Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Learning from college transfer developments

This article discusses the increase in volleyball transfers in NCAA volleyball. It cites numbers saying they went from 95 in 2010 to 267 in 2013. That’s a pretty big increase. I don’t know if it’s yet at the level where there needs to be serious concern (it’s probably about 5% of all Division I players). It does suggest an evolution in the sport at that level which it would be good to understand, though.

One of the main culprits often mentioned with regards to transfer numbers is the shift toward earlier and earlier commitment. How can we expect a 15 year-old to know what they’ll want as a 19 year-old?

In the article, John Cook from the University of Nebraska also suggests that the current generation of athletes is less emotionally connected with their teammates. He says that’s because they interact so much via technology rather than face-to-face. This makes it easier for them to transfer. I’d be curious to know if there’s any research as to whether that’s actually true.

Something else which could be a potential source of rising transfer rates is coaching turnover. As much as players are encouraged to pick a school based on academics and other non-sport considerations, the reality is that the coach matters. Coaching changes, therefore, can alter a player’s level of satisfaction. Further, sometimes new coaches come in and clean house. They want to “bring in their own players”. Or, as in the Hugh McCutcheon case, there can be a cultural change some just don’t want to go along with.

Add into the mix the tendency for the recruiting process to operate as two sides trying to sell themselves. That’s instead of truly looking for a good fit. Coaches pursuing players put their best foot forward. Players in pursuit of schools do the same. That leads, in some cases, to one or both sides not really taking the time to look at things on a deeper level. That’s where the actual satisfaction level once a player is on campus comes into effect.

We can never completely avoid transfers. They’re going to happen for any number of reasons – many of which are case-by-case. What we should do, though, is to look for the broader patterns of commonality and see if there are detrimental underlying factors which need addressing. In some cases there won’t be. In some cases there might. Even for those not involved in US college volleyball, these sorts of things can help increase understanding with regards to player recruitment and retention.

Dealing with performance expectations

Alexis at Coaches Corner posted a piece on the subject of performance relative to expectations. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek idea is the best way to go is to do slightly better than expected. The bottom line observation he made was “….the best thing to do is to lower expectations and exceed them.”

Of course that’s easier said than done. Certain coaches seem to be masters of it. I remember Lou Holtz always talking down his team’s prospects when he led Notre Dame football. It’s kind of a funny thing because especially these days in at least American sports there is the feeling that we should be bolstering our athlete’s confidence, not deflating it with hedging type language in the public arena. That, though, is potentially where conflict can arise between what’s good for the team and what’s good for the coach. After all, if the team doesn’t perform to expectations then it’s the coach who will most likely suffer the career consequences.

Coincidentally, part of what I had Mark Lebedew talk about in his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview was handling external expectations in pro coaching. I’m sure it’s not much different from other levels in that regard. This clip from that interview is what he had to say.

Of course you will have your own internal expectations as well. I wrote about those previously from a season and tournament perspective. The best seasons are the ones when you actually beat your own expectations. 🙂

Concentrating on weaknesses or strengths

Here’s a question.

Do you spend most of your time improving your team’s weaknesses? Or do you focus on your strengths?

The question may come down to your priorities. Are you in a mainly developmental or mainly competitive situation? If your concentration is on development, then working on weaknesses will likely be your main focus. The question really is more aimed at competitive situations.

As coaches our natural educational inclination tends to be toward wanting to “fix” things. That may not be the best way to go, though.

Volleyball coach as evangelist

I’ve mentioned before the breakfast conversation I was part of with John Kessel of USA Volleyball and some of the other participants of the 2015 High Performance Coaches Clinic in which he gave Hugh McCutcheon and Karch Kiraly credit for spreading the gospel of “the game teaches the game” through at least the US volleyball coaching community, if not worldwide. If you’ve payed any attention at all to the volleyball community the last couple years you can’t help to have notice that Karch is everywhere. He will seeming go just about anywhere and speak with anyone about volleyball. Karch presented at the HP Clinic and Alan at VolleyMetrics talks about a session he did back in March.

Obviously, Karch has a massive profile in the volleyball community thanks to his fantastic playing career. Taking over the US National Team and getting back into the spotlight once more – even more now that he’s led the women to their first gold medal in a major international competition. As such, he’s in prime position to evangelize our sport and his coaching philosophy – which I can tell you is something that gets a lot of attention in European volleyball.

You don’t need Karch’s level of notoriety to be a driving force in the volleyball community, though. I helped found a Juniors club in my home state of Rhode Island and ran it for several years and I definitely didn’t have a profile of any note at the time (it’s still running as Blast Volleyball). I played one year in high school (boys volleyball started my senior year) and was on the club team in college. From a coaching perspective, to that point I’d only had a couple years of club experience as a couple of seasons as a collegiate assistant. In other words, I wasn’t from a profile perspective someone people were naturally going to look to for this sort of thing. Still, I was part of a major change in the RI volleyball structure and culture.

