To sub or not to sub, that is the question


The other day the captain of the university women’s team I currently coach emailed me to discuss a couple of team issues. She brought up the subject of substitutes and made the comment “Apart from Jo and I, nobody knows that you are not a fan of subs…” – Jo being the only other returning player involved in the discussion which triggered the email. Now, that comment taken out of context suggests concerns about playing time being voiced, which really wasn’t the case. It wasn’t intended as a critical comment at all, in fact. That said, it got me thinking about two things.

Better Communication
I sometimes need to communicate better with my teams and players. It’s a long-term developmental need of mine that I’m always working to improve. While it’s not a specific issue with this team at the moment, I should still have informed them of my philosophy toward substitutes as part of the general expectations development conversation.

My substitution philosophy
Contrary to what the captain suggested (see communication above!), I don’t actually have an inherent bias against substitutions. If I think someone on the bench can perform better in a given situation than a player on the court, then I’ll make a sub. In making that decision, though, I’m thinking multi-dimensionally rather than just rolling the dice and hoping something good happens (this article actually challenges the effectiveness of making subs – hat tip to At Home on the Court).

Say Suzy is having a rough match hitting and I have Debbie on the bench who could probably go in and do a better job. Whether I make that sub depends on whether I think I lose more overall by taking Suzy out than I gain by putting Debbie in. For example, say Suzy is a much better passer/defender than Debbie while Debbie would likely only be a moderately better hitter. In some circumstances you may want to make the switch, but generally speaking that’s a trade-off you probably don’t want.

There can also be a non-competitive reason for leaving a struggling player on. Sometimes you just need to give someone a chance to work through it and learn to overcome the adversity. Of course this is easier to do when you’re operating in a developmental scenario and not fighting for a league championship! Similarly, though, you’re also more likely to share around playing time in a non-competitive context.

Circling back to the original captain comment … the reason she hasn’t seen me make many subs in the three seasons she’s played for me is that generally speaking the level of play for those on the bench has been markedly lower than for the starters, with perhaps the exception of maybe one or two players each year. We’ve also had numbers constraints based on having to field squads for multiple competitions, some of which created “cup tie” situations.

Four hundred posts and counting!

Welcome to Coaching Volleyball

Friday’s entry in the Coaching Log series marked the 400th post in this blog’s history, which goes back to June 2013. It still amazes me at times how much interest and readership the site has garnered. As I write this there have been nearly 25,000 users and almost 70,000 page views. Content from the blog has been used in the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball 2.0 magazine on three separate occasions, and the site was a big part in my developing contacts in professional volleyball and elsewhere. Not bad for something that started off to be a resource for volleyball coaches in the South West of England!

The 10 most viewed individual posts to this point in the site’s history are:

  1. Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas
  2. Volleyball Conditioning – A Sample Program
  3. Drill: Run Serve Receive
  4. Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?
  5. Volleyball Set Diagram
  6. Game: Bingo-Bango-Bongo
  7. Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness
  8. Planning your volleyball strength and conditioning training
  9. Game: Winners (a.k.a. King/Queen of the court)
  10. Drill: Passing Triplets

It’s worth noting that both of the first two posts, have actually each received more visits than the site’s home page thanks to how often they bring in visitors from Google, etc.

Happily, several posts have generated some interesting exchanges via the comment section. They include:

Hopefully I can continue to write stuff that people find interesting, thought-provoking, and/or useful.

Coaching Log – Nov 20 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

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

The big focus of this training was to try to set up some line-up decisions for next week’s match. The team is going to be without its captain and starting OH2, leaving a large gap in the roster in a number of ways – particularly in passing and defense. A couple of options were available to address this, some involving more radical line-up changes than others. I needed to evaluate a couple of players in particular before making any decisions.

Believe it or not, for the first time in weeks we had all 15 players in training. We were in the bigger gym, but that’s still a lot of players for one court. I had them start off with 5-player over the net ball-handling shuttles – first forearm passing, then overhead passing – to get them moving, then had it shift to a 5-person over the net pepper. Messy.

