Player endurance during tournaments

Here’s an interesting question I saw posted in a discussion group.

Q: In tournaments endurance is critical. Please send answers for the following 3 areas:
1) building endurance?
2) nutrition/best foods: pre, during, after
3) other things to do: stretches, massage, mind/mental stuff?

Let me address each component.

Building endurance

The physical side of this question is actually one that might be pretty unique in sports. In most cases I’d venture to say that team practices last longer than tournament matches. Let’s use Juniors in the US as an example. Club teams probably have something like 2-hour long practices as the norm. When they play in tournaments, though, they generally last less than an hour. In fact, it’s probably only about 45 minutes in most cases.

What about the case of college teams playing two best-of-5 matches per day during early season tournaments? Well, in that case we’re talking mainly about teams that have been doing 2-a-days for some period of time up to that point.

This being the case, I would suggest no additional “endurance” training is necessary. If you have a sufficiently high training tempo then the players should be more than reading for the tournament physical demands.

Nutrition and hydration

To my mind this is probably the most impactful area to focus on. If you want your players to perform at their best throughout an event they need to have the necessary energy reserves and access and must be properly hydrated. This starts the day before the event and carries through it. Aside from what players take in there is also the question of when.

I am not a nutritionist or any kind of expert on this subject. I’ve been in seminars on the subject, though. There are different things to consider here, depending on your circumstances. My recommendation to you is to sit down with someone qualified to speak about your specific situation. That way you have the most relevant information to pass along to players (and parents) and for your own planning purposes.

The other stuff

For me the other big thing is recovery. That means getting enough rest between matches – and in the case of multi-day events, sleep. You don’t want your players needlessly burning energy (kind of like my thoughts about match day serve & pass). Keep in mind, though, that the mental side of things is just as important as the physical. If you have the team doing stuff like scouting or other brain work, it could be just as draining as doing something physical, if not more so.

As for things like stretching, massage, etc. I think there’s probably a situational element. These are definitely much more meaningful considerations for older, more advanced athletes. Again, I’m not expert. I will defer to a trainer, a physiotherapist, or someone like that. I think, though, that time between matches matter. You probably don’t want to do something that will relax the muscles too much if there isn’t much time before you play again. And obviously if there’s an injury situation with a player there are probably things they’ve been advised to do, or not do.

Sit quietly or stand and talk during matches

I came across the following question on a Facebook group.

During a match which coach makes players better? The one quietly sitting on the bench or the one standing at the 3 metre line constantly talking to players?

This is a subject one can approach from a couple of different perspectives.

What do great coaches do?

There were a lot of different responses. At one point someone asked for the names of great mainstream sports who just sat quietly and didn’t spend the game talking to their team. For me, that one was easy. Just look at many of the top soccer managers. A lot of them speak relatively little to their teams during play.

That said, I think it’s hard to compare coaching across sports in this way. Football coaches call plays for their teams. Baseball managers do the same. That necessarily means constant talk with the players. More continuous action sports like soccer and hockey are different. The coach can’t tell players what to do at every point – assuming players even hear what the coach is saying.

Other sports aside, my automatic answer to a question like this one for volleyball is Russ Rose. He’s a clear Hall of Fame coach who sits pretty quietly on the bench making his notes.

Make them better

The question above has an interesting wording to it – “makes players better”. If you interpret that to mean long-term player development, then the answer is clear. The less you as the coach talk, the more the players have to figure things out for themselves. That is good for their growth and education. Alexis at Coaches Corner wrote about this. It also relates to what I discussed in The more you talk, the less they train.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting you don’t say anything. Guidance and feedback are critical to development. What we can’t do, though, is always give the players the solution to the situations they face. First, there are way too many possible situations to do that. Second, the solution we come up with might not, in fact, be the best one for that player. Finally, when players come up with their own solutions they are much more likely to be retained.

Further, if we’re telling the players what to do all the time they don’t develop the ability to work together to solve problems. They don’t learn to communicate properly and don’t trust either themselves or each other to do what needs to be done in the situation.

