Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Why coaches fail

The other day Mark from At Home on the Court, pointed out a blog post which offers 10 reasons why coaches fail.

  1. Compromising
  2. Lack of belief in themselves
  3. Copying others
  4. Relying too much on learning only from within
  5. Relying too much on emotion
  6. Using the same program over and over
  7. Failing to engage their athletes
  8. Lack of persistence
  9. Lack of vision
  10. Not spending enough time maximizing their strengths

Mark said he agrees with #2 through #9, but would need to have a conversation about #1. I definitely agree with him on #1. There needs to be more clarity on what exactly is meant by “compromise”. If the conversation is about compromising your values and the like, then fine. If it extends to others areas, you can run into some problems.

For #3 I would say there’s a difference between copying and modeling. Copying implies just doing exactly the same as someone else. Modeling is more about looking to incorporate elements of what another person does into what you do. Yes, you want to look to adapt successful methods you come across, but you have to do it in your own way within the context of your coaching situation. Very rarely do things work when simply ported over.

The Volleyball Coaching Wizards project very much speaks to #4. All the coaches we’ve interviewed thus far have talked about interacting with others as a major factor in their development.

The idea that what has always worked will continue to do so is the idea of #6. Things change all the time. Ask any coach who’s been around for any length of time. In my own volleyball coaching life I’ve seen a change from sideout to rally scoring, the introduction of the libero, a rise in the importance of back row attacking, jump float serves, and numerous changes in tactical applications – not to mention having coached different genders, age groups, levels, and cultures.

Another one worth talking about is #10. I wrote a bit on the subject of whether you should focus on improving on weaknesses or concentrate on your strengths.

Coaching Log – Jul 10, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Last week I talked about being offered the use of the apartment of one of the returning players when I have to move out of my place in England (she’ll be up north with her family for the Summer). That arrangement has been made. I’m going to fly to Copenhagen on the 23rd, where the club’s Sports Director will pick me up and drive me across the bridge in to Sweden and on to Svedala.

I’m not entirely sure what will happen from there. The club is still working on making arrangements for my housing. Since I won’t be paying rent in England, I’ve offered to help cover any expense for August since technically my contract doesn’t start until September. If they can’t find anything until September 1st, though, it shouldn’t be a big deal since I’m planning to spend most of August in Germany.

Regardless, I’ll be looking to use this initial stint in Svedala to start to learn my way around town, get to know the folks at the club, and do whatever administrative stuff needs doing. Of course I’ll also look to meet up with any of the players who will be in the area at the time. I think that’s most of the returners.

Filling out the squad
I found out on Monday that one of the “package” players we were expecting to sign has put pen to paper on her contract. We were just waiting on the other player to do likewise. That happened on Wednesday, or at least that’s when I heard. The official announcements have been made, so I can now provide some of the details.

One of the players is Camryn Irwin, who played for Washington State. She is a 5’11” (180cm) setter who ended here college career in 2013 with nearly 3400 assist, which is good for 4th on the school’s career list. Camryn spent the second half of the 2013-14 season playing for ASKO Steg-Linz in Austria. I spoke with her last evening. She was a volleyball commentator during the 2014 women’s college season, but assures me she’s continued to train and workout while finishing up her degree requirements. The plan was to return to pro volleyball for the second half of last season, but nothing worthwhile developed. She also said she’s read some of the this blog. Hi Camryn! 🙂

The other new signing is Chelsey Bettinson, a 6’1″ (185cm) middle who is a former teammate of Camryn’s at Washington State. The two have been long-time housemates. Chelsey just finished her senior year where she was second on the team in both kills and total points, and was second in the PAC-12 in blocks. Having a combo pack of a setter and middle with lots of experience working together definitely has meaningful benefits. I’ll speak with her later today.

Here are their smiling faces. I am going to have VERY blonde team! 🙂

camryn and chelsey

That leaves one more foreigner spot to be filled. I was told an American player we had offered a contract to has decided to coach instead, so our focus is shifting to others who remain available.

Coaching leadership differences between the genders

During my Volleyball Coaching Wizards conversations I’ve spoken with coaches who have worked with both male and female players. I always make a point of asking each of them how they approach the two genders. Is there any difference in their coaching? What’s been interesting is that many have responded that they don’t really change anything.

