Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Staff conversations before the season

Someone on Facebook asked the following two questions in a volleyball coaching group.

Head coaches: things you wish you discussed with your assistants prior to the season starting?

Assistant coaches: things you wish your head coach talked about prior to the season starting?

Obviously, these are after-season questions. They introduce, though, the subject of staff conversations before the season starts. What should we talk about in our coaching meetings?

Yes, you should have at least one meeting before you get started!

I think broadly speaking there are a few key conversation topics. How far do you think the team can reasonably go this season? Given that, what are our initial priorities to get us there? What is the staff’s division of responsibilities?

The main focus here is to get everyone on the same page. For sure as things develop through the season priorities will shift. At least at the initial stage everyone, though, the staff will all know the plan. After that, you can turn to details.

And these kinds of discussions should not just happen between the coaches. At a minimum, the head coach needs to also talk to their boss – athletic director, club president, etc. You probably also want to bring team leaders in on the conversations as well. Perhaps the whole team.

Too many setters! What do I do?

A high school coach emailed me with a roster issue.

My question is how to handle a situation where I have three setters who all played on varsity last year returning. To start the season last year we had planned on using our number one setter (upcoming junior) to run a 5-1, she got injured and missed all but the final two matches. Our number 2 and 3 setters (upcoming sophomore and freshman) had to be moved up to varsity and play the entire season there.

This season our number 1 is healthy and is currently much stronger than the other two. We plan on running a 5-1 at this point. My question is what to do or how to handle the other two possibly moving down to play on JV this year as they would likely (if there is no injury) never see playing time in any meaningful matches. Neither are truly varsity level players yet and cannot play another position. Any suggestions on how to make this as easy as possible?

To my mind, this coach answered their own question at the end. They said neither of the two setters is really varsity level. That means they should play junior varsity. Pretty simple from a roster decision, really.

The difficult part of this situation is how to handle it with the two players in question. They were varsity starters last year. No doubt being JV this year will be a blow to their egos. Generally speaking, I feel being honest and straightforward is best. Right now they are well behind the #1 setter. The team runs a 5-1, so they probably won’t play much, if at all. Putting them on the JV team will let them play regularly. This will be better for their development. You have to make them think longer-term to get past the immediate disappointment.

That said, there is the question of having a second (and maybe third) varsity setter for practice. If you need someone to fill that role, then one or both of these setters will have to train with the varsity.

Beyond having enough players in the position to run drills and scrimmage, there are a couple other considerations. Should the #1 setter get hurt again, you’ll need a back-up. Preferably, that is someone who is already familiar to the team. At the same time, though, the setters need to practice with the JV team. They will, after all, play with them in matches. You can’t just throw them in to run the offense without practicing with the team.

Do you train those two setters with varsity and with JV? Do you rotate the two setters such that one of them practices with varsity and one with JV?

These are questions in need of answers before you address the players.

Are we trying to solve the wrong problems?

A member of the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook group posted something I think is worth a broad share. Here’s the snippet that really hits on the main point.

“…how far back do we coaches look for the fundamental and underlying errors in our coaching philosophies that make it difficult to find effective solutions? Are we, in fact, trying to solve the wrong problems.”

The volleyball angle

There are a couple of different angles on this. One of them relates to how we work with our teams and players. Are we trying to fix the last contact? Or are we trying to look at why there was a problem with the last contact?

For example, our libero in Position 5 shanks a ball attacked in their direction. Are we trying to fix what we perceive as the reason the libero shanked the ball (usually something mechanical)? Or are we looking to our block and realizing that it was badly placed or formed? Maybe we’re going back even further to see that our blocker’s footwork and/or initial positioning weren’t right.

You see where I’m going with this?

I’ve often told the story of my own development as a newer coach. I can remember an almost physical sensation of feeling my awareness of the court and the play expand. Like so many, I’d been fixated on each individual element. I wasn’t seeing the whole. As a result, I didn’t see root causality for the errors made on the last contact. At some point, though, my vision expanded.

I’m not saying that all at once I went from just seeing individual contacts to seeing the whole volleyball ballet. It was a progressive thing as I gained better understanding of how elements linked together. Watching a lot of volleyball with a critical eye helped a great deal too. I believe that was all part of my shift away from being very technically oriented as a coach to putting more emphasis on the mentality and structure of play.

The coaching angle

Let’s return to the piece that started this whole discussion. The bigger picture of our coaching is the other angle to consider. That’s the more direct focus of the quote above.