Performance on the day

Having said the above, sometimes the coach’s focus is optimizing performance in the moment. I would still argue that for the most part we have to let players do things for themselves, but here there is certainly more room to provide information and direction. You may spot a way to more effectively attack the other team, or defend against their best hitter, for example. These are things you clearly should communicate to the team.

I am definitely not a fan of providing a lot of technical information during play. After all, this isn’t where you should be teaching them skills. The occasional reminder by way of a specific cue is fine, but anything beyond that is likely to distract them from simply playing the game. Feedback at this stage should be much more tactical than technical.

Then there’s the question of cheer-leading. For some teams, and in some situations, this is and important job for the coach. Some of the great coaches I’ve interview for Volleyball Coaching Wizards have talked about how they didn’t normally do much, but sometimes it was what that team needed in that moment.

What about …?

The other thing I thought of when I saw this question is what about the coach who stands, but isn’t constantly talking to the players? You see quite a few coaches like this. I count myself as one of them, as I’ve written about before. I stand for a couple of reasons. One of them is to have a better angle on the action so I can gather more, better information. I guess that’s kind of a hybrid thing. 🙂

I am an author again. Info on my latest book

As you may be aware, back in 2015 I started a project with Mark Lebedew called Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Basically, we interview great coaches from all over the world. So far we’ve done more than 40 of them. Back in the latter part of 2016 we released the first Wizards book. In it we presented eight full interviews. They were chosen to represent a kind of cross-section of the coaches we’d sat down with to that point.

Mark and I have just come out with a second Wizards book. This one takes a very different approach, though.

As you can imagine, when you talk with 40+ great coaches there are going to be some really interesting nuggets of information that come out. Mark and I took a bunch of them and they formed the basis for this new book. We titled it Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom.

I think of this book as being more of a “practical” text than the first one. By that I mean it offers insights and perspectives on more day-to-day type of subjects. Those subjects include things like developing team culture and chemistry, planning practices, handling the team on match day, and developing yourself as a coach.

There isn’t much in the way of specific games and drills or the technical/tactical side of things here. You can find that stuff in plenty of other places. Instead, think of this book as speaking to the thought processes that lead to making those choices.

The book is fairly short at only about 160 total pages. There are 15 chapters, but each only has a few pages, so they make for a quick read. For me, that was an important point. Give readers some good stuff to think about, then move on.

Reviews from the folks who got a look at the advanced copy of the book have been excellent. An NCAA Division I women’s head coach told me:

I like the anecdotal style. Having practical information from coaches and then reflect on the success is a good style for me.

A long-time juniors and middle school coach said:

This must have been more difficult to write than the first book. And more enlightening.

A former NCAA men’s coach told me:

This is a very intriguing book. Pretty easy reading, I’d say. I liked that it’s a very conversational tone. Super easy to follow.

One of my classmates from the CAP III course said:

It’s great, really easy reading – I like the format. And the content is good too. I’ve recommended it to several groups I participate in.

For me, this was a really interesting book to develop. Obviously, I’m listed as author on the first book. In that case, though, Mark and I really just facilitated other people’s content. Here we generated a lot of the content ourselves, albeit with insights from the Wizards as the core framework.

For me, one of the big things I look for in a non-fiction book is that it gives me something to think about. I feel like that’s something we’ve accomplished with this new Wizards book. In fact, it’s kind of the whole point of the book.

Click here for more details and info on where you can get a copy.

For what it’s worth, during the run-up to release, when the Kindle version was available for pre-order, the book went to #1 among volleyball books on Amazon in the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Italy. I think that’s all of them. 🙂

The importance of knowing what you’re up against

In the can’t boil the ocean post I mentioned that I’d seen that concept in the book Wooden on Leadership. It was actually part of a section which focuses on the “how” of winning. The context is mainly business, but the ideas translate easily to sports. From that perspective, the “boiling” bit spoke to the fact that you need to have focus.

There’s more to it, though. Specifically, there are three questions asked with respect to winning.

What’s the difference that will open up the gap between us and our opponents?

