Sometimes old ideas are the best ideas

A lot of good ideas have been around in the world for a long time, getting recycled periodically. They pop up in different forms. New perspectives are applied based on whatever the current generation needs. The packaging may change, but the underlying idea remains.

I wrote about one of these ideas a while ago. It’s the concept of becoming progressively unnecessary as a coach. I don’t take credit for that. It came from John Kessel. He himself picked it up at a USA Hockey seminar. There it was presented as coming from teaching.

Let’s really wind things back, though.

Here’s a quote attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu lived during about the 5th century BC. That means this concept is around 2500 years old. I don’t think it’s very likely Lao Tzu thought of it all by himself, though. Leadership in human endeavors goes back much further than that. No doubt someone else before him in ancient history thought the same.

Consider this when you come across a shiny new idea in coaching. Training ugly, the game teaches the game, mindset, and all of these related things are tossed around in our discussions.I’m not knocking any of them. Instead I’m saying they’ve been around for a long time. They maybe had different terms associated with them, but the concepts are nothing new.

My point in all this is that we don’t need to look for some new concept to become better coaches. Most of the best ones have been around for a while. We should definitely keep up with the research, but we should also not brush aside “old” ideas. There’s a good chance tomorrow’s new latest thing will be a repacking of a well-worn idea of the past.

Just look at the movie business! 🙂

The influence of culturally diverse players

The world has unfortunately experienced a number of traumatic recent experiences as I write this. Last week there was another major incident in France, and a coup attempt in Turkey. Not long before that was the attack on police officers in Dallas. Of a less violent nature – though perhaps no less traumatic for some – was the UK vote to leave the European Union.

Those are just a few in a long string of news items in the world over the last year.

Most volleyball coaches work almost exclusively with players from their own region. Yes, if you coach at a professional club, or at a major college or university, you get players from a wider area. The vast majority of youth teams, though, comprise of kids from the same general area as the coach. Even at the higher levels, all the players may be from the same country, so are culturally effected largely by the same things.

Gaining a broader perspective

Thanks to my experiences in England and Sweden, and my time with professional teams in Germany, I’ve had the fortune to work with volleyball people from many different countries and cultures. In England alone I coached players from about 25 different nations.

Perhaps thanks to my background in the financial markets, I probably have a broader interest and observation of world events than most. Granted, it’s not what it used to be. Still, I am more likely to watch Sky News than CNN.

A greater sense of empathy

Even with that broader global awareness, though, events in distant countries didn’t used to have much of a personal feeling about them. That’s no longer the case.

  • For most of three years I lived in the UK and coached UK players.
  • I coached French players
  • I coached Turkish players
  • In Sweden there have been a number of issue with migrants. Even before I lived there to coach Svedala, I coached two Swedish players. We have also interviewed two Swedish coaches for Volleyball Coaching Wizards.
  • I have not coached any Belgians, but two of the coaches we interviewed for the Wizards project are from Belgium.
  • Now I coach about 2 hours from Dallas.
  • Back in 2001 I was at Brown during 9/11. One of our players then was from Long Island, and had a parent who worked in NYC.

Of course not everything is a negative. Their were plenty of positive things along the way. Talking with players after I visited their homeland is one example which stands out in my mind.

Either way, links like that can’t help but increase cultural awareness. I have talked before about my feeling that working with players from so many different volleyball backgrounds – and with many for whom English is not their first language – has had a very positive influence of my ability to communicate. I think the cultural exposure is a positive as well. That’s both as a coach and as a human being. Even if it brings considerable sadness at times

Level does not determine coaching value!

I’m sorry, but I need to let loose about an attitude I see too often.

One day someone commented on a poll we ran for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. The poll was to help decide on a book cover design. This person’s snide remark suggested high school coaches couldn’t possibly be considered among the world’s great coaches.

Does the comment reflect a disdain for high school volleyball? Does it make the point that high school volleyball isn’t played many places out side the U.S.? It really doesn’t matter either way. The bottom line is it belittles the value of a certain category of coaches.

I hate that!

I’m not a high school coach. I helped out for a couple seasons at my own high school way back in the day. That’s the extent of my experience in that realm, though.

