Book Review: Wooden on Leadership – How to Create a Winning Organization

If you’re a coach of any sport and you don’t know the name John Wooden, then you’ve missed out. Many consider The Wizard of Westwood is one of the all-time great coaches, with a career highlighted by winning 10 NCAA men’s basketball national championships when he coached UCLA.. No doubt legendary UCLA volleyball coaches Al Scates (men) and Andy Banachowski (women) would tell you they were influenced by Wooden. Both their careers overlapped with his.

Back in the early days of my volleyball coaching career I read They Call Me Coach. It was definitely influential. If you don’t know much about Wooden, that book might be a good starting point as it’s his autobiography.

Wooden on Leadership is more of a management book. It was clearly intended to target business people, but retains a strong coaching flavor. Naturally, that means lots of basketball talk. That’s more in terms of context than anything technical, though.

The first part of the book focuses on Wooden’s famous Pyramid of Success. He takes you through each of the 15 blocks. Not only does he explain what each one is about, but also why he placed them where he did.

The second section carries on from the Pyramid concepts and drills down on things. Here you get Woodens views on leadership, managing emotions, incentives and motivation, focusing on performance rather than the score, and the importance of character among several other topics.

The last part of the book actually brings his old coaching notebook in to the discussion. In this section Wooden shares a number of different snippets. They cover a variety of topics related to coaching and leadership.Obviously, they are from a basketball coaching journal, but he does a good job generalizing them.

If you’re like me you’ll stop on a regular basis while reading this book to grab a quote. Here are just a couple that caught my attention.

“The best leaders are lifelong learners; they take measures to create organizations that foster and inspire learning throughout. The most effective leaders are those who realize it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts most.”

“For any leader, any organization, the plans are a starting point. That’s why I put them at the beginning of Part Three. The much more difficult task for anyone in a leadership position is to create an environment, a way of thinking, a set of beliefs, that ultimately gets everyone working eagerly and to the best of their ability to make those plans result in a winning organization.”

This is just a taste of the wisdom you’ll find in Wooden on Leadership. I definitely encourage you to put it on your reading list.

Want to know what US college coaches do?

Thinking about a career coaching college volleyball in the US? If so, I’m about to educate on what you’re in for.

Below is the listing of job duties for an operations position, as posted by the University of Miami. At the upper levels of NCAA Division I the programs have people on staff with the titles Director of Volleyball Operations (DOVO), Operations Coordinator, or something along those lines. They are there to ease some of the administrative burden from the coaching staff.

The vast majority of college programs don’t have operations people, though. Nor do they have a technical coordinator, or someone like that, who runs the stats and video part of things. That means the coaches have to do it all themselves. And oftentimes it’s with fewer coaches than those big programs.

1. Works with compliance staff to create a culture of compliance to meet NCAA, ACC, University and departmental policies and procedures. Oversee compliance rules and regulations to maintain CARA hour and Time Management Plan limits and logs. Serves as a liaison to Compliance Office for National Letter of Intent Process. Insure that the NLI’s are prepared correctly and sent in the appropriate time frame. Works with coaches to get admissions applications returned and NCAA Eligibility items completed in a timely manner to facilitate final NCAA Eligibility Center certification on all student-athletes. Coordinates permissible correspondence to incoming student-athletes regarding financial aid, workout programs, orientation schedules, fall housing requirements, required physical documentation and equipment needs.

2. Coordinates all team travel with business office staff, including: coordination of flights, hotel and buses with travel coordinator, meals, submitting cash advance requests, tracking per diem distribution, creation of agendas and processes all spend authorizations.

3. Coordinate pregame meals for all home games.

4. Responsible for complimentary ticket lists for all ticketed events.

5. Assists in planning and execution of off-campus and on campus recruiting events. Serves as a direct representative of the University’s coaching staff to potential recruits and their families.

6. Coordinates all practice session scheduling and setup. Works with the game management and facility staff to coordinate home meets/games.

7. Processes all reimbursements and purchase requisitions.

8. Assists head coach and business office with monitoring of current fiscal year budget and formulation of next year’s budget.

9. Assist academic services with study hall and class attendance. Monitors the academic performance of the team with assigned academic counselor to achieve desirable academic outcomes.