How are we going to be better than other teams? That’s basically the question here. In some cases it’s as simple has having bigger, more powerful athletes. A lot of times, though, we operate on a relatively equal playing field in this regard. That being the case, if our players are physically similar to everyone else, what can give us the edge to succeed consistently?

What capabilities must we have in place?

Once we know where we can get an edge, it becomes a question of getting there. How do we do that and what do we need to do so? Are those things we all ready have in place, or do we need to go out and get them? If the latter, how do we get that done?

What management systems are required?

Progress tracking is critical. What metrics can we use to gauge that performance? This may seem like a straightforward question, but it isn’t. There are plenty of statistics out there. The problem is they don’t necessarily measure what needs measuring or capture what we want to capture. The trick is finding the ones that do the best job. Then the question becomes one of capturing the data and properly analyzing it. For example, the concept of the “competitive cauldron” is popular in some circles. As Mike Hebert wrote in Thinking Volleyball, though, there are significant trade-offs involved.

What about just catching up

I should note that everything above applies equally from the perspective of catching up. You just frame the questions a little differently. The focus becomes one of narrowing the gap. First, you have to know where the gap lies, then you have to figure out how to close it, what you need to do that, and how you can track your progress toward that end. These were the focal points for us during my two years at Midwestern State. We were in a rebuild situation, so it was about getting ourselves back on competitive ground with the other teams in our conference.

Knowing what you’re up against

The thing that underpins everything I’ve just laid out is knowledge. If you don’t know the competitive landscape how can you know what it will take to win there? This is the problem that faces new coaches and those moving into new positions. I can speak to this from my own experience.

Why I started coaching at Exeter I had no idea what I was involved in. I’d never coached in England. I had no idea what the competitive level of BUCS (their NCAA) play was like. As a result, all I could really do was take a “get better” approach to my coaching.

After that first year’s experience, though, I was in a much better situation. I’d been through a league season. I’d seen teams from other leagues in the Student Cup. I got to watch the play at Final 8s. All of that gave me a much better sense of where we needed to be to compete with all but the very top teams (we couldn’t match them on a personnel basis). That let me prioritize things better my second year. The result? The women reached the national semifinals, which they’d never done before.

The point is to really know what it will take for your team to win – especially when on a fairly level playing field in terms of the physical element – you need to know the competitive landscape. Only then can you start to answer the questions presented above.

So if you don’t have experience in the situation you’re coaching, get out there and do some research!

You can’t boil the ocean

Apparently, the title of this post is a phrase that’s common in business use. I hadn’t heard it myself – despite working in the business world for years – until I came across it while reading Wooden on Leadership. From a coaching perspective I interpret it as meaning you can’t fix everything all at once. You have to prioritize and focus on at most only a couple of things at a time. If you try to have equal focus on everything you’ll end up not getting very far on anything.

I’ve written before on the subject of knowing your priorities and sticking with them. It’s a really important concept in coaching. I personally think it’s one of the two main jobs of the coach.

This doesn’t just apply to the on-court element. Chances are there’s a bunch of other stuff you have to do that doesn’t actually involve volleyballs. For example, all this stuff. You don’t want to be trying to boil the ocean there either.

And keep in mind that part of your job as coach is to ensure those under you are equally focused. If your players and/or your assistant coach(es) try to work on everything all the time, it’s going to foul up your well-made plans.

5th Anniversary!

Five years ago today this blog was launched upon the world. What a ride it’s been!

Since the blog began in June 2013 about 300,000 visitors have tallied nearly 700,000 page views. That’s a far cry from what I expected when I launched the site. Can’t say I’m disappointed, though. The platform the blog created has led to many opportunities for me in the global coaching community.

Career stuff

Think about this.

Thanks to our mutual blogging interest, I connected with then fellow blogger Oliver Wagner from Germany (he’s since stopped blogging). In 2014 Oliver pointed me in the direction of another blogger, Mark Lebedew. That led to me visiting Mark at his then club, Berlin Recycling Volleys in the Spring of that year. Mark then played a critical part in my visiting the German pro teams in Potsdam and BĂĽhl during their preseason that year. In BĂĽhl I became friends with head coach Ruben Wolochin, an Argentine. In 2015 Ruben provided me with a connection that saw me hired to coach in Sweden. I also went back to BĂĽhl that summer to help Ruben out with his preseason once more. Ruben later connected me with Santiago Gabari, who was the in-country coordinator for the Midwestern State Volleyball team trip to Buenos Aires in August 2017.