One of the early influences on my own coaching was Anson Dorrance. He’s the long-time women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. He started off on the men’s side and for a while coached both men and women. As a result, he’s got some very interesting observations on the differences in leading the two groups. They tend to disagree with the “I treat everyone the same” idea. Check out this discussion of his on the subject (hat tip to volleyballcoaching101)

One of the things I can’t help but wonder about coaches who claim they are the same coaching male athletes and female ones is if there really are differences they just don’t recognize. I know that I am different coaching men than coaching women. It’s not an intentional thing for the most part. I don’t consciously say I’m going to have this demeanor on the court with the men and this other demeanor with the women. It just sort of happens.

Listening to Anson, the other thing I got to wondering was if coaches tend to niche themselves based on whether their personality better suits working with one gender or the other.

Show respect by dominating, but not too much

The picture at left comes from the 2014 beach season. To say that the Swedish pair dominated the duo from Ireland in this set is an understatement. You don’t see many 21-0 score lines at international level events. You also don’t see a set of abs like #2 has either, but that’s a totally different conversation. 🙂

I present this photo as a lead in a subject that I’ve had conversations about over the years. That is the idea to respect your opposition enough to give full effort, and probably thrash them as a result.

Simon Loftus discussed it during his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview. His view was that you should respect the other team enough to beat them 25-0 if you can. The Swedish ladies seemingly did just that. Listen to Simon’s thoughts on the subject of respect and how you approach lower caliber opposition in the following excerpt.

I agree with Simon in basically all he says in that snippet. From the perspective of lopsided scores, volleyball is different from other major sports. There is a point objective to finish a set. That contrasts with a proscribed time limit as in football, basketball, and soccer – or being open-ended like baseball. A 25-0 score line in soccer is definitely running up the score. University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance famously told his teams not to win by double digits. In volleyball, though, that is just being as efficient as possible.

During a conversation I had once, however, I had a thought on the subject. He said it may be true that for some players/teams being beaten 25-0 would see them concede they were soundly beaten by a superior team. He also said, though, it’s perhaps just as likely to be completely demoralizing. I coached on the wrong side of a couple of 0-15 score lines in NCAA Division I volleyball back in the pre-rally days. I can tell you the players weren’t thinking about how much the other team respected them.

Which way the response goes, though, depends. I think it has to do with how the losing team perceives the quality of their own performance.

In our 0-15 case, we definitely played strong opposition, but we also did not play well at all. When I coached the Exeter women against Northumbria in the 2014 BUCS semifinals we were WAY over-matched. Aside from the initial shock of just how strong the other team was, though, I think the team largely handled getting pounded pretty well. Our focus wasn’t on winning, but on enjoying smaller victories. It was similar for the Exeter men playing Northumbria in the 2013 version of Final 8s. The competitive gap was fractionally narrower in that case, but it was still a big one. We went into the match knowing the reality and enjoyed the experience of going up against a far superior opponent.

That all speaks to the psychology of being on the weaker side of the court and the sorts of things we as coaches need to think about to prepare our teams for those types of matches. The thought I had during the conversation I mentioned, though, related to being the dominating team. Basically, I said as a coach if your team won 25-0, or by a similar type of score, then you made a mistake.

I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but stay with me.

In the interview excerpt above, Simon talks about having non-score related objectives for matches where you face a lower level team. The idea in cases like that is basically to use the opportunity to help the team and players to continue their development. I tie that in with the idea expressed by Karch Kiraly at the HP Coaches clinic that if you’re not making some amount of errors you’re not pushing the envelope enough. As such, you are losing a chance to learn and grow.

If a team wins a set 25-0 it basically means they didn’t make any errors – at least no significant ones. No doubt there will have been less than perfect execution at points along the way. That’s it, though. If we use Karch’s benchmark of about 2 good against 1 bad, then in 25 rallies you should be thinking to drop about 8 points due to failed execution (missed serve, hitting error, etc.). That is not precisely what he means, but I think you get the point.

Of course I’m not suggesting we tell our player that we expect to lose 1 point out of each 3. Rather, what we should do is create a scenario where that is the outcome because the things we have the players focus on push them. They are working on new or more precise serves. They are trying new offensive plays. You are using non-starters. That sort of thing. The players are still trying to win each rally. It’s just that you’ve introduced factors which are likely to result in more mistakes.