In other words, I don’t have a personal bias in this.

Higher level does not equal better coaching

I think the attitude in this comment is incredibly narrow-minded. It reminds me of the arrogance I see sometimes among coaches at what is perceived to be a high level. And among those who aspire to get there.

It’s not just professional vs. Juniors, or college vs. high school either. I also see it at the youth club level. Some think coaching the “better” players at the 18s level is significant and important, while coaching the 12s or 14s is not.

Guess what folks. We desperately need good coaches at ALL levels of the sport – not just at the top.

If you aspire to move up the coaching ladder to higher competitive levels, go for it. There is no problem with that. It does not for one minute, however, make you a better coach than someone who through either choice or circumstance stays at a lower level.

You will have a hard time convincing me someone who spent 30 years teaching in both the high school classroom and on the volleyball court is somehow inferior to someone who coached college or professional volleyball just on the basis of level.

In fact, many modern college and professional coaches probably suffer from not teaching in the classroom along the way.

Not just arrogance, but also hero worship

It isn’t enough to criticize those with the arrogance to judge themselves superior because they coach at a higher level, though. They aren’t the only problem. There are plenty of coaches out there who equate someone’s coaching level to how much attention and respect they deserve.

I would much rather talk coaching with a 17-time state high school champion than some second year college coach who got the job because they played at some big program and spent a couple of years punching their ticket as an assistant.

Which one do you think can tell me more about team building and program development and which one probably doesn’t even know what he/she doesn’t know yet?

Experience combined with success must be acknowledged, no matter the level. It is well earned – probably the hard way – and it should be respected.

End of rant, at least for now.

Playing the court position game

In football (American) you often see teams play the field position game.

Basically, that means they attempt to put the opposition in a situation where they are close to their own goal line. Teams do this by punting when near the middle of the field because they don’t like the odds of going for it on fourth down. The hope is that this eventually results in a scoring opportunity because of a turnover or getting possession back with a short field.

There are similar strategies in rugby.

There is a parallel to this approach in volleyball. Admittedly, you probably see it more in the women’s game than in the men’s.

I’m talking about intentionally taking the other team out of system. You do this when you don’t have a good opportunity to get a kill yourself. Basically, it increases the odds you get another attack opportunity or that your opponent errs.

How is this done?

It is most easily accomplished by tipping or attacking at the setter. That is the most direct way to get a team out of system.

You can also try to get the opposing defenders on the floor. A tip to an undefended area will often do this. If you can force a front row attacker to play the ball, you decrease their chances of attacking aggressively in transition.

Alternatively, you can attack a part of the court that is hard to defend. A ball to one of the deep corners usually forces a defender to have to chase the ball. That often results in less than perfect digs.

As in the football example, the idea is to keep putting the opponent in a bad position so you increase the odds of winning the rally. It relates to the idea of playing conservatively to win. This is one of the things we need to train our players to be able to recognize and execute.

They won’t watch if it’s not enjoyable

A little while back, Mark Lebedew authored the post Selling Volleyball in which he basically took the volleyball community to task for the sport not being in a better situation with regards to its popularity worldwide.

To quote:

It is a widely agreed upon truism among volleyball people that volleyball deserves more respect and deserves wider media coverage. I am not one of those volleyball people.  I think volleyball has the respect and coverage it deserves. 

Mark’s main point is that volleyball suffers from pretty shoddy coverage because we in the community allow it to happen. Specifically, the governing bodies who provide the broadcast feeds don’t seem to give much attention to the quality of the product they are putting out there.

Oh, sure. The FIVB has done all sorts of things over the years to try to make the game more spectator and/or TV friendly. And they continue to look at more things they can do, as per my recent post on the subject.

The on-court product, however, is only one aspect of things.

Poor TV production

The elements around the actual play are also very important. Mark has taken some of the commentators to task for being poorly prepared and/or educated (#volleyballdrinkinggame), and producers for failing to show highlights of excellent plays. The fact that we see this sort of thing speaks to a failure on the part of FIVB, CEV, etc. in allowing that sort of thing to be the case.