Winding things back to Mark, after my trip to Potsdam and BĂĽhl in September 2014 he took me along for a day of World Championship action in Poland. That was my first ever major intentional volleyball event. In 2015 I visited with him again in Berlin for a longer stay during his German season. That trip featured my first ever CEV Champions League match. I later returned when BR Volleys hosted the Champions League Final Four that year. In 2017 I once again visited with Mark, this time in Poland at his then club, which hosted the Australian National Team’s training camp.

One more rewind needed. In 2015 Mark and I started work on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. That year, one of the interviews I conducted was with Ruth Nelson. It ended up in the first Wizards book. Ruth was later instrumental in my move to Midwestern State.

Expanded influence

The blog has also given me some interesting opportunities in terms of writing and coaching education. Other websites periodically pick up my content for their own purposes. Actually, from the early days the AVCA used some of my posts in their digital magazine. Later, I contributed a couple of articles to the print magazine as well. I was also invited to sit in on the Education committee meeting at the 2013 convention.

Parents?

Here’s something I definitely didn’t expect. In recent years I’ve heard that the parents of my players read the blog. That kind of blew my mind. I guess I can understand it a bit in that things like my coaching logs do necessarily provide some commentary about the squad. It’s a different perspective on things than parents get from match reports and the like. Still, it’s always a surprise when I hear about it. After all, they aren’t exactly my target audience.

Humbled by the breadth of readership

Another thing that surprised me early on, and continues to do so, is how many people I’ve spoken with from different parts of the world who read the blog. When I was in Germany in 2014 one of the staff coaches at SC Potsdam told me he was a reader. Last year in Argentina the head coach for the women’s team at Boca Juniors told me he reads the blog. Given the stats I reported at the top I should expect this sort of thing, right? For some reason, though, it’s still surprising and humbling every time it happens.

Where’s it going?

So where is this blog going? Honestly, I can’t say for sure. Part of that is because things are in flux for me professionally at the moment. Necessarily, where I land next will influence the direction of the blog moving forward – at least in terms of content. The one thing I do know is that I don’t have any plans to stop posting.

With any luck, in five more years I’ll be looking back on a decade of blogging with a bunch more interesting stuff having happened. 🙂

Don’t just cite the research, actually read and understand it!

I came across a post on social media regarding an academic study of serve-reception. Here’s the full quote.

A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences by Paulo et al. (Paulo A, Zaal FTJM, Seifert L, Fonseca S, AraĂşjo D. Predicting volleyball serve-reception at group level, 2018) showed that, about serve-receive success “decreasing alignment of the receiver with the ball and the target increased the chances of using the underhand-lateral pass, and that the use of the underhand-lateral pass was associated with lower quality receptions”. So, if you play volleyball do not be lazy, move your feet fast (you will only move fast if you lower your hips and stay on your toes), place your body and platform BEHIND the ball, if you want to increase your chances to succeed in serve receive. Do not trust side passes. Science is saying that!

The last couple of sentences jumped out at me. They are clearly interpretations of the paper findings, ones seen to support the idea of center-line passing. Focusing a lot on that is something I’m not a fan of beyond introductory teaching, as you will see if you follow the link.

But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the analysis side of things.

Being the curious sort, and having lots of experience reviewing this kind of research from my own PhD work, I read the paper in question. Not surprisingly, reading the paper produced two significant issues with regards to the social media post.

First, the results don’t make a strong case. Yes, the authors of the study did find that receiving the ball in the center line – what they refer to as “underhand-frontal pass” – did produced better passing results than passing outside the center line (underhand-lateral pass). They described the difference, however, as being weak from a statistical perspective.

Second – and this is the bigger problem – the causality is unclear. By that I mean we don’t know if the passers opted to pass outside their center line, or whether they were forced to do so by the serve. Given that the sample is from international level men’s players and includes topspin jump serves, I’m inclined to believe it’s not really a question of choice.

