of the net and give your team a chance to get a swing.

While I understand the motivation, and certainly do a lot of work with my own teams to avoid overpasses, there’s a trade-off which must be considered. It’s akin to the one we make when considering how aggressively we should have our teams serve. At a certain point more risk is required to be competitive. We have to consider the effectiveness of our pin hitters when deciding on a passing target. If they are able to consistently score (or at least put the opposing under pressure) then the more conservative passing approach is reasonable. If, however, our OHs and OPPs struggle to score, then we need more precise passing to be able to bring our middles into the equation and give our pin hitters swings in better situations.

Setter Start Position
My personal philosophy is that the setter should always start at the net, and then react from there to move off the net if the pass requires. My reason for this is setters get themselves into trouble quite often when they try to move toward the net on a ball passed close. We’ve all seen it. After coming off the net the setter loses their sense of position and/or end up having to try to play the ball while moving toward the net, which tends to result in net touches, center line violations, ball-handling errors, or simply bad decisions. The mistake I tell my setters they cannot make is to mess things up by being out of position when one of their teammates gave them a perfect pass.

Now, that said, there are times when it might make sense for the setter to start slightly off the net. At the lower end of the playing ability scale, if you have a slower setter and the vast majority of balls are being passed off the net then a start position a few steps into the court makes sense. on the other end of the spectrum, if you have an athletic left-handed setter who can attack the ball effectively, having them start a bit off the net to be able to get a short approach can make sense.

As always, what we coach our team to do should depend on the specific circumstance of that group of players and the opposition we face.

The end of a transformative experience

vbwhistle

Last night was the Christmas dinner for the Exeter University Volleyball Club. It marked the end of my formal involvement with the program, which began in September 2012 when I arrived on campus to commence work on my PhD. Even before I started at the university I had begun to develop connections in the volleyball community here with the idea that it could provide a social outlet beyond the academics. I had no idea where that would end up taking me, though.

My time with the university teams started as a “You interested in helping out?” kind of invitation from another American (Kyle) who’s been in the mix with the club for several years. I went along to the BUCS teams try-out session to start the new year and then met with Kyle and the club captains, Anja and Mathilde, afterwards to talk about me being a part of things. My one condition for helping out on the coaching front was that there would be no more jog & stretch. Little did I know what I was getting myself into! :-)

The way Kyle and I sort of planned things out was that I would lead coach the women with him helping out, and he would lead coach the men with me helping. Very quickly, though, I found myself doing the vast majority of the coaching. Kyle could only attend one evening per week (we trained two) and didn’t go to matches. I couldn’t envision myself coaching without seeing the teams play competitively, so not only was I running the second night of training myself, but I was at all the matches for both teams (though when they played at the same time I prioritized the men as the club felt they were better positioned for a good season). Then, on top of it all, Kyle ended up missing most of the nights he normally would have coached because of academic travel and such. So basically for long stretches I was doing all the coaching, with a bit of help from former club members Carolina and Steve when they were available.

I didn’t end up minding, though. The coaching bug got me again and I was really into it – probably to the detriment of my PhD work for stretches. :-(

It ended up being a good year. The men had barely avoided relegation to Division 2 the prior season and the women had just been promoted up from Division 1, so expectations weren’t super high for either group. As it turns out, we were able to get both teams into Championships by finishing top three in the league (men 2nd, women 3rd), with the men advancing on to Final 8s for the first time in many years.

That Final 8s experience was extremely useful for me in that I now had a clear view of what the top level of volleyball looked like for both genders. I was able to incorporate that into my work with the teams the following season, most especially for the women. The men had some rebuilding to do after losing all but three players, but they still had enough to repeat their 2nd place league finish, while the women ended in a tie for 1st, losing out on the title by a tiebreak. Both teams advanced to Final 8s where the men were able to improve on the prior year’s finish by playing their best volleyball in their last match of the season. Meanwhile, the women stunned everyone (including ourselves!) by advancing to the semifinals. This is how I celebrated at the club’s year-end dinner. :-)

KiltDinner

2013-14 Exeter Univeristy Volleyball Club year-end dinner, with women’s team captain Mathilde and assistant coach Steve sporting our BUCS 3rd place medals.

We also added second teams for both men and women last season, which competed in Division 2. They weren’t separate teams, but rather something we handled as a split squad situation out of a larger group of players. Both had solid seasons, with the women finishing second in their league and the men making the Conference Cup semifinals. The combination of results for all four teams saw the club finish 3rd overall in BUCS volleyball points for the year.

