Keep your priorities in mind

When I was coaching at Exeter, the men’s team captain once asked if he could run about 20 minutes worth of defensive work in training that night. I let him do it. In part it was because the guys could use the work. I also wanted to see what he was going to do.

Alas, what came about was the sort of thing I tend to see among relatively new coaches. The drill he used was one in which a player in 5 dug a line attack and a cross hit, then switched to 1 to dig a cross ball, then a line attack. Two to three players rotated through the drill as a group, doing 20 total rotations. It’s not a horrible drill for it’s intended purpose, but in this context suffered from issues of intent and timing.

Conflict of focus

I did a bit of after-action discussion with the captain following the training session to give him feedback. First, I talked about cutting back on the number of times players went through the drill. With each player going through 20 times, that’s 80 dig attempts. That’s a lot of time in the drill and a lot of swings by the guys doing the hitting. It’s also a lot of standing around time for those not directly involved (though they were collecting balls, acting as target, and feeding the hitters). I told him I would have probably cut it back to maybe 5-7 times through. If I wanted lots of reps to have guys do the drill a couple of times. His response was that he wanted a conditioning element.

Now, wanting to include a conditioning aspect to drills isn’t a bad thing. In this case, though, the captain also had an expressed intention of working on digging mechanics. Those are two very contradictory points of focus. Changing mechanics is something you’re going to struggle to do when a player is simply just trying to make it through the end of the drill.

Bad timing

My other issue with the drill was that it failed to account for the calendar. That training was sandwiched between two matches, and only 90 minutes in length. We needed to spend the bulk of the time looking at where we wanted to get better from the prior match to try to take a step forward in the next. It was neither the timing nor the length of session to have a conditioning oriented drill. At the same time, the drill went at least twice as long as intended. I was fine with a 20 minute defense drill as it could be an extension of warm-ups. That would leave me with about an hour to work on team stuff. What I ended up with was about 30 minutes to get in game play.

As I said, these are kind of classic new coach mistakes. They decide they want to work on something, or get excited about a new drill they’ve come across, and jump right in without considering priorities and context.

You may be asking why I let it go on so long. The answer is long-term thinking. One training wasn’t really going to change a heck of a lot. On top of that, I probably wasn’t going to make it through the season with the team as I was finishing my major PhD work and preparing to enter the job market. The team leadership needed to be able to run trainings without a coach, as the odds of finding a replacement to finish the season weren’t very good. By letting the captain see how the drill ran, how long it took, and providing feedback I hopefully helped to make things better in the long run.

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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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