Making Mentorship Part of the Process

A few weeks ago I attended a coaching conference run by Volleyball England. It wasn’t an educational event so much as an opportunity to hear about where they were looking to take things and to share thoughts and ideas toward that end (though there was a session at the end on passing technique and coaching). For me the objective was to get a big picture view of what’s happening in the English volleyball community where coaching – and youth development, as it turns out – was concerned.

The overarching objective the V.E. folks told us they have is to create a world class volleyball coaching systems (their words, not mine), and we were given handouts diagramming how coaches could progress through the various levels of certification. We talked about all that, looked at examples from other sports like cricket and rugby, and broke up into little groups to generate discussion points for future consideration.

For me there is one glaring issue in the structure of volleyball coach developing in England. Namely the lack of mentorship. An educational structure is valuable, but there is nothing like learning at the side of an experienced individual. Outside of small pockets, that doesn’t seem to exist, and certainly I haven’t seen much evidence of it in the South West.

Learning from those who’ve been there and done that
My own volleyball coaching career started off as an assistant to the head coach of the girls’ team in my high school. Basically, I just helped out running a few drills in varsity team practices, though that later extended to helping out the team’s assistant coach with junior varsity training. After graduation I helped with the boys’ team as well.

Later, after a lengthy break during which I focused on playing and then my professional career, I became a part-time assistant coach at a 2-year Junior College, which was my first collegiate position. From there I moved on to assist on a full-time basis for a pair of Division I universities. I learned a massive amount from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I went through USA Volleyball‘s equivalent to VE’s coaching certification program, and I attended conferences and seminars, read books on coaching, and watched videos done by some of the more prominent collegiate coaches. I was a sponge.

That’s not the same as seeing all those things (drills, systems, etc.) put into action by an experienced head coach, though. Even more so when you are involved in doing it yourself as an assistant coach. There’s a lot of nuance to running a team, especially when you add in an organizational structure on top of it.

And importantly, getting to work under multiple head coaches lets you see things from different perspectives. We all coach a bit differently and we all have different coaching situations. A female coach is likely to have a different approach to certain things than a male coach. Coaching for a major university is not the same as coaching for a small local school, which in turn is not the same as coaching a Juniors team.

Learning by coaching
Please be aware, though, that this is not me saying one must just be an assistant or apprentice coach. During my years coaching collegiately I was often also the head coach for a Juniors team. That allowed me to put what I was learning into practice and to start developing my own coaching style. At the same time I could bring that experience and perspective back to my work as an assistant.

And of course my own experience is not the only way one can develop as a coach. There are many examples of P.E. teachers who took on a high school team and became very good coaches with long careers teaching and coaching. Some of them eventually progress into the collegiate ranks and work their way up by demonstrating success.

There are also former players who moved into the coaching ranks at a lower level after their playing careers were over and started working up from there. I actually worked under two coaches who started their careers running high school teams, one of whom had previously been an All-Conference player in her own right.

There is no doubt, though, that it helps to head coach at a given level if you’ve spent some time assisting at that level. And having someone there along the way to help you navigate your way in developing your coaching knowledge and talent can only accelerate one’s development.

Putting it into practice here
All of what I said above is a major motivation for developing this website and its related volleyball coaching group. I want to see a structure develop whereby coaches can learn from each other. Most especially I want to see a system unfold where mentoring of new coaches by experienced ones can take place. It may be some time before we’re there on a formal type of basis, but at least we can start moving in that direction.

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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