Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Teaching Volleyball Log – Spring 2017 Initial Entry

This week starts off the Spring semester at Midwestern State University. That means a new group of students for my volleyball activity course (see my posts about last semester here and here). I met them for the first time today. Here’s what I’m looking at for the term.

Course adjustments

I needed to make a couple of changes to my course syllabus for the new semester. One reflects the fact that we are not in the volleyball season. Last semester part of the class requirement was working two of our home matches. The students either acted as line judges or managed the ball rotation. This term we obviously have no official matches. We do, however, have a home tournament at the start of April. I have put down working 2 hours that day as part of the class requirement.

The other main thing I changed was the weighting of grades. Last semester attendance was only 40% of the grading. I used the break down my predecessor used, but never felt very comfortable with it. This is an activity class, so shouldn’t most of the grading be based on taking part? I think so. As a result, I bumped that weight up to 60%. Related to that, I also increased the penalty for missing class above and beyond the officially permitted 3 unexcused absences.

In terms of actually running the class, this semester the course runs three days a week for 50 minutes. Last semester it was twice a week for 80 minutes. This will require some adjustments to how I structure class time.

Class composition

I have – at least at this initial point – eight students. Three are male, and five are female. I also have a female graduate assistant. A quick poll of the group indicates very little experience. One played up to sophomore year in high school, and another up to junior year. Not surprisingly, both were female. My GA is not one of them. By comparison, all the students last semester, plus my GA, had playing experience expect the one male.

I’m going to be doing A LOT more teaching of basic skills.

Coaching Log – January 13, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

My last post in this long was more than a month ago now. I’ll be honest. There wasn’t a lot done after that in December. The whole coaching staff attended the AVCA Convention. Mainly we were all enjoying the break and doing our own things. Things got a lot more intense once 2017 hit, though! The last two weeks have been very busy, and next week school starts back up.

Roster Changes

We had another player let us know that she won’t be playing for us next year. It’s one of the red shirt juniors I mentioned in my last update. She’s facing ankle surgery and the timing of when she would have it down (May) is such that she would still be rehabbing by the team the season rolls around. She graduates in May and is looking at grad school elsewhere as we don’t have her desired program here. That combination really makes her decision fairly straightforward, if unfortunate.

The other red shirt Junior I mentioned in my last update will be carrying on with us. She will be a graduate student.

I mentioned one other player previously who was an injury question. It turns out her grades for last semester were very poor (the team generally did quite well). She is now behind the NCAA requirements in terms of credits earned. That means she is not eligible for the Spring. That does not make much of a difference given her injury recovery needs. It definitely is an issue moving forward, though.

Recruiting

There wasn’t much opportunity to ease into the recruiting. I had to go down to the Dallas area last weekend to spend a day splitting time between watching Juniors for the 2018 class and a few Seniors for 2017. That continues this weekend with two days evaluating a long list of prospects. The emails have been streaming in. Mostly it’s the 2018s, but a number of 2019s have emailed as well.

At this point we have two objectives. There are a couple of spots for the 2017-18 team we still need to fill. We are looking at potential transfers for one or two of those positions, but are looking at 2017 graduates for one or two. We want to bring in another middle to replace the freshman who left the team after the season. The lack of an outside hitter in our current sophomore class already had us thinking to bring in a transfer pin hitter for next season. The departing red shirt Junior mentioned above, pushes us further in that direction now. We are also looking for a good libero, either transfer or incoming freshman.

Spring planning

In my last update I mentioned the outcome of the player year-end meetings. The other day we met as a staff to discuss them and start planning. We already met with our strength coach to work out the schedule and plan there, so that’s in place. The tricky thing in the Spring is always player class schedules. We need to work around them to arrange team and small group training and activities.

Obviously, technical development is always a feature of Spring practices. We want to continue developing a winning team culture too, though. Arguably, that’s even more important for this program than the physical work the players do. Top of that list is establishing a higher standard of expectations for both practice and play. At the same time, though, we want to continue to develop the overarching chemistry. The group gets along really well off the court, which is great. They need more cohesion on the court, though.

As a staff we talked about the need for us to set the higher standard of expectations right from the outset and fostering an environment where the players pick up on that and perpetuate it of their own accord. We also talked about being more intentional in our feedback.

