Are you a sitting or standing coach?

shadowy volleyball coach

When you coach a volleyball match, do you sit on the bench or stand on the sideline? One need not spend much time watching volleyball to see that coaches are split on which way they go. Some high profile coaches sit on the bench while others stand fairly calmly and still others prowl up and down the sideline like a caged animal. So which are you?

I am very much a standing coach myself. I often don’t have much choice these days because what passes for benches in my gyms (sports halls) in England are so low to the ground as make my knees creak just looking at them. On very rare occasions I might sit in a chair if my back is aching or something and the match is of a low intensity variety, but otherwise I’m on my feet.

For me, standing is something that really started in earnest when I was coaching at Brown. At one point I decided to stand at the end of the bench with the substitutes so I could get a better viewing angle. It had a side benefit as well. I found that just the little movements back and forth I made while in that position tended to help bleed away some of the tension and stress I felt during a match. The head coach actually remarked on this at one point.

These days, I’m probably more generally mellow during matches. I don’t know if being able to move a bit has as much of a physiological effect as it did before. At this point, being on my feet is more about being better able to see the action and be a little more connected with the team on the floor.

So what do you favor – standing or sitting?

Volleyball Camp Drills and Games


Summer is, of course, prime season for volleyball camps. As anyone who has ever run one knows, camps present their own set of challenges for drill and game selection. When you’re designing a plan for a practice session you at least know the level of the players, the distribution of players in the various positions, and things like that. Camps are more akin to try-outs in terms of trying to employ activities which can accommodate for a number of variables.

Actually, in many camps there is a sort of try-out process at the beginning to assign players to courts or teams for the remainder of camp based on position, skill level, etc. That requires employing drills which can be used to handle large numbers of players efficiently. If you’re in a position like this, have a look at the Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas post.

It is very easy in a camp situation where you’re dealing with potentially a lot of players to get lazy and do something like jog & stretch. Please don’t do that! You can see my thoughts on warm-ups in general in the post Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time? Suffice it to say, I think you can do better, even if it’s just adopting some kind of dynamic warm-up. Depending on the age and skill level of the group, you may do well to consider a ball-handling and/or footwork oriented warm-up.

Lots and lots of touches!
Let’s face it, part of running a camp is making sure the campers are happy and feel like they get something out of the experience. Standing around for long periods doing nothing doesn’t help with that. You want to keep them active as much as possible, and the more ball contacts you can get them the better. The best way to do this is to put them in small groups. That allows you to run ball-handing shuttles (like 21) and/or pepper variations such as 3/4-person in-line or over-the-net. You can also play small-sided games, perhaps in a tournament format to add a competitive element.

Inclusive rather than exclusive
Be careful about using drills or games where players who make a mistake are bumped out for lengthy periods of time. An example of this is the common serving drill where you have players on both sides serving back and forth and missed serves cause players to have to go sit on the other side until a teammate hits them with a serve. That sort of drill will tend to see the weaker players spend the most time sitting on the floor. A better option would be the Amoeba Drill, which flips that around (always a popular one, by the way).

Emphasize connecting with new people
Unless you’re running a team camp, you’re going to have a bunch of players who don’t know each other for the most part. That means as you design activities for the campers you need to incorporate a “getting to know your fellow campers” element. There are loads of different icebreaker exercises out there that can help in this regard, and that can be incorporated into volleyball work.

Talk as little as possible
The campers are there to work on their skills and play games. They are not there to attend a series of lectures. Spend as little time as you can get away with having them listen to coaches talk and as much time as possible on the court.

Be creative and make it fun!
Creativity can go a long way toward making for a positive camper experience. As much as we coaches might want to spend loads of time on fundamentals, the kids can only tolerate a limited amount of ball-handling work before they start to lose focus. By all means, do lots of fundamental work in your camp, but think about ways you can do it without the kids realizing you’re doing so. Using different types of games can help that, especially since the kids will be eager to play anyway.

Whether you are running a camp or just part of the coaching staff, keep in mind that as much as we might like it to be otherwise, camps are at least as much about entertainment as making players better. If you want players to come back again and/or tell their friends about it, they have to have a positive experience. This is something different than coaching a team or a training session where the focus tends to be more on challenging the players. Keep the fun element in mind and you’ll tend to end up with more satisfied campers.