I will add a complaint of my own. Let us hear the noise of the crowd!

A volleyball match broadcast where by far the loudest thing we hear is the voice of the commentator is DULL! Granted, for some matches there isn’t much of a crowd. When there is, though, the volume of the in-arena sound should at least match that of the commentator.

Let us experience at least some of the energy the spectators are putting out.

Poor in-arena atmosphere

I mentioned above the fact that some matches are poorly attended. This is going to happen in tournaments when the host country, or at least one of the bigger favorites – isn’t playing. Hard to do much about that.

I’ve watched matches where there have been good-sized crowds with hardly any energy, though. That’s really uninspiring.

I remember a couple years ago switching between watching matches from the Montreux Masters tournament on the women’s side and FIVB World League (I believe) on the men’s side. The energy coming through the screen for the Montreux matches was excellent, and I don’t think there was even a commentator. Great in-arena noise. And I’m not just talking about the crowd. The on-sight production was good. Lots of music and complimentary audio between plays.

In contrast, the men’s matches were depressing. I think they were in Argentina, but I could be wrong. The only sound you heard was the the ball contact. There wasn’t any kind of music that you could hear, no commentary, and if there was any real energy coming from the crowd you couldn’t tell. It was hard to watch, especially after having just watched the Montreux coverage.

As Mark suggests in his article, if you want prospective viewers to take your sport seriously, you need to take seriously the quality of the product you’re asking them to consume. It’s not enough just to stream matches. Not if you want your audience to be more than just the diehard volleyball folks.

Getting a bigger crowd

I have some thoughts on ways to improve volleyball match attendance which I’ll save for another discussion. Suffice it to say, however, that you’re more likely to attract and retain spectators in the seats if you provide a good product. Good volleyball is certainly part of that, and for sure winners get bigger crowds.

There’s more to it than that, though. Some of what makes for a good TV broadcast also makes for a good in-arena experience.

Reading more important in beach than indoor?

On the drive to and from the World League action in Dallas over the weekend, myself and the other Midwestern State assistants listened to some volleyball-related podcasts. One of them was Coach Your Brains Out. That’s a podcast which has been in my queue for a while now. We ended up listening to the first two episodes. And of course talking about what we heard. 🙂

One of the opinions expressed in the first podcast by one of the guys is that reading on the beach is more important – or maybe is done more – than indoor. The idea there seemed to be that because as a defender (assuming your partner is blocking) you have every ball and you need to read to be in the right position. This is as opposed to indoor where the ball could be someone else’s and you have a much more limited area of responsibility.

I certainly agree that from a defensive perspective. A good read on the beach is really important. Being even a little wrong puts you well out of position given how much area you have to cover.

I don’t agree, however, with that beach players have to read more than indoor players. I think all players have to read the same amount. It’s just that for an indoor player the read comes with different potential implications.

For example, if you read that the ball will not be attacked in your direction, you shift to your next responsibility. For a hitter, that’s transitioning to attack. For a setter, that is moving toward target to take the second ball.

All players read all the time.

Let me restate that.

All players should read all the time. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking beach or indoor. It always matters what the opponent is doing and is set up to do with the next contact.

To my mind, this is one of the areas of coaching that doesn’t get enough attention.

Report from World League in Dallas

Over the weekend I was in Dallas where the US Men’s National Team played a trio of FIVB World League matches. The boy’s Junior Nationals were also going on, not coincidentally.

The volleyball was average. The best match of the weekend – that I saw (didn’t see Australia v Bulgaria) – was USA v Bulgaria. The home side dropped the first set and had to come back from 5+ point deficits in sets 3 and 4 to get the win. I’m not saying the quality of play was great in that match. Rather, it was the one with the most tension. The rest of the matches were pretty one-sided.

This was true even of the USA v. Russia match on Sunday. That’s the one I expected to be the best of the three, but the Russians just weren’t up for it. The first set started ugly for the USA, with a string of hitting errors and blocked balls. They just didn’t play well. The thing is, though, Russia never got out to a lead of more than a couple points. It ended up being a really tight set that went over time – ending in a US win. After that, it was basically a USA rout. Russia just didn’t play well.