On top of that, both genders entered teams in South West regional club play for the first time, and I coached the women in almost all their matches (they finished 3rd in the league, but would have been second if not for a facilities issue on the last date which caused a pair of forfeits). I even coached the women in the South West Championships in May. I figure I was on the bench for over 50 matches for the club in 2013-14 in locations ranging from Cornwall to Edinburgh.

This third season has been more of a struggle from several perspectives. The teams are in a tougher league now and we’ve had our share of bad luck – especially on the women’s side, which already had lost most of last year’s squad. I have had to cut back my involvement to turn more attention to my PhD work in order to be able to submit my thesis on the timeline I set for myself. I’ve only coached one away match, and just 8 out of 18 played by the teams overall. I don’t like not being able to be fully committed the way I was last year, but it simply can’t be helped as I need to prioritize bigger picture stuff. The teams will continue to train and play in the second term, but it will be without me as my attention will have to be fully on academics, finding myself a job, and some other projects that have been awaiting my attention.

If I’ve done the math right, I’ve coached the university teams 107 times over the last three seasons in all competitions. By all accounts, they’ve been some of the best they’ve had, so I end my tenure with them feeling a considerable sense of accomplishment.

At least as importantly, my coaching has developed in many ways as well. I have no doubt I’m a much better and more well-rounded coach than I was before. I’ve worked with something like 70 players from over 20 different countries (only three members of the club in 2012-13 are still here this year), which is definitely an experience I would not have been able to have coaching in the States.

 

How do you view your coaching exams?

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A while back Mark from At Home on the Court offered up a post on the subject of coaching and learning in volleyball (and sports in general). He made the comment:

The way I often put it is that the match is a test or exam of the coach’s work. 

The test/exam idea is something I’ve thought about in different ways over the years. Mark is absolutely right. We train our players to be able to compete in matches. We spend countless hours thinking about line-ups and scouting to try to put our teams in the best possible position to succeed. Unfortunately, very often one’s grade on these exams tends to be strictly based on winning or losing. This can be problematic on many levels.

Putting aside external expectations, it can be quite easy for a coach to equate their record with their self-worth. It’s very easy to see winning as an indication of skill and losing as a sign of failure even though outcomes are often determined by factors beyond our control. I personally used to dread coaching in matches at times. Putting it in the context of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, I had a fixed coaching mindset. I identified myself as a good volleyball coach and didn’t want to risk being faced, through losing, with an indication that I wasn’t.

Side note: If you haven’t read Mindset yet, I recommend you do.

Somewhere along the way, though, I developed a more growth oriented match coaching mindset. These days matches are sources of feedback. They tell me how the team is progressing and what we need to work on to keep improving and developing toward our objectives. Does that mean I don’t experience successes or failures or that I don’t want to win? Of course not! I just choose not to frame the outcomes in terms of my identity as a volleyball coach. Instead, I use them to help me see what’s working and where I could potentially use some improvement. And that goes WAY beyond just match coaching.

How many points is a coach worth?

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I have documented in the coaching log updates the work I’ve done with the university women’s team the last couple of months. I also coach the men. Unfortunately, conflicting schedules has seen me only coach the first team guys in matches twice as it was decided I would prioritize the women in those cases. One was a loss to the top team in the league while the other was a comfortable win over a team about on our competitive level. The guys have played four additional matches – one against the second best team in the league, another against the team they beat, and two against one of the other teams of about the same competitive level. All four were losses, though well-fought in the latter three cases.

After hearing about how they’d lost one 0-3 but with very tight scores a couple weeks back, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we could have flipped things around and come out with a win if I were there for that match. That got me wondering how much of an impact a coach could have on a match between two reasonably closely match teams.

Obviously, as coaches our biggest impact comes in how we train our teams and prepare them beforehand. What impact, though, do we have come game day?

The captain of the university men’s team two seasons back once told me after a come-from-behind match victory that they wouldn’t have won without me. That sort of thing warms a coach’s heart, but I don’t recall the specifics of the match to be able to say what particular influence I might have had on the outcome. We’ll never know if he was right or not.

The most direct influence we have comes in the form of line-up decisions and substitutions. After that the things which come to mind are effective use of timeouts, the style and content of communication with the team and individual players during breaks, and making tactical/strategic adjustments based on what’s being observed during play.

I would venture to say that the more experienced the players and the higher the level of play the less influence the coach has during the match – especially given all the scouting and game planning that gets done in advance. At lower levels where a considerable amount of teaching must go on and less scouting information is available I’d suggest there are more opportunities for the coach to influence things in different ways.