10. Works with equipment staff to order and allocate all athletic equipment. Assist with creating purchase orders for equipment, outside services and office supplies.

11. Acts as a liaison to student athlete enhancement services including the student-athlete development staff, department nutritionist, department sports psychologist and strength trainer.

12. Plans and assists in the oversight of the annual team banquet.

13. Assist in coordination of scout video and statistical analysis both during competition and in preparation for competition.

14. Acts as a liaison to Marketing plan, sports information staff and fundraising efforts.

Now, lets add a few things to the list.

  • Planning and running practice, and match coaching
  • Develop scouting reports
  • Team and player meetings
  • Recruiting trips and recruit communication
  • Community outreach and press availability
  • Fundraising
  • Alumni relations

I could probably come up with a few more with some time, but I think that’s enough to make the point. College coaches are responsible for a whole lot of stuff! Kevin Hambly, shortly after taking over at Stanford, commented in an interview that only about 7% of his time actually involves working in the gym.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the stuff on the Miami list, and even some of the stuff I tacked on at the end, would be handled by a manager most places outside the US system. This is one of the things that can make it a real challenge for foreign coaches to make the jump into the US college system.

That first big question of many job interviews

Tell me/us about yourself and why you think you’re a good fit for XXXXX.

This question, in some form, features in a lot of interviews – among others, of course. You won’t get it every time, but interviewers use it as a common starting point to get an initial sense of you. Are you ready for it?

You could approach this question in two parts. First, there is your own experience and career development. Second, there is how that all fits in with the job you’re pursuing and the organization you’re trying to join.

Let me take each of those in turn, but starting with the second first. I’m going to assume you’re interviewing for a head coach position. You can follow a similar thought process if you are trying to get an assistant position, though. Likewise, just to keep the language simple, I assume you are interviewing with a school, but you could just as easily take the same approach when trying to get a club job.

The position and organization

The starting point to answer the “tell us..” question is to understand what the school is looking for in a head coach. This is not a simple question.

It’s really easy to think in terms of volleyball. The reality, though, is it often has more to do with culture and community. This is especially true when you’re talking about a smaller school and a smaller community.

If you’ve worked at the school, then you’ll know the culture – hopefully. If you haven’t, you’re going to have to try to learn something about it. That means a combination of research and thinking about things.

Your side of things

It’s really easy to use this question as a way to brag about all the great things you’ve done. Guess what? If it’s on your resume – and it probably is – then they already know that stuff.

Remember what I just said. This is about starting to gauge fit for the interviewer(s). That means whatever you say about yourself should tie in with the idea of fit. Just rattling off a bunch of stuff about how great you are likely isn’t going to accomplish that. It could even work against you.

Plan accordingly

The bottom line here is that you should plan for this question. Research the school as much as you possibly can to get a sense for what they are after in terms of that fit side of things. Once you have a good idea of things, think about how you can demonstrate that you would be a good fit.

And keep in mind that it’s not just about your coaching here. It could be about places you’ve lived or situations you’ve been in which aren’t even volleyball related. You’re basically trying to show that you have something in common.

So, prepare yourself!

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – May 16, 2018

I haven’t been on the job market since taking the position at Midwestern State (MSU). I decided to re-enter after the 2017 season. It wasn’t a situation where I needed to find a new job as it was in early 2016 when I left Sweden, or back in 2015 when I was getting ready to finish my time in England. This was more about looking to see if there was anything interesting out there. If so, put my hat in the ring for consideration.

Tentative initial foray

I actually did my first application for the head coach position at Fort Hays State. That’s a Division II school in Kansas. I haven’t coached against them, but in the last couple years MSU has played against some of the other teams in their conference. The former head coach resigned very early in the season. As a result, they opened the job up ahead of the normal cycle. I got the “Thanks for your interest…” email in mid-December, which was fine. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d want the job if offered. I’d have made my decision based on what I saw of the campus, facilities, people, etc.

Getting more serious

The second job I put in for was at Brown in late November. As you may know, I was assistant coach there from 2001 to 2006. The head coach I worked for then announced her retirement after 25 years. I’ve always had thoughts about returning to the Ivy League to coach if the chance ever came. They never responded, though, and announced a hire in late January.

