Coaching in a tough conference

I appreciate what it must be like to coach a middling team (or lower) in one of the Power 5 conferences in NCAA Division I. My current employer, Midwestern State University, is part of the Lone Star Conference. Based on the 2015 final rankings (the 2016 rankings aren’t yet available at the time of this writing), the LSC was the 4th strongest conference in NCAA Division II.

In the last couple of weeks we played three well placed teams from other conferences. One of them currently sits in a tie for third in the Great American Conference. We beat them in three using a line-up featuring our three freshmen as starters. Basically, we rested some of our normal starters.

The other two are second and third in the Heartland Conference. We lost to the latter in five at their place, but could have won it. Our freshman setter started the match, but didn’t play great. We put our starting junior setter in at 1-2 down and improved immediately. Just a bit too late.

Against the second place team, we again used our freshman setter to start. We brought our junior back for the final set, though. Other players were rotated as well, but we won easily in three.

All of this from a team currently sitting 8th out of 11 teams in the LSC with a 3-7 record.

Of course, as much fun as it is be to fantasize about playing in another conference, that’s not reality. For example, this MSU team would do exceedingly well in BUCS, where we competed when I coached at Exeter. The problem is such a team in BUCS for Exeter is not a reality. The recruiting prospects just aren’t there – though they are at some other schools.

The same is true of lower ranked conferences in NCAA volleyball. Teams there simply struggle to get the same caliber of athletes. Some of that is geographic. Teams in better volleyball regions just have access to more good players. Some of it is resource-based. Those in the best-funded, best-supported programs have a clear advantage.

This isn’t just the case in college volleyball. You can see it in professional volleyball as well. Even low level teams from the top leagues are strong enough to dominate the lower leagues. There are exceptions. Some leagues have one or two very well-funded teams that can compete with teams from stronger leagues.

The bottom line is we all must coach to the best of our abilities with the resources we have available to us.

Coaching Log – October 17, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

An interesting situation is developing in the Lone Star Conference standings heading into the final weekend of the first half of the schedule. It’s turning into quite the muddle in the middle.

Lone Star Conference standings 10/10/2016

Angelo and Tarleton look very likely to take the top two spots. UTPB and Cameron, similarly, are odds-on favorites for the bottom two spots. That leaves seven teams to fight for the six spots left to qualify for the conference tournament.


The head coach was very ill, so I had to take charge of practice. We started with volleytennis as an initial warm-up. After that, we did rotating partner pepper using for different variations for two rounds each (8 total). I would normally prefer to do some kind of over-the-net pepper, but we only had one court available for 15 players. That limitation also prevent us from doing some target serving work I wanted to put in.

After that was a speedball style backrow 4s with rotating setters. We played two games to 10 with each side earning collective points for rally wins. After the first game, I flipped two of the teams.

From there we progressed to a Winners 5s. This time the setters and the MBs were in their own rotation, with the rest in three teams of three. Aside from the MBs, it was still backrow attack only. We played three games of first team to 10, mixing setter/middle combinations each time. Initiation was over-the-net down balls from a coach to the winning team while the losing team subbed out.

The last thing we did was a narrow court (about 2/3rds) Winners 5s. The teams from before we kept. Now, however, we played three up and two back. Initiation was the same as previously. The pace as very high – potentially too high for what I had envisioned. But it did have them in scramble mode a lot.

My main focus for the session was on defensive reading. That’s why I intentionally used drills where there wouldn’t be a lot of fixed defensive positioning around a block, as would be the case in 6 v 6 play. Not sure I achieved that objective as much as I’d have liked.


The head coach was still on limited duty for this practice, but in attendance. We were still on only one court, so repeated the rotating partner pepper as a ball-handling warm-up. Moving forward, however, we talked about adding some kind of consequence for balls hitting the floor with no effort.

Next up was a 3-station rotation. One group did target serving, with another group collecting their balls on the other side of the court. The third group worked on emergency defense techniques.

After that it was all game play. First up, we repeated the 4s back court speedball. This time, though, after a short while we shifted to allow front court swings as well. We were disappointed, however, that during the initial round the players didn’t block. As a result, the attacks were practically unstoppable. We talked to them about the need to problem solve before playing another round. It was a little better.

From there we added MBs to make it 5s, with three permitted front row players. Each team had to sort out how they set that up. There were three rounds of play, with the defense getting progressively better as the players adapted.

We then played four rounds of Scramble, and finished up with one regular game.