Principles for success from the front line


After writing yesterday’s post about the characteristics of a good team captain, I recalled something worthwhile on the subject of leadership. It’s applicable equally to captains and coaches.

One of the great cinematic works of recent years is the HBO series Band of Brothers. If you haven’t seen this World War II story, and can deal with a fair bit of graphic war oriented footage, it’s I strongly encourage you to watch the series. It is based on a book of the same name which documents the history of a real unit of US paratroopers – Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment – from their initial training through to the end of the war. The series includes interview footage of the surviving members of Easy Company.

One of the officers for Easy Company is Dick Winters, who ends the war as a Major. He authored his own book titled Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters. In it he not only tells the story from his own perspective, which is a little different (though not dramatically so, just more a matter of perspective), but he also shares a number of his insights into leadership. At the end of the book there’s a page titled Leadership at the Point of the Bayonet where Winters shares his principles for leaders. I think they are well worth reviewing for volleyball coaches and is something which can help in the development of good team captains.

Ten Principles for Success

  1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.
  2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.
  3. Stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.
  4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.
  5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.
  6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.
  7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.
  8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.
  9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect – not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.
  10. Hang Tough! – Never, ever, give up.

The qualities of a good team captain


There was an article recently in which Team GB Olympic volleyball captain Lynne Beattie talks about team captaincy. I had the misfortune of coaching against Lynne and her Northumbria team during the national semifinals last season at BUCS Final 8s. Well, misfortune in terms of being sorely outclassed on the court. We were just happy to have progressed that far!

Anyway, the article brings up the qualities which make for a good team captain, and talks about how after a certain point it’s just not simply the best player on the team. This isn’t to say that doesn’t often remain the case, as the qualities which produce good captains very often result in good players as well. It’s just that not all great players are captain material.

So what does Lynne think good captains have? Calmness under pressure is at or near the top of the list. Hard to disagree with that. Nobody wants a captain who cracks when the heat gets turned up. It needs to be the other way around – the captain helping the rest of the team deal with the stress and strain.

From my own perspective, here’s what else I think makes for an ideal team captain, in no particular order:

Team focus: They put the team’s performance and objectives ahead of their own. This isn’t to say they don’t worry about their own game, but they are committed to the broader goals.

Communication skills: A good captain can communicate well with both their teammates and the coach(es). For me the latter is very important. I need to be able to have a dialog with my captain(s) to be able to ensure that I know what I need to know to manage the team most effectively and that the team understands my thinking and decision-making.

Intensity: This need not be of the loud, constantly talking kind. I should be able to look at them and see the focus, concentration, and commitment in their eyes, though.

Work ethic: The captain should be one of the hardest working players on the team, if not the hardest. Lazy players in leadership roles set very bad examples.

Respect: This is multifaceted. The captain must respect the players and be respected by them. The same is true with the coach(es) and anyone else associated with the team.

Organizational skills: I personally delegate quite a bit of team management to my captains, so having someone who can be organized is important. The ability to delegate to others is useful in this context as well.

Positive attitude: I’m not talking cheer-leading here. For some captains, in some circumstances, that may be a desirable course (as with coaches), but what I’m talking about here is mentality. They don’t wine or moan or pull faces when they disapprove of something. They are constructive rather than critical. The are more optimist than pessimist.

Butt-kicking: This could be said to fall under communications skills, but I wanted to break it out for specific focus. It is important for a captain to be able to be critical of their teammates, either individually or collectively. And from there they must be able to effectively kick them in the butt when required as sometimes that sort of thing is much more impactful when it comes from within the team rather than just coming from the coach.

I’m sure you could think of some other features of a good captain. If you do, or you disagree with something I’ve said above, definitely leave a comment below.

Terry Pettit has a chapter in his book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams in which he talks about some of the captains he had over the years that is definitely worth a read. It speaks to both the demands of captaincy and the different types of captains there are. We don’t often get an exact ideal captain in our teams. I happened to have had a very good one last year on university women’s team I coached, but in some ways she grew into the role over the course of the season. The coaching of the captain as leader is something which cannot be ignored in all this. It probably doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

BUCS volleyball 2014-15 schedule out


BUCS has posted the schedule for the new UK collegiate volleyball season ahead. It actually strikes me as being earlier than was the case last year, but don’t hold me to that. With the introduction of the new Northern and Southern Premier Leagues for the upcoming season, there’s had to be a restructuring through the divisions and various competitions. Somewhere along the way, it was decided not to do the relegations from Division 1 they had originally signaled, as I wrote about in early June.