We will do our Spring (non-traditional) season after Spring Break (mid-March). That will include three days of competition. Between now and then, we can only do two ours of court time with each player per week (plus 6 hours in other activities). That will be split up between small groups and team work.

Foreign trip

The big development for our proposed team trip to Argentina in the Summer is that the interim Athletic Director has given us the thumbs up to move forward. We got group ticket price quotes and will not put down a deposit. Now the attention turns to fund raising. We estimate a total cost of about $62,500, which is no small amount of money. Thanks to our efforts in the Fall, we already have about $6000.

Naturally, a number of ideas for fundraising activities have been put forward. As you might expect, several are events of one kind or another. What it is going to come down to, though, is soliciting donations. I will keep you posted on what we do.

Wait. I don’t remember it like that

One of the disadvantages of having a former player in the broadcast business is that sometimes you get thrown under the bus – intentionally or otherwise. The American setter I had at Svedala, Camryn Irwin, is in that arena now. She also sometimes featured as a guest on The Net Live. She did the intro and outro audio for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast as a favor to me back when we started it.

A player’s recollection

One such episode was December 12, 2016. About an hour in, a discussion of block vs. game-like training developed. There were interesting perspectives shared by a combination of men’s and women’s players and coaches. Along the way, Cam cast me in a negative light.

She didn’t actually say, “John Forman … “. Instead, it was more “my coach in Sweden …”. I doubt most people who listen to the show have any idea that’s me. They would have to find out where Cam played in Sweden and then probably dig around to learn that I was the coach for that team. I’m guessing most American volleyball people won’t do that work.

But back to what she said. The conversation got into the subject of playing a lot in practice. I’m not going discuss the skill acquisition value of block vs. random and all that here, because that wasn’t Cam’s focus. If you want to get into it, you can start with this post. Cam talked instead about practice intensity and the potential impact on player fatigue.

Basically, what she said was at Svedala I just wanted to play all the time in training and the players felt like they needed more “drill” time to bring down the physical demands. She talked about meeting with the coach (me) to discuss it. The way she talked about it on the show was to say “We can’t just play for an hour and a half.” The implication was that they would physically break down.

Let’s put the question of whether 90 minutes of game play in practice is too high an intensity to the side for now. Maybe that’s a question for another article.

Instead I want to look at Cam’s recollection of things and compare it to my own.

A coach’s recollection

First, I remember the “We want more drills” request mainly from a skill acquisition perspective (in part a motivation for this post). It was less about training intensity.

Second, we never just played. Well, maybe the very first session. Check out my log entries for that season to see. Yes, we played a lot – especially small-sided games. I almost never had the bodies for 6 v 6. Those rare days we could play 6 v 6 (guest players) we did use the bulk of the session to do so because it would have been foolish not to. And the players were always very excited to do so. Every practice, though, included non-game activities. There was target serving, passing, various peppers, and defense drills mixed in at different points.

Third, even when we did do game play I tried to move players around to keep their workload balanced. For example, I wanted the six-rotation players getting equal back row and front row work.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I was generous with time off. We started with 10 players, and quickly dropped to 9. That means only two back-ups to the first team – a setter and an OH. Knowing the starters would have a heavy load, I always looked for opportunities to give the team breaks. We didn’t usually train on Thursday, so if we didn’t play on the weekend I sometimes (maybe always in-season) gave them Friday off for an extra long weekend. I know I also gave them off at least one Monday after we played on Saturday. Plus, they got 10 days completely off over the holidays. This is all on top of going lighter the days after matches and cutting things off if they looked tired.

So from my perspective I tried to not physically overwork them.

Reconciling the two perspectives

It is worth sharing something Cam related to the team at one point during the season. She often talked with players from other teams after matches as there were several Americans in the league. One of them was apparently in awe of the types of plays our team made during games – plays no one else made. Cam attributed that, at the time, to us playing a lot in training. So clearly there was a recognition on her end of the value of making practice game-like.

So why the difference in recollection?

Maybe in the moment during the TNL discussion Cam didn’t have a chance to really think back on the season. Or maybe the time off didn’t really register as you might expect.This sort of thing can happen to players. For example, a player can complete a practice and think they should have passed more balls, forgetting that they passed a bunch of them in the games or in drills that were not “passing” drills. It’s a question of the perspective on the activity (or lack thereof). We coaches are subject to this as well.