The head coach spoke with the team before the start of practice about shifting our attitude about balls hitting the floor. Specifically, it won’t be permitted anymore and there will be consequences if it does. We started once more with rotating partner pepper with a set of lines the consequences for balls hitting the floor with no effort. I suspect the players were a little more unforgiving than we coaches would have been in their counting, but at least we know they are taking it seriously.

Next up was some serve and pass in groups of three as a kind of warm-up. That was followed by a set of servers vs passers games. Servers scored on aces and poor passes. Passers scored on good passes, serves in the net, and back-to-back service errors.

From there we shifted to game play. Once more we began with Speedball style 4s. The first couple games were back row only, then we shifted to allow front row. We then transitioned to a variation on 22 v 22. In this case, teams rotated each time they scored a point. When one team reached 25, the serving side changed, but we continued along from where each team was in their rotation.

Unfortunately, we had some player health issues. One player went to the E.R. before practice with severe stomach pains. Later, during practice, a player with a pre-existing back problem was in a collision diving for a ball. She ended up being taken out of the gym on a back board as a precaution.


We played an away match at Lubbock Christian. They are a member of the Heartland Conference, so part of our Region. Heading into our match, they were 3rd in the standings.

Lubbock Christian

We took a kind of two-part approach to this match. One the one hand, we kept the starters mainly in place to keep working on things. On the other hand, we started our freshman setter (as we did last week) to give her some more experience as a starter.

It ended up being a pretty good match overall. We dominated the first set as the hosts just made an uncharacteristic number of errors. They played much better after that. Meanwhile, our offense sputtered for the next two sets. Our kill % was in the 25% range, which is WAY too low. Not surprisingly, we lost them.

We brought back our starting setter for the fourth set, which definitely jump started the offense. We were up around 40% kills thereafter. That helped us dominate the fourth set. Unfortunately, we made a few too many mistakes in the fifth set, and lost 15-13.

This was by far our best blocking performance. We tallied 15 in total. Most of them were of the hard variety, which is something we haven’t done a lot of to-date. Mainly, that’s been an issue with block timing. We’ve been consistently late.

We had our frustrations in defense, though. This was especially the case in the second and third sets. Positional discipline was poor. It got better in the latter sets, though.


Limited session after the 5-setter the night before with two matches upcoming on Saturday. Essentially, we did the same first few exercises from Wednesday’s practice. Then, instead of running back row 4s we did 2-contacts 4s.

After that, it was on to 6 v 6. This time the game was a variation of Baseball. The at-bat team was the serving side. They served until the receiving side won three rallies (recorded 3 outs). The serving team scored a run for each rally they won. The receiving team did not score. We played 6 innings (rotations).


We actually played a tri-match. First up was Texas A&M Kingsville conference match. They finished 4th in the LSC last season and so far have been one of the better teams among those in the middle.

We flat out played poorly. We had nearly as many hitting errors as they had kills. Add in 12 service errors and 10 reception errors and you have all the makings for a quick 3-set defeat. A very disappointing performance.

The hitting errors and poor passing were, of course, the big issues. Serving, though, was problematic. Most of the misses weren’t bad in terms of missing serves in the net. They were generally missed long. The problem was the timing. They were bad misses from that perspective.

We talked with our setters and pin hitters between matches. The primary subject was improving the setter-hitter communication – both in terms of set location and play-calling. We also talked about the hitters needing to avoid making errors (or being blocked) when the sets aren’t great.

The second match was with St. Edwards. You may recall they were the team we lost to on Saturday of our home tournament. They’ve had a good season in the Heartland Conference so far, sitting in second, just ahead of Lubbock Christian. St. Edward’s also lost to Kingsville in three in the day’s second match, but they were more competitive than we’d been.

We started our freshman setter and used our OHs in a rotation, among other personnel decisions. It ended up being a complete reversal. This time we were the team making very few errors while the other team made loads of them. Our serving and passing were much improved. The result was a fairly easy 3-0 win.


Generally speaking, it was a good week. Yes, the Kingsville match was disappointing. Overall, though, I found myself feeling like we were headed in the right direction – maybe more than has been the case in a couple of weeks. I think some of the things we changed in terms of practice and general focus have been positives.

Coaching Log – October 10, 2016

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This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.


After the weekend’s exertions, and with a match upcoming on Tuesday, we didn’t want to go too hard. We told the team it was basically an “activation” session. By that we meant it was intended to get mentally and physically back after a couple days off.

To that end, we played a couple of variations on volleytennis to start. The players had fun with the competition and it got them moving. After a serving warm-up (including target work) we split them up for a short period. One court worked on serving and passing in game fashion. The other saw the MBs reinforce getting up early and work on slides.