I think we can agree that a ball hit hard outside your body line is harder to pass than one hit straight at you. You simply don’t have as much time to get a well-positioned platform in place. Forget about moving your feet! Naturally, we expect these more difficult serves to produce worse passes on average. Despite this, the authors of the paper don’t see a big difference, statistically, between lateral and center-line passing performance.

Could it be that in fact lateral passing would prove superior if considering equally difficult serves? Well, we know in terms of hard serves going outside the body that center-line passing is basically impossible. What about slower or closer serves where you could get the ball center line, though? Could it be that lateral passing would show better results? This paper provides no insights in that regard.

So the poster of the item above has attempted to use as support for their own views research which at best only offers weak evidence. Really, it provides no evidence at all because the analysis of technique does not control for serve characteristics (i.e. difficulty).

There’s more issues

There’s also a major issue with this paper in that the sample the authors use is extremely narrow. It includes only four passers. They all come from the Portuguese Men’s National Team. So we’re making judgements based on the performance of just a few male players of a certain caliber in one team receiving serves from servers they’d probably passed against many, many times before in training.

Can you see how this might be a problem in terms of being representative?

That automatically says you should draw no real conclusions from the findings. I’m not saying there isn’t some quite interesting stuff. There certain is, both in this paper and this one the same authors did focused on single receiver passing. What I am saying is the best you can do with this kind of research is to say something like, “That’s interesting. We should explore it more deeply.”

Don’t be that poster

Please, please, please take the time to actually read any research presented to you. Don’t accept what people say about the research at face value – especially if that person might have an agenda, like supporting their own position. That was what tipped me off in this particular case. Also, don’t cherry pick from your own perspective. Don’t just present research that you think supports your case and ignore or downplay the stuff that contradicts you. Confirmation bias is a real issue for us all.

There’s a phrase I heard a while back that I think is a good one to live by in this sort of context. It is “strong views, loosely held”. That means you are strong in your belief, but able to change your mind on things when presented with good evidence. It’s not about being right. It’s about getting it right.

An Englishman at the AVCA Spring Conference

My friend Alex Porter, who heads up the volleyball program at the University of Essex (I visited him there in 2017) in England attended the 2018 AVCA Spring Conference that took place in conjunction with the NCAA men’s championship at UCLA. I thought a non-American’s perspective on the experience would be interesting, so I asked him if he’d be willing to write about it. He did, and here it is!

To my knowledge I’m only the second English man to visit an AVCA event – the first to visit their Spring Conference.

I’ve heard many things about the AVCA Annual Convention, over 2000 coaches and 400 plus exhibitors, “the world’s largest volleyball coaching gathering”. The Conference is a very different event with a little under 100 attendees and offers a more personal touch.

I’ve attended the Volleyball England Coaches Conference a handful of times and always felt there was a lot left on the table. This is not to put down their efforts, but until you go outside your comfort zone you don’t always know what is possible. I went into the AVCA Spring Conference with an open mind, ready to learn on and off the court, to learn what data they use to improve their athletes/programs, how they market the sport and how to get more bums on seats.

Prior to the conference I contacted AVCA Executive Director Katy DeBoer and at the Friday night networking event she was keen to hear about the university and coaching structure in the England. She was very open about the development of coaching and volleyball in the USA and how the AVCA mission statement helps facilitates both.

I arrived at the Marriott on the opening day and was expecting to see a fan fair of banners, product stools and the hustle and bustle of lots of coaches. I needed to remind myself that this was the Spring Conference and not the Convention. The welcome I received from the staff was very friendly but it felt a little underwhelming due to the size of the room and the number of attendees.

The order of service for the day was a The State of the Sport keynote from Kathy followed by two 90 minutes sessions. Each session had three options Training Technique, Fan Engagement and Tracking Performance. I was interested in all three and thankfully they were being recorded and are accessible via the AVCA website. After this there was a networking event by the pool.