Obviously, you can take it too far. If the players are taking too many risks things will get ugly fast and the score might get uncomfortably tight. And if the players get silly about it, that’s just disrespectful. Best to keep the focus on 1-2 objectives, though each player could have something of their own to work on.

You help fill in perception gaps, but you also have them

A little while back Mark Lebedew presented a quote by the Duke of Wellington. He used it to make the case that no matter the situation we never fully remember all the events of a match. In fact, we aren’t even aware of all the events of a match (or any other event, for that matter). No one else does either. As a result, it’s important to gather information from as many different perspectives as possible. And they should come from objective sources like video and stats (keeping in mind that they too have their limits).

Think of this from the perspective of your role as coach. We volleyball coaches are largely external viewers of events. Yes, we are active participants in some ways, but our influence on actual play once the whistle blows is relatively limited. That means we are mainly in the role of supposed objective examiners who are there to provide feedback and guidance to the athletes. A big part of that is to provide our players with information from outside their scope of view and recall. We can do that by sharing what we see, showing them video, providing them with the relevant stats, etc.

An important part of this process is understanding each individual. They all have their own scope of vision, primary methods of information acquisition, and filters. For example, some players fixate on their errors. One of our coaching roles in that kind of situation is the make sure they also acknowledge their successes. You could say we help them with awareness of their blind spots and the important information they may not be either collecting or weighting properly.

We need think about things for ourselves along a similar line. Unfortunately, coaches often don’t have coaches of their own to help in the process.

Coaching Log – Jul 3, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Right now the biggest thing on my mind is my future housing situation in Svedala. The club is in the process of trying to secure accommodation for me. Among the things I’m learning about Sweden, though, is that the housing market is quite tight. Svedala being a fairly small town, one would not tend to expect there to be tons of available housing in the first place, making it that much more of a challenge. I understand in the past the club owned an apartment for the coach, but at some point decided to sell it, meaning now they have to rent something anew each time around.

Adding to the complexity of the situation – at least on my end – is that I have to be out of the house in Exeter in three weeks. I could return on August 10th and stay until my contract with Svedala officially starts September 1st, but I’ve got an offer to return to Bühl in Germany (where I spent about 10 days with the men’s Bundesliga team last Summer) from August 9th through the end of the month. I’m inclined to accept, which would mean no return to England – at least from a living perspective (I’d have to return briefly for PhD-related stuff).

For the moment, what I’ll do from July 25th to August 9th is the open question. I’d like to at least spend a bit of time in Svedala over the summer to get a feel for things, meet some of the club folks and players, etc. The question is whether that can be worked out in a reasonable fashion. One of the returning players has offered me the use of her apartment as she’ll be back home with her family up north for much of the Summer. That’s an option that it looks like I’m going to go with – at least to start. We’ll see how things develop.

Getting to know the team
I continued my conversations with the returning players over the weekend and into this week. I’ve now talked with all of them, and one coming back into the team after a year away (see below). It’s been interesting getting a feel for their personalities. It’s just impressions at this point, though. I’m not going to presume that one Skype conversation each with these young women gives me a full sense of who they are individually. That process has only just barely begun. As additional players are added to the squad in the weeks/months ahead, I’ll look to have conversations with them as well.

Filling out the squad
I found out over the weekend that a player who’d been in the squad during the 2013-14 season has decided to return to Svedala for the new campaign. Although she trained with the team at times last season, her work/travel schedule precluded her from being fully in the squad. That situation has changed, though, and she’s eager to get back involved. Based on what I’ve heard from others, she’ll be a good addition in potentially a few different ways.

There is also another player from the 2013-14 squad – another starter – who would like to come back as well. There are some hurdles which I’m told need to be overcome, though.

I was told the other day that we’re 99% sure of signing a pair of players two fill two of our three spots. This is the “package deal” I mentioned in the last log entry. Terms were agreed with their agent, and contracts were going out. Once things are signed I’ll provide more information. That will leave one more foreign position to be filled.

Competition Schedule
A tentative league schedule has already been put out. Because a team dropped, the women’s Elitserie is only 9 teams this season. That means a standard home-and-away round-robin would only add up to 16 matches. To get that up to 20 the clubs have agreed to a plan where the league is split into 3 geographic groups of 3 teams each. Those three clubs will play each other an addition home-and-away series, adding four matches to the total, bringing the count to 20. I’m not overly keen on the idea of having two teams being over-weighted in where we sit in the standings, especially since one of them is the defending champion, but it is what it is.