The last part of practice was dedicated to game play. The primary focus was back row play, but after an initial couple of rounds of Speedball style play (4s with front row setters), we added in MBs.

Before practice the players had a team talk in the locker room. The leadership wanted to make sure they group took the right attitude after the disappointing weekend losses. We coaches came in at the end and extended the discussion by looking at how we did statistically and how despite the results, we did get better in certain areas.


We had an away match at Southern Nazarne. They that played in our home tournament (went 3-1), but we didn’t play them then. They are in the Great America conference, which is outside our NCAA region, so it was like a mid-season friendly. It counted toward our overall record, and factors into our strength of schedule part of the our overall RPI, but doesn’t count toward any rankings that matter for our post-season prospects.

This was an opportunity to get some players in and give others some rest. We started our freshman setter. She’s played a few times on a substitute basis, but this was her first time running the offense from the start. We also started our freshman MB, both to give her some playing time (she only came on as a serving sub previously), and to give our Junior MB’s shoulder a rest. Finally, we also started our freshman OH. She’s actually gotten a fair bit of court time thus far, but recently found herself on the bench with our two Juniors fit. The other thing we did was get in a few of our defensive players in back court roles.

We won the match 3-0, though every set was close. Our passing was poor in the first and third sets, but very good in the second. Not surprisingly, we struggled to side out at times. Fortunately, our service game put them under considerable pressure. We scored in bunches, as a result.

Obviously, with all the changes it was probably not going to be a super smooth match. Still, the job got done. It was good for the team to get a win after the recent string of tough losses, and with two difficult matches ahead on the weekend.


We had a couple of major focus points for this practice. One was to improve our defense, especially against the outside attack. The other was to start developing some additional options in attack out of serve reception. We did this initially by splitting the group. One part worked on defense in a couple of ways, partly against coach attacks off boxes. The other part worked on pin hitters and MBs hitting different combinations of sets. Both later progressed into game play.

We were not really satisfied with the practice, and it seemed like the players felt the same. I think part of it for them was there was all the new stuff, which naturally means less success than usual and more frustration. For our part, there were period of concentration lapses leading to really poor play. It’s stuff we need to clean up overall.


The focus here was much the same as on Wednesday – keep looking to improve on defense and to develop more offensive options. After a ball-handling warm-up (4-person pepper variations), and some target serving, we split the team. Pin hitters and defensive players went through an exercise to try to be better positionally on serve receive. Setters and MBs continued to work on the speed and timing of the middle attacks.

Up next was a defense to transition attack drill. The attack side was controlled via a coach on a box hitting from 4. From there, though, we progressed to 6 v 6. In this case the starting side received a serve, defended an attack from 4, then defended an attack from 2. The latter were both off free balls. We kept track of how many points each side won on the serve ball and on the transition balls.


We hosted Angelo State. They won the conference tournament last year and currently sit #12 in the national poll for Division II. Their only conference loss coming into the match was at West Texas in five.

The match was a dud. It was something we could see coming in the warm-up (though you always hope you’re wrong). There was a clear lack of focus and intensity during the pre-match, that carried over into play. We made foolish mistakes and flat out didn’t do our jobs consistently. For a while in the third set it looked like we could put up a fight (we were up 13-11, I think), but then we gave up about 10 points in a row. Just no battle.

If Angelo was simply a dominant team, there wouldn’t be the coaching angst. We didn’t get overpowered. Maybe we would not have won regardless, but we had some opportunities to at least put them under more pressure. We just failed to execute.

There were a couple of good performances. Our OPP had a very solid match. Her numbers weren’t eye-catching, but she did well in both pass and attack. Our M1 also did pretty well on offense. Her timing on quicks has improved quite a bit.


We hosted Tarleton State, who were the top team during the 2015 regular season. Their only conference loss coming in was to Angelo.

The energy and attitude was much improved for this match. We made a couple changes to the official part of our warm-up to give the OHs more reps and to get some more game-like action going. The feedback from the hitters was that they liked it a lot better. Certainly, what we saw in the final phase was better.

We did a lot of things well in this match. Our passing was solid. It was probably our best blocking match of the year in terms of position and timing. This against a team with a lot of moving parts in attack. We kept the conferences most prolific hitter below her kills/set average by more than 1.5. The timing of our quick sets continues to improve.

Unfortunately, our serving was kind of weak. We just didn’t get them out of system enough. We struggled against the slide and right side sets. Also, our set quality was sub-par. Too many times good passes turned into poor sets. The result was a pretty poor attacking match (.105) and a 3-0 loss, though a much closer one than against Angelo.


