Archive for Volleyball Coaching Product Reviews

Book Review: The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

While The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier, does feature “coaching” in the title, it’s probably thought of best as a management book. It’s not about coaching as we sports coaches would think of it. It is, however, about managing people. Since this is at the core of our work as coaches, I think you might find it worth a read.

The subtitle of the book, “Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever”, touches on the approach the author takes. I don’t think, though, it really provides a full sense of what the book’s about.

Basically, this is a book of questions. The idea is to use them to help get to the heart of issues. It’s also about helping people help themselves rather than solving problems for them ourselves. You may find at least some of them useful in working with your athletes.

There’s also a set of questions presented later in the book aimed at succeeding and achieving. I think they are foundational with regard to expectations and seeing your path forward. Here they are quoted.

What is our winning aspiration? Framing the choice as “winning” rules out mediocrity as an option. If you want to win, you need to know what game you’re playing and with (and against) whom. What impact do you want to have in and on the world?

Where will we play? “Boiling the ocean” is rarely successful. Choosing a sector, geography, product, channel and customer allows you to focus your resources.

How will we win? What’s the defendable difference that will open up the gap between you and the others?

What capabilities must be in place? Not just what do you need to do, but how will it become and stay a strength?

What management systems are required? It’s easy enough to measure stuff. It’s much harder to figure out what you want to measure that actually matters.

I won’t say this is a must read book. All in all, though, I think it’s worth a look if you’ve got a bit of time. It’s pretty quick to get through.

Book Review: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

If you’re a coach, or teacher, and haven’t read the The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, make it the next book on your list.

The book starts of with some serious science about myelin development, which is a major factor in skill acquisition. Don’t worry, though. It’s not hard to follow, and more behavior based concepts quickly come in to play.

Basically, the book talks about how we develop skill (deep practice), what motivates that development (ignition), and how coaching fits into that equation.

There’s a part of Chapter 9 that I think really hits on a major factor in sports coaching. It compares the coaching of Brazilian soccer players with the training of violinists in Japan. In the latter case the teachers are constantly providing specific feedback to the students. In the former case, though, the coaches hardly say anything. Why is this?

It’s not cultural. It’s about the requirements of the skills to be developed. Playing violin is about consistency of very specific execution. Playing soccer is dynamic. Situations constantly change. As a result, the player has to continuously adapt to stimuli and find the right solution for their current situation. The games the Brazilian coaches have the kids play both create the situations they want them in and provide the feedback.

To quote Coyle, “The lessons the players teach themselves are more powerful than anything the coach might say.” This relates close to what I wrote about in Teaching or facilitating? It is also part of our need to think more broadly about feedback.

The book’s epilogue provides a bunch of real-life examples of the ignitition/deep practice/coaching link. They are from a bunch of different parts of life and society. You definitely want to give this book a read. It could change how you think about your coaching.

That said, there are a couple of little things worth mentioning.

First, while the book clearly presents a path toward creating skill in just about everything, it doesn’t really address constraining factors. In the case of volleyball, height is an obvious example. A short player can develop maximum skill as an attacker. That simply won’t be enough, though to make the national team roster.

Second, Coyle walks a line with respect to whole vs. part training. He talks at a couple of points about breaking skills down into their parts. That may be fine when you’re learning to play a specific note on a violin. As the late Carl McGown preached for years, though, in terms of the science of motor learning in our arena, training in parts is not as effective. This also ties in with block vs. random training.

So, as much as this book has some really great information, realize it’s just one part of the whole set of factors.

Book Review: A Fresh Season by Terry Pettit

I previously reviewed Terry Pettit’s book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams. I also interviewed Terry for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. A Fresh Season is Terry’s second coaching-related book (he published a book of poetry). Like the first, this one is a collection of different essays and the like, including a poem or two.

This is not a coaching book, per se. You are unlikely to learn from it how to do X, Y, or Z.

Rather, it’s a variety of stories, observations, and commentary. Some of it is recent in origin, while other stuff seems to have been written years ago originally. The subject matter is all over the place.

For example, there is an essay by one of Terry’s daughters that is a kind of “letter to my freshman self”. In it she offers advice on how to get through that first college season, and the seasons to follow.

There’s a chapter called A Letter to the Parents of a Prospective recruit that is a coach’s appeal. If you coach college volleyball you will seriously think about using it in your own recruiting efforts!

