Archive for Volleyball Coaching Stories

Parents laughing in training?

I don’t know the percentage of professional volleyball teams that have parents of the players attending training sessions. My guess is it’s not very high, though I’m sure in some places and at some levels it’s more frequent than at others. Sweden may be one of those places. Certainly, it was true in my case at Svedala.

To be fair, I coached at what is basically a local community club. We had the professional level team competing in the Elitserie, the top level of Swedish volleyball. We also had a 2nd team playing in Division 1 south, the second level of volleyball in Sweden. Although there’s no league age restriction, our 2nd team was effectively a Juniors squad based on their ages. Below that we had actual Juniors level teams, and then down to some really little ones – well south of U12s. Overall, there was something like 100 club members.

My own team featured two players whose families lived in town. A couple of players were originally from up north, while the rest were from other parts of southern Sweden. And of course I had three Americans. It’s the parents of the two local players who periodically turned up to training sessions – and boy did they enjoy themselves!

In training one Tuesday night I could hear at least the two moms laughing uproariously.

Yes, they were laughing at the team. No, this wasn’t the first time.

To be fair, it wasn’t ridiculing type laughter. That sort of thing means ejection from my gym. Rather, this was genuine comedic laughter at what they saw and heard from the players on the court.

I’m not talking slap-stick type stuff here. Yeah, there’s some of that. The team was pretty loose. They work hard, but they had fun as well. Invariably, that led to some funny things happening. More than that, though, I think is the sound track that went along with it all. A couple of my louder, more talkative players were also the source of some funny comments and reactions mid-rally.

Seeing how things are done in different places

An advantage to coaching in a new country is learning the different ways things are done there. That also applies to the places you visit.

Different leagues, different rules

For example, when I coached in Sweden my Svedala team played at Holte in Denmark (outskirts of Copenhagen). The attendance was shockingly low. Just 16 people, and four of them were our supporters who drove over for the match (just about an hour away). After the match we had a conversation while waiting for the players to shower, etc. Our team manager told me the Danish teams work in a different type of system from the Swedish ones. They are very heavily supported/funded by their local communities. I don’t know what that means in terms of money, but Holte had 3 or 4 people on the bench, including a stat guy (commonly called a scoutman in Europe). We were just two.

Community support

What I find interesting is that although there’s big community funding, there’s no restriction on the number of foreign players allowed in the team. In Sweden we could play three. Holte had at least 5 – two from the US, two from Canada, and one from Scotland.

In Svedala we also had community support, but as I understand it, not quite to the same degree. One thing we did get is free use of the sport hall – at least for training. There was a wrinkle to that, though. We only got it so long as none of the players was over 25. If any were, then we have to pay 175 Swedish kronor (about $20) per hour.

I definitely know of situations in other places where free/cheap gym time is tied in with age group or geographic considerations. For example, a high school gym is available for free for Juniors training so long as at least 50% of the players are from that town.

Other factors

Thinking a bit more broadly, in England there is a big general national level push for younger people (basically up through university ages) to be more physically active. That’s resulted in a lot of support for sports programs targeted at those age groups.

Interestingly, in Sweden there are major tax considerations which impact on the players clubs are incentivized to bring in. People over 25 play a significantly higher tax rate than do younger ones. That directly factors into club budgets.

These sorts of higher level considerations are important to know. They can be a big factor in the general context in which certain types of policies and systems operate.

Thanksgiving thankfulness thoughts

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back in the States, and to my fellow Yanks currently living abroad. I’ll be celebrating the holiday with my housemates on the weekend as we all have commitments today (including coaching for me), but I figured I could still take some time out to give thanks. So here are some things from the last 12 months I’m thankful for in a volleyball coaching context.

First and foremost, I am thankful for the truly incredible experience I had coaching the Exeter University women to the BUCS national semifinals in March in Edinburgh. It’s something that will stay with me the rest of my life. Not only am I thankful for the commitment and effort of the players in the squad, but also for the outstanding support the men’s team provided (they didn’t end up doing too badly at Final 8s in their own right), as well as the coaching assistance of Steve and Kyle in helping get the team there.