The thing that is really hampering us at this point is the mental side of the game. We’re just not staying engaged in plays all the way through. The result is we’re just not doing what needs to be done. That might be being in the right spot on defense. It could be failure to get a good transition. It could be failing to react to a tight/over-pass from our reception. We forget to change up the reception pattern after giving up a couple points in a row.

We are physically capable of being competitive with every team. Now we need to get mentally capable of doing so as well.

Match-day serve & pass questions

head scratch

This is an open question to especially college volleyball coaches, but potentially also to professional volleyball coaches.

Do you do a serve & pass session on match day?

If so, I’ve got a few follow-up questions.

Do you do it both home and away?

How long do you go?

What do you do?

When do you do it relative to the start of the match?

I ask because I can’t help but wonder at some things.

Serve & Pass routines

It is regular practice in the Lone Star Conference for visiting teams to do 30 minutes on-court prior to the match. Generally, this is done in the hour prior to the 60-minute match countdown. For example, if the match is at 6pm, the visiting team might do a session from 4:00 to 4:30. Some teams look to do them earlier in the day.

One of the other conferences in our area has a specific arrangement. The home team gets 75 minutes before match start to 60 minutes. The visiting team then gets 60 minutes from the start to the 45 minute mark. After that it’s shared until the 19 minute mark when the 4-4-5-5-1 begins.

These sorts of arrangements are not unusual in my experience. It was the same way when I coached in the Ivy League. No doubt this sort of thing happens all over the country. When I coached in Sweden, we did a serve & pass session on home match days. For Saturday matches, it happened in the latter morning, with team lunch to follow (we played at 2:00 or 3:00). Visiting teams didn’t usually have time, though there was never an issue with jumping on the court before the 60-minute countdown started if the home team wasn’t on the court.

Serve & Pass, then full team warm-up?

One of the things I find curious is when a team does a fairly active serve & pass time, then roll almost directly into a full pre-match warm-up. Aren’t the players already warm?

I saw a team doing a fairly intense 45 minutes (well at least the end was fairly intense), then 20 minutes later start pre-match with a dynamic warm-up.

Why do that? Is it a case of being married to the idea that pre-match warm-up must always be done a certain way?

Why Serve & Pass on match day?

The next question I have is the value of doing a serve & pass session. To be clear, I’m talking about a session on match day, not something the day before. The automatic response from coaches, I’m guessing, is that it gives the players a chance to acclimate themselves to the gym. I’m also thinking there’s a secondary motivation of getting extra practice time – especially time that doesn’t count toward NCAA limits in the case of US college volleyball.

So where’s the trade-off between the value of getting those reps and the added physical and mental exertion on match day? Players have to mentally ramp themselves up for the serve & pass session, then obviously have the physical workload for that period of time. Then they have to wind back down, recover, and do it all over again for the match.

Are the extra touches worth the fact that the players probably won’t be at full 100% for the match?

I’d honestly like to hear some opinions.


Coaching Log – October 3, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Now that we’re a couple weeks in, things are starting to settle out a bit in the Lone Star Conference. There are still a couple weeks left in the first half of the season, but some separation has developed in the standings.

Lone Star Conference Standings 9/26/16

One of the really interesting developments of last weekend was West Texas beating Angelo. The latter was looking like they might be far ahead of the pack this year, and were #8 in the Division II poll ahead of that match after having previously beaten a couple of strong teams.


We did a couple of player meetings, but decided to give the team an extra day of rest after the long travel over the weekend. We did ask them to email in responses to the questions of what they think we’ve been doing well and where we have room for improvement. They were meant to talk about technical/tactical stuff, but that wasn’t always (perhaps even mostly?) the case.


Before practice we talked stats and reviewed film from the weekend. The focus was on block/defense improvements, and getting faster on the quick.

A priority moving forward is getting more out of the right side. It’s not been bad, but it could be better. That was part of the thinking for our first set of drills. On one court, the MBs and OPPs worked on transition attacking, with the former just doing 1s and the latter running a standard 2nd tempo ball to the pin. We had the camera delay on them so they could see the timing. On the other court the OHs worked on serve reception and attacking.

After 15 minutes we switched it up. The OPPs went over to work off serve reception with one of the MBs. The other MBs stayed on the defensive court, with the OHs coming over to work on attacking in transition from off-blocker defense.

