Archive for John Forman

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John recently compelted a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

A 1-hour practice plan

The other day we had the last of the off-season practice sessions with the team before they went on Spring Break, after which we’ll go into the non-traditional season (Spring Training). For those with an NCAA background, you’ll know that only 2 hours of on-court work is permitted during the off season. All the players had done an hour already earlier in the week – either individually or in small groups. This session, though, featured everyone. As I only recently found out, that is now allowed in Division II.

Since we only have two practices before our first Spring tournament, the head coach wanted to give the players a chance to go 6 v 6 for the first time in a long while. It was therefore decided that 30 minutes of time was going to be devoted to that. The first 30 minutes was build up to it.

Here’s one of the tricks of maximizing your time with the players in this kind of situation. Get them to warm-up on their own before you get into the gym. That way you can go right to work. By the time we got there, the players were already into playing back row Winners 3s.

Activity #1
We had 12 players with just one court set up. The first thing we did was to have them play 3 v 3 on a narrow court. In other words, we had two games going on next to each other. The players were grouped by position, then did a count-off to decide their teams. Two rounds of play were run, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers for the second one. If I’m remembering correctly, it was a back row attack only game. Games were played to 8.

Activity #2
The second activity is something I did at times with my Svedala team. I developed it as a kind of a Belly Drill or Speedball variation in teams of 4 (counted off as above). Two teams were on the court with one off waiting to come on. The teams on played out a 4 v 4 rally (all hitting options available). At its conclusion, the losers were replaced by the waiting team while a coach initiated a ball to the winners (down ball over the net).

This is a fast paced game with very little down time for players. We played for 15 minutes and had the teams keep track of rally wins. I think it was something like 27, 25, and 20. So we got in at least as many points as you’d get in 1.5 sets in less time than it generally takes to play a single one. This is more rallies than we’d have gotten in had we been going with Winners 4s with the inherent delay of teams waving through to the winners’ side.

Activity #3
The last half of the session was given over to simple game play. The players were divided up by position, which created some imbalances and caused some funky rotational requirements. One of the assistants jumped in to balance out the hitting, while a pair of defenders split time playing back row for one team. They got into a second set before the hour was up and decided to keep going after we left.

Skill coverage
Let’s think about the various skills and how much they were included in this short session.

  • Serving was included in the 3 v 3 game and the 6 v 6, though in the latter case not everyone ended up doing it because of the team compositions (some players front-row-only).
  • Serve reception was part of both the 3 v 3 and 6 v 6.
  • Setting was included in all of the games, though it was only in 6 v 6 where the setters specifically took all the second balls. In the other games sometimes they did, but often times it was other players.
  • Hitting was included in all three games from a variety of locations.
  • Blocking was included in all three games, though only in the 6 v 6 was their regular double blocking.
  • Defense was included in all three games, with the 4 v 4 essentially starting each rally with a defense ball (down ball from the other side of the net).

So you could say the balance was skewed toward the “open play” type of skills – setting, hitting, blocking, defense – with a bit less in serving and passing. We could have boosted the serve reception by having the assistants serve a ball to start the next rally in the 4 v 4 game.

How do you prove your value as a coach?

In what was nominally about coaching motivation, Mark included a quote from Shane Battier (basketball) in one of his At Home on the Court posts. The first line of it goes:

“There’s not a coach out there who doesn’t want to prove their worth.”

If you want to go further with the motivation subject, I encourage you to go to Mark’s post and follow on from there. You can argue for or against Battier’s suggestion and/or what Mark says in the first line of the piece (has to do with winning). What I want to focus on in this post isn’t the motivation side of things, but rather the “How?” which must necessarily follow on from Batteir’s statement.

How do we as coaches prove our worth?

There is a secondary question which I think must be asked before we can even start to address this one, though?

To who do we need to prove our worth?

For the sake of discussion, let’s exclude anything related to the idea that we don’t need to prove our worth to anyone. I think at a minimum we all want to prove our worth as coaches to ourselves on some level or another.

Generally speaking, there are a few potential constituencies involved in answering the “Who?” questions. Many of us have a current employer and prospective future ones. We all have players on our team, and in many cases parents of players. There may be boosters and alumni. Certainly there are our coaching peers.

