Archive for Volleyball Coaching Careers

Comparing NCAA and professional volleyball – Part II

In the first post of this series I started to look at the similarities and differences between NCAA Division I volleyball and the professional game in Europe based on the time I spent with some pro teams in Germany and my own experience coaching in Sweden. The focus there was on the time element. In this post I want to extend that comparison into the area of resources.

Facilities

I think this is actually an area of considerable commonality. There are some professional clubs who host home matches in large arenas. BR Volleys hosts matches in Max Schmeling Halle, which holds over 8000.

That’s one of the bigger, better arenas, though. Most clubs play in more modest gyms. The folks at SC Potsdam and TV Bühl both can seat around 2000. Our gym at Svedala maxed out at about 800, and that was straining the fire codes. I saw a hall in Denmark that I don’t think held even that many.

Honestly, I think most colleges have bigger gyms that do the majority of professional clubs. I doubt you’ll find many schools with a capacity of less than 1000 and many have arenas the can match or beat Max Schmeling Halle.

In both the pros and the college game there can be scheduling conflicts with other sports and other demands on the facility. In some cases the training and playing gyms are not the same. Alternative gyms need to be used for training periodically. None of the pro teams I’ve visited have full control over their training/playing site just. Similarly, most college programs have to coordinate with other sports and school demands in scheduling gym time.

Staff – College

NCAA Division I schools are allowed to have three paid volleyball coaches (a head and two assistants). They may also have a volunteer and/or graduate/student assistant. At the top end the staffs are full. In the lower rankings, though, oftentimes schools only have a head coach and assistant. Maybe they can get a lowly paid 2nd Assistant during the season.

Schools generally also have a trainer (physio) and a strength coach. These are usually shared with other teams and are not always available to be assigned to be with the volleyball team during all training sessions and competitions. Many schools also have a Director of Volleyball Operations. They do a lot of administrative work for the program, but are not management. They report to the head coach.

When I was at USC last year all those people were in the gym during preseason training sessions. Most schools have just a handful of staff in the gym to work in practice, though.

Staff – Professional

From what I’ve seen, professional teams tend to have maybe three coaches – oftentimes it’s just a head coach and an assistant. You might also see what is called a Scoutman, which is basically a stats person. In some cases an assistant coach fills that role. When I was in Sweden my assistant was also the team’s manager. Because he had a day job, he couldn’t always make practice.

Pro clubs generally have strength coaches and trainers, though how often they are specifically on-hand varies. At one club the strength coach was actually involved full-time and also coached the club’s second team. In another case the strength coach was more of a consultant who spent spells with the team throughout season. One club had a trainer at the gym sessions while the other didn’t.

At Svedala I had to be the strength coach and we didn’t have a trainer. That serves to highlight how different things can be.

Professional clubs have team managers who work on the administrative side of things. They get players signed and deal with much of the off-court stuff around the team. How often they turn up for and/or help out with training no doubt varies. My impression is that they are largely considered administrators rather than having much of a role in practice.

Equipment & Technology

Here, budget is a large factor. I saw clubs in Germany with lots of equipment of all kinds – or at least access to it. I saw more use of stuff like training aides than technology, though. One club used video replay in training, but the others didn’t at that stage (though one was moving in that direction). No doubt at least some of that reflected the attitudes of the coaches.

At Svedala, where there was a lot less money, we didn’t have a lot to work with. We had some basic equipment that belonged to the hall. I had to bring in video stuff of my own to use in practice, though.

By contrast, I’ve seen NCAA volleyball teams use video and stats extensively in training. USC has video replay systems on all three of its training courts, which is definitely a high-end example. Even much smaller programs have that kind of technology, though. I was given the impression by a couple coaches that in Europe they kind of look to the US for the latest technology developments.

Budgets

I was told in 2014 that the average budget among women’s teams in the German top flight (the Bundesliga) is about €500,000. That was roughly $650,000 based on exchange rates at that time. I think on the men’s side it might be more like €700k ($910k). I know there are teams with 7-figure budgets, though, implying that there are also teams with markedly lower ones.The result is a disparity in resources among teams competing in the same league. It’s the sort of thing which can also notably be seen in professional soccer.