Maybe because of other stuff going on for her (like coaching the club’s youth players) Cam had a different perspective on time off than mine. She also had to deal with a back injury, which forced some additional work on her part. Perhaps that factors in to her recollections as well.

For what it’s worth, my player-coach relationship with Camryn was a positive one. I don’t think she holds any ill will toward me. She was just a player with a player’s perspective and I was a coach with a coach’s perspective. I don’t take her comments from TNL personally, even if at the time there was a bit of an “Ouch!” response. 🙂

Were the players overworked?

The team definitely struggled at times during the first weeks of the second half of the season. By that point we only had 8 players, the only back-up being a setter. I was already paring back training time. I can remember talking with the team about how we’d look to do that, but how we’d still need to keep the intensity up as much as possible in that shorter time. They needed to keep challenging each other to continue progressing.

At the same time their weight training regime had recycled. Might the combination of the two been too much? Conversely, did I give them too much time off over the holidays? These are among the things I’ve thought about as potentially contributing to a couple of poor January performances. Unfortunately, I was let go at the start of February (season runs through April), so I have no way to know how the physical side of things might played out long-term.

The lesson

Players are individuals with their own inherent biases and perspectives. It’s inevitable that they see and remember things differently than you do as a coach. Many a coach has been surprised/embarrassed/mortified at the things players remember. It comes with the territory. We want to do our best to not teach what we don’t want learned, but we have a very different view point from our players. Accept it. Try to understand their perspective. Do your best to learn when you come across an example of divergent recollection.

Coaching Log – December 9, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Overall progress from 2015 to 2016

With the season over and done, it’s time to have a look at how we at Midwestern State did this year compared to last year. In 2015 the team was 6-26 overall, and 0-16 in the Lone Star Conference. They finished 9th out of 9 and did not make the conference tournament. One player was selected to the All-Conference team as Honorable Mention, and one made the Academic All-Conference list. Their region rank finished at 25, with an RPI of .458 and a .553 strength of schedule.

For 2016 we went 12-21 overall, 6-14 in conference play. We finished 8th of 11 teams in the league (two newcomers added this year) and qualified for the conference tournament. Three players earned All-Conference selection (one 2nd team, two Honorable Mention), and one made Academic All-Conference. Our region rank moved up to 20, our RPI ended up at .484, while our strength of schedule was .528.

At least some of the dip in strength of schedule was a function of the conference not being quite as strong this year. In 2015 the LSC had the top three ranked teams in the South Central region, plus the #7. This year we had two of the top three, then #8 and #9.

A major factor in our improvement was getting a couple of players into the team who were medical red shirts as Juniors in 2015. Both were significant contributors throughout the season, though they both also had persistent health issues slowing them down. Even with those two in the side, though, we were inexperienced. In terms of eligibility, we had no Seniors.

Drilling down

Statistically, we had both steps forward and steps backward.

Offense and serving are the two big improvement areas. We upped our hitting efficiency in-conference by 53 points (.163 vs. .110). That was driven almost entirely by a higher kill %. In terms of serving, we improved to 1.56 aces/game from 0.79. That took us from bottom of the league to third best.

Where we slipped was in block and defense, and in serve reception. Our opponent hitting efficiency slipped from .210 to .221. Blocks dropped to 1.27/game from 1.66, and digs declined to 13.76/game from 17.47. Service aces suffered rose to 1.61/game from 1.16.

Now, the block and digs numbers at least partly reflect the fact that in 2015 the team’s offense was poor. That resulted in more transition opportunities for the other team. The digs also, however, along with the passing issues, reflect a meaningful change in the libero position. The two players in that position in 2015 left the team last year. They each averaged about 4 digs/game. This year we had libero by committee. Four different players got meaningful time in the position. That was largely influenced by injuries. The player who got the most time was actually an in-season convert to the position (from setter).

Areas for improvement

Blocking, defense, and serve reception are clearly areas we will look to improve for 2017. We made some good improvements in defense in the second half of conference play. In fact, our dig % in our last 10 LSC matches of 2016 was better than the overall conference dig % for the 2015 team. Still, it’s an area where we feel like we can be much better. We probably need to lower our opponent hitting efficiency by about 60 points to really be competitive with the top teams in the league.