I talked last week about the Gran Prix as a potential secondary competition the club could compete in, depending on our performance over the first half of the campaign. The Sports Director yesterday told me there’s something in the works which could add an interesting additional competition to the schedule as well, comprising six more matches. It’s not a done deal, though. If it develops I’ll post the details.

Making starting rotation decisions

A thread in VolleyTalk brought up the question of determining the starting rotation for your volleyball team. Joe Trinsey, then a member of the USA Women’s National team staff, motivated folks with a blog post. He was also one of the presenters at the HP Coaches Clinic I attended in February 2015. Joe’s post is very technical and focuses on serving and hitting percentage. Some folks on VT brought up match-ups, which I also mentioned might be considerations in this lineup selection post.

Starting rotation decision-making comes up in some of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. Generally speaking, however, the feeling has been mainly against trying to do all that much matching up. Joe makes the point in his post that the other team could change things up and foul up the whole plan. That’s above and beyond just looking at what the numbers say. Wizard Paulo Cunha, though, I think expressed things in the most straightforward fashion. He basically said it’s your team’s structure of play which is by far the biggest factor in its performance.

Importantly, match-ups don’t always matter nearly as much as we might think just going on intuition. A big example of this is trying to put a strong hitter against a smaller blocker. It came up in one of the HP clinic presentations (maybe Joe’s). The suggestion was hitters don’t really change much in terms of how they attack when facing a smaller blocker.  Mark Lebedew made a similar observation at the recent FIVB seminar I attended based on his analysis of German professional league play.

So before you start spinning the dial on your rotations, make sure you understand the realities underlying your decision-making process. Don’t just go based on what should theoretically be the case.


Timing of the first tempo attack

The following was posted in the Volleyball Coaches & Trainers group on Facebook by a member. Coincidentally, it relates to a discussion I had with one of the Svedala players I coached during my time in Sweden.

While semi-watching World Cup matches, the outcomes of 384 front 1 [also known as an A-quick] approaches were evaluated during 6 recent men’s World League matches to determine how the split-second timing of the approach affected the outcome. Front 1 approaches were classified “early” if the hitter’s feet left the floor before the ball left the setters hands, and “late” if the hitter’s feet were on the floor when the ball left the setters hands.

52% of the approaches were classified as early. 33% of the sets went to the quick hitter, 4.2% of which were blocked back into the hitter’s court on early approaches and 17% were blocked on late approaches. 67% of the sets went to other hitters. Of these, the opposing middle blocker was drawn to jump or was delayed 57% of the time on early approaches and only 21% of the time on late approaches. Clearly, at this level, there is an advantage to have the middle hitter in the air before the set leaves the setter’s hands on front 1’s. I’m interested to hear others’ ideas on how this would play out at lower levels.

The middles I’ve trained will tell you I often tell them to, “Beat the ball!” I want my hitters in the air by the time the ball reaches the setter’s hands (sometimes call zero tempo). That’s the “early” approach from the quote.

My philosophy is a simple one in this regard. If the quick attacker is in the air already then the opposing blocker is under enormous pressure. If they commit block, then they have to jump with the hitter. That creates a good situation for another attacker. If they read block, the quick set will beat them. They can’t react fast enough.

The figures above back up what I want to achieve. Early approaches lead to fewer blocked quick attacks. It also leads to more positive blocking match-ups for other hitters thanks to holding or delaying the opposing middle.

A good addition to the stats presented would have been some kind of hitting efficiency or kill %. After all, the bottom line is whether you score points.

Top level vs. lower levels

I’ve talked with coaches of professional teams about this. I feel that at the top echelon the middles are at such a high level and attack reach that you can practically go with a 2-ball. So long as they are able to attack at full extension and only face a single block they have a strong advantage. The broader question, however, is the full offensive efficiency. Is it markedly different depending on the speed of the front quick? The numbers above tend to suggest it is.