I don’t have budget figures for NCAA schools. It would be a bit tricky to compare them directly with the pros in any case (and perhaps even with each other in some cases) depending on how scholarships were valued and such. On a conference basis there is probably less disparity in funding between schools than we see in the professional ranks. The same, however, can’t be said when we look at all of Division I as a whole. There are clearly some schools with massive financial support and many with relatively little. That’s hardly unexpected when considering 300+ teams.

Overall, my impression is that NCAA Division I schools and European professional volleyball teams are not dissimilar in terms of available resources. There’s is considerable disparity on both sides of the equation, and one side may be stronger than the other in some aspects, vice versa in others.

As I said in my previous post, my perspective is a limited one at this point. I’d love to hear from readers with better/different knowledge than myself. Just leave a comment below.

I wrap up the comparison in the next post by talking about things from a coaching perspective.

Comparing NCAA and professional volleyball – Part I

I won’t ever claim the three weeks I spent with professional clubs in Germany in August 2014, again in 2015, and coaching in Sweden gives me a complete understanding of what pro volleyball is all about. I do think, however, it allows me to make a basic comparison to volleyball in the U.S. This is particularly true for the NCAA Division I collegiate game, where I spent a fair amount of time. Over the next couple of posts I’ll document what I observed in terms of similarities and differences. Here I start with a look at the time commitment.

The College Season

Most NCAA Division I teams report for preseason in early to mid-August. They can official matches starting in late August or early September. The first couple weeks are non-conference competition – often tournament style. In this period teams often play 3-4 matches per week, sometimes more.

Conference play begins in late September or early October, depending on league size. During this phase teams usually play just twice a week on the weekend. Sometimes, however, they mix in a mid-week match against local non-conference competition.

League play usually runs into early or mid-November, after which many conferences have a post-season tournament to determine their champion. Those champions, and teams granted at large bids, begin the NCAA tournament the first weekend of December. There are two rounds per weekend for three weeks, with the National Champion crowned the third Saturday of the month.

Add all this together and you get a season about three months long for those who don’t make it to the post-season, and up to four months for those who do. Teams may play 30 or more matches during the regular season. Those who go far in the NCAA tournament can get up near 40.

From late-January through April the main focus for NCAA teams is on individual training and strength & conditioning work. For most of that period players are limited to just 6 hours per week, 2 of which can be volleyball (20 hours is the limit during the main season). There is a “non-traditional season” of several weeks during which a more normal training regime can be used. With only a couple of available play dates, though, the focus remains on training rather than competition.

Coaches may not work with players when school is out. These days, however, it is not uncommon for players to take Summer classes and workout together.

The Professional Season

In European pro leagues the competitive season runs from October until perhaps April or early May for the top teams. For example, the German (Bundesliga) regular season ends in February, but the playoffs there go on into May. The extent to which a team is still active in one or more cup competitions dictates how many matches they play each week. It’s very much like professional soccer where teams generally play a weekend league fixture, and could have a cup match midweek.

For example, TV Bühl had about 25 matches listed on its schedule to begin the 2014-15 season. That number would grow to the extent that the team advanced in the German and CEV Cup competitions and makes the league playoffs as the end of the season.

This makes it sound like NCAA schools and professional clubs play a comparable number of matches. The college teams just do so in a more compressed time frame. This fails to account for the “friendly” matches teams play during their preseason, which lasts upwards of 2 months. These friendlies are against teams from a variety of different countries and levels of play. It is similar to the way NCAA teams play pre-conference matches, only more so (I actually had one coach express bewilderment over the fact that pre-conference matches count toward a team’s record). TV Bühl had something like 20 friendlies planned before starting the Bundesliga season, from what I heard while visiting them in 2014.

What we end up with in terms of the pros is a season that runs upwards of 9 months from the start of preseason to the end of the playoffs. A competitive team can get easily north of 50 matches in a year, all together.

Travel

Depending on the country, travel for league and domestic cup competitions among professional teams can be either minimal (imagine the likes of Belgium or the Netherlands) or potentially substantial (think Russia). International competition such as CEV and friendlies can add to that required by domestic play considerably. Competitive level and league thus are significant contributors to how much traveling a professional team must do.

