Coaching from a solutions perspective

In my personal opinion, among the best sessions of the HP Coaches Clinic I attended was the one featuring Julio Velasco. Although presented on the court, it didn’t feature drills or games or anything like that. It was very much a discussion of coaching focus. Velasco hit on a couple of key ideas. My concentration is the idea of creating volleyball “players”, not simply skilled athletes. The concept of finding solutions was the major theme in this regard.

Now, the idea of problem solving (finding solutions) is one I’ve long been conscious of in my coaching. If we are doing our jobs as coaches we are putting players in positions they are likely to find themselves in games and helping to develop ways to deal with them most effectively. To put it in Velasco’s language, we are helping players find solutions to problems. For example, a hitter is facing a strong double block. What are the solutions available to him to produce the most favorable outcome given the quality of the set, his approach, etc.? I also like to follow a similar line of thinking from a team perspective. For example, we need a solution to break a string of service points scored by the other team.

There are two aspects to this idea of solutions that I really like.

Solution vs. Technical Execution

First, Velasco explicitly separated the solution decision from the technical execution in terms of assessing the outcome of a play. The example he used was a pipe attacker attempting a tip to position 2 when faced with a triple block, but seeing that tip go into the net. There are two things which can be analyzed here. The decision to tip to 2 as a solution to score against the triple block, and the tip itself. In this case, tipping to 2 is a good decision (solution), but the implementation was faulty. We could easily flip the case around and look at a situation where the same pipe hitter was blocked in an attempt to blast a hit by/through the block. In that case we might say the solution chosen was not the best, though the technical execution may have been fine (or that could have been faulty as well).

When thinking in these terms you end up with a matrix of potential situations for any given play. Regardless of whether the result was positive or negative, you could have:

  • Good Solution / Good Execution
  • Good Solution / Bad Execution
  • Bad Solution / Good Execution
  • Bad Solution / Bad Execution

I think we can agree that generally speaking the Good/Good group of plays will rarely lead to negative outcomes while the Bad/Bad group will rarely result in positive ones. The two in the middle are a mixed bag. A player could make the wrong choice of solution, but not suffer for it through sheer quality of execution. Similarly, simply making the right choice in some situations can still lead to a positive outcome even if the execution of the requisite skill comes up short. Obviously, our goal as coaches is to move players toward consistently being in the Good/Good category.

Encourages game-like training

The second thing I like about this solution (or solution/execution) focus is that it inherently biases one toward creating game-like situations in training. This ties in with what I talked about in Going beyond maximizing player contacts with the idea of the RPE (read-plan-execute). Velasco’s solutions are the P part of that progression. The only way for players to learn how to make good decisions – to pick the right solution for the situation they are in – is to put them in situations which force them to do so. That means creating the right type of game scenarios.

Now that doesn’t mean all learning can only come during game play. One of Velasco’s comments during the session was a suggestion that watching is in itself a form of training. When players observe the solutions others use in situations, they learn what might be useful for them. Obviously, they then have to go and try those solutions for themselves, but it’s a good starting point.

Bringing the discussion back around to where I started it, while a skilled athlete is capable of executing at a high level, a good “player” is able to make good decisions – to find the right solution to the challenge of the situation they find themselves in. If we work with a solution mindset along side developing technical skills, and can get our players to approach things in a similar way, we will produce higher caliber volleyball players and teams.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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