We then moved to Bingo-Bango-Bongo. In this case a team had to win three different initiations. The first was a down ball hit by the RS from the opposing team. Second was a down ball from the opposing team’s OH. The third was a free ball. The requirement was that on the first ball they had to set the initial ball to their RS, on the second ball it had to go to the OH, and for the final one it had to go either to the MB or the pipe. After the initial phase they could set anywhere. The idea, especially for the first two balls, was to continue work on the off-blocker defense-to-attack transition.

The last exercise was 22 v 22. This time the second ball for the team who won the first rally went to the setter to create a setter-our situation.


Following up on Tuesday’s talk about getting up earlier on quick attacks, early in practice we had the MBs work on just. That started with the MBs hitting straight off a pass. We did that to bring in the idea of “beat the ball to the setter”. That then progressed to hit off the set. They definitely got faster. Unfortunately, they seemed to revert later when we played 6 v 6. More work is required there.

While the MBs worked on quick tempo, the rest did serving and passing work. After that, we moved into a 5 v 5 game, with no MBs. It was thus a pin attacking game with a major focus on defensive position and pin blocking. This featured dig-or-die scoring (if you don’t touch the ball you lose all your points)

Next up was a 6 v 6 bonus point game. One side earned bonuses on MB quick attack or pipe kills. The other side earned bonuses for kills from the right side of the court, including setter dump.

Finally, we played another set of 5 v 5 games. These were right side vs. left side. Each side was down one of the pin hitters. We played a bunch of mini games to five.

All through the game play we whistled teams for failure to cover their hitters.


This day’s practice started similarly to Wednesdays. We continued working on the MBs going faster on quicks as the OHs and liberos did serve and pass to attack. Eventually, we brought the groups together. Then we repeated the 5 v 5 no middles dig-or-die game to keep working on our defense.

After that we spent a fair amount of time playing A side vs. B side, with the latter acting as Friday’s opponent in certain rotations. We finished up with 22 v 22. This time, a first ball quick attack kill won the big point straight away. All second balls replicated OH attacks and went to the defending front row OH to work on that defensive transition to attack.


Our host for this match was Texas Woman’s. They finished third last season, but had some stuff happen over the Summer and during preseason that probably set them back a bit – including the head coach being removed just before preseason.

This was a gut-wrencher. We twice fell behind by set, but rallied back to bring it back level. In the 5th we got out to what looked like an unassailable 12-7 lead, but then never scored another point and lost. Part of the collapse was passing errors. Part of it was decision-making. All in all, though, it comes down to knowing how to win, which we clearly still struggle with. We were up 23-20 in the 3rd and ended up losing 26-24 as an example.

Generally speaking, our serving and passing were pretty solid. Our MBs were not particularly effective on the night (they faced bigger players on the other side of the net). Our pin hitters, though, were very solid. Overall, we hit a .275 for the match. We just let them hit .288.


Texas A&M – Commerce was our opponent for this match. They finished 6th last season and were picked to come in 8th this year in the preseason poll. They’re not a big team, but they are quite athletic and hard hitting.

This was a match of streaks. Both teams were able to score points in bunches. We had the better of it in the first two sets, and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. We were a little ahead in the first part of the 3rd set when one of our starting OHs had to temporarily come off with a leg niggle. Our freshman OH, who’s seen her share of playing time this year, took her place. By the time the starter came back on, though, we seemed to have lost our momentum. The score went from 15-15 to 25-17 in short order.

We never really got the momentum – or belief – back. The fourth set finished with a similar scoreline. Then we fell well behind in the 5th. We mounted a late rally, but only got as far as 15-12.

One of the issues we had in the latter going was bad errors. Several serves were missed in the net. We missed back-to-back (even 3 out of 4 in one stretch). We did not put balls in play that should have been put in play (bad sets, scramble plays, etc.). On the plus side, we saw a better blocking performance. The timing still has a ways to go, but we had 12 blocks on the day, which I think is about twice what we’ve done in any prior conference match.


One of our biggest hurdles as we try to turn around this program is to develop a winner’s mentality. I think MSU has only had four winning seasons in the LSC in about 20 years. No one in the current team has been part of one of those squads. We’re also young. There’s a lot we have not yet learned about all the little things you have to do in competitive matches to come out on top.

On the plus side, we constantly hear really positive things from folks coming to see us play who’ve seen the team in years gone by. They praise not just what’s happening on the court, but also the attitude and actions of our bench.

Coaching Log – September 26, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.


Before practice we had a team talk about both on-court and bench mentality during matches – in particular late in close sets. Just looking to get everyone on the same page in terms of expectations, consistency, etc.

Practice was focused on hitting and blocking. In the former case, it was about the pins making sure they were hitting high, especially out of system. In the latter case it was mainly about timing, as we have consistently been late on our blocks. This is something I showed the players via still frames from recent match video.