The same is true for US college teams. Some conferences are fairly narrowly confined geographically. Also, teams with low budgets don’t travel much beyond that for pre-conference competition. The other end of the spectrum is a conference like the ACC, which spans practically the whole of the US east coast (Boston to Miami) and extends west to Indiana (Notre Dame). That’s a lot of time on the road.

The potential major difference between the college players and the pros is how the travel works out. A professional team could be required to make two long trips in one week (midweek and weekend). A college team, however, usually plays multiple matches each time they go on a long trip. For example, they play Friday/Saturday, and travel from one locale to the other in between. Usually those pairings are selected to be relatively close to minimize travel.

Gym Time

At the collegiate level the NCAA’s 20-hour per week time limits constrain what teams can do in-season. For the most part that means just one training session per day (though 2 gym sessions a day is common during preseason when there are fewer constraints). Teams may add in 1-2 days in the weight room for maintenance and injury prevention. The major S&C work tends to get done outside the regular season, though.

At the professional level, the amount of gym time can vary considerably. At the upper levels players often have two sessions per day. That could be one weight session and one in the gym. Alternatively, it could be weights plus small groups in the morning, then team training in the afternoon. At the lower levels where there are fewer fully professional players, one training per day is generally it. At Svedala we trained four nights per week. We had one team lifting session. Otherwise, though, they were left to lift on their own.

Off Time

Obviously, at the college level much of a player’s time is spent in classes, studying, working on papers, etc. Basically, that’s the “student” part of student-athlete.

There isn’t the same kind of commitment for upper level professional volleyball players. There may be language training going on for those who don’t speak the language of the country in which they’re playing. Mainly, though, as pro athletes they are expected to rest, recover, and take care of themselves. There are things like sponsor commitments and supporter events on their schedules, though. Some also have families in their lives.

It’s a different story for lower level players. They often have jobs and/or are students. My Swedish players at Svedala were all either still students or worked. Only my American players were full professionals.

As I said at the top, my knowledge of this subject matter is not comprehensive. I know there are a couple of professional coaches who check in on the blog from time to time. I’d love to hear their input, and thoughts or experiences from anyone else who can speak with any knowledge of the subject. Just leave a comment.

In the next post I take a look at resources and how they compare between college programs and the pros.

Three weeks in professional volleyball

I am back in England now, having returned the other day from my August sojourn into the realm of professional volleyball in Germany.

First of all, I need to offer thanks to Ruben at TV Bühl and Alberto at SC Potsdam for being so open and hospitable in allowing me to spend time with them, their coaching staffs, and their teams during pre-season preparations for the 2014-15 campaign. Not only did they house me and allow me to observe, but they included me in the training sessions and evaluation aspects of things so the experience wasn’t just me sitting on the sidelines watching, but rather one of active participation.

I need to additionally thank Mark at BR Volleys, and At Home on the Court, for providing my first exposure to professional volleyball back in April, and for making the connections that enabled me spend the last few weeks getting a deeper perspective. And also for bringing me along for a day in Poland to take in my first ever major international competition matches at Men’s World Championships.

I had a conversation with Ruben near the end of my stay with him during which he expressed the hope that I saw some new stuff during my time with him and his staff. My honest response was that in this sort of situation it isn’t necessarily just about “new”. Sometimes it’s a question of being reminded of stuff you already learned along the way, seeing things from a different perspective, and/or having your own ideas validated. The latter is something I discussed last year when talking about my time with collegiate teams in Southern California and this time around in terms of warm-ups.

Of course, just getting to be involved with professional volleyball teams was a new set of experiences for me. The pro game gets very little exposure in the States, so my three weeks in Germany was as much about getting a better understanding of that aspect of the sport as anything else.

I’ve written three posts with my impressions of the difference and similarities between the NCAA Division I collegiate structure in the US and the European professional system on the basis of schedule, resources, and coaching careers. Hopefully you find them useful and/or interesting.

Thinking about coaching off the court

One of the podcasts I started listening to on a regular basis is Sports Coach Radio. A recent episode featured an interview with Daniel Coyle, who you may know as the author of The Talent Code. I haven’t read that book myself yet, but it’s on my list. I know a number of coaches have found it very useful. The interview is an interesting one – well worth a listen. As are most of the podcast episodes, for that matter.