From there I had them do some target serving after a warm-up spell. The focus was on deep serves. I wanted to do make use of the larger gym to work in serving & passing, but rather than do it in drill fashion I opted for winners 4s as the next exercise since it would feature lots of serving and 3-player reception. I started them off hitting back row, then about halfway through switched to on the net. As I’ve done a few times now, I enforced bump-setting only to continue their work on being calmer and more controlled in playing second contacts. I allowed the server coming in on the challenge side a re-serve if they missed their first, with instructions to be aggressive with the first ball. This served a few purposes. First, it encouraged the players to work on stronger and/or more strategically placed serves. Second, it enforced the idea of not missing consecutive serves. Third, it put increased pressure on the receivers.

From 4s I moved to the 5s I used a bit last week, with each side having an OH, MB, and S in the front row, plus defenders in middle and right back. Setters were fixed, with the one who’s team won the rally staying on/moving to the winners side. The intensity level was poor, though, and I called a break after a relatively short period of time, during which the captain got on the team’s case.

To try to up the intensity I next did Scramble, with the likely starters for next week’s match going against the rest. I went four times through (switching front and back row each time) with each side receiving balls for a minute. Could have gone longer, but I wanted to leave time for some regular game play. Scramble served it’s purpose, though.

I had them finish off with the same teams in a speed play standard game. By that I mean once a rally was finished the players quickly reset for the next serve and I would feed a ball into that player while the one from the last rally was cleared away. There was also a 3-serve rule such that if one team served three points in a row, after the last one they were finished and serve went across to the other team. This let us get at least twice through the rotations in about 15 minutes.

While there were a number of things I wasn’t happy with in terms of continuous development point, there were a couple of specific areas of immediate concern which I was happy with. First, the most natural replacement for the captain in OH2 played much better than she’s done of late. If she repeats that next week the team will be in pretty good shape. Second, the first teamers really dominated the second teamers for the first time all season, which suggests the stuff that clicked into place while winning Wednesday’s match wasn’t just a one-off.

Coaching Log – Nov 19 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

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

The second swing through the league competition started with this match. It was against the team we faced to start it all – that horrible long trip with no warm-up. My recollection was they seemed generally solid and were aggressive in the attack, both front row and back row, but without any real stud hitters. My recollection of them might have actually been a bit inflated by our own poor performance, though.

I was able to basically use the same line-up as from the last match – with the bonus of having a libero available to play on the M2 (the M1 is an all-around player). The first set was a bit back-and-forth. A string of errors put us in a hole that we never quite were able to get out of. The 28-26 score line, though, was the closest of the season thus far, which the players took some positives from. The next set was similarly tight, but we managed to come out ahead, which was a definite easing of pressure on the players. The third set it remained fairly close, but the team was getting locked in on what they needed to do to win and they won again. The opposition basically fell apart in the last set, which ended 25-10.

Things came together in a lot of ways in this match. The team learned the value of cutting down the errors and of being fully committed to keeping the ball off the floor in a team fashion. There were still some panicky moments and the occasional communication lapse that need ironing out, and I’d like to see a bit better on defense. The setter is learning to focus the offense through her strongest hitters, and is moving better on the court, but needs more consistency in set execution.

Problematic for the team moving forward is the team captain will miss the last two matches of the term – next week and the following. She plays O2 and is a major part of serve reception and defense. Those are important matches in the relegation fight. I’m going to have to consider and explore a few options in the next two training sessions.

I should not, this was my last match with the team. I’ll continue to run trainings the last two or so weeks of the term, but I won’t be with them for the two upcoming as I cannot afford the lengthy road trips at this stage of my PhD work. And I won’t be back with them second term as my focus will be on finishing up any remaining PhD work and on pursuing gainful employment. There is a definite sense of leaving a job undone, especially seeing how the team has made steady improvement these last few weeks. I go out on a high note, though, especially since the men’s team also won their first league match of the season right before the women’s match.

A Collection of Secrets of Brilliant Coaches

shadowy volleyball coach

An article went up a while back on Huffington Post on the subject of coaching that I’ve meant to discuss for a while. It includes 35 “secrets”. They are generally worth looking through, but I wanted to address a few of them specifically.

6. Begin with the end in mind. This is all about knowing your priorities, which I’ve written about a couple of different times before (here, here to name two). You can’t map your course if you don’t know where you’re going!

14. Give feedback in short, clear spurts that are precise and action oriented. Coaches need to keep in mind that they aren’t lecturers – at least not when they are on the court. The more you talk, the less they train. You need to keep your interruptions short, to the point, and geared toward what the players need to do.