I am thankful for Alberto Salomoni at SC Potsdam and Ruben Wolochin at TV Bühl allowing me to spend time when them and their teams during pre-season training, and especially for Mark Lebedew at BR Volleys allowing me to visit with him and his team before the German championship finals, connecting me with Alberto and Ruben, and letting me tag along to Poland with him to watch some of the men’s World Championships in September.

I am thankful for being able to share a loonnnggg dinner in Seattle last December with former player Alanna where we reminisced about the old days, talked about all the great things her teammates are currently up to, and made fun of the English. 🙂

Finally, since I have very likely coached my last match in UK volleyball, I am thankful for my time in England allowing me to reconnect with a long-time passion, make loads of new friends, and get exposed to the game from a number of different perspectives we often don’t get coaching in the States.

What are you thankful for this year? Definitely feel free to share below, on the Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Lessons learned in odd places

Back in 2014 I had a conversation about volleyball stuff with one of my returning players. It was her fourth season with the university club, her third playing for me. I think it was maybe about her 5th year overall in volleyball. She told me that something dawned on her while playing doubles with a couple of other players. It was the importance of “finishing the play”. By that she meant getting the kill when the opportunity presented itself.

I know what you’re thinking here. Kind of a blinding flash of the obvious.

To be fair, the player in question until basically the prior year was mainly a libero. At least she was a strongly defense/passing oriented player. In my first year coaching I used her a couple times as an OH, but more out of requirement than preference. In my second year the attacking side of her game really started to develop. She still mainly thought of herself as a defender at that point, though, and didn’t really get why people liked hitting so much. The strong defense and ball-handling, combined with low error hitting made her a really good O2 for my team, which had a couple of higher risk O1 types.

After a summer of playing beach doubles (which she hadn’t really done before), I sensed an attitude shift. Maybe hitting was more interesting than she thought. 🙂

I think the beach play started to get her thinking and seeing better, but she told me what motivated the “kills are good” thoughts that day was getting tired during long rallies. OK, not exactly the way I’d have preferred that lesson be learned, but you take what you get sometimes.

The takeaway from all this is that sometimes you have to look at things differently as a coach. And sometimes you have to put players under a different kind of pressure to get the type of gains in their play you’re after. One conversation had me thinking about ways I could get that group of players more focused on scoring points.

Looking back to think ahead

This is a review I wrote of my second season coaching at Exeter. I wrote it a few months later as I was starting to think about the new one ahead.

The other day I talked about facing the start of a new volleyball cycle and my coaching commitment moving forward. Over the next couple of posts I want to take some time to reflect on last season’s coaching and where I would like to take things this season.

2013-14 Recap

Last season was really intense. The Exeter university club (EUVC) expanded by one men’s and one women’s team. That put us at one each in BUCS Division 1 and Division 2 for each gender. The BUCS1 and BUCS2 teams (as we call them internally to designate 1st and 2nd teams) trained together, splitting out for competitions. The BUCS2 teams both played in the Western Conference Cup as well as league play. As unified squads, both groups played in the regional league (SWVA) and in the Volleyball England Student Cup qualifiers. Adding in the post-season play for the BUCS1 squads, the teams had a combined 87 matches

It ended up being a very successful year for EUVC.

The BUCS1 women finished 8-2 in their BUCS league, putting them in a first place tie. The tiebreak went against them, but it was still their best result in many years. They went on to Final 8s where they reached the semifinals. That’s likely the best an Exeter women’s team has ever done. The BUCS2 squad also finished second in their league. They fell in the quarterfinals of the Conference Cup. The combined squad went 14-4 in SWVA to take third place. This would have been second were it not for a bit of a facilities snafu on the last fixture date. At one point they’d won 30 straight sets.

The BUCS1 men finished 4-4 in their BUCS league. That saw them finish 2nd in the table for the second year running. They went on to Final 8s where they took 7th, improving on the prior year’s finish. The BUCS2 team finished third in their league and made the semis of the Conference Cup. The combined team finished 6th in SWVA play.

All together, the EUVC BUCS teams collected the third highest total points of any school. Both BUCS1 teams also gained promotion to the newly formed Premier League.Not bad for a club with no scholarship athletes.