The Belichick interview technique

In this particular episode’s discussion there is talk about what you could call the interview technique of Bill Belichick. For those who don’t know of him, Belichick is the head coach for the New England Patriots football team. He’s won three championships, with two other appearances in the title game, and generally gets put at or very near the top of the list of best American coaches, in all sports. I’m not just saying that because he’s coach for my home team. 🙂

Anyway, the story goes that when Belichick met a prospective draft pick during the NFL combine he would immediately show him video of some of his worst play. The idea behind doing so is to judge the character of the player by seeing how he would react. Would he make excuses? Would he blame his teammates? Did he never really self-evaluate? Or did he take ownership of his mistake, accept responsibility, and work to avoid repeating the error?

This reminds me of a “behavioral” interview question that gets asked these days, which I myself have gotten (and which comes up in the podcast as well) – “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and what did you do about it.” These sorts of questions are meant to focus on personal traits rather than job skills and experience. It got me thinking about the collegiate volleyball recruiting process.

Recruitment as hiring

Recruitment is basically hiring. Coaches of professional teams have to deal with this as well. It’s one of those elements of coaching when you reach a certain level which arguably becomes at least as important as your ability to train players and manage teams during matches. This is why it is often easier to get a job as a head coach at a certain level if you’ve assisted at that level than if you’ve been successful at a lower level. It means you know what is required – at least in theory – to work at that level.

The podcast also brings up the idea of continuous professional development. It’s pretty easy for volleyball coaches to think about improving their skills when it comes to their sport. For early career coaches this tends to be about collecting drills (see Fancy New Drill Syndrome – A Coaching Affliction). At a certain point, however, it becomes advantageous to start thinking beyond volleyball to other sports, and then beyond sports to things like management. Coaching lessons can be learned from many different sources.

Four key coaching candidate questions

Mark over at the blog At Home on the Court has a post which talks about questions which get asked – or should get asked – in the process of hiring a coach. Those questions are:

1. Where is the game now and where is it going?

2. How will your teams play?

3. What is the balance between being competitive now and being competitive in the future?

4. How will you lead?

Notice how all the questions on this list are philosophy ones? Also, they’re pretty forward-looking. They are well worth being ones you can answer without much hesitation if you’re coaching. Granted, there is necessarily some influence in how you respond which derives from the coaching role you are in, or are pursuing. Priorities do tend to come down from above for most of us. As a coaching job candidate, though, you should have enough familiarity with the team/club/school you are interviewing at that you can account for those priorities.

I’ll be honest. Coaching philosophy isn’t something that came up much when I was talking about prospective coaching jobs in the past. Mostly it was about knowing if I was qualified and was going to abide by the rules. Read the sorts of volleyball job postings you see at places like the NCAA website and you’ll see what I mean. It behooves you, however, to try to get some idea of philosophy expectations from your would-be boss(es) to make sure a given position is in fact a good fit for your style of coaching.

Coaching Careers: Your resume/CV

When the women’s college season ends for US teams in November or December, coaching vacancies start to be posted. That’s when resumes begin crisscrossing the nation.

There are different theories on the best formats and styles for resume and CV layout. Things can get quite complicated when you realize that for many coaches there is non-coaching work to consider. Many of us, after all, have things other than coaching full-time along in our history. That can make the standard chronological format a less-than-optimal choice.

I know in my case it would be a nightmare. I spent quite a few years working in a professional career. Some of that overlapped my time as a volleyball coach. Some of it happened between volleyball coaching stints. If I just listed things chronologically it would no doubt be very confusing for someone who really was just concerned with my volleyball work. I’ve also done a fair bit of non-coaching stuff related to volleyball. I have to account for that as well in various ways.

So don’t necessarily feel like you are locked in to a standard resume/CV format. Nor should you give too much thought to making your submission eye-catching in some fashion. I’ve been on the receiving end. Colored paper and fancy formats don’t really mean a thing. You need to do what works to best and most clearly present your qualifications and experience.