Shortly after Brown I also applied to Boston College and Georgetown. Neither are teams with much history of success. There are significant questions as to the degree of support they are given. Why would I be interested in either job? Honestly, it has a lot to do with the schools themselves. Both are high caliber academic institutions in good locations. It’s the sort of environment I feel like I would really like to work in long-term. Both filled their positions in early January.

Along a similar line is DePaul. I applied there in early December. I heard through the grapevine relatively shortly afterwards, though, that they were already talking to candidates. That was confirmed by the email I got just before Christmas saying, “We have reviewed your credentials and have carefully considered your qualifications. While your skills are certainly impressive, unfortunately we have decided to pursue other candidates at this time for this position.” That’s one of the more pleasant rejection notes I’ve seen.

I also applied to another Ivy League school in February – Penn. Columbia was looking for a new head coach as well, but I have no desire to live in NYC. I actually saw something in mid-March indicating Penn had sent out “thanks, but no thanks” emails already, though I hadn’t received one yet. It did eventually come near the end of March.

A couple of alternative targets

I applied in mid-December for the head coach job at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The school doesn’t have the same academic reputation as the others I listed above, but it’s in an interesting part of the country. I did my grad school not too far away, so I’m familiar with the area. They filled the position in mid-February.

At the same time I applied to UMBC, I also put in for the head job at Arkansas Tech. This is a Division II program where the head coach stepped down after a pretty successful time at the helm. In 2017 they were 35-1 with their only loss coming in the NCAA tournament at the hands of one of the best teams in the country. I went back and forth on this one. The location isn’t something that got me excited. I also wondered what the upside could be. They aren’t in a great conference and have the misfortune of having one of the country’s best conferences in their NCAA Region. Yes, you can win a lot of matches if you do well, but for someone like me it would be a stepping-stone type of job – not a long-term situation. The position was filled in late January by an alum.

In February I applied for another Division II position – Fort Lewis, located in Colorado This is a team in the same NCAA Region as MSU. One of the motivating factors was the (now former) MSU women’s soccer coaching moving there. He’d actually coached at Fort Lewis before coming to MSU and was basically going home as far as he and his family was concerned. Fort Lewis is not a fully funded program, meaning in order get the full 8 scholarships allowed in Division II the coach needs to raise funds. They haven’t had a winning record in at least 10 years, but men’s soccer won a national championship, so competitiveness is doable.

A place I thought I’d really like

In the category of “I think I’d really like coaching there” jobs is the College of William & Mary. It is a school with a strong academic reputation and in an appealing part of the country to me. The program doesn’t have much of a history of success, however. The last winning season was 2009. They were bottom of the conference in both 2016 and 2017, and haven’t finished above 7th (of 9) since 2012. No response, even after the A.D. at MSU reached out to their A.D. on my behalf. The MSU A.D. was actually a bit annoyed that he never got a response. They announced a new hire in the latter part of January.

A local twist

Then an interesting, but not entirely unexpected thing happened.

When she returned from the holiday break, the MSU head coach announced her resignation effective at the end of January. She is married with an infant, but her husband (a basketball coach) worked in California. She spent the semester break out there with him and liked actually being a family. That might have accelerated a change that was probably coming before too much longer anyway.

It took the university until March 27th to finally post the position, so it was a rather lengthy process. I got a lot of questions from all angles about what was going on, as you might imagine. Naturally, I put in my application right away. The posting remained open for only the required 12 days.

Interviewing

In early March did a phone interview with Fort Lewis (I talk about one of the questions I got here). They told me at the time that they planned to move quickly as they currently had no volleyball staff. Through the interview it was clear they were thinking first about fit, which is not uncommon for a smaller school. I received an email about two weeks later that they’d filled the position. I was neither surprised nor hurt that I didn’t progress. So long as I was a real candidate for the MSU job, it would always be hard for me to accept a job for a less well-funded program, at a smaller school.

I got a call from MSU Human Resources on April 13th – while I was at team sand practice – to schedule my interview on April 19th for the head job. It wasn’t supposed to be the case, but mine ended up be the first because of someone’s getting rescheduled. They brought three others to campus the following week.

