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 to always work on setting 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.

What is wanted when hiring a head coach

Volleyball Coach

A while back Terry Pettit (who I interviewed for Volleyball Coaching Wizards), wrote an article outlining what he looks for in a head coach candidate, which is also included in his second book, A Fresh Season. Terry mostly works with colleges and universities, so that is the focus perspective. I think the points he makes are pretty universal, though.

Top of the list, head coach experience

The very first thing Terry mentions on his list of what he looks for is prior experience as a head coach. His point is that until you are head coach you don’t really have final decision-making responsibility. That is a very different sort of thing that being an assistant coach. It is really the difference between being the leader and a follower.

Fellow Wizards interviewee Mick Haley has a very similar point of view. When I asked him in his interview what his career advice would be for developing coaches he specifically recommended getting some kind of head coach experience. He called the experience of having the decision-making responsibility key to a coach’s development.

By the way, what Mick said applies even to those aiming for assistant coaching positions. You will be a much more effectively assistant if you know what it’s like to be head coach. You are better able to anticipate the head coach’s needs.

Make sure it’s a good fit

The second big thing Terry talks about is the need for there to be a good fit for both sides. This is crucial. If the fit isn’t there, things simply aren’t going to work out well. I can tell you that from personal experience. It was pretty clear to me relatively early on in my time coaching at Svedala that it wasn’t a great long-term fit. Predictably, things didn’t work out there.

Of course, judging fit is not always the easiest thing in the world. You for sure should do your research about the school or club. That will at least give you a basic sense for whether the broad structure is a fit. That means the type of institution and its philosophy, the location, the academic standards, and the other things you can judge at least to a degree from outside.

The trickier part is trying to gauge the more internal aspects of fit. What are the ambitions of the organization. What is the management style of the Athletic Director? How is the administrative and financial support? Is it a collegial staff? These, and other fit type questions are only likely to come to light during the interview process. You’ll probably have to ask some questions of your own to get the best sense for it.

Good character

Terry’s third factor is the coach’s character. To quote, “I will not forward a candidate who has a history of bending rules, physically or mentally abusing athletes, or not interacting with peers in a professional manner.” I don’t think I need to add much to that, really.

A collaborative leader

Fourth on the list is that a head coach should work well with others. Terry focuses on assistant coaches, but I would add in anyone else associated with the program. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to running a team. Just as they would with a starting lineup, a good coach looks to use their staff in a way that highlights their strengths.

Curiosity above all else

While Terry puts curiosity last on his list, he calls it the most important trait he looks for in head coaching candidates. I might have used the word “reflective” instead, based on what he seems to be getting at here. It’s all about evaluating things, positively and negatively, and using your assessments to further yourself and your program. He describes someone who is basically always looking for ways to learn.

Additional thoughts

Terry has outlined the broad framework for what he considers a good head coaching position candidate. I generally agree with it. These are the higher level things you’ll want to get right. Of course, there are also finer details that become more or less relevant based on the position(s) you’re pursuing. Some of this relates to fit, as note above.

Some of it, though, is just technical and managerial skills you can develop. For example, most university head coach jobs require a master’s degree. High school jobs very often require first aid certification. Some jobs involve a fair bit of fund raising. Many positions require you to regularly interact with the media. You’ll want to do research into the requirements of the sorts of job you’re after to find out exactly what you need on your resume to make yourself a legitimate candidate.

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 professional volleyball league model

In Canada, a new professional league is launching.

The One Volleyball Premier League begins play this week. The league features both men’s and women’s divisions, each with four teams. There will be six rounds of league matches played through June and July, and the championships are on July 22nd. All the matches take place at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Obviously, this is not a big production. It’s basically a city league of very short duration. I’m sure it won’t feature any of the top Canadian players because they will be on national team duty (or for some, playing beach). That means the league comprises a second tier caliber of player. They all had to register with the league and go through a draft.

The reason I bring this little enterprise up is because of the model it represents. I wrote previously on the subject of launching a professional league in the US as something USA Volleyball is exploring. A regional model is one option.

This new Canadian venture takes the regional model concept a little further by bringing it down to the city level. It is something that is an interesting thing to think about, especially if the players are likely to be semi-pro rather than fully professional (at least to start). Larger metropolitan areas are more likely to provide employment opportunities.

I’m not saying a pro league in the US should go this route. I do think, though, that it provides some things worth thinking about. This is especially true if the plan is not to try to go big and national right away.

The stages of a coaching career

A member of a coaching group in Facebook posted what he referred to as The 5 Stages of Your Coaching Career. Here they are with my own thoughts mixed with his in the description of each level.

1. Survival: Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

This is the time when you think you just need to know volleyball to be a volleyball coach. You especially haven’t realized yet all the other non-volleyball stuff that goes into coaching. Oftentimes these are players who have just made the shift into coaching.

2. Striving for Success: You Want Folks to Recognize You Can Coach

You’re starting to get an understanding of what coaching is really all about. You know much better what you don’t know, and that provides a certain type of motivation. On the one hand, you work hard to learn. On the other hand, it leads you to want to prove your worth. This leads some down the path of becoming extremely competitive. You crave the accolades that come from lots of W’s – all-league awards for your team, and maybe a coach of the year for you.

3. Satisfaction: You Relax, Set Another Goal, & Want To Get Better

That this stage you’ve achieved some of your goals, become established, and you have the confidence which comes with that. You can relax in the knowing you’re a good coach and you have the respect of your peers. You attend conferences to network and visit with old friends as much as you do to learn some new things. Each year you set new goals to accomplish that will push you and your team forward. You’re focused.

4. Significance: Changing Lives For The Good

At this point you’ve had a meaningful career with plenty of accomplishments. Personal glory isn’t much of a consideration any longer. Instead, you’re more focused on your legacy and the impact you have on those around you. You are very knowledgeable, and have reached the point where people solicit your opinion and ask for your help and wisdom.

5. Spent: No Juice Left, Can’t Do It Any More

The grind of it all is taking its toll, and you have a hard time motivating yourself each day. You want more time with family, and less time working generally. Not even the great incoming class excites you for the upcoming season. Probably time to hang it up.

Obviously, we all have our own particular career paths based on our own personalities, lives, and experiences. Some of us are inherently more competitive than others. Coaching may be an extension of that, especially if you’re a former player. Others of us come into coaching from more of an educational perspective. Those differences can play out in our own particular career phases.

I think, though, we generally all follow the arch described above. We are ignorant to start, learn what we don’t know, reach a level of mastery, look to give back, and then eventually wind things down.

What do you think? Does this progression make sense to you?

A gap in player feedback

Feedback is an important part of training. This applies to everything. 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. Mark Lebedew talked about this from his own perspective as a coach.

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