At the end of the quote above the author asks whether things are different at lower levels of play. Obviously, if you slide down the scale far enough blocking is simply not a major consideration. You don’t have to worry about it in these terms. That level is much like the one at the top level. A higher set to the middle can work well. The hitter still has the advantage and even for the outside sets the block tends to be fairly poor. In fact, going quick would likely lead to less offensive effectiveness. There will be an increased error rates from setter-hitter misconnections.

It’s in the middle band where I feel the speed of the front quick attack is of greatest importance. The middle blockers are big enough and fast enough to cause problems with slower middle attacks. They are also faster to close to the outside if not held by the threat of the quick attack.

A story

As a bit of evidence for this, I’ll share the story of the Exeter men from my first year. It was an undersized squad. I’m about 6’3″ myself (call it 190cm), and I think only two of the guys in the squad were my height or a little better. One was a middle and the other our OPP. We regularly faced teams bigger than us. We offset through our speed in the front quick to hold the opposing MB. This created seams in the block for our outside hitters. That saw us reach Final 8s for the first time in a long while (Exeter did win a national championship back in the 70s, but aside from that the records are pretty thin).

How fast do you really need to go?

I’ve had a discussion of how fast the front quick really needs to be to have effectiveness. I coach “beat the ball” but I know that most of the time we probably aren’t going to be fully to that standard. The bottom line is being fast enough to accomplish the two primary objectives – beat the block if it doesn’t commit and at least delay it closing on an outside set. If we do those two things it’s all good.

That’s not to say I won’t keep pushing the middles to go faster, though! 🙂

Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?

What is the point of yelling at a team?

My guess is you’re probably thinking of something along the lines of communicating to them your displeasure. In response to that I ask two questions.

First, does your displeasure actually need to be communicated?

When does most coach yelling and screaming happen? Generally when a team is losing and playing badly (or has just done), right? Do you think the players aren’t already well aware of that? Seems to me Coach isn’t providing them with any extra information or feedback by hollering in a situation like that.

In fact, most of the time yelling at a team in that scenario is really just piling on and making them feel even worse. Is that really something that needs to be done? Doubtful. In which case the real motivation for the yelling must be evaluated.

I contend – and I know others agree – yelling in a situation like that is very often more about the coach venting than any kind of actual useful communication between coach and team. I have seen situations where coaches ripped into teams. They even brought up the recent death of family members in post-match talks. No good comes of something like that. There are much less destructive ways for a coach to blow off steam than taking it out on their players. This is especially when we’re talking about youth players and young adults.

The second question is in situations when your displeasure does need to be communicated, is yelling really the best choice?

Personally, I hate yelling. I have something of an aversion to drawing attention to myself. Being loud like that is very attention-drawing! As I told a player once, if I get angry enough about something to feel the need to yell, then I become doubly angry because I hate being put in that sort of situation. I don’t turn into a raving lunatic or anything. I’m definitely not a happy camper in those situations, though.

As you can probably imagine, based on that and what I wrote about yelling as player feedback, I am not one who thinks yelling is the best choice in most cases. I can express my disappointment or displeasure perfectly fine without raising my voice or using abrasive language. I seem to be able to get things across with a combination of facial expressions, body language, and saying things like “I’m not happy” in a fairly normal tone of voice. That said, though, clear expectations is key. It goes a long way toward making it easier to express one’s self without having to resort to histrionics.

Some yelling may be required, though.

Having said that, I will admit there are times when I think yelling is justified. Mainly this has to do with getting attention and focus. If players are goofing around or chatting amongst themselves or otherwise not engaged as they should be – especially if it means they are not performing a job like ball circulation or keeping their teammates safe from balls rolling under their feet – I will have a few sharp words with them. That’s it, though. I don’t go off on a rant. I get their attention and make my point, then get back to business.

On occasion I have yelled and/or used colorful language (with an age appropriate group) for a kind of shock effect. Since I don’t often yell or swear – especially with my women’s teams (young men with their lack of focus seem to need it a bit more) – when I do it tends to get them to take notice. Obviously, this is something we need use very selectively, though. The examples that stand out to me have been times when a team simply did not play up to its standard (wining or losing) in a particular match.

The point of all of this is to have you think about the motivation and reasons for yelling and what you want to accomplish when you do so. If you yell, make sure it’s to positive effect. That sounds perhaps a bit paradoxical, but it’s the idea of being constructive rather than just making players feel even worse or keeping the focus on the past rather than the future.