No doubt there’s a lot of overlapping interest between these groups – for better or for worse. For example, winning and losing probably factors in for all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Each, though, also has its own perspective on things. For example, if you coach at a college you are going to be judged by your Athletic Director a lot on the things you do off the court, but your players probably won’t care too much about that stuff. They’re more interested in the training and competitive environment you foster.

Unfortunately, for many of us we have multiple individuals or groups we are proving ourselves to at any given time. Sometimes they conflict, which means we have a balancing act to try to keep things going well. At times it means we have to prioritize one group over the others.

So who do you have to prove your value to and how do you do that?

And does this conflict with your own motivation for coaching?

Shifting from cooperative to competitive

I have liked to use cooperative drills like this one, this one, and this one with my teams for a couple of reasons. One is that they give players a lot of quality – meaning game-like – contacts because rallies are sustained and the ball goes over the net a lot. Another is that they can help train players to make good decisions in situations where less aggressive play is demanded to keep the play going. You can potentially add in a couple other things as well.

The other day at MSU we ran a competitive version of the rotating cooperative cross-court hitting drill. Obviously, instead of having the players keep the rally going, they were looking to win each one. In this variation, points could only be scored actively, not on opponent error. Basically, that means you get a point for a kill or a block, but nothing for an opponent hitting error. At the end of a rally, a new ball was initiated by a coach (over the net) to the team that won (whether they earned a point or not).

The team played 4 games to eight points – 4 vs 4, 4 vs 2, 2 vs 2, 2 vs. 4.

On the face of it, this might be a nice way to work on cross-court defense and things like that. At one point, though, I was tempted to call a time out and see if I could get the hitters to think about the easiest way to score.

Have you figured out what that would be?

Consider this. You have one blocker in position 2. You have defenders in 4, 5, and 6 basically covering half the court. That leaves half the court wide open. Yes, it’s technically out of bounds. But if you can tick the ball off the block …

If the players were to get smart enough to realize this, then the drill/game kind of falls apart – at least from the perspective of wanting lots of touches from more sustained rallies. On the other hand, it could be an interesting exercise in getting hitters thinking outside the box and working the block.

My broad point in all this – like using other scoring systems and/or bonus points – is that you definitely need to make sure you think about the potential implications involved. Specifically, what might the scoring incentivize above and beyond the basic level?

Just something to consider in your planning.

Let them play!

There was a player in the Midwestern State squad when I first visited campus in early February 2016 who could not hit a down ball or a back row attack to save her life. I mean she literally did not have the skill.

I found out later the cause of this problem. Her high school coach never let her hit.

I will grant you that she was pretty tiny. It must have been obvious from early on that hitting and blocking weren’t going to be her thing. Genetics put her clearly into the libero/defensive specialist category.

I get that a coach probably isn’t going to have her spend much time in hitting drills and the like. But to not have her even learn how to do a good down ball? Come on! That’s criminal in my book. It’s specialization gone crazy.

First of all, even tiny little defenders sometimes need to use that skill. Heck, sometimes they can even attack the ball outright from the back row if they aren’t libero at the time. So there’s a very clear volleyball reason to teach every player to hit from either standing or jumping.

More importantly, part of what we must be doing as coaching is instilling a love of the game in our players. That’s a whole lot easier to do when you actually let them play!

And this applies to players in other positions as well. Let your setters block. Include your middles in defensive training. Give your pin hitters the opportunity to set. You never know when being able to whip a non-specificity skill out will make the difference between winning and losing.

Being more well-rounded makes players better. It gives them a deeper appreciation of the game and all it entails. It also makes it more fun for them, and that means they may stick with the sport longer.

So please let them just be players instead of positions sometimes.

Coaching Log – Mar 15, 2016

I’m going to start a new coaching log sequence to share the stuff I’m doing at Midwestern State for the rest of this current academic year. This is likely to be different from the ones I did for Exeter and Svedala in a couple of ways.

First, I’m not the head coach, so I won’t be the sole driver of the coaching involved. I’ll be part of a staff, with a head coach setting the tone and me working within that framework. Second, coaching at the college level involves a ton of moving parts. Yes, there’s on-court work, but there’s also recruiting and player academic supervision and lots of other organizational stuff which are integral to the job.

In fact, we’ve already started talking about how we’re going to revitalize the office area I work in. This wasn’t motivated by me, by the way. The rest of the staff were already thinking about it. Here’s the view from my desk.