My interview featured four separate meetings. The first was the main search committee, as I understand it. The A.D. was there, along with the Athletics faculty liaison, the women’s basketball coach, our head trainer, and a booster who is also a local area volleyball coach. I then had lunch with two of the administrators, after which it was back for a second bigger meeting, That one featured our head strength coach, our department academic coordinator, and our sports information director as the primary questioners. The fourth and final meeting was with the team. The academic coordinator was in the room, but strictly in an observer capacity. She gave them a list of prepared questions they could use, but they also mixed in ones of their own.

Outcome

There were three other candidates interviewing for the MSU head coach position. One was an junior college coach from the region, another was a former area junior college coach currently assisting at the NCAA Division I level, while the third was an NCAA Division II coach from the region. The last of the interviews was on April 27th. We expected a decision the following week, but it didn’t come.

I finally found out my fate on May 11th. The Athletic Director gave me the bad news. Some conversations I had with him prior tipped me off that I wasn’t clearly the top choice, so mentally I had prepared myself for this outcome. This is despite acknowledgement from the A.D. that no one could touch me from an administrative/organizational perspective. That didn’t mean I was pleased, though. Head coaches from other teams in the conference were stunned. One went so far as to say, “Definitely a mistake on their part.”

After some probing, I learned a perceived comparative disadvantage in recruiting was the reason I wasn’t top choice. It seemed that I was given no credit for the freshmen we brought in this year (my first recruiting class), or for those we have signed to bring in next school year. Of course, it’s too early to say how those classes will turn out, but it’s been well-acknowledged in the Athletic Department that the caliber of athlete we have in the gym now is a significant upgrade. I was the member of staff who was out recruiting more than anyone else the last two years because I was the only one on staff who never had a juniors coaching schedule conflict (or pregnancy). Did they think only the head coach, or only our other assistant, handled recruiting?

And of course there’s also the fact that I had documented success recruiting in other places before coming here. That seems to have been ignored.

Moving forward

I made it clear to the A.D. at MSU that if I were not selected to be the next head coach I would move on. As I told him, I need to continue to develop as a coach in my own right, and staying on at MSU under someone else is very unlikely to provide that opportunity. I’m to the point in my career where I either need to run my own program or work for someone with significantly more experience – or be in a different environment all together.

The big advantage to being the “local” candidate for the head job at MSU is that while I may not have gotten the job, at least I got some meaningful feedback about how I presented my candidacy. The A.D. told me I did very well in my interviews. Clearly, though, I need to hit the recruiting element harder when I present myself – at least in situations where that is relevant.

So, the search is on-going at this point.

Coaching Log – May 14, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

This was wind down month for the year. The players finished classes the first week of the month, then moved on to final exams the second week. Then it was on to Summer break!

Team Meeting

I had a team meeting on May 1st to wrap up the Spring training cycle. Mainly, it was to provide details for the Summer – when our strength coach would give them their Summer program, start of preseason, camp dates, etc. We talked about how Spring went, both from their perspective and ours as coaches. The team’s mentality on the court was excellent, and I encouraged them to use the Summer to share it with the incoming freshmen as part of connecting with them.

The Athletic Director also took some time to speak with them. I can guess about what, but I wasn’t actually in the room for it.

Little details

There’s always little bits and pieces that come up near the end of the year. An example of this is the Summer Voluntary Workout Request Form. This is for those student-athletes who will be around during the break and intend to take part in the voluntary workouts run by the strength coaches. Some of the players actually found it a bit invasive.

There was also paperwork and online training for players who were going to work our camps and/or clinics. Background check and child safety type stuff.

Our strength coach gave the players their Summer workout program on the 4th. It comprises three 4-week training cycles. I passed it along to our signed incoming freshmen.

Fundraising Clinics

Starting the second week of May we ran 90-minute evening clinics Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. These are targeted at 3rd through 7th graders, so it means a fairly wide range of skill and experience, not to mention stature. This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve been running these clinics as a way to raise a bit of money for the program. They don’t bring in a ton of money, but it all helps.