The closest thing I can offer up as a potential indication of the influence of a coach on match outcomes is the record of the teams I’ve coached during my time in England. At this writing they have played a total of 189 matches, of which I was on the bench for 130. The win percentage for those matches is 6% higher in the cases when I was coaching than when I wasn’t. I’m not sure how valid that comparison is, though, as we’re talking about effectively 8 different teams (the university men and women over three seasons and a local women’s team over parts of two seasons) across five or six different league and cup competitions, and in some cases where I wasn’t on the bench there was another coach with the team (admittedly someone much less experienced).

For the purposes of this discussion it would be better if I could drop the clearly lopsided match-ups from the tally (I’ve definitely been on both sides of those) and/or to look at set and point differential comparisons. Unfortunately, I don’t have that level of granularity in my records. Even if I did the comparison might still not have the right composition to be truly valid.

Any thoughts?

Coaching Log – Dec 1, 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

The final training session of the calendar year featured 12 players. Unfortunately, two starters were among the absentees, which limited the opportunity to prepare for Wednesday’s final match of the term. It was a nice number to do some interesting and fun stuff for training purposes, though.

After dynamic warm-up I started them in 4-person over-the-net pepper, which is essentially like playing a version of cooperative small court doubles with one player at the net and one off (switching each time they put the ball over). At one point I had the two players at the next switch sides to mix up the “teams”, and then I also had one side of the court rotate to mix things further.

From there I have them do a short serving warm-up, and then had them play the amoeba serving game. I put them through five variations. First was full-court. Second was zones 4 & 5. Third was zones 1 & 2. Fourth was short. Fifth was deep. As always, the players had a lot of fun, and it was a tight 3-2 contest.

After serving they played speedball winners. I put them in groups of three with roughly even positional distributions. They played on a narrow court (about 2/3rds width). About halfway through I had two teams switch sides to mix things up.

To conclude I had them play 6 v 6. Because we didn’t have the full first team, and because it was the last session of the term, I created roughly equal teams rather than going A/B. Similar to training last week, the play featured one team serving 3 times, then the receiving team doing 1 minute of scramble. I had them go through all 6 rotations 1-4-6-3-5-2. Predictably, with the mixed teams the play was fairly sloppy, but the intensity and focus was pretty good.

This was my last session with the team. They will play away on Wednesday, but I won’t make the trip because of my PhD demands. Thursday evening is the annual Christmas dinner, which will be the club’s final official activity for the term, and probably my last direct involvement. To the extent that I will be around for the second term I will be fully engaged in getting my dissertation submitted, potentially developing academic papers for publication, working on other projects, and most importantly, trying to find myself a job.

Getting young players to communicate and move

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A reader recently asked the following very common question:

I am assistant coach of Grade 8 girls and they need to come out of their shells. What drills do you suggest to help with their first pass?

Basically, this coach is looking for ways to get them to call the ball and move more aggressively to play it. I can tell you that this isn’t something confined to just to girls or just younger players. I’ve had to address it with older players and with members of both genders.

Calling the ball
Communication is all about habit. You need to develop in your players the habit of calling the ball before they play it. The only real way to do that is to have them do it repeatedly. Unfortunately, there’s no magic drill to make them suddenly start talking. As a coach you simply have to prioritize that focus and continuously reinforce it in different ways throughout your trainings. Put them in situations where they have to cooperate. Have consequences for failure to call the ball, like not counting repetitions in passing drills, or even making it a minus. Maybe add a bonus point in a game for any time all three contacts for a team have someone calling the ball. Be creative, but most importantly make sure to consistently focus on it. If you are only intermittently encouraging them to talk they will probably only communicate intermittently.

Moving to the ball
Standing around waiting for the ball to come to them is the hallmark of new players. This is something that needs to be very quickly addressed. Working regularly on court footwork (shuffles, cross-overs, etc.) is a starting point to getting players used to the idea of moving and how to do it properly. The second step is to incorporate movement before playing the ball into your drills. Even if you’re working on the very basic stuff, you can still have them shuffle a step or two before they pass. The more you get them used to the idea of having to move prior to playing the ball, the more it will start to come naturally.

Confidence and connection
Let’s face it, a lot of what makes players quiet and tentative is a lack of confidence and not feeling connected with their teammates. To the extent we as coaches can help overcome that we speed up the process of getting them to talk to each other and come together as a team. Something I’ve found useful in that regard is the Amoeba serving game. I’ve seen quiet groups turn into a yelling, screaming bunch of players as they encourage each other in trying to beat the other team. Lots of exactly the sort of things we want to develop in our players. And I’m not just talking about youngsters here. I see the same sort of thing with my university players in England, where I’ve used the game to help integrate players from all different nationalities and backgrounds.