The importance of knowing what you’re up against

In the can’t boil the ocean post I mentioned that I’d seen that concept in the book Wooden on Leadership. It was actually part of a section which focuses on the “how” of winning. The context is mainly business, but the ideas translate easily to sports. From that perspective, the “boiling” bit spoke to the fact that you need to have focus.

There’s more to it, though. Specifically, there are three questions asked with respect to winning.

What’s the difference that will open up the gap between us and our opponents?

How are we going to be better than other teams? That’s basically the question here. In some cases it’s as simple has having bigger, more powerful athletes. A lot of times, though, we operate on a relatively equal playing field in this regard. That being the case, if our players are physically similar to everyone else, what can give us the edge to succeed consistently?

What capabilities must we have in place?

Once we know where we can get an edge, it becomes a question of getting there. How do we do that and what do we need to do so? Are those things we all ready have in place, or do we need to go out and get them? If the latter, how do we get that done?

What management systems are required?

Progress tracking is critical. What metrics can we use to gauge that performance? This may seem like a straightforward question, but it isn’t. There are plenty of statistics out there. The problem is they don’t necessarily measure what needs measuring or capture what we want to capture. The trick is finding the ones that do the best job. Then the question becomes one of capturing the data and properly analyzing it. For example, the concept of the “competitive cauldron” is popular in some circles. As Mike Hebert wrote in Thinking Volleyball, though, there are significant trade-offs involved.

What about just catching up

I should note that everything above applies equally from the perspective of catching up. You just frame the questions a little differently. The focus becomes one of narrowing the gap. First, you have to know where the gap lies, then you have to figure out how to close it, what you need to do that, and how you can track your progress toward that end. These were the focal points for us during my two years at Midwestern State. We were in a rebuild situation, so it was about getting ourselves back on competitive ground with the other teams in our conference.

Knowing what you’re up against

The thing that underpins everything I’ve just laid out is knowledge. If you don’t know the competitive landscape how can you know what it will take to win there? This is the problem that faces new coaches and those moving into new positions. I can speak to this from my own experience.

Why I started coaching at Exeter I had no idea what I was involved in. I’d never coached in England. I had no idea what the competitive level of BUCS (their NCAA) play was like. As a result, all I could really do was take a “get better” approach to my coaching.

After that first year’s experience, though, I was in a much better situation. I’d been through a league season. I’d seen teams from other leagues in the Student Cup. I got to watch the play at Final 8s. All of that gave me a much better sense of where we needed to be to compete with all but the very top teams (we couldn’t match them on a personnel basis). That let me prioritize things better my second year. The result? The women reached the national semifinals, which they’d never done before.

The point is to really know what it will take for your team to win – especially when on a fairly level playing field in terms of the physical element – you need to know the competitive landscape. Only then can you start to answer the questions presented above.

So if you don’t have experience in the situation you’re coaching, get out there and do some research!

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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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