And no matter what your coaching experience looks like or how you decide to format your resume, the most important thing is to make sure the prospective reviewer can made sense of it. Resumes tend to get only relatively brief looks, especially on initial review. A confusing one is likely to end up in the “No” pile. A busy reviewer just won’t give it the extra time necessary to sort things all out.

When I say be sure your resume makes sense, I mean you need to keep in mind the person or persons who will be looking it over. Will it be a volleyball person? Or will it be an administrator or Human Resources representative? Even if it is a volleyball person, is it someone who knows the volleyball background you’re coming from?

I once advised a UK coach pursing a US coaching job. As part of that I looked at his resume. His coaching achievements were certainly impressive. Unfortunately, he presented them poorly. Even a volleyball person in the US would have a hard time sorting through them. I myself struggled to follow the threads, and that was with a reasonable idea of the structure of volleyball in the UK. I can only imagine the confusion it would have fostered in the mind of an American university Athletic Director. On my advice, he reworked his CV into a much clearer format. I won’t say that was the reason he was able to land the job in US he ended up getting. It was more than CV format, of course. I have no doubt, though, it helped make his candidacy more understandable.

The bottom line is that as you build your resume (and write your cover letter) you need to think in terms of the like reader and how you can make things most clear and understandable to them.

Inspire your players, but be yourself

As I mentioned previously, one of the sessions I attended at the American Volleyball Coaches Association convention last month was titled “If I knew then…”. It featured a panel of some very high profile coaches – specifically Russ Rose of Penn State (just crowned national champions), John Dunning of Stanford, and Terry Liskevych of Oregon State (and formerly the US National team). They answered a series of moderated questions. It was a fun session with a lot of laughs, but there were also some real nuggets worth passing along.

Be yourself
One of the major themes was that a coaches need to be themselves. These were things also discussed in the Creating a Culture of Success and When Winning is Your Job panels I’ve written about. In this case one of the specific points made were that a coach needs to learn within their own personality. I think John Dunning said something to the effect of “be curious, but be you”, In other words, be continuously learning, but make sure you are incorporating new things which mesh with your personality and coaching style or can be adapted to it, not stuff which goes against the grain. Obviously, this is not meant to tell coaches to be closed-minded. Instead, it cautions against just picking up any new exciting idea that they come across and trying to make it work for them (see fancy new drill syndrome).

Another point related to the being yourself theme was that a coach needs to find a place where s/he can do that. Basically, you need to find a school or club or whatever where where you can express your personality. This, of course, isn’t just sound advice for coaches, but for the working world as well. We are all much more satisfied when we can be ourselves and are not forced to operate in a constrained way or against our nature. This does not mean we should put ourselves in positions to be challenged. We just need to do it in a way that is aligned with our values.

Inspire Them
The big theme at the end of the seminar was the idea that a coach must inspire their players. This is a necessary function of non-participant leadership in any organization. By that I mean the coach is not an active participant in the actual work of the team – training and playing volleyball (except in player-coach situations). As a result, s/he cannot take a “lead from the front” or “follow me” kind of approach to team and player motivation. The coach needs to inspire the desire to grow and succeed in their players. In many ways it can be thought of the same way as a CEO or president. They don’t do the day-to-day work, but they set the tone. Part of that inspiration, said someone on the panel – I think it was Russ Rose – is teaching the players to see more, to understand more, and to win.

Big rewards from seeing fellow volleyball coaches in action

During the course of just over three weeks in 2013 I spent a total of eight days watching various teams go through their training, and two other days taking in matches. It was a fantastic experience. I made some positive new connections. It reinforced some old relationships. And it was great for reconnecting me with US collegiate volleyball after several years away.

As you might expect, sitting in on 13 different training sessions from 5 different collegiate teams (URI, USC, Long Beach State, CSU San Marcos, and UCLA in that order) saw me get some ideas for drills and training methods. I posted several in the Drills and Games categories.

Drills and game ideas can be found in many different sources, though. For me it was more interesting to see a couple of different things. One of them was how certain aspects of the game had changed in the prior few years. In particular, it was clear to me that there had been an evolution in jump float serve mechanics. The changes in the use of the libero was interesting to observe as well, among other things.