I personally coached almost 60 matches all together. Most of the ones I did not coach were the men’s SWVA matches as I only coached the women in that competition. The rest I mainly could not coach due to schedule conflicts between the teams. In May I also coached the women in South West Championships. We finished among the NVL 3 teams in the middle part of the standings (tournament included teams from NVL1 down to SWVA). Some of the guys also played in the tournament with their NVL 3 team Exeter Storm (moving up to NVL 2 next season).

Reflections – Women

The advantage I had with the women was the common objective. They wanted to make BUCS Final 8s and the returning players knew from the prior year’s playoff experience that we needed more offense to be competitive with teams at that level. Having everyone on the same page made it really easy for me to sell the process to the team. I’d seen the women’s teams at Final 8s the season before. That made it so I could communicate requirements to the players. It also gave me an added measure of authority with them because of it. Importantly, the squad’s new players offered sufficient talent to give us confidence in having the strength to do well.

Everything we did was with an eye toward being able to play at the level of the teams we might have to beat in the playoffs to reach Final 8s. More than that, we wanted to have a good showing once there. With that season-long objective in mind, and the confidence that we’d finish high enough in the league to qualify for Championships given the strength of the squad, I was able to take a patient long-term approach.

I think a couple of things I did along the way were beneficial. One was making everything very team focused in a positive and supportive context. I tried to spin everything in terms of how what each player was doing contributed toward the team’s play. I also wanted to make them feel less uptight about making errors. The time and focus on serving I think paid off quite a bit. I also I feel I did a good job in matches against weaker teams of keeping the team focused on things other than the score. Having individual meetings with players each term – and getting feedback from them between terms – I think was important. It made sure players knew their roles. They understood what as going on, could feel connected to the process, etc. I didn’t do them the year before and regretted it.

What I feel like was a big factor for me was my total commitment to doing whatever the team needed for their consistent development and success. If that meant saying I’d wear a kilt if they reached Final 8s (it was in Edinburgh), then I’d do it. If it meant giving up some of what should have been my PhD time to focus on team stuff, so be it. That sense of commitment and my part of the team effort was important, I believe.

In terms of the things I think I could have done better, integrating the quick attack was one of them. That actually links in with passing. I just wasn’t as consistent in working on those things as I probably should have been. As a result, we never got it into the offense. Player availability was a factor there, but that speaks to an issue regarding planning I’ll circle back to later. I could have spent more time on blocking as well. It wasn’t something that hurt us, but we could have done better at times. In the first term there were probably a couple of situations regarding individual players I could have handled better.

Reflections – Men

The men were coming off their first Final 8s appearance in a number of years, but doing so having lost several key players including their captain and setter. We started the year with a very thin squad in terms of talent and experience. In all honesty, the expectations for the year were low. I thought just finishing high enough in the league to qualify for Championships was going to be a challenge. If I’m fair, that may have tainted my attitude toward coaching the men, though it wasn’t helped by other issues which developed at times.

Throughout the year I had a feeling of unevenness about the guys’ training because of the nature of their coaching situation (at least partly). On the women’s side I was the lead coach without any question. On the men’s side there was another coach as lead, though he could only run trainings one night a week and couldn’t attend matches. This had been the case the year before as well, but the other coach had so many schedule conflicts that year that I basically ran everything almost the whole year. This time around the schedule conflicts were few, resulting in an inconsistent approach to team coaching as who ran training alternated. The other coach and I communicated about focal points, but more needed to be done to ensure a smoother progression.

The diversity of skill level in the team (keeping in mind BUCS1 and BUCS2 trained together) created a number of challenges which we coaches probably could have handled better. Either or both may have also tied in with some issues we had on the commitment and attendance front. One particularly angering instance during first term really turned me off coaching them and encouraged me to focus even more on the women’s team, which is probably not the reaction I should have had. The uneven commitment was also probably contributory to the unevenness I perceived in the training focus.

A major issue with the guys was that they played too little as a unit and too much as a collection of individuals. They handled adversity very poorly. It was so glaring that even the women’s team became incredibly frustrated watching them play – or even train. Some of this was poor leadership in the squad that needed to have been addressed from the outset.