After some serving and passing, the first part of the work done was pin hitters against defense. This was done off a serve reception, with the hitters having marked out corner targets to aim at. The second part was a wash drill where one side received a served ball, then had a ball played to the setter to create a setter-out situation. In both cases the first ball had to go to the pin hitter. After that, anyone could be set.


This was the first match against our travel partner, Cameron. This time around we played at their place. We saw Cameron playing at our home tournament. They’re a small team, but a scrappy one. They play good defense and will go fast in attack given the opportunity. Over the weekend they lost in 5 to West Texas (already their 5th five-setter of the season), then got swept by UTPB. The latter was a little bit of a surprise.


We had some struggles at the start of the first set, in particular by way of hitting errors. They jumped out to a 0-4 lead and stayed in front until very late. In fact, they were up 24-20. We fought back, though, and ended up winning 29-27. Our pin hitters scuffled, but our MBs tore it up. One of them went for 8 kills on 10 swings, with three of those kills part of our late comeback.

After that we were basically in control. We hit .324 and .325 in the second and third sets ( .154 in the first). For the match we had 20 more kills than Cameron. At times our offense was a thing of beauty, with players scoring from all across the net. That was against a relatively poor blocking team, however. We’re not a real tall team, but Cameron is notably smaller.


This was a rough practice. The tempo was a little low. That’s not a big surprise given we played the night before. We did some back row attacking and defense work, and serving and passing as part of the early stages. After that we spent time having the pin hitters work on effective tips and roll shots.

When we got into 6 v 6 at the end, though, we had two collisions involving heads. One was head-to-head when two players dove for a ball in the middle of the court. The other was head-to-knee. Crazily, the “head” player in the latter was also involved in the former. She joked the second was on the opposite side of the first, so they balanced out. The knee ended up a bit swollen and sore, but all the heads seem to be fine.

After the second coming together, we called a halt and one of the players joked we needed to wrap everyone up in bubble wrap. On the plus side, the starter we had down with a knee issue was back to basically full participation. Also, our ankle injury player from the first tournament is all the way back in to training. We may eventually get back to full strength!


No practice today as we had to get on the road for our lengthy weekend road trip. We jumped on the bus for a 2:00 departure. Six hours later we were at our hotel in Clovis, NM.


Doing one-night hotel stays when you have an evening match is always a logistical challenge. You have to work around check-out times that are usually hours before you want to head to the gym. In this case, it was noon check-out when the plan was to leave for the match at 4:00pm. Video review, lunch, and study hall in the breakfast area of the hotel filled the time.

This night’s competition was Eastern New Mexico. They were picked to finish 9th in the preseason poll. It was a tough match.They have an OPP who we particularly made note of, though they also had a solid MB and OH. We knew keeping them out-of-system was going to be important.

Western NM

We lost the first 25-21, then won 25-20 in the second, though that was more about ENM making a lot of errors. During the long break we decided to swap libero’s (you can change them set-to-set in college volleyball) to bring in a player who’s been getting time as a serving and defensive sub. Our starting libero just wasn’t playing confidently and wasn’t passing well.

We really struggled in the third set, losing 25-14. We hit negative and allowed them to hit .435. In the latter stages we made a couple of changes. One was to swap setters. Our starter was struggling with accuracy and wasn’t making the best decisions. We swapped out one of the OHs who wasn’t hitting well to bring back in the one who was out due to injury. We also turned the rotation, both for offense and defense (blocking).

That helped turn things around. We hit .286 in the fourth and held them to .098 on the way to a 25-20 win. They were better on offense, but we held strong and ran out 15-12 winners. Not a pretty match, but a good fight.


We played Western New Mexico at their place. They were picked 6th in the preseason poll. Like UTPB, they are a new edition to the Lone Star Conference this year. They are also the longest trip for us. In particular, it’s a lengthy trip from Eastern NM as you have to drive from northeast (Portales) to southwest (Silver City), making for a tough back-to-back. We drove part of the way after Friday’s match, which meant getting to the hotel around 1:00AM. We drove the last two hours the next day ahead of a 3:00PM match.


The players didn’t outwardly show signs of feeling the effects of the tough match the night before, the short night’s sleep, and all the travel. They were very loose and lively to start the match. You know there had to be some, though.

WNM is probably the biggest team we’ve played thus far, so we knew there would be some challenges for our attack. We basically kept the squad who finished the match the night before, except for putting back in the starting setter. Unfortunately, we both struggled on offense (.069) and in defense (they hit .407). We lost 25-21.