I found Kathy’s speech very eye opening. The AVCA has collated a lot of numbers on the growth of the sport, on how and where this growth has occurred and more importantly how traditional marketing companies/departments target sport and why it’s different in volleyball, especially women’s volleyball. She went on to explain how in recent years incoming university recruits are now arriving with chronic injuries and this is something the sport needs to look at seriously. This was followed by some of the opportunities and successes that the sport is receiving. Over the last 7 year men’s volleyball has added 88 men’s college varsity programmes mainly based in tuition focused institutions and beach volleyball is flourishing.

Focus
Training Technique Fan Engagement Tracking Performance
Session 1 “Making a Good Setter Better” – Mick Haley “You are the Media!” – Katie Gwinn Hewitt, University of Michigan “No Numbers? No Clue!” – Guiseppe Vinci
No skill has more theories and methods, and no player gets more attention from coaches. What works, how do we train it, and what cues resonate with skilled setters? Social media has allowed programs the ability to reach the community directly without solely relying on traditional media to cover them. What are we training to? What numbers? What standards? What pacing? Without these metrics, we are guessing at the training regiment to prepare for elite performance. See what we know.
Session 2 “Serving: The Only Solo Skill” – Brian Gimmillaro “Not Your Parents’ Recaps” – Aaron Sagraves, Cornerstone University “Integrating Volleyball Injury Data into Performance Training Decisions” – Kyle Norris, MS, ATC, LAT, avcaVPI™ Biomechanics Consultant
Elite serving is a combination of physical and mental execution. Getting both right scores points. Reworking the standard press release to encourage more interaction Individual player mechanics impact injury risk. Strategies to protect the most vulnerable areas.

I stayed for the “You are the Media!” with Katie Gwinn Hewitt. In England we need some serious help with marketing our sport. Katie’s message was very simple- stories. People like stories, sponsors like stories and fan’s like stories they can relate to. Look at who is on your team, the ethos of the team and tell a story to create some traction. If you have an athlete studying social media let them have a Snap Chat take over. Do you have a budding journalist on your roster, let them create a number of pieces on their team mates that you can drip feed over the season. Every programme has a different approach to social media and fan engagement. I’ll be scanning the NCAA teams to see if there is something that will work for us. Once our reach increases, the traditional media should start to take notice.

The University of Essex is a research based institution and our HPU (Human Performance Unit) conducts numerous research projects each year, our staff share research papers with each other hence my reason for attending the Integrating Volleyball Injury Data into Performance Training Decisions with Kyle Norris.

Kyle covered a number of subject areas including sleep deprivation, postural and scapular control, glut med activation and “normal” biomechanics. Most of this I have read before in research papers but it’s great to revisit it and to be able to ask questions around these areas. I plan to contact Kyle to discuss our programme and the avcaVPI™ database which I never knew existed. To quote Guiseppe Vinci of Volley Metrics “No Numbers? No Clue!”

Most of the attendees and staff attended the networking event for some hor d’oeuvres and beverages by the Marriot poolside. Having an English accent meant I stuck out and people were very inquisitive.  I spoke with Kathy, club coaches and owners, teachers and the AVCA Hall of Famer, Mick Haley. I knew of Mick from watching the Sydney Olympics but I hadn’t put two and two together, Mick and his wife were great fun, his stories were as relevant today as they were when they happened the first time.

I spent the evening in the hotel bar with other university and college coaches. It was nice to hear they faced similar challenges to a greater or lesser extent.

