The two biggest jobs of a coach

When it comes to coaching a team there are two main responsibilities. I’m not talking about off-court administrative requirements. Those can vary considerably between teams and organizations. I’m talking here about on-court, in the gym. That’s the common ground for all coaches. Those two responsibilities are setting priorities and deciding who’s on court during matches.

Setting priorities

As coaches, one of the most important things we do is assess our teams and players, and set training priorities. We decide which skills and/or tactics to focus on in practice. We decide which part of a player’s game we want to get the most attention. These priorities then filter in to how we develop practice plans and where we concentrate our feedback. At least they should!

You may be the best in the world technical training. If you don’t pick the right skills to develop, though, you’re wasting time and effort.

Think of it this way. The first thing you have to do as a coach is decide where you want the team to go. That might change along the way, but you always need to have a destination in mind. Once that’s in place, you then map a course to get you there. If you have no destination, who knows where you’ll end up.

Playing time

When it comes to match-day coaching, the most important thing we do is decide who’s playing and in what role. That’s a combination of starting line-up and substitutions.

Obviously, there are things you can do in terms of strategy, managing the team’s emotional state during play, and the like. All of that, though, follows on from your team selection. If you don’t get the personnel on court right, the rest of it probably won’t matter too much.

Yes, there is more to it

Of course there is more to successful coaching. For example, recruiting is extremely important in the college and professional levels. Keeping kids academically eligible is important in any school team situation. There’s scheduling considerations and any number of other off-court details that need to be managed.

When it comes to on-court stuff, however, good prioritization and line-up decisions are the key factors in coaching success. Everything else comes in to play from there.

The NCAA’s Performance Indicator

If you follow college sports in the US then you’ve probably heard about the RPI. I’ve written about it before. It’s also something I’ve brought up in my coaching log entries. It’s a highly quantitative way of ranking teams toward NCAA tournament selection, or the playoffs in the case of college football (FBS).

The RPI is actually only part of the selection process. The other criteria look something like this.

  1. Overall Division II won-lost results.
  2. Opponents’ average winning percentage.
  3. Opponents’ opponents’ average winning percentage.
  4. Head-to-head competition.
  5. Results versus common opponents.
  6. Results versus Division II ranked teams (all regions – once ranked, always ranked).

The first three on the list above are actually part of the RPI calculation.

Apparently, a move was put forward to drop the results vs. Division II ranked teams. In it’s place goes the Performance Indicator (PI). Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. It’s been around for a while. It doesn’t get much press, though.

The PI has a very similar thought process as the RPI, though with a meaningful addition. Like the RPI, it values winning strongly, while also giving a boost for playing better teams. One thing the PI factors in that the RPI doesn’t, however, is whether the results are home, away, or on neutral ground.

Calculating the PI

23 − Win on road against a .750 or above team
22 − Win neutral-site game against a .750 or above team
21 − Win at home against a .750 or above team
20 − Win on road against a .500-.749 team
19 − Win neutral site game against a .500-.749 team
18 − Win at home against a .500-.749 team
17 − Win on road against a .250- .499 team
16 − Win neutral site game against a .250-.499 team
15 − Win at home against a .250-.499 team
14 − Win on road against a .000-.249 team
13 − Win neutral site game against a .000-.249 team
12 − Win at home against a .000-.249 team
11 − Road loss to .750 or above team
10 − Neutral site loss to a .750 or above team
9 − Home loss to a .750 or above team
8 − Road loss to a .500-.749 team
7 − Neutral site loss to a .500-.749 team
6 − Home loss to a .500-.749 team
5 − Road loss to a .250-.499 team
4 − Neutral site loss to a .250-.499 team
3 − Home loss to a .250-.499 team
2 − Road loss to a .000-.250 team
1 − Neutral site loss to a .000-.250 team
0 − Home loss to a .000-.250 team

Divide the total by matches played and you have the PI.

Impact on scheduling?