A theme of a couple of different chapters is the idea of being uncomfortable. Terry advises recruiting players who have willingly made themselves uncomfortable. He talks about how players need to be put in uncomfortable situations to develop. He also admonishes coaches to put themselves in uncomfortable situations. We cannot, he says, demand less of ourselves than we do of our athletes.

There is a chapter outlining the factors which predict future head coaching success. Prior head coaching experience is top of the list. Not surprisingly, passion and integrity also rate quite highly.

Terry focuses directly on juniors coaches in one section. It’s perhaps the one part of the book where he gets pretty explicit about what he thinks they need to focus on. People probably won’t agree with everything he says, but at least is provides plenty of food for thought.

Another repeated theme in the book is recruiting, requiring, and relating. Terry introduces them as the Three Rs of Coaching in one chapter. They then pop up again from time to time in other chapters.

Those are some of the highlights. There are nearly 40 chapters, but the book is only about 180 pages, so each is quite short. The only lengthy one is the last (nearly 20 pages), which relates the history of Nebraska Coliseum, where Nebraska Volleyball played for so many years – including all of Terry’s time coaching there.

Overall, I think A Fresh Season is a good book. It’s length and structure make for a pretty quick read. At times it’s funny. In many places it’s thought-provoking.

Book Review: A Program with Purpose by Johan Dulfur

A Program with Purpose, by Johan Dulfur is a volleyball turn around story, sort of. The Clarkson University volleyball team is an NCAA Division III program in upstate New York. The author is, at this writing, head coach at Ithaca College (also Div. III), but when he wrote the book he was in the middle of his 10 years at the helm of Clarkson. The text, published in 2013, speaks to how he took that program from nothing to become a team that eventually made seven straight trips to the NCAA tournament and reached the Elite 8 four straight times.

This sort of thing appeals to me. After all, it’s the intention to do just this sort of thing that saw me join Midwestern State.

At only a bit over 130 pages, A Program with a Purpose is a quick read. It’s made even quicker by a number of large visuals. You can read it in a couple of hours. It’s definitely worth that small time investment.

I mentioned at the outset that this book is a turnaround story, sort of. I say that because it’s not a narrative text. The author doesn’t start at the beginning and walk you through a sequence of events. Think of it more as a manual for program development with some historical examples interspersed.

There are seven primary chapters to the book.

  1. Program Vision
  2. Communication
  3. Confidence Building and Goal Setting
  4. Building a Support Structure
  5. Tactical Choices within the Game
  6. Recruiting and Team Composition

Their titles pretty much tell you what they’re about. Each shares the author’s thoughts, experience, and views on that subject, and it’s good material. You may or may not agree with everything he says, but at least it will get you thinking about things. Even if you have experience running your own program, it’s worth going through this book. It can be a good reminder of things to focus on, and we all need that from time to time. The book could have used some editing in places, but not so much that it was overly distracting.

It is noteworthy that the author spent some time working under legendary coach Mike Hebert, who wrote Thinking Volleyball. You can see a bit of his influence in Dulfur’s philosophy, though you also get a big dose of his Dutch heritage as well.

I’ve previously reviewed Sally Kus’ book Coaching Volleyball Successfully. Sally also gained her reputation coaching in Upstate New York, which is interesting. Her book focuses more on high school volleyball, while this one is obviously from a college perspective. Still, they share much in common.

Quick note. This book is not available in Kindle format. You can only get it in print.

Book Review: Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin

We can’t only read books about volleyball and volleyball coaches. Heck, there just aren’t that many books about volleyball coaches! Sad, but true. That’s one of the reasons I developed Volleyball Coaching Wizards.

Anyway, an interesting book about managers from the world of soccer (football) is  Living on the Volcano, by Michael Calvin. Basically, it’s a series of profiles on coaching in the English professional realm. They run the gamut from the Premier League all the way down, but are mainly in the middling ranks. Many of the coaches have worked across multiple levels, either because of the performance of their teams or through moving clubs. It’s a really interesting set of perspectives. These managers come at things from all different angles. Their backgrounds are diverse. As a result, the way they think about the elements of coaching vary considerably.

I actually shared something I found interesting from one of the managers on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards blog. It had to do with the mentality of allowing others to watch you coach. Unfortunately, I would not call that the most positive of the things you read in the book. It presents the reality of their thought process, though. For better or for worse, it’s not the most positive.

I will admit, the structure of the book did present some challenges. There are a lot of names, and they overlap quite a bit. Moreover, there were different threads of managers mentioned in the same chapter. That made it hard to follow threads at times.