DAY 2

Session 1 “General Session: Promoting Volleyball Player Well Being” – Aaron Brock,  USAVolleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Director
Training Technique Fan Engagement Tracking Performance
Session 2 “No One can Pass!” – Brian Gimmillaro “Media is Friend, Not Foe” – Tom Feuer, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism “How We Track Performance in the USA Volleyball Gym” – Jimmy Stitz, USA Volleyball Women’s Sports Physiologist
From basics to subtleties of higher level technique – why are so few players great at passing? What exactly should you be doing to ensure the media has everything it needs to best cover your program? Learn how to be more proactive than reactive. Managing repetitions in an efficient way is critical to preparation, rehab, and injury prevention.
Session 3 The Mechanics of Attacking” – Mick Haley “Story-telling: Going Beyond the Box Score” – Katie Morgan, The University of San Francisco “Training Jumpers” – Tim Pelot, United States Olympic Committee Senior Sports Physiologist
Footwork, load, swing – we all think we know it -yet even elite players have flaws Your team is more than stats, so you’ll learn the best methods to tell the story of your student-athletes and coaches Techniques for training jumpers can be counter intuitive. See how the senior teams physically prepare their jumpers
Session 4 “It’s not the Drill, It’s the Feedback” – Mick Haley and Brian Gimmillaro  “Putting Butts in the Seats” – Aaron Villalobos, Grand Canyon University “Injury Prevention – Keeping Them in the Gym” – Tim Pelot, United States Olympic Committee Senior Sports Physiologist
Engaging players in game-like training is the fastest way for them to become proficient in matches, yet simply running drills just reinforces bad habits. Where is the balance, when do we switch, how do we provide feedback? How do we engage our community to increase attendance? What kind of in-game promotions are run to ensure the audience stays “into” the match? These questions and more will be answered. We will not turn back the clock on specialization or earlier training; our task is to counteract the negatives of overuse. Teaching athletes to take control of their health and showing them ways to strengthen their weak sides is critical to keeping them in the gym.

The next morning we all met for breakfast. If I had to pick the worst part of the conference it was the breakfast, this coming from an Englishman, I know. Let’s get this right. It wasn’t bad, but after spending a week in the US and staying at a Marriott let’s just say you would expect more.

We headed over to UCLA’s campus for the rest of the day.

The first session of the day was with Aaron Brock, USA Volleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Director on “Promoting Volleyball Player Well Being”. This was the slickest of all the presentation and to be honest this should be at the forefront of any programme. Athlete and coaches well-being are super important, not just for the few years they are involved in a programme but also the rest of their lives. I enjoyed this session, it was thought provoking and I will adjust my programme after considering how best to use what I learnt.

I then headed over to the “How We Track Performance in the USA Volleyball Gym” with Jimmy Stitz who is the USA Volleyball Women’s Sports Physiologist. I love my data and this was an insight into what, how and why the USA Volleyball do what they do. There are lots of gadgets out there, Jimmy went through different tools they have used including different ways they’ve used them and the results that have and haven’t worked. For example basic assumptions on power and power/weight rations related to jump height and how/why you use video feedback and the flaws with it. Jimmy knows what his talking about and his insights are again thought provoking.

I keep saying it’s thought provoking and that’s because they were. These aren’t session where you’re going to find the exact solution for your situation. They make you think about how your programme is structured, why it’s like that and how things can be modified for the better etc.

I then attended two court based sessions with Mick Haley about “The Mechanics of Attacking” and with Mick and Brian Gimmilaro for “It’s not the Drill, It’s the Feedback”.  These confirmed a lot of my thoughts…every athlete will execute a skill differently but you must do the basics well. The last session of the day with Brain and Mick went a bit off topic but that’s what the group wanted so we got more out of it. It became more of a Q&A and attendees were about to pick their brains. Afterwards some of the attendees, including myself, continued the conversation with Mick and Brain.

When the Conference finished everyone went to the D1 Championship match. I watched the game for enjoyment sake, trying not to analysis it too much. I was a commentator for the BBC at the London 2012 final and this year’s D1 finals were up there with it. The game was fast paced and exciting. The 7,000+ fans supporting two local team were active, vocal and supported their teams in the right way.

But there was something special about this game (sorry Ryan it wasn’t the fact we had our first English athlete in a D1 final). It was the entertainment factor. The crowd hadn’t gone to watch a volleyball game, they had gone to support their teams AND be entertained. The compere got the crowd involved, the YELL squads livened up not only the student section, but got the rest of the crowd going. UCLA were giving out free tickets to their students 30 minutes before the game started and they were climbing over each other to get them. This was an event that had a lot of hype around it and the buzz and wow factor made it special.