We see something “wrong” with our team or our coaching. Naturally, we want to fix it. As with the issue of only seeing the final outcome, though, are we only seeing the end result rather than the whole chain of causality getting there?

To once more quote the post, “If we were able to move back in the chain of events that have lead us to this point in our coaching and fix that one errant assumption, would coaching suddenly become much easier and more effective?”

So are you doing that? Do you try to work backwards from where you are at with a series of “Why?” or “How?” questions to figure out how you reached your current point? If not, it’s definitely something worth considering.

Improving team communication through acknowledgement

One of my early influences when I became serious about coaching volleyball was Mike Hebert. I read his books, The Fire Still Burns and Insights when I was coaching for Dean College. I coached against him once when I was at Brown and he was at Minnesota. His most recent book, Thinking Volleyball, is one I strongly recommend.

Mike authored a post for the Art of Coaching Blog. It’s focus is on the subject of acknowledgement. Basically, the rule was an individual must always indicate they heard something said to them. That applied to both something said by a coach and things said by other players. Mike developed a rule about this for his teams based on an experience with a player who didn’t show she’d heard what he was saying to her.

I think we’ve all been there. It’s really frustrating, isn’t it?

Of course, it’s not just a question of showing you heard something said to you. There’s more nuance. Mike had a set of acknowledgement rules to encourage constructive communication. Here they are in an edited fashion.

  1. When spoken to by a coach or teammate, acknowledge to the speaker that you heard and understood them – without emotion.
  2. You can make your acknowledgement verbally or by gesture, but it must convey that you heard.
  3. Keep in mind, acknowledgement does not necessarily mean agreement.
  4. Develop an acknowledgement style that invites further communication.
  5. Respond every time a coach gives you feedback or instruction.
  6. When a teammate communicates something in the heat of battle that offends you momentarily, acknowledge in a non-inflammatory manner.

As you can see, Mike went beyond simply showing that you heard. He also addressed how you indicate. You do not get emotional, and possibly inflame a situation. You try to demonstrate a willingness to communicate.

Importantly, as Mike says, acknowledgement does not have to mean agreement. You can acknowledge and still disagree. In doing so, you demonstrate respect for the other person and do not appear to be dismissive. This can foster more positive communication and lead to better team cohesion.

It’s more about the feedback than the drill

Someone on Twitter tagged me in a tweet in which they shared a link to a handful of setting drills. It said, “some new volleyball setting drills that improve your team setting technique.” I took a look and wasn’t impressed. For the most part, it was just variations on setting back and forth. One of them actually recommended setting a served ball.

None of the drills was game-like at all. In my reply I suggest setting always be done off a pass. How often in live play do setters set a ball straight back the way it came to them? Very rarely. So why practice it so much? Let them practice movement and body position based on something more realistic. Even setting off a coach’s toss is more realistic than just setting back and forth.

But that’s not the biggest thing I thought skimming the article.

The thing that really stood out to me, though, was the idea that you need new drills (or games) to do a better job teaching player to set. You probably don’t need a new drill. Instead, you need to provide good feedback, regardless of the activity. This is a key factor in intentional practice. Any activity in which you can focus on a given skill will work to train that skill.

What makes a drill or game useful for skill development is the quality of the feedback the player gets.

  • Are you talking to them?
  • Can they watch themselves on video?
  • Did you structure the activity so the outcome provides direct feedback?

These are all key considerations.

So if you want to help a setter improve their skills, do two things. First, put them in as game-like a situation as you possibly can. Second, make sure they have very good feedback.

This, of course, goes for any position or skill.

Coaching Log – June 12, 2017

This is the first entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season. The log is something I started doing back in 2013. It was part of the requirements for my Volleyball England Level 3 certification, and I’ve kept it up ever since. I like how keeping the log allows me to put into words the stuff I’m thinking about over the course of the year. Hopefully, it’s also something useful for readers. Maybe you can gain some insights into coaching at the NCAA Division II level – or just college coaching in general.

New-look court

First thing I should say is the floor of our gym has been redone.

While it certainly looks sharp, and the new central logo is and improvement over the last, I can’t help be disappointed at how basketball clearly dominates volleyball. Same old story, eh?

The assistant women’s basketball coach actually asked me at one point what it would take to make our secondary gym the main one for volleyball. It’s an interesting idea, but not realistic, unfortunately. It lacks the proper dimensions for us to run two full courts for practice – or competition. Just not enough service area when we go with two. Ceiling is too low as well.

Anyway, on with the real stuff.