As much as the team hitting efficiency was significantly improved this year over last, that was just the start. We probably need to be 50 points better in that area next year. That will require both a higher kill % and a lower error %. We were at 33% kills this season. The best team (Tarleton) was at 40%, but the other three of the top four teams were at 37%. In terms of errors, we were at 16%. Angelo was tops there at 11%, with the others in the 14-15% range.

The other thing I’d like to see improved is serving. Specifically, I’d like to see us cut the errors down a little bit, while keeping the aces at a comparable level.

Player year-end meetings – structure

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve run individual meetings with the players to wrap up the season. Before I get into some of what came out of it, let me share with you the questions we asked. We gave them to everyone so they could think about their answers beforehand. Some came to their meetings with stuff actually written down.

They were:

  • What does the team need to do to get to the next level?
  • How can the coaching staff help the team reach the next level?
  • What do you as a player need to do to help the team get to the next level?
  • What can the coaching staff do to help you make that/those improvement(s)?
  • How can the coaching staff help you get the most out of your experience as a student-athlete?

That last question was mainly aimed at off-the-court, non-team type of stuff. Think academic support, facilities, travel, and things like that.

For each player we also came up with some things we wanted to make sure got talked about. They were a mixture of what we saw of them this year and thoughts on development moving forward.

We had a sheet for each player where the head coach made notes during the meeting. The players reviewed and signed the sheets at the end. We then gave them a copy.

Player year-end meetings – outcomes

I won’t bother with individual level stuff here. Instead I’ll focus on the common themes that came up from a team perspective. Two of them were the related areas of expectations and accountability. These things came up in different ways, but the general idea was the same. The team needs to set and maintain higher standards and expectations for themselves – individually and collectively – if we’re to step up our competitive level. Players need to be held accountable when they don’t meet those expectations – by the team as well as the coaching staff.

Leadership was the other major theme. Part of this had to do with the accountability element mentioned above. Leaders within the team are needed to make sure the group is at least meeting their level of expectations. There are other elements of leadership, though, and they came up as well.

Departures

We had two players tell us they needed to leave the team. One of them was a red shirt sophomore libero/ds with back injury issues. She was told by the doctors that it will take maybe three years for her to rehab her way back to even being able to get back into a regular workout level of health. The other was a freshman middle who felt like she needed to be able to focus more on the academic side of things.

There may yet be others added to this list. We have two players who graduate this year, but both who have eligibility remaining. They have some decisions to make about their respective futures. Both were all-conference this year, so they’d be big losses. There’s also another with an injury question.

Incoming players

We had four incoming freshmen sign letters of intent in November. One is a middle who was the best blocker in her Texas high school district. As noted above, that’s definitely an area of improvement need for us. One is an opposite who also earned district honors. Her high school and club background isn’t the strongest, so we feel like she’ll have a steeper developmental curve. The third is a lefty opposite who doesn’t have the same physical gifts as the second player, but who is much further along as a volleyball player. The problem there is she’s recovering from a Summer ACL injury, though it sounds like her rehab is progressing very well. The fourth is a local area OH who is very athletic and a multi-sport all-district competitor. She isn’t the tallest player in the world, though.

Recruiting

We had four players come to campus for an evening tryout last week. Three were liberos and one was a middle. Whether any of them come is yet to be decided. Between our losses and our need to strengthen certain positions, we are likely to bring in at least two more players. Obviously, that means we’re still looking and evaluating – both high school players and prospective transfers.

What is zero tempo?

If you followed my coaching log entries for the 2016 Midwestern State season, you know at one point in the season we spent time on middle attack tempo. Our hitters were much too slow. They were still in their approach on setter contact.

This brought up some questions about the tempo we wanted to run. Specifically, should it be first tempo or zero tempo?

Honestly, I didn’t hear of zero tempo until a couple years ago. I don’t know when it started to be used. It seems to be very much an American thing, though. Basically, it’s when the hitter is off the ground at setter contact.

At least that’s what it is supposed to be. That’s how it’s described in this video.

If you watch the video, though, the hitters are not actually in the air on setter contact. They have both feet down, and are just about to jump. This is considered first tempo, rather than zero tempo. At least some people think of it that way.