The setting position was problematic. We probably stayed with one setter much longer than should have been the case because the other option was such a useful attacker. This only became clear at Final 8s when illness forced a change.


Just the other night I was talking with one of the women’s team players about how amazing the season was. None of us would have even dared think that we could be national semifinalists. I noted some things I felt I could have done better, but when I look back on the 2013-14 season where the women were concerned I can’t help but feel like it went just about as well as any coach could ever hope. The men, of course, were a different story. Even they, in the end, surpassed expectations, though. I feel like I’ve learned from both experiences, though. I share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the next post.

A perfect ending

Back in May of 2014, I coached the Exeter University women in the South West Championship tournament. It’s an event which brings together club teams of all levels from across the South West of England. That means squads from the South West regional league (SWVA) – which my team played in and took 3rd – as well as teams from NVL Divisions 1, 2, and 3.

A good case could be made that year’s field for the tournament was a bit weaker than the prior year. In 2013 I coached the tournament champions, Devon Ladies. They had played NVL1, and we beat our league champs in the tournament final. There was one other NVL1 team in the competition as well that year. In 2014 there was only a single NVL1 squad, a pair from NVL2, with the remaining 9 from either NVL3 or SWVA. One team was a group of players from a mixture of mostly lower levels brought together just for the Championship.


The tournament format featured 20-minute timed games. One timeout per team was allowed, with no timeouts or subs inside the last 5 minutes. The winning team got 3 points. In the case of a draw, both got 2 points. If the losing team was within 25% of the score of the winner, they got 1 point. All teams played each others in a big round-robin – 11 total sets in this case – over two days. The top four teams advanced to the semifinals, which was also a 20-minute match. Come the final, however, it was best of 3.

The Team

The team I had available featured most of the first team from the BUCS season. That included our starting setter, one middle, both outside hitters, and our opposite. We also had our second team setter, as well as a middle and an outside from that team.

We had two trainings the week before the tournament. Neither of them featured all of the tournament squad. Before that, the players hadn’t done anything significant volleyball-wise since BUCS Final 8s. That was about 2 months before. Naturally, that meant while the team would generally play its usual style, they weren’t going to be up to quite the level they were at during the season. And of course it was important for me to rotate the playing time around. As a result, we wouldn’t consistently have perhaps the 100% best line-up.


All things considered, I figured we’d be a mid-table finisher. Maybe with a lot of luck and some really good performances we’d be able to sneak into the semifinals, but we weren’t going to do much more than put up a good fight against the top contenders. Our strength throughout the year was strong defense, effective serving to keep teams off balance, and smart play which keeps hitting and other errors to a minimum. We’d basically played to our strengths, since we didn’t have the size or the type of hitters to take control of the match at the net.

As it turns out, we finished 7th – tied on match points for 6th, but with fewer points scored during play. In fact, were were only a single point behind the 5th place team. We beat all the other SWVA teams we’d beaten during the season with very little trouble. We also beat one of the NVL3 teams on the last point of the match, and lost to another NVL3 squad similarly on the last play. The match against the mixed team was a draw. We were well up, but got stuck in a rotation for a long string of points.

The NVL1 and NVL2 teams handled us without too much trouble. We came close to getting bonus points from them, but fell short by a single point in two cases. Our other loss was to the SWVA champs. That was a quite strong team which ended up winning the tournament. We did get a bonus point out of that match, though.

The results

As it turns out, 7th was a perfect finish given that we really didn’t have a shot at the semis. You see, the 5th and 6th place teams had to work the semifinals. By finishing 7th we got to head for home early!

The funny thing is we lost our last game on a service error. Had that serve been in and we won the rally – or had the horn come just a couple seconds sooner, ending the contest in a draw – we’d have finished in 6th. The tournament director joked to me afterwards about the serve being missed on purpose. 🙂

Of course, if just a point here or there in some of our other matches had fallen a different way we could have been as high as 5th. We were above all the teams we’d beaten during the SWVA season, as we should have been, and were right in line with the NVL3 teams. Only the top 4 teams in the competition (there was an 8 point difference between 4th and 5th place) were clearly better than us, which makes sense. While you’d always like to finish as high as possible, and certainly it would have been nice to end in the top half, I’m happy to have finished in a tight 5th-7th cluster (it was 3 points back to 8th).