After the final everyone went their separate ways which was a shame as there would have been value in reviewing the final as a group. I also think the Conference could have been over the weekend instead of Fri/Sat so there could have been additional sessions.

Would I recommend it? Yes! Was it worth the investment of time, money, etc for a international coach? That’s a bit trickier. A $1,000 airfare, plus $300 fee and $250 hotel, and suddenly it gets pricey for a two day event. I was already in America and only staying at the hotel for two nights, so it became more manageable. If I was in the same scenario I would, without doubt, attend again – even if it was just to spend more time with Mick Haley.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Kathy DeBeor and Mick Haley. They both took time out to speak with me. They were genuinely interested in my opinions and my reasons for attending. Actually, everyone I met was very welcoming and that’s another reason to attend, as the groups were small there were opportunities to speak with the same people if you wanted to carry on those conversations.

What to do on half a court during warm-ups

I got the following question from a reader named Mike.

I have a question about useful activities that can be done sharing half court with the other team–you know–that 15 or so minutes before the refs call for captains.

Most of the teams I see just do pepper or hit down balls to 3 passers. But I’m wondering if there might be something that will get in more game-like reps even without the use of the net.

This is an interesting subject, and one I’ve had a lot of thoughts about over the years. In the Improving pre-match warm-ups post I sort of touched on it.  Mainly, though, I focused on what you can do when you have the court to yourself. So let’s look at what we can do before that time – or the shared hitting time if that’s the structure you have.

Pepper has a purpose

We all know the pepper isn’t very game-like. It does have a purpose during warm-ups, though. First, it replicates some of the physical movements the players will do in the match – especially arm-swing. As such, it does have a physiological use. Second, it has a mental element. The players use it to connect with each other on the court. This can actually be very important time for them, even though what they’re doing (like bouncing the ball off the floor) might not accomplish much in other respects.

A suggestion from John Kessel

My immediate reaction to Mike’s email when I saw the “game-like reps” was to think of something John Kessel often suggests. It’s something he likes for when you don’t have use of a net. He calls it something like “loser is the net”. Let me explain.

Imagine you’re playing Winners (Queen/King of the Court). Normally, you’d do it over a net. In this case, though, one or more players act as the net. For example, you could have three players. Two of them play 1 v 1 while the other is the “net” they have to play over. When the rally ends, the loser and the “net” change places.

You could do something similar with doubles. Two players are the net, perhaps by holding a rope between them. When the rally is over, they rotate out and the losers form the net.

You can probably fit at least three mini doubles courts on your side during pre-game warm-ups. Playing this game would certainly be a way to get game-like reps.

Stuff you want to work on

Something work thinking about as you ponder your pre-match time is what you might want to use the time to reinforce. You don’t want to be teaching new things before a game starts, but you can work on things you’ve already introduced. For example, lots of teams do blocking footwork during their warm-up. It can help reinforce those patterns, especially if you’re providing feedback. You don’t want them working on the wrong patterns, after all.

Mike brought up the idea of the coach hitting balls at three passers. There are lots of variations on this sort of thing. I’m not a huge fan, broadly speaking, but it can have its uses. One of them might be to reinforce team defensive movement and positioning.

While they won’t be particularly game-like, there are lots of little things like this you could potentially work on in the pre-game time. Maybe there’s some eye work for your setters, or transition footwork for your middles. Whatever it is, just make sure it doesn’t distract from match preparation. You don’t want your players thinking about something other than playing the game once the whistle blows.

Remember the purpose

Remember that what matters most during your warm-up is that the team is prepared to play – both collectively and individually. This is your primary objective. What they need to be there can vary from team to time. There is obviously a physical element. That’s pretty consistent across team, possibly with small variations for individual player considerations.

It’s the psychological aspect which varies more.

Some teams are ready to go mentally as soon as they walk into the gym. Others need some help to get themselves in the right mindset. It’s up to you as the coach to figure out what your team needs – realizing that it can change.

Be consistent

One thing players don’t like in their warm-ups is change. They can be easily rattled if you change things up unexpectedly. Should it be that way? No, but such is life. As such, it’s generally a good idea to introduce significant warm-up changes beforehand so they are prepared.