15. Are careful about how they measure success. This is a tricky one. The focus is meant to be on keeping things process oriented rather than outcome. That’s fine in general terms, especially since outcome depends on a lot of things out of our control. Unfortunately, as coaches we sometimes (oftentimes) have wins and losses as the key metric of our own success. We need to be able manage things from both perspectives.

27. End practice before athlete is exhausted. Mark Lebedew, in a post from At Home on the Court, talks about something related to this. From a technical training perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to exhaust our players. Granted, conditioning is a different story, but in that case priorities must be clear. This is something that may need to be communicated to your athletes because some of them will have a mentality that their level of fatigue at the end of a session is somehow linked with the quality of that training.

34. Understand that fun is an essential element in training, no matter how elite an athlete becomes. In the grand scheme of things, players definitely need to have fun training for and playing their sport. I would argue, though, that as coaches we sometimes have to put our players and teams under pressure in less than fun kinds of ways to help them grow and develop. I periodically will design a session that I know is likely to be frustrating because those sorts of things happen in matches and the players need to learn how to overcome it.

Coaching Log – Nov 17 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

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

It was a relatively straightforward session. Work on some ball-handling and serving, then get in game play to prepare for Wednesday’s final home match of the term. I started the team off doing serve receive passing in groups of 4 or 5, with one or two passers, a target, and two servers. The servers were doing overhead two-hand tosses (think soccer throw-in) to replicate a flat float serve, which also helped serve to loosen their shoulders up a bit. Each player did 10 good passes. I then had them do some target serving.

Game play started with winners 4s, full-court with fixed setters. I wanted to work them in 3-person serve reception and to give my starting setter lots of reps. At first I had them hitting back row only because we are likely to see that a lot in the upcoming match as well as to get them reaching and hitting deep. About halfway through I shifted to allow attacking on the net. I finished up playing 22 v 22, starters against non-starters.

Overall, I was generally pleased. The team’s two strongest hitters had a generally good night with some very nice aggressive swings. The one-arm digs/passes are becoming much less frequent. Still too much panicky stuff at times, and one of the first teamers simply needs to make fewer errors serving and hitting.

A defacto U.S. professional volleyball league?


The other day via Facebook and Twitter I shared a link to a brief article in the latest edition of Coaching Volleyball magazine, which is published by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). Actually, it was less an article and more a letter to the membership from AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer. In it she shares her thoughts on the potential future of NCAA volleyball. In particular, Kathy is concerned about the move toward a collegiate structure where there are five conferences which stand apart from everyone else in terms of money and resources. I won’t go into the back story behind all this other than to say it’s something that is mainly being driven by football and men’s basketball, but has the potential to influence all other sports.

My general feeling on these sorts of things is that change is inevitable and we simply have to adapt to the new conditions. NCAA women’s volleyball has the advantage of being in quite a strong situation at the moment (and even men’s volleyball is making some gains), and volleyball at the high school level is the top girls’ sport in most states with participation on the rise, so I don’t think there’s a big risk of changes at the top of the collegiate hierarchy putting the sport in jeopardy. In fact, the reality of the current state of affairs is that we already have a major divide.

The last time a school from outside the so-called Big 5 conferences (Pac-12, Big-10, Big-12, ACC, SEC) won the national championship was 1998 when Long Beach did it. In fact, since then only once has team from outside the Pac-12 and Big-10 won – Texas two seasons ago. Taking it a step further, Long Beach in 2001 is the only lesser conference school to have even made the finals in that time, though a couple of others have managed to reach the Final 4 – (Hawai’i, Pacific, Santa Clara). To put a finer point on it, among the Big 5, three conferences are hardly represented even at the Final 4 stage. Since 1998 the SEC has only had three entries (Florida x 2, Tennessee), and the ACC just one (Florida State). Nebraska and Texas have done fairly well for the Big-12, but the Huskers are now in the Big-10, leaving the Longhorns as the only current Big-12 team ever to have made the Final 4.

In other words, we have a fairly narrow collection of teams contending for the national championship in any given year and a whole lot of teams playing for much smaller stakes. For the vast majority of the 320 or so Division I teams, a conference title is about as high as they are likely to ever reach. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. The same is true in other sports. Actually, it could be said that we currently have a better situation these days, as back in the 80s and 90s only a relatively small group of West Coast teams dominated.