MSU VB assistants office

I don’t know yet how frequently I’ll do updates. I need to see how things fall out. This time of year, since the on-court team schedule isn’t as full and defined as is the case in the Fall, I may just end up doing ad-hoc updates as things happen which I think might be of interest.

With that, let me start off telling you what I’ve been doing since I arrived in town on Saturday morning. Basically, I’ve been running around. I had to secure an apartment. I had to buy a car. I had to shop for furniture and other household goods. I’ve had to do various admin things on campus (visit HR, get my ID, etc.).

I’ve spent A LOT of money!

And I’ll be spending more getting my life in order. My to-do list is still a mile long with details big and small. Trying to secure auto insurance has been the single biggest hassle. Definitely making me miss the days of not needing a car. 🙁

I was in the gym for an hour on Monday, though. We did an individual session with one of the players. Mostly they do their sessions in groups of 3-4, but this one’s schedule doesn’t work with anyone else’.

You don’t need a new drill

“Are there any drills that you do to help with your blockers timing?”

“Any drills to help my middle not approach too close to the net when she hits?”

“Does anyone have a favorite drill that teaches top spin serving?”

These are just some of the examples of the types of queries you will often find if you spend time in a volleyball coaching forum or discussion group. In some cases you’ve got a coach looking for a new idea to shake things up in their training. Too often, though, they reflect what to me seems like a “give me a pill to cure what ails me” type of mindset.

If you find yourself wanting a new drill to “fix” something a player or a team is having a problem with, stop for a minute and think about things. Chances are, you don’t need a new drill. The ones you have will do just fine.

Let me take the first example above having to do with block timing. Ultimately, the player needs to learn to time their jump to the hitter’s attack. How do you do that? You practice blocking against hitters. There’s really no other way to do it. So how do you get blockers going up against live hitters? Run any game or drill where there’s living hitting and blocking.

More about focus and feedback than activity

It’s not the activity, as long as it has the blockers facing hitters. It’s about the coaching cues and the focus. Any game or drill that features the skill you want to improve can be used so long as the attention is being given to what you want to work on in that instance.

It’s also about the feedback. In fact, that is probably the biggest consideration. This is part of what I talked about in the Fixing bad passing mechanics post. In some cases the feedback is inherent in the activity – missed hit, service error, bad pass, etc. In many cases specific feedback in the form of video and/or coach observation is required.

When you think in terms of giving a player/team opportunities to execute the skill or tactic you want to develop, with specific focus, and being able to provide meaningful feedback you’ll realize there are lots and lots of options.

Want to work on serving? Do something that includes serving. Want to working on serve reception? Do something that has passers receiving balls from servers. Want to work on hitter transition? Do something that requires players to attack after having blocked, passed, or defended.

It’s really that simple. A new drill or game isn’t going to change the primary needs of focus, cues, and feedback.

Heading for Texas!

I’ve shared this news with some folks already. Here’s the official and full announcement for everyone who reads this blog, though.

On Tuesday I was offered the Volleyball Assistant Coach position at Midwestern State University, which I accepted. Later today I’ll be ending my stay in Long Beach, where I’ve been since early February after my departure from Sweden, and heading to Wichita Falls, TX. That’s a bit under 2 hours drive northwest of Dallas. Oklahoma City is slightly further than that to the north.

Midwestern State Volleyball (MSU) is an NCAA Division II program competing in the Lone Star Conference (LSC). The conference is part of the South Central region. You can see the full set of Div II regions and the top 10 rankings for each here. The full 2015 set of rankings for the region can be found here (PDF). Angelo State, also from the LSC, was top. They ended up reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament (full bracket PDF). Tarleton State and Texas Women’s also both made the field, though both fell in the first round. To get a sense for the level of play, give a watch to the 2015 LSC tournament championship match.

Why Midwestern State?

As you will see in the regional rankings, MSU ended up 25th out of 34. The squad finished 0-16 in the LSC, making it two years in a row ending the season at the bottom of the league standings. In other words, I’m heading into a program that needs a lot of work. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way! As I’ve said before, I want to be in a program building situation, as I was when coaching at Exeter University in England. This is exactly that kind of opportunity.