Differing opinions

I spoke with Mark from At Home on the Court about this. He and I are on the same page that by our reckoning in the air on setter contact is 1st tempo. We both admit, though, that you almost never actually see that. I had a male player at Exeter who did it, and one of our MBs at MSU did it once in a match. Those are the exceptions, though.

Even still, I have long pushed my quick attackers to beat the ball. I know they probably won’t get all the way there, but at least they’ll get closer to ideal.

As I talk about in the Timing of the first tempo attack post, the idea of the zero tempo ball is that it forces the block to make a choice. In order to stop a quick attack running that fast, the block must commit on the hitter. That then makes it very hard – maybe impossible – to get up if the ball is set elsewhere.

In practice, a properly run first tempo ball is very hard to stop without commit blocking. If the ball is set high enough to let the hitter make contact on full extension, the block will struggle to get up high enough, fast enough to stop it.

Coaching Log – November 21, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

The regular season is done. Here’s the final Lone Star Conference standings.

lsc-2016final

It’s interesting to look back at how that compares to the preseason poll

lsc-prepoll

There were definitely some surprises in there. On the positive side, Eastern NM has to top that list. Can’t imagine anyone had them ending up as high as fourth. Commerce is in there as well. And of course MSU surprised some folks. Clearly, based on the vote tally, we were not expected to do much of anything.

The biggest negative surprise must be Woman’s, though an August coaching change and pre-season medical issues for a big part of the team always suggested some struggles. Cameron is the other one in that category. I’ll be honest that they surprised me. They were a much smaller team than I remember from when we played them in the Spring.

So here’s what the conference tournament bracket looked like.

lsc-tournbracketNotice that while Commerce was listed ahead of Eastern NM in the above standings, with both teams tied for 4th, it was Eastern who was given the #4 seed. The teams split their two matches, which is the first tiebreak. The second one looks at the best win for each team. Eastern just beat Angelo on the final Friday of the season, so they take the higher spot. Not that it really matters as they play each other either way.

Interestingly, if we were able to get by Angelo, our second round match would be against one of the two teams above us we beat this year.

Monday

We had a team talk before practice to go over some logistic stuff for the week ahead. We also talked mentality for the tournament – namely “It’s a new season.” We had all the players share their view on something each was proud of for the team this season.

Practice started with a ball-handling warm-up. That progressed to a serve and pass exercise that focused on seams for both servers and passers. We played back row and front row 4s before finishing with a 6 v 6 game. Because we wanted on defending an in-system offense out of serve receive we did a new exercise. The teams alternated receiving an easy serve (ball chipped in by a coach). To get a point a team had to win two rallies in a row. They could then earn a bonus point by serving and winning that rally as well.

Tuesday

Our probably final full practice of the season was a good one. We started with team pepper. After that, we did hitters vs defense to put on the court stuff we talked about before practice with respect to defending Thursday’s opponent.

Next up was a 6 v 6 game. Every rally started with a ball to the setter, creating a setter-out situation. A team had to win two of those in a row to earn a rotation. If they failed to win a rally, the other side started the sequence. The idea was that it would be a race to complete all six rotations, though we also kept a regular score (rallies won). If a player hit the ball into the net or was stuff blocked out-of-system, their team had to back up a rotation.

Basically, that was a near continuous play game. The only brief breaks were went a team rotated.

We finished with a regular game featuring bonus points. Teams got a bonus for aggressive serves into the seam, for perfect passes, and for getting kills on shoots (31s) when the ball was passed off the net. That made things go relatively quickly.

Wednesday

We traveled to San Angelo ahead of the start of the conference tournament on Thursday. In the afternoon we did a 55 minute practice. In the evening we attended the awards banquet. We had three players voted for all-conference – two honorable mention and one 2nd team. Last year’s team only had one honorable mention. We also had one selected for academic all-conference.

Thursday

As the 8th place team we faced 1st place Angelo in the final match of the first round – the 7:30pm start time. The result was basically as expected. We lost 3-0, with each set 25-16. Personally, I felt like we played them closer than that. Our commitment to defense was perhaps the highest of the season, which was great to see. We just lacked a bit in our execution in places. That’s not something you can afford when you’re the #8 playing the #1.

And thus did our season end.

Angelo went on to beat Tarleton in the tournament final, to no one’s surprise.