What struck me reading Kathy’s thoughts, though, was that at the top level of the sport we are moving toward what could be viewed as a defacto professional league. A case can already be made that individuals being given scholarships to play volleyball are essentially professionals in that they are being compensated in some fashion for being athletes, especially given the price tag of modern education. Paying players above and beyond that, though, would put things into a different category, especially when considering the other perks players at the top schools get in terms of support.

As I wrote after spending time with a pair of professional clubs in Germany, there are a great many similarities between NCAA collegiate volleyball and the experience of pro players at clubs in Europe and elsewhere. That will only be furthered if the top conferences continue to channel more resources into their programs.

Note: Business Insider posted a list of the top 20 university sports programs based on athletics revenue, NCAA championship results, home football and men’s basketball attendance, and student survey responses. Interestingly, only two of those 20 schools has ever won a volleyball championship, and just seven have reached the Final 4.

Coaching Log – Nov 13 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

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

Last night we had a match against the team I view as our major rival school. Last year we split our league matches and they beat us on a tiebreak for first place, but we beat them at Final 8s in the match that earned us a spot in the BUCS semifinals (for new readers, BUCS is the rough UK equivalent of the NCAA). They are a program with scholarships (which we don’t have), but not one which has been particularly strong at the level of the current premier league teams. Their coach told me earlier they were a bit undersized, but I figured they would make up for that enough to be solid and their current position in the standings tends to back that up. In other words, we probably going to have to put in a really good performance to beat them. This was not helped by a couple of players being unavailable creating yet more line-up challenges. I had no one to play libero, so I ended up playing a relatively inexperienced MB, but one with better back row credentials than the others.

The opposition was about what I expected. We actually jumped out to a good sized lead in the first set, I think something like 16-12. Then the wheels came off. We made a number of errors and let them blow right by to win. In the second set it was sort of the reverse. They got out to the early lead. We clawed back to the point where we had a chance to take the set in the run-in, but then missed three straight serves, including set point (4th time in the last 9 sets!). The third set started off with 2 more missed serves, which pretty much set the tone for what wasn’t really ever a close game.

I told the players during the match they need to learn to win at this point. I think if they had managed to take that first set it would have done them a world of good. The performance was improved in many facets. Blocking was better. Defense was pretty solid. There were fewer miscommunication instances (though still a couple). Setting remains the weak point of the team, but that is going to be the reality of the situation all year.

As an aside, I was talking with the opposing coach before the match last night. This is our third year coaching against each other, and since we both coach the men and women we cross paths at least 4 times each season and have connected away from matches as well. He told me about the team he thinks is the favorite to win our league this year saying he thinks they have the players to compete with last year’s two finalists (nobody else was anywhere close to them). He said if I were coaching them and not the guy who’s doing it at present, he’d like their chances of winning the championship. Nice to get that kind of praise from a peer.

Coaching Log – Nov 12 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

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

Ideally, this should have been a match-prep training session for the first team, but three prospective starters were missing for various reasons. As such, it ended up having to be more of a general training.

I continued my work on trying to get the players to operate in a less panicky state, slow the game down, eliminate the 1-arm digs and passes, etc. I started them off doing some ball-handling after the dynamic warm-up, followed by some serving. In line with what I did on Monday, I then had them play winners 3’s on a narrow court (2/3rds) with bump setting required, initially back row attacks only with a switch to front court about halfway through.

After that I introduced a variation of winners I used with the men’s team the other day. With the guys it was a 5s game with a setter, MB, OH, RS and middle back defender (we had 16 in training that session). For the women, because I had fewer numbers, I made it 4s – S, MB, OH, and middle back defender – and kept it on the narrow court. Setters were fixed (the one whose team won the rally went to/stayed on the winners side).

The session wrapped up with 22 vs 22 where I pitted a semblance of the starting team against the second string. I used the player who’s played OPP the last two matches at OH as despite being a lefty she had a number of very good swings on outside balls before that in the session. In her place on the right I put in one of the second team players who is a bigger block and has been coming along quite well (I actually used her for a set in at MB in the last match – and probably will again in the next one). Just wanted to see what that would look like. I only had 5 players on the B side, so I declared 6 out of bounds.