That said, you can only turn something around and properly build a program if there’s something to build. MSU has only once made the NCAA tournament in its history. That was back in 2007. If you look at the other teams at the school, though, you’ll see a lot of conference titles and tournament appearances. That tells you there is the commitment to athletics and the resources available to be successful. When I sat with the Athletic Director during the interview process he told me he’s pretty much sick of volleyball not performing. He clearly wants a winning team.

Now, a question which might come to mind is whether there’s something about MSU that hinders volleyball’s competitiveness. I haven’t seen anything about the school or the athletics which would seem to be an issue. Volleyball is fully funded (8 scholarships, the max allowed in D2), just like all the other sports. The Dallas area is a fertile recruiting territory and LSC is a strong league, making for good competition. That leads me to believe that with the right coaching, recruiting, and organizational work we should be able to build a competitive program.

I’m not the only one to think that. Ruth Nelson, who I interviewed for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, was the one to point me in the direction of MSU. That was back in January. She told me at the time that she thought within a few years this could be an Elite 8 caliber program.

Why assistant coach?

Given that I’ve been a head coach for the last four years, it’s natural to ask the question as to why I would take an assistant job. It might not be as much of a surprise, perhaps, if I were to take an assistant job in the upper levels of Division I, but I can understand how doing do in Division II might be a surprise. It must seem to many like a step backwards.

I did look at head coach jobs, and applied for ones I thought potentially interesting. At the end of the day, though, it was about the situation and not the title. The priorities I had were 1) to be somewhere I could have an impact on the program’s path forward, 2) to be in a location where volleyball isn’t a minor sport, and 3) being somewhere I would have the opportunity to pursue my other interests and activities.

To the first point, my new boss at MSU only has 3 years as a collegiate head coach (just one season at the school) and has a relatively inexperienced pair of other assistants (GA and volunteer). She was looking for someone with a stronger background that she could bounce ideas off of and problem-solve with at a higher level. She was also looking for someone with strong organizational skills to help carry the off-the-court load. It was this combination of things which saw Ruth encourage the two of us to connect (this is why networking is so important folks!). She felt like we’d make a good team to drive the MSU program forward.

To the second point, Texas loves volleyball. It is a huge sport in the state, with Dallas being one of the big hubs. Obviously, it doesn’t have the history of the West Coast, but it’s still got a pretty good pedigree. In 1988 Mick Haley led the University of Texas team to the first NCAA championship won by a non-West Coast team and that program has been a consistent top contender ever since (another title in 2012 and seven other trips to the Final 4). That’s encouraged a ton of kids to play high school and club ball across the state. Unlike my prior coaching stops, I’m not going to have to go very far to find good volleyball. In fact, Dallas will be hosting one of this year’s World League stops for the US men’s national team.

As for my final point about being able to pursue other activities, a big part of that is just being back in the States where I think there is probably more ability for me to connect and develop opportunities. That’s not so say I won’t continue to do things internationally, though. I definitely will. I’ll leave discussion for all this stuff to future posts, though. 😉

Final thoughts

At the very end of my interview process at MSU the A.D. sat down with me for a few minutes. We’d already met and talked the day before, but he wanted to leave me with something to think about. That was to make sure MSU was a good fit. I can understand why he had that on his mind. Arguably, I’m WAY overqualified for a Division II assistant coaching job. He wants someone who is going to be committed to the program, not someone who will quickly find themselves feeling like they should be somewhere else. I got it.

From my own perspective, there were a few key things I was looking at when evaluating MSU (or anyone else). Did I think there was an opportunity to be successful (support, etc.)? Could I get along with my immediate co-workers (volleyball staff)? How was the overall working environment? Did I like the location?

The first three things were to my mind answered very positively. It was the last one that was the big question. I’ve never lived anywhere like Wichita Falls. I have no point of reference for that, and a couple days visiting doesn’t really tell yo what it’s like to live in a place. After doing my research into things like housing options and stuff, though, I started feeling like I could be reasonably happy there.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee in any of this, but it’s a good starting point. That’s all we can ask for.

What makes for a good coach?

Yesterday I wrote on the subject of whether great players make great coaches. Today I want to talk about what sort of talents or skills are required to be a great coach. This is a topic that no doubt will be at least part of what we do with Volleyball Coaching Wizards in the months ahead. For now, though, I just wanted share a few thoughts of my own mixed in with a few shared by the Wizards in the interviews we’ve done.