Those issues aside, I think Living on the Volcano is an interesting book and worth a read. The variety of coaches is such that you’re likely to find someone in the mix who has a similar point of view as yourself. At the same time, though, you also get to see how others think about things.

Beyond that, the internal view of what it’s like to be a coach under constant performance pressure (in most cases) is really insightful. The volcano idea is definitely appropriate as even successful managers seem to constantly be on the hot seat because of everything that can happen with a club.

Book Review: Legacy by James Kerr

Legacy, by James Kerr, is a book that often comes up when coaching book recommendations are discussed. I want to stress up front that this in not a coaching book. Amazon at this writing has it listed in Sports Psychology, but that doesn’t fit either, to my mind. I think the book description does a pretty good job of saying what it’s really about.

In Legacy, best-selling author James Kerr goes deep into the heart of the world’s most successful sporting team, the legendary All Blacks of New Zealand, to reveal 15 powerful and practical lessons for leadership and business.

Focus on that last part about lessons for leadership and business. That is most definitely what the author provides.

As for the rest of it, I have my issues. The description makes it sound like the story of the All Blacks is the core material. In particular, the team’s transformation after a period of uncharacteristic under-performance is meant to be the main focus. While that story provides a framework, that’s about all. You can perhaps work out the time line of that transition, but it’s presented piecemeal. One of my problems with the book was that at points I didn’t know where the author was in the All Blacks history when he shared certain stories. It was rather annoying.

Also, the All Blacks are not the only references the author makes. He includes ideas from the likes of Phil Jackson and Bill Walsh as well, in terms of sports. There are a number of non-sports references too.

Obviously, I have no problem with references to all-time great coaches. Sometimes the language of the text is a little too stereotypical of leadership books, and there is too much repetition of certain elements for my taste. Overall, though, the “lessons”, concepts, and explanations are quite worthwhile.

Overall, I’d say this is a book worth reading if you go into it with the right set of expectations.

Book Review: Fake Fundamentals by Brian McCormick

OK, Fake Fundamentals by Brian McCormick is a basketball focused book, and has nothing to do with volleyball. Even still, it might be worth putting it on your coaching reading list. Granted, you will probably get more out of the book if you know something about coaching basketball. I don’t, though, and still found some interesting stuff.

Basically, this is a book that challenges long-held views on what to do and how to do things. Think of anything that falls into the category of “that’s how everyone does it” and I think you’ll get the idea.

Actually, the first two chapters are not really sport-specific.

The mile run fitness test

The first chapter sets the tone for the whole book by challenging the use of mile runs as fitness tests. This is definitely something we see in volleyball, and no doubt other sports use it as well. McCormick basically destroys its usefulness on every level.

First, he demonstrates that the fitness required to run the mile has no relation to the fitness required to play basketball – or volleyball in our case. A mile is a sustained lower intensity effort for several minutes while what we’re after is repeated high intensity effort with rest intervals. McCormick uses the term Repeat Sprint Ability (RSA) as what they are after in basketball. Maybe we change that to RJA for volleyball – Repeat Jump Ability.

Next, he talks about the idea of training for the test rather than training for competitive fitness. This happens when the athlete is more concerned with passing the test than improving their sport-specific conditioning. The result is that training the latter is sub-optimal. In other words, training for the mile test acts as an offset to the RSA training the athlete is doing to prepare for their sport.

Now, many coaches who use the mile run claim that it is more about mental toughness than necessarily about fitness. McCormick challenges this as well. Mainly he does so by bringing up the increased risk of injury. This comes from two angles. One is that the athlete is performing an exercise they have not trained for (presumably – see the last paragraph). The other is that an athlete may attempt to push through an issue to demonstrate mental toughness.

Above and beyond the injury risks, the author makes the following observation:

Mental toughness involves coping with the many demands of sports and being more consistent and better at remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

He goes on to ask whether a pre-season fitness test is really the best way to determine and/or develop an individual’s level of mental fortitude. Basically, he’s suggesting it should be done in the context of playing the sport.

McCormick offers two alternatives to the mile as fitness tests. One is the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test. Basically, it’s a repetitive sprint test. The other he describes as the “Man-Maker from Pavel Tsatsouline’s Enter the Kettlebell”. This is where a kettlebell is swung 2-handed repeatedly for some period of time, counting the successful reps. I’m not saying these tests should be used for volleyball. They do, however, provide an idea of what the author is trying to encourage.