As it turns out, that means the Exeter women’s 2nd team won’t move up to Division 1 after all. That may have an impact on how we structure training this year. Last season we trained the Division 1 and 2 teams together. I don’t know if that will be practical this year, though. I’m sure I’ll write about that later as things develop.

The introduction of the Premier Leagues has resulted in a shift in the structure of the Championship and Trophy competitions. In the past, the top 3 teams in each of the five Division 1 leagues qualified for Championships with Final 8s capping off the season. The rest went to the Trophy competition, which is a knock-out cup structure. Moving forward, only the Premier League teams will qualify for Championships. If the Final 8s structure is kept, which I think is the plan, then presumably there would be some kind of preliminary entry play-off, perhaps with the top teams byed. All Division 1 teams now go into the Trophy bracket, which turns into a season-long cup competition – in addition to regular league play, of course. The lower divisions retain their League Cups alongside the regular season.

The promotion/relegation system for the Premier League will involve the last place PL team in each league playing off, presumably against the winners of the geographically appropriate Division 1 leagues. That means relegation isn’t automatic, unless that bottom team has forfeit one or more matches. In the case of the Northern PL, two teams will be brought up this year to get their final count to 6 as they only start with 5.

As for scheduling, we shall see. I’ve written before about my frustrations with how that’s been handled. BUCS has posted a schedule based on their standard Wednesday fixtures. Given the distances involved for the PL teams, they have at least made a pair of concessions. The first is that they seem to have had both the men and women for schools where both genders are in the PL playing at home on the same dates, and playing other schools with dual participation on the same dates. This is what the Exeter schedule looks like:

Men Women
15-Oct @Warwick @Sussex
22-Oct Cambridge Cambridge
29-Oct @UEL @Oxford
12-Nov @Bournemouth @Bournemouth
19-Nov Warwick Sussex
26-Nov @Cambridge @Cambridge
4-Feb UEL Oxford
11-Feb @UCL @KCL
18-Feb Bournemouth Bournemouth

You’ll notice that the Exeter teams play the Cambridge and Bournemouth squads on the same dates, both home and away. Both teams are also home on the same dates. Not only does this help out in terms of travel, it also helps out in terms of coaching. I have coached both the men and women the last two years. Mostly, it wasn’t an issue because we generally avoided direct conflicts in the schedule. The risk this year was that there was going to be a load of conflicts, making it quite unreasonable for one coach to handle both squads. The schedule above only has three conflicts when the teams are away at different places.

Again, who knows if this will all hold. Exeter is certainly not keen to host on Wednesdays and I know some of the other schools – based on conversations I’ve had with coaches – aren’t keen on playing Wednesdays in general terms. They prefer weekends. We may yet end up with a very different looking schedule – perhaps one which features triangulars or something along those lines.

Actually, something does need to happen to adjust things. The last round of fixtures is currently scheduled for after the February 11 cut-off to get them all played!

However they do it, I hope it at least is sorted out ahead of time. There’s very little that’s much more frustrating than not knowing from week to week what the match schedule looks like.

Avoiding playing down to the opposition’s level

shadowy volleyball coach

The subject of teams playing down to the level of weaker opposition is one recently brought up on the At Home on the Court blog. Mark makes the observation in terms of trying to avoid this happening:

“Ultimately a situation is created in which teams and players measure themselves not against their opponent but against themselves.”

This speaks to the idea that a team – players and coach – expects a certain level of commitment and performance at all times, not just when the competition is challenging. You do this by setting the standards early and keeping everyone focused on them throughout. Players I’ve coached will tell you I don’t hesitate to call a timeout to scold a team if I see them playing below their capability, even (perhaps especially) when they are winning easily.

But I don’t want to be in that situation. I avoid it by having specific plans and objectives for those types of matches. That could mean using non-starters. It could mean working on specific skills or strategies. Finding something specific – and ideally objective – you can have the team or individual players work on lets you take the focus away from the scoreboard and put it on things that will help the team’s development. Alexis at Coaches Corner would probably put this in the category of “process over outcome”, which is probably reasonable, though I would still frame it within the context of kicking the other team’s tail all over the court.