Moving forward

With regular practice and play over, I’ll shift away from the normal weekly updates. We will start back up with the players in limited hours (8 hours, only 2 on-court) next semester. In March we will begin our Spring (non-traditional) season when we get to practice regularly for a few weeks and play in some tournaments. Between now and then I’ll provide updates as I feel there are interesting things to report.

Convincing players random is better than block

John Kessel is a major advocate of making things as game-like as possible where volleyball training is concerned. In one of his blog posts he talks about the “false confidence” block training (simply doing reps) can create in players – and coaches. No doubt, John will continue to bang that drum. It’s a major feature of the USA Volleyball training philosophy, and shows through in the CAP program. It definitely showed through when I did my CAP III course.

I’ve done my fair share of that as well. Going beyond maximizing player contacts is one example. As game-like as possible is another. Episode #17 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast also has block vs. random training as its theme.

Here’s the question, though.

How do we convince players that more game-like training is better?

Once, during a serving and passing drill, the MSU setters took turns setting off of the pass. One asked why they did not just do one setter at a time. She wanted more repetition “to develop a rhythm”. My response was she never set two balls in a row in a game. She started to push back, but I told her she always does something in between. There’s hitter coverage and blocking and defense, among other things.

That mollified this particular player. I’ve had others on different teams, though, who felt like block reps were better than game-like ones. One of them once told me they let her pass without having to think about anything else. She was an OH who obviously had to think about attacking as well in actual game play. Plus, there’s that pesky issue of dealing with seam responsibility when passing next to another player.

Like in anything else, we have a mixture of personalities among our players. Some are open-minded and accept what you say. They are at least willing to try. At the other end is the close-minded group. They fight you on things. They say stuff like, “We’ve always done it like this,” or “This way works for me.”

It’s fine if those players aren’t key performers or team leaders. You can marginalize them if they persist with the negative attitude. If they are leaders, though, it creates a major problem. They say things like “This is stupid.” That has serious negative consequences for both team chemistry and coach authority. It cannot be tolerated.

So, how do we convince the more resistant players that more game-like training is superior to blocked training? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experience.

Coaching Log – November 14, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

It’s down to the last week of the regular season. Angelo clinched the title with their win over us last week. Every other place remained up for grabs, as you can see from the standings.

lsc-110716

Our participation in the conference tournament was in the balance as we were tied with Texas Woman’s. Although the standings show Midwestern above Woman’s, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head. We lost both times we played them, so they actually started the week in pole position. We, therefore, needed to win at least one more match than they did to qualify for the tournament.

So what were the prospects? Not super. Our schedule featured a home match against the bottom team and an away match at the current #3 team. Woman’s was on the road at West Texas and UT Permian Basin. Their odds of winning at WT were small. UTPB maybe not as much. The lost to them in 5 the last time, but Woman’s was down one of their best hitters at the time.

Monday

Defense was a big focus for this session. We watched video of our play from the weekend. We highlighted some good stuff offensively, but also some shortcomings on defense. Positioning was part of that. We also talked about our blocking. That stuff was carried over into practice.

We started with a 6 v 6 team pepper with a specific focus on defensive movement for back row attacks. After that we played a target serving game. From there it was a progression to an out of system game. That allowed us to work on some positioning elements, while also continuing to develop that area of play. We finished with 6 v 6 play.

Tuesday

This was our last home match of the season, and Cameron was the visitor. This is a match we viewed ourselves as strongly favored for based both on Cameron’s record and our earlier performance against them.

That ended up playing out. The Cameron players really didn’t have a lot of fight in them, especially as the match went along. We weren’t as efficient on offense as we could have been, which ended up leading to several long rallies. That resulted in our digging 70 balls, which was second most for a 3-set match in the conference this year.

After our match we hosted a playoff match between two of the local area high schools. One of the teams actually featured one of our committed incoming freshmen. Her team won in five in front of a good, enthusiastic crowd. Part of the revenue match is supposed to go to our program.

Wednesday

This was a pretty low energy session. It picked up toward the end, but generally the focus level was below expectations. We once more began with a 6 v 6 team pepper, though slightly modified from the one we did on Monday. With a review of the stats from our last match against Friday’s opposition in mind (we served very poorly), we repeated Monday’s serving competition next.