Static Stretching

The second chapter brings up another relic – the idea of static stretching in warm-ups. You may already know where I stand on this subject. Fortunately, I think many coaches these days realize that static stretching is no longer advised for warm-ups. There is no evidence to suggest it does anything to reduce injury, and actually may impair performance. As the author notes, “Static stretching is a flexibility program, not a warm-up.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, McCormick favors a dynamic warm-up instead. He didn’t always, though. He says he used to think non-ball warm-ups wasted time. Then he spent time in Europe and noted a lack of ACL injuries among female athletes there. This was in contrast to what he called an epidemic of non-contact injuries in the US at the time. That motivated him to bring in the dynamic warm-up. He provides a list of exercises in an appendix. I do not know if the science backs up the idea that either dynamic warm-ups or ball warm-ups are better for injury prevention (or performance), though.

The rest of the book

The remaining eight chapters focus on basketball specific things. They include certain movements, methods, and game-play elements. The author challenges them all from a couple of different perspectives. One is what theory might suggest vs. what reality demonstrates. The other is in terms of not replicating game conditions (game teaches the game). In most cases he’s going against decades of traditional coaching.

I think that last part is the real value of the book. It encourages the reader to look at everything critically. How much of our coaching is just repeating the past? Is there really any scientific or performance support for it?

Book Review: The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallway

It took me several months, but I eventually finished reading The Inner Game of Tennis  by W. Timothy Gallway. The women’s soccer coach at Midwestern State loaned it to me. He uses it quite a bit with his team. The reason I took so long was that I read it in small doses rather than sitting down for long reads. I probably should have just read it in one go. After all, it’s a short book (134 pages).

The fact that I had not read the book already was a source of shock and sadness to one of my coaching friends. I suggest you not make the same mistake. It was recommended during my CAP III course.

I personally think the measure of any good non-fiction book is how much it makes you think. By that standard, Inner Game is a great offering. Yes, it’s a book focused on tennis. And yes, that does mean at times the discussion is not overly useful for volleyball coaches. Broadly speaking, though, the concepts and ideas translate easily from sport to sport.

Inner Game was written primarily for players, but is easily translatable to coaching. It talks a lot about player thought processes. In particular, a big focus is on getting the conscious mind out of the way. Doing so allows the parts of us where performance and learning actually take place to do their thing. A big part of this is removing judgement from the equation.

We all have players who think too much about their technique. It is usually to the detriment of their performance. The problem is we coaches exacerbate things at times. This is the result of how we provide feedback and technical instruction. I definitely thought of the concepts of internal vs. external feedback while reading the book.

There are some good sections on focus and concentration in the book. I also really like the discussion of competition. If you struggle to express its merits to your athletes, I definitely recommend that section.

Here’s the bottom line. If you haven’t already, read The Inner Game of Tennis. It will stimulate all kinds of thoughts about your coaching methods. That’s a good thing!

Book Review: Gender and Competition by Kathy DeBoer

I’ve had Gender and Competition  by Kathy DeBoer on my list of coaching books to read for a while now. As a male volleyball coach who has mainly worked with female athletes (though having coached a few male teams along the way), I have long been interested in the differences in how you need to approach coaching the two genders. Kathy’s book has come up many times in the discussions I’ve had with other coaches on the subject. That includes multiple Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews I’ve conducted.

Bottom line? Read this book!

You’ll find it a pretty quick read. It comprises just four chapters that add up to a little over 150 pages. Kathy’s writing style strongly favors story telling. The book is full of anecdotes from her coaching and athletics administration career. Basically, it’s teaching by way of example.

There’s one key phrase that I’ve heard attributed to Kathy on the basis of this book. It goes something along the lines of, “Men battle to bond and women bond to battle.” While I don’t recall seeing that exact phrase in the book, certainly it is what is expressed when looking at the differences in how the genders approach competition. It’s something that comes out very early in the text.

The first three chapters look to describe the difference in communication style and general approach to life, competition, and cooperation between men and women. It also looks at the challenges they pose. This isn’t true just for cross-gender interactions, but even for same gender ones, as Kathy demonstrates in some examples of her interactions with her own female athletes. The forth chapter focuses on advice for how to deal with the differences from both perspectives.

I can tell you that a lot of what Kathy talks about in terms of how men and women approach competition and the differences in how the two genders view leadership ring very true to me. I’ve seen them in my own coaching and have heard similar views from fellow coaches.

I can’t recommend Gender and Competition more strongly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female coach. It doesn’t matter whether you coach male or female players. You will gain insights that will help you do a better job working with your athletes – as well as colleagues, supervisors, and everyone else in your life.