For example, last season with my university women’s team we played quite a few matches against significantly weaker teams. We needed to be able to get something out of those matches to help us prepare to play the tougher teams in key matches. I was able to play a lot of different players and line-ups. I was able to focus them on things like serving, and on thinking about how to identify and take advantage of opposition weaknesses. This all paid dividends down the line.

Book Review: Winning Volleyball by Al Scates

Winning Volleyball by Al Scates

Let’s face it, a volleyball coaching book published in 1993 is going to have a lot of dated information. It predates rally scoring, the let serve, the libero, and a number of other rules changes which have come into the game in the last 15 years. Winning Volleyball by Al Scates certainly reflects its time in that regard. No question. This doesn’t make it a worthless read, however.

Any time you can read the writings of someone with over 1200 career coaching victories, it’s probably worth doing so. That’s what you get from Al Scates, who won 19 NCAA volleyball titles with his UCLA during a career which ran from 1963 to 2012. While there’s quite a bit in the book which doesn’t reflect the modern game, there is still a fair bit one could latch onto as worthwhile. For example, Scates talks at one point about serving strategy in a way that would be familiar to modern coaches (or at least should be!). It’s all presented in a pretty blunt, straightforward style.

And if you’ve any interest in volleyball history at all, you’ll love this book! It’s got loads of old pictures of some of the legends of the game (albeit mainly from a US perspective, not surprisingly). Scates also talks a fair bit about the history of the sport in different respects, both in discrete parts and threaded through other sections as well.

So if you can get your hands on an old copy of Winning Volleyball somewhere, it’s worth thumbing through.

Training at a faster tempo than matches


If you’ve never heard the name John Wooden and you’re a coach – of any sport – then as soon as you finish reading this post I strongly recommend you go out and do some research. Wooden is acclaimed as one of the great coaches of all time, not just from the perspective of winning a lot (which he did), but also from the perspective of teaching (which he was as well). A good biography about him I read a number of years ago is They Call Me Coach. That’s probably a good starting point, after which you can delve into the numerous books and videos he’s done on coaching and leadership.

Wooden was the subject of some academic research into teaching/coaching methods back in the 1970s, with this being a paper worth giving a read. An interesting observation of the way he ran his training sessions is the following from a former player:

Practices at UCLA were nonstop, electric, supercharged, intense, demanding . . . with Coach pacing the sidelines like a caged tiger, barking instructions, positive reinforcement, and maxims: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” He constantly changed drills and scrimmages, exhorting us to “move quickly, hurry up.” Games seemed like they happened in a slower gear. I’d think in games, “why is this taking so long because everything we did in games happened faster in practice.”

I don’t know if Wooden was the motivation for it, but for a long time I have been very much in favor of using what I refer to as “overspeed” types of games and drills in volleyball, which is akin to what is described above. By overspeed I mean activities during which things happen faster than they would in a match. An example of this is initiating a new ball into a 6 v 6 game as soon as a rally ends (or some specific action happens), such as in bingo-bango-bongo.

There are a couple of reasons for doing this. One is to increase training intensity by not giving players much in the way of break time between plays. Another is to get players to be constantly focused on their next responsibility since they need to be alert to the next incoming ball. All of this serves to make things seem to slow down during matches.

I’m certainly not saying I do everything in training overspeed. I’d probably have players dropping over on the court if I did. Mainly I use it in game-play situations, in part because frankly I can’t stand the slow pace of things when it’s just normal play. I can get my players a lot more repetitions by using the high tempo games – and get a bit of conditioning work in there too. ;-)

Wrapped up Volleyball England Level 3!


I’m done!

The long journey to Volleyball England Level 3 coaching certification I started back in October last year is over. On Tuesday evening I attended a “How to Deliver Engaging Sessions for Young People” workshop in London – near famous Wembley Stadium, actually. That was the last of three required continuing professional development (CPD) workshops I needed to complete my certification requirements after sitting the 5-day course and going through a practical coaching assessment.

Actually, Volleyball England already has me listed as a “Level III Theory” coach officially after completing the course portion of things and passing the exam at the end. It’s now just a question of all the paperwork getting done to complete the full certification process.

I’m glad to have finished this process. Now to see if I can reactivate my USA Volleyball CAP certification. Unfortunately, I let that lapse during my time away from coaching. I’m hoping they will let me at least back in at CAP I. I really wouldn’t be keen on having to start all over again.