Fear is the Coach Killer

Have you ever coached from a position of fear?

If you’ve ever coached a team in a meaningful competition, my guess is there were definitely some doubts in your head in at least the early goings. I’m not just talking about being nervous about the outcome. That’s a natural function of caring. I’m referring to being concerned about your ability to coach the team effectively. Maybe you felt that when you first started coaching. Maybe you felt it when you moved to a higher level of coaching.

My own experience

In my case, the instance of fear which stands out most in my mind was during my very first time coaching a team all by myself. At that point, my coaching experience had been limited to helping out with my high school team many years before. I had just returned to volleyball after grad school and had yet to begin coaching collegiate and club volleyball. I took on a team of high school aged boys. They were taking part in an annual Summer state tournament where six regions competed in a 3-day event. I had the team from tryouts through competition.

Tryouts weren’t all that demanding as I basically had to take all the guys who showed up. Weekly trainings were a challenge because of missing players. At least, though, they gave me the opportunity to assess the team and come up with judgements about strengths and weaknesses and style of play. That had to be adjusted just before the tournament due to an injury. Fortunately, I had the options to deal with it (see Problem Solving – Setting out of the middle).

Tournament time

I’d never seen this tournament before, meaning I didn’t really know the level of play, so I didn’t know where the team was at on a relative basis. I figured things out pretty quickly, though, once play began. And that’s where the fear came in.

In looking at the competition – including the defending champions who we played first of all – I realized in short order that my group of players was at least as good as any of the others. That put the fear in my head that the only reason the team might not perform to its capability would be because I messed up somehow.

Flipping that around to a more proactive mindset, that meant I needed to make sure I did everything I could to put the guys in a position to succeed. This primarily meant having the right line-up since there wasn’t a lot else in my control at that stage.

Recovering from a mistake

I definitely didn’t have the line-up right to start the tournament and realized it quickly. We went 1-3 in the four sets (two matches of two sets) we played the first day. It was a frustrating experience because we could easily have been 4-0. I made one line-up adjustment at the start of the second day – flipping two players in the rotation. Again, we had a frustrating match that ended 1-1, after which I had a meeting with the team that lead to one more line-up change, changing my second OH.

From that point on, we didn’t lose a single set. We went 4-0 in the rest of our pool play to take 3rd place, then swept through the semis and the finals 2-0 on the last day of the event. We won the gold medal in a really competitive match with loud support from the other teams (we were playing the defending champs, who everyone hated). My voice was completely shot from having to shout to be heard over the three days, but it was a welcome pain. 🙂

I guess my fears were unfounded. My experience over the years has tended to back that up, I suppose. I’ve only coached one more team to a tournament championship since then (though assistant coached two league winners), but I’ve definitely had teams that have done quite well given their relative talent level.

Still, at times I do have that old nagging concern about being not good enough. Perhaps I always will. If so, it will be something to drive me to keep getting better at my craft.

This reminds me of something from Frank Herbert’s book Dune:


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Sorry to let my inner geek out here, but I’ve always liked that piece. Fear is the coach killer if we can’t turn it around into a positive.

Sometimes the wheels just come off

Once, when I coached at Exeter, I witnessed one of those seemingly inexplicable events which sometimes happen in volleyball. The university men I coached took on the defending league champions (and odds-on favorites that season) in a home match. The opposition was depleted by injuries and were a bit ragged to start the match. We were able to jump on them and take a relatively comfortable first set win (best of three).

Then the wheels absolutely came off.

The second set saw us make just about every error imaginable. Free balls were sent out of bounds. Hitters tipped the ball straight out of the court. Lack of communication caused defensive errors. The setter dumped a ball wide. Hitters tried to power balls low through double blocks, with predictable results. At one point, during a timeout, I told the guys it was like there was a force field on the other side of the court the way the balls we were playing over were flying long or wide.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Once, as coach of a 16-and-under girls team in the Regional Championship Juniors tournament during the pre-rally days we were 4-0 in pool play (played 2 sets against each other team) and were facing the other top team. We proceeded to lose the first set 15-0. Then, we turned around and won the second set fairly comfortably. Why did this happen? The girls were totally stressed out in the first set. They were thinking about winning the pool and it got them all tight. After that I focused almost 100% on keeping them loose and having fun. That team progressed to the semifinals, losing to the eventual champions.