It behooves all of us who love the sport to try to take on leadership roles in as broad a community as we can impact. The higher your profile, the more influence you can have – although as in my case, even if you don’t have that profile (yet) you can still get some important, impactful things accomplished.

So look around. What can you do and/or who can you influence to help the growth and development of volleyball in your world?

Play conservatively to win, redux

In the Playing to win vs. playing not to lose post I talk about the problems which can develop when teams get overly conservative. The players get fixated on not making mistakes. The result, ironically, is often that they end up making more mistakes instead of fewer. I brought up in that article the idea of playing conservatively to win. That means making the smart play rather than simply going for the score every time.

We can extend this to your full strategy for a match. In some matches it simply makes more sense to dial things back a little and take a more conservative approach. That will actually increase the chances of a positive outcome. Let me offer a couple of examples.


Perhaps the most obvious situation for a conservative approach is when playing a team which does not receive serve well. If they rarely are in-system on even relatively easy serves, then you don’t really need to serve them aggressively. In fact, doing so may just make things worse for you. It probably won’t meaningfully change anything in terms of their first-ball attack success, and it could lead to giving them free points from missed serves unnecessarily.

This is not a suggestion to have your team simple go for 0 service errors. Even a poor passing team can have a good day if you’re just lolliping the ball over. Plus, the just-get-it-in approach could actually suck some of the general aggression out of your own team. Rather, maybe dial things back a notch and have the team focus more on hitting targets rather than going for the hard serve as they might do against a better passing team.


If you have a strong advantage in kill or hitting percentage – meaning your hitters are simply much more capable of scoring than are the other team’s attackers – then you can afford to have a slightly less aggressive attacking mentality then you might otherwise require. I do not mean that the hitters should be told to just get the ball in. That would actually reduce your scoring percentage and potentially narrow the gap, making for a much more even contest than should be the case.

What I’m talking about instead is adjusting the play calling and set selection. You could cut back on the types of attacks which tend to produce a higher percentage of errors than others. For example, your team may struggle to connect consistently on the 31 quick (see this set chart). It might be something you need to use against some teams to freeze the opposing MB when looking to back set, to attack a seam in the block, etc. Against a weaker foe, however, that set simply may not offer enough benefit for the risk being taken. That’s just one possible example. The idea would be to look at your offense and perhaps concentrate more on the lower error % sets/plays.

These are just a couple ways to think about operating more conservatively with an eye toward actually increasing your chances for success. There are others. This is something you should think about as you game-plan for an opponent.

Serving Strategy: Attacking Zone 1

volleyball serve

In the Fall 2014 edition of Volleyball USA, Matt Sipes brings up the idea of using serving to not just to create out-of-system offensive situations for the opposition, but to get very specific in how you do that. In particular, Matt talks about things like interfering with the movement patterns of the setter and opposing hitters or forcing the front row OH to pass to put them under pressure. All of these things are important ideas when thinking about how you want your team to serve – and a key reason to work on players being able to serve all areas of the court.

I want to focus in particularly here on the idea of serving specifically to Zone 1. Matt brings this up from two potential perspectives. One is to serve the ball into the area where the setter is coming from if they are pushed back in serve receive – which is often the case when they are in Rotation 1. The other is to force the setter to have to look over their shoulder to track the ball coming in – meaning the ball is not coming at them from the front (Zones 5 and 6). He makes the case that setters are often not comfortable dealing with those balls and therefore can become very predictable when being forced to do so.

This is very true. It’s something you can pick out quite often if you pay attention. For example. some setters will set to Zone 2 or back row to Zone 1 more frequently when the pass is coming from Zone 1.

I’ll take it a step further and give you a very specific example of something I picked out back in my Brown coaching days. While scouting Yale one seasons I noticed their setter – who was quite good – set with a much faster tempo when passes were coming from Zone 5/6 than she did when the pass was coming from Zone 1. The latter sets tended to be markedly higher, giving the block more time to move to the point of attack.

So guess what we did the next time we played them?

Yup. We pounded Zone 1. I can’t recall whether we won that match or not, but we certainly slowed their offense down considerably.

Preparing to be prepared

In his Volleyblog column that was published in the Fall 2014 edition of Volleyball USA Karch Kiraly talks about staying positive in the face of disappointment and adversity. A lot of the focus is on looking forward rather than backward, but there’s one part where he talks about preparation. At that point he mentions something he heard from a military prospective. First, you develop a plan. Second, you develop contingency plans for if/when the initial plan goes awry. The latter is critically important because, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” as Helmuth von Moltke stated. To put that in volleyball terms…

Your plan will probably go out the window on the first serve.

