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.

Teaching with sandwiches

shadowy volleyball coach

The other day I referenced some research done on John Wooden’s coaching style. One of the more interesting observations from it is what the authors say Wooden called the “sandwich approach”. Now, many coaches will have heard of the idea of sandwiching criticism with praise, such that the criticism is the meat, so to speak. This is not, in fact, what Wooden is talking about in this instance.

The sandwiching being done in this context has to do with correcting something a player or a team is doing incorrectly. It starts with showing demonstrating the correct way to do it. Then the incorrect way that is being used is shown, after which the correct way is once more demonstrated. So it’s a “Do this. Not that, but this” sort of approach.

Working this way, the coach reinforces the proper way to execute the skill or run the play by showing it twice. At the same time they are ensure the player(s) understand what is being done incorrectly. I think we can all agree this is better than simply telling players they are doing it wrong, or just showing them the correct way without letting them know what they are doing wrong.

What would sideout scoring look like now?


A question came up on Twitter the other day. The poster ask what it would be like if beach volleyball went back to sideout scoring. My guess is longer sets, and probably the need to go back to a single 15-point game rather than the best of 3 that seems to be the dominant format now, but with the smaller court now, maybe not.

Something I can’t help wondering is whether the motivation for the move to rally scoring is a moot point at this stage – or nearly so. FIVB introduce rally scoring in its efforts to try to make sets more predictable in length as a general move toward making matches fit better into a standard 2-hour sports television broadcast block. Of course the issue always ended up being the variation in length cause by the best-of-5 format, which they also tried changing with little success.

Should we really be thinking about the traditional TV time slot anymore? It seems to me that online streaming has just about made that irrelevant. At least it’s gone a long way toward doing so. In that case, why should we care about match length? The focus should be on exciting play, I would think.

So that begs the question – is rally score more exciting than sideout? The follow-up to that is what sort of changes would we see if sideout was reintroduced.

Would serving get more aggressive because it wouldn’t cost a point? That’s a little hard to imagine in the men’s game where there so much bombing of serves to begin with. Perhaps on the women’s side, though? Maybe at the lower levels of the game as well where there sideout percentages aren’t as high, lowering the imperative to serve aggressively? If so, an interesting side effect might be the development of better passers.

Perhaps it would be the other way – teams being more conservative in serving so as not to squander point-scoring opportunities. After all, if the other team sides-out, it doesn’t cost the serving team a point.

Would serving teams get more aggressive offensively? Since there’s no risk of giving away a point, maybe we’d see a bit more creativity and speed in attack. I was recently reading something Al Scates (long-time UCLA men’s coach) wrote where he described the Long Beach State women of the late 1980s and early 1990s as running an offense nearly as fast as seen in the men’s game. This is not something you hear a lot these days when comparing the two genders (though Karch Kiraly is trying to get the USA women moved in that direction).

The men play at a pretty fast tempo these days, though. We don’t see a lot of the middle of the court combination plays (Xs, etc.) we used to see, but there are a couple of reasons for that. One is the way blocking strategies developed (bunch and swing blocking in particular) to deal with those plays, which in turn led to the move toward faster outside sets. Another is the development of the back row play set providing an extra central attacker. Admittedly, that’s less prevalent in the women’s game.

It does seem fairly certain that between at least relatively evenly matched teams there would longer sets. In the real mismatches, though, they’d actually go faster, since a good team wouldn’t have to serve so many points to put a weak team out of their misery.

My feeling also is that sideout scoring more readily identifies the stronger team. In rally scoring, theoretically a team needs to only score a small number of “real” points to win a set. As such, it opens the door for more upsets, especially at levels where siding out happens at a high frequency. That might actually support the case for rally scoring in terms of keeping teams in a match longer.

Plus, even if the sets went exactly the same, play-by-play, a 15-0 score line looks much worse than 25-10. ;-)

A few thoughts from a top coach


Mark over At Home on the Court shared some tips from top level Italian coach Daniele Bagnoli he picked up at a recent event in Spain. There were a few in particular I wanted to comment on.

“Keep clear what your level is and coach to it.
This could be interpreted in a few ways. One is that you should be aware of your own strengths and weakness and try to coach toward the latter. Another is that you should know the level of play and competition your team is at and make sure to coach appropriately for it, not to some other level. This is important because too often coaches, especially developing ones, will latch on to something they see at a clinic or hear that the national team coach is using and think they should do the same with their teams. They fail to consider the context. Not everything in coaching is appropriate for all levels and all situations.

“The coach must know what the players can and can’t do and organise his team structure appropriately.”
Most of us don’t have the luxury of picking players to fit a specific type of playing style or system we have in mind. We have to deal with the players available to us at the time – and even those of us who do need to be adaptable. In order to have the most success we need to find the ways to get the most out of the talent, strengths, and skills they have, while trying to work around weaknesses. Sometimes this requires being a bit creative, like I was with my three-middle line-up, or when I played a setter and MB opposite each other.