The one annoying thing about the clinics this year is that they’ve now been folded into the institutional structure used for camps. Because it was a fundraiser, we didn’t need to do that before. Putting it under the camp structure means a bit more administrative load and some costs we didn’t have before.

New head coach

The team was informed of the new head coach late in the day on the 11th. The press release went up on the 12th.

So ends the 2017-18 school year and season for MSU Volleyball and my log for the year.

To block, or not to block

Hai-Binh Ly at thevolleyballanalyst asks the question, Is it Worth Blocking in Non-Elite Volleyball? In it he questions whether or not it’s even worth have players go up to block when they could pull back and play defense. In particular, he’s talking about smaller players effectively incapable of putting up a good block.

I’ve written previously on the question of how important is blocking? Once you reach a high enough level of attacker power and ability to hit the ball down into the court, blocking becomes important. If you can’t at least slow the attack down, or limit the space into which they can attack, you’re in trouble. Having an extra defender may not actually help all that much.

In this particular article a couple of ideas come up. I think they are worth addressing.

Blocking metrics

As his moniker suggests, Hai-Binh Ly (HBL) is analytically inclined. So naturally he developed a metric to attempt to capture individual blocker effectiveness. I have a couple problems with it, though.

First, HBL doesn’t include block touches which lead to dug balls on the defending side of the net. To my mind this is a major issue, as it speaks to preventing the opposing hitter from attacking the ball unopposed into our court. As noted above, that’s part of the purpose of blocking. It’s not just about blocking for points.

Second, HBL doesn’t use total player block attempts. Instead he uses block touches (except as just mentioned) to work out an efficiency. I think this leaves considerable information out, especially with regards to diagnostics.

Also, looking at blocking errors as the only negative blocking outcomes fails to capture the reality that poor blocking technique, timing, etc. often is the reason for an attacker being able to score off the block out of bounds (block out). That also speaks to diagnostics.

Why?

Using his blocking efficiency measure, HBL looks at the players on his team. He then makes a judgement as to which ones are worth having block and which aren’t. Putting aside my issues with the metric, I think we cannot just leave it as a simple block/don’t block judgement for each player.

One of the main purposes of statistics is to see what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. They help us develop our training priorities. HBL’s numbers bring a couple of questions immediately to mind.

1) Have the smaller players been trained to soft block effectively?. That means intentionally trying to deflect the attack upward and into their own court so it can be dug. Unfortunately, even if they are, this would not be captured in the blocking efficiency metric.

2) Are some blockers’ efficiencies low due to poor timing and/or poor location? In my experience, less experienced female players especially are often late on their blocks. Both genders have problems setting their blocks in the right location. As a result, the low efficiency levels may not be about lack of size and or jump. If so, we can improve them.

Maybe, maybe not

I should note I’m not against HBL’s thinking that in some cases it might be best not to block. When I coached at Brown one match we ran out of subs and a defensive specialist ended up in the front row on the right side. Needless to say, she did not block. Instead,  she pulled back and played the tip. Conveniently, that’s exactly what the opposing hitter did! So sometimes that’s exactly the best approach.

My point in all this is that I would first be sure we’re measuring things appropriately and that the players are doing a good job trying to execute useful blocks before completely abandoning it. Even smaller blockers can prevent hitters from just teeing off on the ball. As such they at least take some pressure off the defense. As such, I might try to look at broader metrics like Kill % or Hitting Efficiency with and without the block before making a final judgement.

Improving coaching education

This article has some really thought-provoking things to say about coaching education. It’s main thrust is that coaching education must focus much less on sports science, exercise physiology, bio-mechanics, skill acquisition, sports psychology, sports nutrition etc. The author makes the point that this was all necessary years ago, but that’s no long the case. Why? Because so much information is readily available online these days. That just wasn’t true before.

The author actually takes things a step further. He questions the value of spending a lot of time sports science and these other topics from the “what matters” perspective. By that I mean he says if you ask what makes for a great coach, knowledge of these technical elements are way down the list. I read somewhere else that motor learning only accounts for like 5% of what coaches do with their teams. It’s something I talk about here. I don’t take that figure as strictly accurate. It is at least indicative, though.

For me, there are a couple of takeaways from this article.