The other was seeing the ways the various programs operate and the different types of managerial styles. Teams have different levels of resources allocated to them, and that can play a part. For example, USC has a fantastic training facility and loads of staff on the one end. CSU San Marcos, on the other hand, had to play its home matches at a local high school. They also only had a part-time assistant coach. Some head coaches are more supervisors and big picture overseers. Others are very hands-on in training, either through requirement or personal coaching focus. I also saw variations in the way warm-ups were handled, practice uniforms, and generally the vibe of the teams in training (though that was largely subtle).

Needless to say, I jotted down quite a few notes. I also recorded several bits of video to help me recall things and to provide visual and auditory support to my players of the things I was trying to teach them.

Actually, some of the most rewarding time was getting to talk with the coaches. Some of the coaches were folks I already knew, and we had all sorts of good conversations. Even those I was meeting for the first time, however, were generally quite willing to chat about what they were doing and answer questions. Some even shared things with me on related subjects with no prompting whatsoever.

I definitely recommend this sort of experience from a lot of perspectives, including a mentorship type of angle along the line of I wrote about in Making Mentorship Part of the Process. In fact, it may be something which can lead to finding yourself a good coaching mentor. Even if that’s not the case, seeing other coaches in action – particularly well-experienced ones – can get you seeing things from different perspectives. That’s never a bad thing.

So get out there and do it! You don’t need to make a 3-week trip like I did to learn some new things. Just find a good coach in your area and see if they’d be willing to have you come along and observe. Chances are they’ll say yes.

Getting a US collegiate volleyball coaching job

A U.K. coach asked me for advice on getting a collegiate volleyball coaching job in the States. It is no surprise that someone with professional coaching aspirations wants to explore the U.S. job market. There are, after all, something north of 1000 college volleyball programs. They provide a great many opportunities for one to get paid to ply their trade. Not that all coaches are overly well-paid, mind.

Different structure, different rules

Landing one of those jobs isn’t an easy thing to do, though. It’s a big challenge for someone with little exposure to the U.S. system, players, etc. The structure is quite different, for one. The U.K. the system is a club model, but in the U.S. school teams are run by the universities and colleges. That means coaches are school employees rather than engaged by a club. This has implications for coach behavior. The expectations of institutions of higher learning regarding employee interaction with students are very strict (especially since most are government funded). Relationships must be professional. Just the hint of impropriety is enough to get a coach sacked. Moreover, it makes it hard for them to get another job.

For example, it is generally unacceptable for a coach to drink with their players. In most cases, said players are under-aged to begin with. In any case, most schools have rules against alcohol being included in any school-related activities. And forget about going out with players socially outside of the school environment. As I’ve experienced first-hand in my coaching experience in England, the expectation is quite different.

Anyone looking to hire a foreign coach to a U.S. volleyball program – be it an Athletic Director for a head coach job or a head coach for an assistant position – will want to know that the candidate both understands the system and will comply with the expected behaviors. Their own jobs are on the line should some kind of scandal develop. As a result, they won’t take the risk, even for a strong candidate.

And of course on top of that. any coaching candidate must demonstrate that they can work with and develop American players. There are definitely cultural differences, both in terms of society in general and in volleyball specifically.

So how does one get there?

I chatted with USC Women’s Volleyball coach Mick Haley on this subject. He said there are two ways to go for a foreign coach to demonstrate their worth to prospective collegiate volleyball employers. One is to coach Juniors volleyball. Collegiate coaches pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in the Juniors ranks. That’s where they get most of their recruits. As a result, they know which coaches are doing well developing players and having competitive success. Make a name for yourself as a Juniors coach and it will open collegiate coaching doors.

The other way to go (which potentially could be done in parallel with coaching Juniors) is to work as a volunteer assistant coach for a college team. This would provide the chance to demonstrate your knowledge and abilities in the that environment directly, and to get the understanding of the US system you’ll need. Do well and it could lead to paid employment down the line.

Beyond that, I recommend looking at the job listings you can find linked to from the volleyball coaching jobs page. They will give you an idea of the specific criteria schools are looking for in coach candidates (you’ll notice knowledge of NCAA rules, etc. tends to be high on the list).