Our plans can get foiled at many different levels. It can happen in a match. It can happen in a season. Bigger picture, it can happen in a cycle (recruiting cycle for collegiate teams, Olympic cycle for national teams, etc.). The point is, it’s not enough for us to have a plan in place. We also need to have plans to be able to react when part of the primary plan breaks down. This is especially true in situations where a quick decision will have to be made – like I talked about in the Sub Six post. You need to know the decision you’ll make in advance so when the time comes it’s basically automatic rather than done in a panic. This requires thinking about all the different things that could potentially arise.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Don’t just plan. Prepare.

It’s not enough to have a contingency plan. You need to have prepared for it’s implementation in advance. Let me provide an example.

Your starting setter sprains an ankle. What do you do? If you’re like most teams, you’ll put in your second string setter, though in some cases your second best setter might have a different primary position (something I dealt with a while back). Seems like an easy call, but the next question is how prepared your team is for that change. I don’t just mean the setter coming in, though that’s part of it. I mean everyone. Have you given that setter enough reps with the starters for everyone to feel comfortable together? Or is the setter change going to freak everyone out?

If you’ve worked your second setter into the first team, or otherwise mixed players around in training, then the transition likely will be relatively smooth. The players will know what to expect and adapt accordingly. If you always did strict A-team/B-team splits in training, though, you could have a problem. Something to think about as you develop your training plans.

This is one of those things that separates great coaches from good ones. They are able to make good decisions when things are going against them because they’d prepared themselves to do so.

Developing players to become coaches

One of our responsibilities as volleyball coaches is to encourage and nourish the development of the next generation. For some of us that will involve getting out and doing coaching education – like running coaching clinics in our areas or mentoring younger coaches. In my case, and others, it includes things like blogging and developing educational material. For all of us, though, it starts closer to home with our players.

Role model
First and foremost, each an every one of us needs to be aware at all times that we are role models for the potential future volleyball coaches among those athletes on our teams. This is something that can be easily forgotten in the heat of battle, so to speak. The question we need to always be asking ourselves, though, is whether we are acting and presenting ourselves in a way we would like to see emulated by those of our players who eventually do go on to be coaches in their own right.

Develop Thinking Players
I personally think we should be developing players who can think and problem solve on the court. These types of players understand what we’re trying to accomplish so they can train and play with intention and purpose rather than just acting mechanically by doing what they’re told. They are also able to find solutions to challenges in the heat of battle at times when the coach has little direct influence. Thinking, problem-solving players also have the foundation for going on to become coaches in their own right some day.

We should always be on the lookout for players with the potential to become good coaches. That means watching how they act and listening to what they say beyond just in terms of how it relates to their on-court performance or interaction with teammates. We need to look for the players who see the big picture, who understand what they are trying to do on the court, and who are students of the game. Leadership qualities are good too, but that doesn’t mean just team captains.

Every chance we get we need to put our prospective future volleyball coaches in a position to work with younger players. Within a team that could be something as simple as having a senior player working with a rookie. More externally focused, it means getting them involved in coaching at the youth club level, or in camps, or at player clinics. This isn’t just a good way to help develop future coaches either. Just about any player can benefit from being a teacher for a while.

As coaches, the future of our sport is in our hands. It is up to us to keep it moving forward – not just by learning and developing in the present, but by preparing those who come after us to do the same. This is especially the case where volleyball is still a lower tier sport and very developmental, but it applies across the board.

Accepting external criticism

In the You might be surprised if you give them a chance post I referenced an email I received from a coach who visited the site. This was a coach who working in a disadvantaged area. That post could potentially be interpreted as picking on that individual, so I sent them an email to make sure they knew I wasn’t specifically singling them out. Rather, the post was the result of a couple of different things coming together. The reply I got was the sort I think we all should have when presented with something potentially critical of our coaching.

Thanks for the warning!!!  I may indeed have responded defensively if you hadn’t!  Maybe not as I have a sense of where you are coming from – but better safe than lose someone!

And I agree with you!  So many of the problems we face are direct result of low expectations of girls from parents, school, and community.  And it is huge.  I need to be ultra vigilant of my own expectations and message!  I hear “Can’t” as “Won’t try” or “Never’.  They need to hear me believe that they are capable of getting better every day.  While I could say that what I really meant was we don’t do some higher leverage things well enough yet – what I said was “Can’t”.  At some level that reflects a letdown in my own values.  I will keep working on it!

This has unlocked a flood of thoughts about clarifying my philosophy, priorities and approach to the program.  You have shown me that I am holding us back by not introducing that philosophy of play from the first time they walk through the door.  Or earlier!

Far from being angry – I am very grateful for you pushing the right button!!

This sort of thing is exactly why I developed the blog and enjoy writing it. Hopefully someone like the coach I kind of picked on in this post has a similar type of reaction! 🙂

The point is, criticism can be extremely valuable to us all – at least the constructive kind. Not only should we be accepting of it, we should even consider actively seeking it out.