And there were some REALLY bad plays. Balls dropped between players. An MB taking a free ball, just stood there and didn’t make himself available to hit. Stuff like that.

The USA matches had pretty good attendance. The crowd made a fair amount of noise, especially during the more dramatic periods.


The games weren’t the only thing going on, though.

Volleyball Coaching Wizard Ruth Nelson was on-hand as part of a reunion. It featured players from the area who were USA national program players going back into the 1960s. One of the ones she introduced me to was the woman who was the first to run the Texas 1-foot takeoff. You might know that better today as the slide.

Ruth also introduced me to Doug Beal.

While I didn’t actually meet them, I also saw the guys from The Net Live. Kevin Barnett did the broadcast for the USA matches and spent some time in the seats near me during the Australia vs. Russia match on Friday. DJ Roueche actually sat three rows in front of me the whole weekend.

If you think you’re a great coach, you’re probably a poor one

People Who Think They’re Great Coaches Often Aren’t. That’s the title of a recent article from the Harvard Business Review. Got you thinking about whether you’re a good coach? 🙂

The scenario at the very beginning of the article I found really funny.

Basically, a person describes themselves a pretty good coach. When asked why, the response is they “…attended a coaching course and learned many of the techniques of good coaching.”

This story reminds me of a very early Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview I conducted. In it, Portuguese coach Paolo Cunha talked about people thinking they were coaches just because they’d done a course or gotten a certification as we discussed issues with coaching education.

Getting to the main point of the article, researchers did a test. They had people assess their own skills. Then they had others assess them. About a quarter of the folks involved overrated themselves. Not only were they not as good as they thought, but they actually ended up in the bottom third based on the external assessments. This is pretty classic overconfidence, which is something l looked at a lot while doing my PhD.

To summarize the findings, “…if you think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t, this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.”

The article continues on, suggesting…

“Bursting the bubble of your illusion of superiority could be highly advantageous to your continued development as a leader. In fact, this is the best reason to find a way to obtain honest feedback about your coaching skills.”

So what are the problem areas? The article provides a list I encourage you to read. Not surprisingly, communication and working with others rank high. Integrity is in there as well.

Interestingly, the people who underrated their own abilities scored above average in their assessed ability (57% percentile). What do you make of that?

I think it speaks to an attitude of continuous development. Coaches who do not think they are great are more likely to keep learning. They look at their weaknesses and seek to improve upon them. Sounds like a good mindset to me!

Trusting players to take responsibility

There was a piece on Bloomberg (now behind a pay wall) about abusive coaching. The subject coach is a volunteer. The author heard him say some pretty vile stuff to a youth boys team. The author of the article basically called it child abuse. He went on to think about why parents allow that sort of thing. Fear topped the list of likely reasons. “It worked for Coach X,” is a justification.

Rather than focus on the abusive behavior, I want to talk about a quote from the piece:

What I’ve noticed — and yes, this is anecdotal — is that the best teams with the best coaches seem to be have the calmest sidelines. Rather than shouting specific instructions at players — and chastising them for every mistake — these coaches have already taught their players what to do. They trust these kids to take responsibility. Sure, the kids mess up, but there is a lot to be said for playing without fear. They play better, learn to be instinctive, and — gasp — have more fun.

The last couple of sentences really caught my attention. I don’t think a calm sideline is totally necessary. Some coaches are inherently animated in a positive fashion. That’s totally fine with me. Others are not. That’s fine too.

What I really like is players who can make mistakes without fear. If you read my Climbing Mistake Mountain post, or Learning from mistakes rather than fixating on them, you know how I feel about encouraging the willingness to make mistakes. It’s something we must instill in our players.

A parallel conversation is coaches providing specific instructions during play. I wrote my feelings on that in Calling plays from the bench. If we tell them what to do during play, how do they learn to think for themselves? This is especially true for youth players.

What about coaches doing their main work in training? That is an interesting topic for debate. Is training more important than match-day work? That is the subject of the Coaching vs Training Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast episode.

Some things to think about as you develop your coaching philosophy.