We made an OH change for the second set as the freshman who played well the night before struggled. Our hitting percentage did improve (.250), but we just couldn’t stop them from scoring (.556).

To boost the defense, we changed setters. Our second setter (a freshman) is stronger in both blocking and defense. That seemed to help. The start was rough, as we went down 10-4, but we managed to claw our way back in gradually. We kept them to only .138, and actually got our only two blocks of the match – one by the new setter. Unfortunately, we made three straight service errors late in the set which may have kept us from at least pushing them to the limit. We ended up losing 25-21 again.


We drove straight back from the match. It took around 12 hours all together, including picking up dinner and doing a mandatory driver change. I got home just after 7:00AM on Sunday morning. Fortunately, that’s now out of the way.

Post-match team talks

head scratch

Recently, I witnessed a team having a lengthy post-match talk. It came after they lost a match to my current team, Midwestern State. Interestingly, it looked like the assistant coach was the one doing most of the talking, while the head coach stood by fairly quietly.

This wasn’t a ranting, raving type of coach talk, though there was definitely a negative tone. I only heard bits and pieces. They made it sound like the focus was on mindset – at least during that part of the talk. The real standout about the meeting to me was its length. That, and the fact that it took place in the corner of the gym rather than in a locker room.

I’ve seen some ugly, long-winded post-match team talks in my time. Some involved teams I coached. Others involved teams I coached against. In the former, very rarely did I think that sort of meeting was productive (see Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?)

In the case of witnessing a team getting scolded, my reaction comes in two forms. On the one hand, sometimes I feel bad for them. When I coached at Exeter, our men’s team beat a team from Northern Ireland in a playoff match. That coach, who seemed like a nice guy, laid into them for a ridiculously long time afterwards. I felt really bad for them.

The alternative reaction is more a competitive one. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to beating a team so badly that they get yelled at afterwards. It’s kind of like targeting a single opposing player to the point they eventually have to be subbed out. It’s a psychological victory above and beyond the one on the scoreboard.

Can’t help but wonder if coaches who yell at their team in public realize this? Or if they’re just trying to embarrass their players.

Coaching Log – September 19, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.


Before practice we talked with the players about improving how we play on the second day. Now that we’re heading into conference play, it’s not something we can afford. We asked the players for their impressions why we came out flat in our first match on Saturday.

This was mainly a fairly slow-paced session. Aside from the warm-ups and a bit of serving, it was entirely a 6 v 6 practice. The biggest part of that was an offense vs. defense game where the ball stopped after the initial attack. The focus was mainly on serve reception technique, which is something we want to see improved. The replay camera was set so the receivers could look at themselves each time they passed. After that we played an out-of-system game.


In evaluating four of our recent matches I realized that our kill % on perfect passes in serve receive was surprisingly low. It was only 35%, which is a lot lower than most guessed when I asked. Part of that comes from the fact that we’re still developing parts of our attack. Another part comes from the fact that we don’t do a lot of work in practice on perfect pass situations. Many of our games are transition and out-of-system oriented. And even when we’re initiating with served balls, we’re encouraging our players to serve aggressively. As a result, we don’t have great passing in training.

That being the case, we decided to go through the reception rotations one by one. In each rotation the team had to get five first-ball kills out of ten. Any rotations which failed were repeated at the end. It was slow, and low intensity, but something we needed to do to help identify the best options and decisions.


We continued to work on perfect pass offense and problem rotations, but at a much higher intensity level. As a warm-up, we did a down ball version of the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. The players did a serving warm-up after that, followed by a serving and passing game.

After that it was 6 v 6 play. First up was a variation on the Bingo-Bango-Bongo game. In this version a team received a free ball. If they won it, they received a down ball from the opposing Zone 4. If they won that, they received a final ball through Zone 2. Winning all three balls earned the team a point. If at any point the team lost a rally, the other team received a free ball to restart the sequence. Thus, it was basically a near-continuous play game. In all cases, the balls were initiated by the opposing team. By that I mean if a free ball was required to go to Team A, we tossed a ball to Team B to send it over. If no one won a point for too long, we rotated players around. Otherwise, we made the switches at each point win.

We then played 22 v 22, and focused on Rotation 1 and Rotation 6. Those are the problem ones up to this point. A team automatically won the big point on a first ball kill, either off serve receive or in transition.

Class schedules cause us to lose players late in this practice. That being the case, we finished playing Winners 5. It featured fixed setters and three teams of four. Each team had a middle, who attacked front row. The other three were back row only players.