The team

Just last week we finalized our 2017 roster. After Spring semester grades came out we had to let one player go, one of our liberos from last season. She just wasn’t keeping to the academic standards required. Another player was unsure if she was going to continue because of concerns about the time commitment. Last week she confirmed she’s going to stick it out.

We also had a big addition. I mean that literally and figuratively.

We spent a lot of time during the Spring trying to find an experienced right side player. We have a freshman lefty coming in, but she’s returning from an ACL injury suffered last Summer. As a result, we can’t know for sure what she’s going to bring to the table. One of last year’s starting OHs can play on the right. Our other starting OH is a big question mark because of injury issues, though, and behind them will be a sophomore and a couple incoming freshmen. So we wanted to add another attacking option. Ideally, that would be a MB/OPP type player as we only have three middles on the books. We did look at some OHs as well, however.

What we ended up with is a 6’4″ lefty OPP who played MB in high school. She’s an interesting story. She’s a local who was recruited to a Division I school in Florida. Things didn’t work out for her, though. She was a medical red shirt as a freshman, then barely played as a sophomore. That was the 2015 season. She left school after that year and came back to town. She decided in the Spring to attend MSU, and we found out through the volleyball grapevine. You don’t get 6’4″ lefties walking through the door everyday, so we jumped at the chance to bring her into the team.

It wasn’t easy, though. She had some serious doubts. Seems like her prior college experience left her feeling less than enthusiastic about combining athletics and academics. We really had to demonstrate how much we are committed to our players doing well in their classes and how we’d support her in doing so. Apparently, we did a good job of it!

Of course, she hasn’t played any meaningful volleyball in a while. On top of that, she can’t start training with us a week in because of a previously scheduled family trip. That means she may take a while to get where she’s fully contributing. Still, you can’t teach size. Just having her block to go against in practice can’t help but make our hitters better.

So the final roster count for the new season is 17, up a couple from last year. We’ll have 9 returning players, 3 transfers, and 5 freshmen.

Recruiting

We haven’t done any additional recruiting trips. Right now we have some offers out to 2018 prospects. We’ll see how that falls out in the weeks to come.

Buenos Aires planning

It’s been a very active few weeks setting things up for the trip to Argentina. Lots of details to sort out, like passports and immunizations. I’ve been in regular contact with the guy in B.A. making the arrangements. Most of it is settled, but we have to wait a bit longer to finalize our competition schedule. We can’t do that until the Argentine club’s get their league schedules, which is probably in July. Right now we’re looking at playing maybe three of them. We could also play some U19 national team competition as well.

Of course I’ll provide the full rundown once everything is settled.

Fundraising and other support

The fundraising effort for the trip is ongoing. Last week we confirmed a speaking event for July 29th. The speaker is going to be 5-time Olympian Danielle Scott. Now we must sort out all the logistics and generate the revenue. In the latter case, that means selling tables and trying to get donations and/or sponsors to underwrite the cost. We hope to net $15-$20k.

We also have permission to run a raffle. The planned prize will be a sizeable travel voucher. The original thought was to raffle off places on our trip, but the time frame is too short. Instead, it will just be a general gift certificate for use whenever. We will probably do the drawing our first home weekend, so there’s time to sell tickets once school starts. That means at least some of the money comes in after the trip, but that’s fine. A lot of the payments will be by credit card anyway.

Then there’s the direct donations. We’ve received several thousand that way, most of which has been matched through our Development office. We also raised a bit through our May clinic series.

The head coach and I met with our VP of student affairs, who’s looking into ways we can get some on-campus support. We can’t plan on a great deal given the news of recent budget cuts, but every bit helps. We also talked about the team and the trip at a local Rotary Club meeting last week.

Other fun stuff

College coaching isn’t all glamorous stuff like planning trips and raising money. We also get to do things like clean out closets and organize our office. It’s amazing how much junk can accumulate over time. There was a department inventory last week. In preparing for it we found out we have four old cameras, only one of which is actually part of the inventory!

She made me want to yell, “Nooooooooooo!!”

In the Winter 2016-17 edition of VolleyballUSA magazine – the official magazine published by USA Volleyball – there is an article that made me want to pull my hair out. They have a Junior Journal column featuring content from a youth player. In this particular instance, that player has been part of the USA U18 national team. Her article is titled “7 mistakes I’ll never make again”.

The very first “mistake” made me want to scream. It was not stretching enough before playing. Here’s the full text of it.

“Every time I tried to play without properly stretching, I ended up with an injury of some sort. Stretching and warming up before playing is even more important when you’re sore from previous workouts. Just a few extra minutes can prevent you from months of injury rehab.”