In fact, even in the prior season the Exeter guys had a similar scenario against this same competition. Neither team was at full strength and in an ugly match we went up 1-0, then had a horrible second set. That pretty much did them in, as they lost 1-2.

Now, before I get on to what happened in the third set of this particular match, I should talk a bit about the line-up. I actually goofed before the first set and put the line-up in 3 rotations off from what I’d intended. Simple mistake of writing the numbers in with the wrong net orientation. We’ve all made silly mistakes like that at one time or another. Going into the second set I corrected things to the originally intended line-up. The idea there was to put our bigger MB along the front when their best OH was at the net. Clearly, it didn’t accomplish anything, so for the deciding set I switched back.

We actually got off to a good start and were up 10-6 or 10-7. Then things got tough again. At one point we had consecutive tentative errors in a the form of a serve into the net and a ball hit long. They allowed the other team’s best server to get back on the line and rip off a string of hard jump servers that did us in. We battled and were at 14-14, but couldn’t finish it off.

So what happened?

Fear took over. Simple as that. A clear indication of that is the change in our serving. In the first set we were putting them under pressure but in the latter parts of the match the serves became less aggressive. I’m not saying this was the only thing. We needed to do a long list of things better. That underlying psychology was the biggest factor, though.

Playing time thoughts from Cup weekend

This is the story of my university of Exeter teams playing in the Volleyball England Student Cup in 2013. In particular, this was the qualification phase. That’s a set of 1-day events. Your qualification was decided by your pool finish and those of others from that event and the other ones taking place at other times and/or locations. The ladies played on Saturday and the guys on Sunday. On paper at least, the draw gave the men a significantly better chance to advance than the women. That dictated different approaches to how I handled the teams.

For the women, I was always going to give the main starters a lot of play. I wanted to keep them improving their individual and team psychology. This is stuff mentioned in my coaching log entries. At the same time, though, there was ample opportunity to work additional players into the line-up. I had 10 on the team in total. They all played in at least part of three of the five matches we had in total. I regularly mixed players around without concerning myself too much with whether it made for a stronger or weaker line-up.

I should say it was a hard day for the team. They played 4 straight matches with only an additional 5-10 minutes of break added between matches 3 and 4. Then they had a set’s worth of down time before the 5th match (all were 2-sets to 25). The last match was against a poor opposition. I sat several starters and had others playing in different positions to try some things out.

On the day we lost 0-2 twice, had two 1-1 splits, and won 2-0 once. Officially that worked out to a 2-3 overall match record.

The guys has a much easier schedule. They played 4 matches (pool of 5), with a match break in between each of them.

For the men I needed to be more focused on trying to get wins – and having a sustained period of seeing them in action as I’d only coached them in one match prior. The first match – against the team which ended up winning the group pretty easily – was a struggle. The attitude wasn’t good and the offense wasn’t working. The captain and one of the senior players suggested a couple of changes based on what they’d seen in recent South West league play, so I moved the setter to OPP, brought in the second setter, and swapped in a different M2. We played weaker teams after that, but it was definitely a much more dynamic attack from there on.

I will confess that a couple of subs I made might have cost us a shot at advancing in the Cup as one of the better 2nd place teams. Because matches were just 2 sets, the way determined a winner in the case of a 1-1 result was total points. On two occasions, after we won the first set we then scored enough points in the second set to win the match, so I put in the second string players. Once that might have cost us a set as it ended up 25-27. In the other perhaps it meant not winning by the margin we could have.

I would have liked to have given some of the guys more time. Everyone played at least a bit. Given the trip’s length, it would have been nice for everyone to have at least as much time as I could with the women.

Playing time is definitely one of those things we coaches struggle with on a regular basis. At least we do when in a competitive rather than purely developmental environment. The need to go for results tends to create conflicts. In that regard, having smaller rosters can be quite useful. Tough to keep players 10 and up happy when there is only so much court time to go around.