What is important is not how you receive, it is how you sideout.
Very true. The bottom line is winning the point. Though receiving well certainly helps. :-)

“The reception of a strong serve doesn’t have to be perfect. What is important is that there are no errors and no risk.”
This is something very important to communicate to players when they are under pressure. If a team (or a player) is struggling with their passing, even if it’s not a particularly tough serve, get them focused on passing to Target 2, which is middle of the court near the 3 meter line. That will take some of the pressure off and allow them to relax a bit. It will also reduce the chances of an overpass.

“For K1, receivers and setters must be calm. For K2, they need maximum aggression in block and defence. Therefore, when you change phases, players have to change emotional state, especially libero and receivers.
I’ve not seen the K1/K2 reference before, but I think I get the idea. In serve reception a calm, relaxed state of mind and body is preferred to allow for optimal ball control. In defense, however, quite the reverse is the case. This is where aggression is rewarded. When I was coaching at Brown we used the term “crazy defense” to highlight the idea that back court players should have an aggressive, attacking mentality when it comes to digging the ball. First priority is keeping the ball off the floor, with where you put it secondary (though obviously not unimportant).

“Pay attention to the big things, not the small things. The players should control the small things, for example block cover. That doesn’t mean to ignore them, just that they are not the priority.”
The coach’s role is to have the big picture in mind, particularly so if one is a head coach with one or more assistants working under them. That means understanding the priorities and making sure the correct amount of focus is being given to what needs it. The tendency among coaches is to want to fix what we see is “broken”, but we have to be able to pick our battles and avoid wasting time and effort in areas of relatively low impact.

These particular points aside, it is interesting to observe some of the differences between coaches of men and coaches of women. I ranted a bit about this before, but there are aspects to each gender’s play which force coaches to take different views on things. One of those is overhead passing, which is much more common in the men’s game than the women’s. As Paul Sunderland – former US national team member, now broadcaster – commented during Sunday’s USA-Brazil women’s match, the height of the net has implications for how balls can be passed. The lower women’s net allows for a flatter trajectory, making it harder to take the ball with the hands (a flat ball coming in tends to be a flat ball going out). That, and the generally lower jump serve velocities, encourages much more float serving on the women’s side.

I bring this up because one or two of Bagnoli’s comments, which you can read in Mark’s post, have a bit of a men’s coach slant to them. Someone who only coaches men might not pick up on them.

Is the US producing enough quality volleyball players?

Visitors to CoachingVB.com through first year

There’s a rather intense debate at Volley Talk on the subject of the volleyball development system in the US. It was triggered by criticism of the US soccer youth system in terms of its ability to produce world class talent by one of the UK newspapers. Naturally, someone wondered about the effectiveness of the US system for producing world class volleyball players.

For those not familiar with it, the US system essentially has three primary facets. At the top is collegiate volleyball, with US national team players coming almost exclusively out of the ranks of former (and sometimes current) upper level Division I schools. At this level, players are virtually professionals in that they are exchanging their athletic services for a potentially very costly education (but that’s a separate debate!). College players generally have a 3-4 month regular season during which time they train 3-4 days per week and compete two others (single matches during the conference season, 1-2 matches during pre-conference play). During the off-season there is about a month where they are permitted daily team training and two competition dates, but otherwise the focus is primarily on strength & conditioning work, with a couple hours a week of individual or small group training mixed in.

Below that is a combination of club and high school volleyball – with there also being middle school volleyball in some regions. The high school season tends to be similar to the collegiate one in terms of length and gym time commitment. Club volleyball takes place in the school off-season. Teams will generally not train more than three times a week and the play is tournament focused, with the top teams competing in national level events like Junior National qualifiers and championships. Recruitment to the upper Division I collegiate ranks comes from the top club teams, not surprisingly.

There is no proper professional league in the US at this point. Players looking to go that route have to catch on with a team overseas. The result is that we don’t have youth academies of the sort that are now starting to develop in soccer as the teams in MLS work to establish feeder systems. Over time this will make them less reliant on the collegiate system for players. That’s often been seen as a weak point in the chain, since college soccer is not at the level of training and competition players developing in the professional systems in other parts of the world get.

Actually, even where top level professional leagues exist in the US there isn’t an underlying youth academy system. Yes, MLS is going in that direction as it looks to the overseas model. Baseball and hockey both have minor league affiliates through which they can develop younger players, but many of them still come through the college ranks, and generally speaking a player won’t enter these systems until after high school. The NFL and NBA don’t really have the same kind of minor league structure. Football is essentially entirely reliant on college for players. In basketball you’ll occasionally get players like LeBron and Kobe who skip straight to the pros, but most will spend at least some time in college.

The US model therefore sees sports very much linked to education. Here in England, there’s an element of that in term of BUCS at the university level. The structure is different, though. The school doesn’t sponsor the teams. It’s not a varsity situation, but rather clubs which are affiliated with the school. As I understand it, even that isn’t something commonly seen in Europe. Athletes play for clubs. They don’t play for their school.

The first big question which seems to be coming out of the debate on Volley Talk is whether in fact there’s a problem with the US developmental structure. Then, assuming one thinks that at least there is the potential for improvement, where are the problems and how can they be addressed.

Of course there is one big overarching question: should the US volleyball system be geared toward producing elite international caliber players, or should it be geared toward participation? The latter doesn’t preclude the former, but the former can preclude the latter.