Repeat with me everyone – there is no evidence linking static stretching before training or competition with injury prevention. In fact, as I wrote long ago, there is evidence suggesting that it can actually impair performance.

You would think by now our players would be educated about this sort of thing. Clearly not, however. We coaches need to do a better job of that.

What really bothers me about this is this is a kid in the USA Volleyball system. When I attended the High Performance Coaches Clinic and CAP III courses there were medial and training staff there telling us how useless stretching is for either injury prevention or avoiding soreness. Shouldn’t this stuff make its way to the athletes?

Clearly, I’m not against warming up. It’s just that static stretching need play no part.

Coaching for aggressiveness, reduced errors, and other stuff

There’s an interesting article at Volleyball Toolbox from long-time high school coach Tom Houser. Nominally, it is the response to a question about helping create more aggressive teams that make fewer errors. It covers a few different ideas, though. I think they are worth reviewing.

There’s no replacement for experience.

Just about the first thing Tom talks about in the article is how he struggled early in his career to help players. He compared his knowledge of what his players needed to “Swiss cheese” because there were so many holes in it. The first reason for this is his lack of experience, and it’s a very legitimate point.

I mentioned in my coaching stages post how early-career coaches often think they know a lot, but really don’t. Sure, they might know a whole bunch about playing volleyball, but coaching is a different skill set. And tied in with that is the amount of volleyball you watch, particularly from a coaching perspective.

Learn from others, but understand context

Another thing Tom talks about is his learning process as a developing coach. He says he was never an assistant coach, thus didn’t have a mentorship experience from that perspective. Obviously, that’s a disadvantage.

As with many of us, Tom turned to books and videos to increase his knowledge and grow is toolkit. He notes, though, that much of what he saw was presented by national team and NCAA Division I coaches. He struggled to relate those drills and such to his high school players’ level. Tom called them “nearly useless”. I respect that he was thinking of the context differences. I think, though, that was probably a bit harsh. Most drills and games are adaptable to different levels. Not all, but most. But then doing so usually requires some experience, so see above.

Much coaching communication you hear is useless

Tom talks in his article about coaches saying things like “get low,” or “snap,” or “move your feet,” or “call the ball”. We hear phrases like that all the time. We’ve probably said them ourselves.

The point is in most cases those things don’t actually address the root cause of the problem, so they don’t actually address anything useful. Just like when parents yell them from the sidelines. 🙂

Coaching for aggressiveness

Moving on to addressing the question that inspired the post, Tom provides a relatively simple way to coach it. “All you have to do is ask your players to perform the drill WITHOUT punishment/consequences/eye-rolls for making a mistake performing the skill.”

This definitely matches my own philosophy. Aggressiveness will result in errors at times. You cannot encourage the one without accepting the fact of the other.

Also, Tom said he basically sets up games that require certain types of aggressiveness to win. Pretty simple, really.

Reducing errors

Having said that about the errors, Tom also shares his thoughts on keeping them to a minimum. One is the understand their source. Are they bad decisions, or are they bad execution. See what I wrote related to this breakdown in Coaching from a solutions perspective.

For the first type of error, it’s our job as coaches to teach better decision-making. In terms of the second type, Tom credits his teams making fewer mistakes on encouraging players toward simple, efficient mechanics.

Those are the major points. Definitely give the article a read and see what you takeaway for yourself.

A gap in player feedback

Feedback is an important part of training. This applies to anything. If we don’t get feedback we struggle to know what we’re doing right or wrong.

A major part of the job of a coach is to provide players with feedback. You might even go so far as to say it’s the most important part of a coach’s on-court job. That doesn’t always mean the coach provides feedback directly, though. It can be as simple as giving players a chance to watch their own performance on video. And of course the outcome of every action is a form of feedback in and of itself.

There’s a gap in volleyball player feedback, though.

How often do players get feedback on whether they are correctly judging whether a ball is in or out? Really, it only happens when the player lets a ball go and sees where it lands.

What about balls they actually play, however? How often do players actually get feedback on whether those balls would have been in or out if they weren’t played? Not very often is my suspicion. And how often do players just call the ball without actually playing it as a specific court awareness exercise? I’d say almost never.

And yet I seem to regularly see players play balls that looked to me headed out of bounds (generally long). For sure, some of this is a function of excessive enthusiasm. For the rest it’s a failure of court awareness, which it seems to me could be corrected with more feedback and/or training.

What do you think? Have I hit on something or am I just crazy? 🙂