First, if the more science-oriented stuff represents a small minority of what we actually do, then it should similarly be a small amount of our study and development. Obviously, there’s a basic level of understanding required.That means an initial investment of time. Beyond that, though, it’s just about keeping up with the research.

Second, it makes pretty clear that coaching education needs to spend a lot more time on so-called “soft” skills. Think of this as at least partly related to the idea that, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’ve long felt that courses tend to fall well short when it actual comes to teaching how to manage players and teams.

The third thing that comes to mind is how we think about coaching education. A big problem for newer coaches is they don’t know what they don’t know. This idea has come up in many of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. I think it would be good for us to help developing coaches understand better what they don’t know – and from there, how they can learn about it.

So how do we develop better coaching education with these things in mind?

Should you start with your strongest servers?

volleyball serve

You’re getting ready to write your starting line-up on the slip for submission to the scorekeepers. You have a decision to make. Do you set the rotation to start with your strongest server(s)? Or instead, do you have a different priority?

For me the answer is, “It depends.”

Level of play is a big part of the consideration here. If you are coaching a younger team, or at a lower experience level, where lots of points get scored directly from serve, then it definitely makes sense to lead with your best server(s). Think about a 12-and-under team. One strong server can run off bunches of aces, right?

At higher levels, though, you may want to go in a different direction. There are still strong servers, but it tends to be less about aces and more about putting the other team out-of-system. In that case, we’re talking more about scoring in transition. As a result, there might be some other considerations to think about.

Thinking about match-ups might be part of that equation. Or perhaps you’re running a 6-2 system and want to delay the first sub as long as possible. As a result, you start your setter in Position 1. Similarly, you might want to keep a small blocker out of the front row as much as possible, so you start them in Position 1. Or flipping that around, have your dominant attacker in the front row as much as possible. That probably means you want to start them in Position 4.

As you move up the experience and skill levels, line-up decisions tend to become more multidimensional, and nuanced. At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is trying to be in your best scoring rotation(s) as much as possible. That means starting there – or at least close to there.

Quick drills that keep players moving

What are some suggestions for drills that are quick and can be run through in a few minutes consistently to keep them moving and pumped during practices?

Coaches wonder about this quite often from a couple of different perspectives. One is in terms of warming up. Another is in terms of keeping the training tempo high and players engaged. Let me address things from both perspectives.

Warm-up

For me, the main thought process behind picking a warm-up activity is getting the players’ heart rates up and muscles warm, and also executing some lower intensity volleyball skills. An example of this is what I call Brazilian volleytennis. I like this one because it involves so many elements. There’s lots of movement and relatively quick rotations, keeping players switching in and out of the play. On top of that, it requires good player communication and coordination along with a lot of reading. Oh, and it’s competitive.

A different type of warm-up activity which is more ball-handling oriented is over-the-net pepper. The version that has the most player movement and highest touch frequency is probably the 3-player version. There are lots of different pepper variations, so you have loads of options in this regard.

Depending on your age group, you might even want to jump straight in to more full game play, like doubles. Younger players, after all, don’t need the same warm-up as older ones.

High Tempo/Maximum Engagement

Once you get into the meat of a practice, keeping players moving tends to be more focused on player engagement, though it could also have a conditioning element. Basically, what we’re talking about here is activities where things happen quickly and changes are frequent. A popular example of this is Winners, also known as Queen or King of the Court, and variations on it like Speedball or the Belly Drill.

The main feature of Winners and games like it is the way players wave on and off the court. It keeps them moving, and possibly facing different challenges.

Another way to think about keeping players moving is to increase the tempo of your games and drills. Generally, this means finding ways to shorten the length of time between one repetition and the next. That tends to be a feature of wash type games and drills.

Make sure it’s not just about movement

It’s easy to come up with ways to make players move around a lot. That’s not really what we should be thinking about here. Most of us have limited time with our teams, and we can’t afford to waste any of that on activities that don’t involve volleyball. If you’re thinking that this movement could be part of player conditioning, I’d argue there are better ways to actually get in proper volleyball conditioning through the structure of your practice.

Those are my thoughts on the subject. I’d love to hear your own ideas. Feel free to share them via a comment below.