The main part of practice was 6 v 6 playing first a wash game, then a standard game with bonus points. In the case of the former, the game featured alternating serves. To win a big point, a team had to win two rallies in a row. We played 3-point games and went through four different rotations. In the last game the bonus points were for off-speed shot kills when in-system. It’s something we don’t do enough of, so we want to start encouraging it more.

After practice (and showers for the players), we had a sports psychologist come in to talk with the team. He went over some personality-based communication stuff, cycling back to his work with the squad in Spring. The majority of the time, though, was focused on mindset elements.


This was our first Lone Star Conference match. We hosted the University of Texas, Permian Basin (UTPB). UTPB is a new member of the conference this year. The coaches and sports info folks picked them to finish last in the league this year in the preseason poll. We were picked to finish second to last, so this was a match-up of the two teams least expected to reach the conference tournament.

MSU Ligon

We won 3-0. The first set was pretty straight forward. We let them creep back up late, but won 25-19. Our offense wasn’t great (.161), but there’s was worse and we had four aces. The second set was more challenging. They got on top early, with a 5-1 lead. We clawed back fairly quickly, but it nip-and-tuck from that point on, and we didn’t really get on top of them until the very end for a 25-23 win. Our hitting wasn’t any better, and their offense improved some.

The final set started off like Set 2 with them putting pressure on us – particularly in reception with a few tough serves. They were ahead 9-13 at one stage. After that, though, we ran away with it to win 25-16. We hit .304 on the set, despite getting blocked number of times, while they hit .000.

It was the best match of the year so far for our MBs. Both hit over .400. As a team our kill rate was 47%, which is solid. Just made a few too many errors, though, so only ended up at .198 for the match.

Nice to get the first conference win under our belt after the team went 0-16 last year.


In our second match of the week we hosted West Texas A&M. They ended up 4th in the preseason poll, after a 7th place finish in 2015. This is a team that dominated the LSC for several years before running into injury issues last season.

This was a winnable match, but we were lacking on the mental side of things. One of our issues with previous Saturday matches was not coming out with good focus. That showed up in poor serve receive passing. In this case, though, that wasn’t the issue. We passed a 2.11 for the match, which was one of our best on the year so far. We had them under pressure as well, as they only passed a 1.75. The mental issues this time were on other areas. Several balls didn’t get played on defense because players weren’t expecting the ball. Balls to be set fell between players. We made some poor decisions.

As the opposing coach said after the match, both teams had pucker spells. We ended up going down in four: 25-21, 26-24, 26-28, 25-18. The result might have been different had we managed to hold on to a 20-16 lead in the second set.

Funny match. Neither team could stop the other very well out of serve receive the first set. Then in the second, neither team could sideout very well.

A nice bright point in the match was the play of our freshman OH. She’s been mainly used as a back row sub so far, but had to start this weekend because our red shirt junior is sidelined with an injury. She was probably our best hitter on the match overall.


One of the positives of the seasons so far has been the recognition by just about everyone internally how far the team has come. We got some external affirmation of that this weekend. One of the opposing coaches said to us after the match, “You guys are going to be f—ing good!” It’s a funny thing to get that kind of external comment. Internally, our tendency is to see developmental needs.

Playing multiple matches a day question


I had an interesting conversation with the assistant men’s soccer coach. He and the guys on that team watched the first of our matches on Saturday before they left for their own. Naturally, that was our weakest performance of the tournament. :-/

He made the observation, though, that the team is different this year. In particular, he talked about how the team bounced back from losing a set. It’s something teams in prior years have not done well. The players have made that sort of resilience a part of their team focus for the year. They want to be the team that looks the same, no matter the score.

Recovering between matches

The question the soccer coach asked me had to do with how players handle playing multiple matches in a day. As he noted, soccer players in the US don’t play more than one match a day after about the age of 12. He was curious what was the biggest challenge for players when playing two matches. Is it the physical? Is it the mental?

I’m curious to hear what you think. Leave a comment below.

For my own part, I think it’s probably more mental than physical. Yes, there is definitely a physical element, especially for players who jump a lot. There’s a ton of mental energy exerted in especially a competitive match. Even as a coach I find myself wanting a nap after an intense match!

To be fair, though, volleyball players are used to multiple matches per day. That’s the deal for Juniors volleyball, after all. College players usually come from clubs that play in 2-3 day tournaments, and pool play rounds feature generally three matches a day. Obviously, those matches aren’t at the same level as a college match, and they are usually only best-of-3 rather than best-of-5. But the players are used to having to “get up” for a match multiple times a day.