So where to start…?

Playing experience

Well, let me first address the playing experience question. I do think having played the sport is beneficial. In particular, playing at the level you’re coaching (or at least a reasonable facsimile) is useful. It provides you with a perspective that can sometimes help understanding what the players are going through and how to communicate with them. Having this experience isn’t necessary. The lack of it can be overcome. It just tends to make things easier – especially early in one’s career.

Playing position

Here’s something else that falls in the “useful, but not required” category. In baseball, you often see catchers become managers. It’s a position with a lot of leadership requirements as well as one which includes a broad perspective on the game. To my mind, setter is similar in volleyball. Because the setter is at the heart of most of what’s going on for a team, they inherently develop an understanding for tactics and strategy, plus have considerable work as leaders. Again, this doesn’t mean that non-setters can’t coach, or couldn’t be good coaches, just as not every manager in baseball used to be a catcher. It’s just that being a setter gives one a leg up in many ways.

Communication skills

This is where coaches can really get separated. If you want to be a great coach you need to be a good communicator. Technical knowledge is pretty easy to gain. Read a few books. Attend some clinics and seminars. Watch a bunch of matches. The key is being able to communicate that to your players. Doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t pass that on effectively. Think about the example of a professor who is a true expert in their field but can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. You don’t want to be that type of coach.

Organizational skills

You may be wondering at this point, feeling like organizational skills aren’t really coaching. If you are then you need to adjust your thinking. They may not have much to do with what you’re doing on the court with your players, but they have a lot to do with how you structure things – including stuff as basic as practice sessions. Strong organizational skills help your develop good, effective practice plans. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many parts of coaching which take place off the court where your skills in administration and management are put to the test.

Put players first

At its core, coaching is an exercise in service to another. We are guiding and teaching and motivating others, but it’s those others that actually do all the real work. As such, we must be prepared to put the welfare of those we coach ahead of our own. This isn’t to say there isn’t some ego in coaching. It takes some just to believe that you can do the job. It’s a question of whether you’re coaching for you or for those on the team.

Coaching experience

This one seems pretty obvious, but let me provide a bit of detail. A couple of the Wizards have specifically talked about the need for developing coaches to get as much head coaching experience as they can because of the things you learn when you’re the one making the decisions. I would extend that by suggesting that you get as broad an experience base as you can because the more different types of situations you face the better you’ll be equipped to take on the variety of challenges you’ll face along the way.

I’m not sure I’d call this a comprehensive list of desirable skills or traits. I think it’s a reasonable starting point, though. Definitely feel free to share your own thoughts through the comment section below.

Do great players make great coaches?

My life experience includes multiple coaching-related activities over the years. As a result, I’ve come across different forms of biases toward favoring current/former high level performers as coaches or teachers. It happens anywhere credentials are evaluated in some fashion.

On the negative side of things, this bias is expressed as “Those who can’t, teach”. The presumption there is that if you truly knew what you were talking about, you’d be doing it. You would not just tell other people how to do it. Among other short-comings of this mentality is that it ignores the fact that it’s possible to both do and teach.

Whether expressed positively or negative, however, there is an assumption in this bias. It says the talent and/or skills required to be a high level performer are the same as those required to teach or coach. To put it bluntly, they most definitely are not.

Clay at Open Source Volleyball wrote about this in a post a little while back. In it he referenced some research from baseball. It examines hitting coaches’ effectiveness. The finding is that at best a coach’s abilities as a hitter when they played has no influence on how well they do as a coach. In fact, it might even be a negative.

In other words, being good at “doing” doesn’t imply any ability at all for coaching.

And yet, what do we see in the promotional material for so many clubs and clinics? We see current and recently former players with strong on-court credentials highlighted as a major feature of the coaching staff. That shouldn’t be the case. Those running the camp/clinic no doubt realize the lack of coaching credential involved. They also know, however, it’s the sort of thing that impresses would-be attendees (granted, it isn’t 100% about the coaching).

The sad thing is that those looking to hire coaches also seem dazzled by playing credentials. Or maybe they just cynically look at them as a way to impress the masses. Not good either way.

That then begs the question. What makes for a good coach?

I share my thoughts on that in the this post. 🙂