After that, we move into hitters vs. blockers. Mainly that meant the OHs. This was all done off serve, and things went badly. The servers really took the passers apart. There were very few in-system balls for the setters to set as a result.

Our last planned exercise was 22 vs. 22. The bonus element was saying if a team got a first ball kill on a tip or shot they automatically won the big point. The play was somewhat sluggish, so after a couple of rounds we just finished with some 4s play.

Thursday

This was primarily a travel day, as we had an 8-hour trip ahead of Friday’s match. We did stop along the way to do a short practice at the high school of one of our players, however, to take a break from the bus. That was followed by dinner at her home before getting back on the road and finishing the trip.

Friday

The final match of the regular season saw us playing at Kingsville. They handled us relatively easily the first time around as we struggled considerably in serve receive and served poorly.

img_20161111_160635

Serving was much better this time around, though we still has some issues in serve receive. We got aced 9 times in the first two sets, which obvious puts a team under pressure. The funny thing is we hit .481 and .290 in those sets. Part of that was that we passed well when not getting aced. Another part was our hitters keeping their errors down. Unfortunately, we struggled to stop their offense as they hit .458 and .351 respectively. Both sets ended 25-19 against.

The third set was very evenly matched. Both teams struggled a bit on offense, hitting in the .100s. We just couldn’t take advantage of a few key opportunities to score, and ended up losing 25-22.

Saturday

On Friday evening, Texas Woman’s lost to West Texas. That left it to their match at UTPB on Saturday to determine the 8th spot for the conference tournament. If they won, we’d end up tied in the standings, but they would take the final place by way of the tiebreak.

I followed the match online via the live stats. Woman’s won the first two sets. I figured we were probably toast at that point. UTPB came back and won two tight sets to send it to a fifth, though. The final was a nail-biter. Woman’s had a couple of match points, but ended up going down 22-20.

Observations

Time to prepare the team to take on Angelo at their place for the second time in two weeks!

As an aside, the other MSU Fall sports have had pretty successful season. Cross Country and Women’s Soccer both won their conference championships. Men’s Soccer was regular season champion, but lost in the tournament final. Both soccer teams have made the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Nationally ranked Football lost their last game of the year to only managed a 2nd place finish in conference.

Technical vs Mental Training

Once upon a time I considered myself a highly technically oriented coach. I focused a lot on how players executed skills. I came up from a highly block oriented training background (meaning skill repetition), and I think the two kind of went together. Somewhere along the way, though, I started to shift to a more mental view of training.

I don’t recall a specific moment when the light bulb went off. I think it was more of a gradual realization that the teams I was involved in coaching were just not playing the game as well as required. They could execute the skills, but that simply wasn’t enough.

What do I mean by a more mental focus?

Basically, I mean focusing more on the structure of play and the decision-making process. The latter relates to choices individual players make while they play. For example, should I attack the ball aggressively here? Do I need to make sure I keep my serve in this time? Who’s my best set choice at this moment? And so on down to the level the specific skill the player elects to use. This is the solution side of the solution-execution combo Julio Velsaco talked about when I was at the 2014 HP Coaches Clinic.

The structure of play aspect relates to how players work together. It’s an element of what Mark Lebedew wrote about in his The Key to Volleyball post. Mark has also previously talked about how as soon as you have more than one player on the court it becomes an organizational situation much more so than a technical one.

I should note that when I talk about structure of play I’m not talking about systems. Yes, systems are part of it. For me, though, structure begins with mentality and expectations. How do we train and play as a group? That then feeds into how each individual plays within the scope of their role in the squad.

Is technique important? Of course. But technique is at the end of a chain on things, most of which are not physical. The vast majority of a player’s time is spent not in skill execution, but in preparing for that execution (see Going beyond maximizing player contacts). That is largely mental, and it’s where truly great players and teams excel.

Striking the balance

Clearly, we cannot just coach the mental side of the game. If a player can’t execute the skills, the rest won’t matter much. The question is finding the balance based on where your players are in their development. In my case, I have mostly dealt with players who have at least some base level of skill. Gains from improvements in technical ability at that level are generally less than those from improvements in the mental parts of the game – at least up to a certain point.

As always, it comes down to you as the coach evaluating your situation, setting priorities, and remaining focused on them.