So first priority is to win, and especially to win on the road. If you’re going to lose, then you want to lose on the road against very good teams. We joked in the office while going over this that no one will want to host anymore since even if you lose you get more points doing so on the road. 🙂

Honestly, I don’t think the PI will factor into things for most teams. For some conferences the only realistic way to get into the NCAA tournament is to win the league title, so the teams there don’t care overly much about these other considerations. Perhaps teams that dominate a given conference care, as it goes toward their NCAA tournament seeding, but that’s about it.

In the more competitive conferences, however, the story is a bit different. For example, in the South Central region the Lone Star Conferences and the Rocky Mountain Conference contribute 7 of the 8 teams to the NCAA tournament at the regional level. That means each year there is not only a battle for who makes the tournament, but also for who gets seeded where (and by extension, who hosts).

Note, though, that there are several other important criteria, two of which related to direct comparison between teams. That means you can’t necessarily just focus on maximizing PI.

Where should you focus your coaching attention during matches?

It’s match time. As coach, what should you do with yourself? That’s what the following coach wants to know.

What have you found to be the most effective area to focus your attention during a match as a coach? I’ve found that it’s easy to get distracted watching the “game” like a spectator. I was just wondering what you smart people focus on or how you are practically spending your time (charting, calling plays, whatever).

For example, as a head coach, do you spend most of your time watching the other team’s defense so you can lead the offense? Or do you spend your time watching your team to see who is doing well or losing points at X, Y, or Z?

I think a lot of us, especially early in our careers, probably found ourselves watching the game like a spectator. As you get more experienced, though, your vision changes and evolves. You learn to take things in even while watching the game as a whole.

That said, there are a couple of ways to get more out of watching from the sidelines.

Focus on your priority

What is the most important information you can provide your team during the match? This should dictate where you focus your attention. Is your team still learning its defensive responsibilities? Then you should focus more on their movement and positioning and not focus much on the other team. Do you need to help your setter with their decision making or your hitters with finding ways to score? Then you likely need to focus more attention on how the opposition is setting up their block and defense.

You may even have situations where you need to focus on just one player. Maybe there is an injury question. Maybe you are worried about their mentality. This usually isn’t something you do for long periods, but it can be very important for the team’s performance overall.

This isn’t to say you can only watch one thing. I’m merely suggesting that you should give more of your attention to that area of the court which will give you the information you need to provide your players.

Taking stats

If you don’t have another source of statistics, then taking at least some of them during a match can be quite helpful. The trick is being able to do so while also giving enough attention to what’s happening on the court. I personally have always struggled when a head coach to also take stats – even end of rally type stuff. I always feel like I’m missing something when I have to turn my attention away from the court, however briefly. You may find it easier.

Regardless, you must decide what information would be helpful during the match and not worry about stuff you could later pull from the video. You also want to make taking those stats as simple as possible, and that you are able to reference and interpret them at a glance.

Delegating

If you are a head coach then maybe you can delegate part of what needs to be watched to someone else – assistant coach, parent, etc. Statistics especially can be delegated quite easily. You just have to provide very specific and clear instructions on what you want collected and in what format you want to see it. For example, if you have someone take serve reception stats, make sure they know exactly how to score each pass.

At some levels assistant coaches are responsible for certain parts of the game. One may watch the block and defense. One may focus on the offense. This allows the head coach to focus wherever they think is most important at the time, while still collecting other information.

Avoiding Overload

One thing to make sure to avoid is overloading your players. This can happen when multiple people are telling them different things. This can also happen when you give the team too many different things to focus on. Players – individually and collectively – can only keep so many things in mind. And the less experienced the players the lower than threshold is. Keep this in mind both as you prioritize your focus, or what you delegate, and in information transmission.

Overload applies to you as coach also. If you try to look at too many things you’ll probably not actually take in anything meaningful. In that case you’re back to being a spectator.

Coaching Log – January 3, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

It’s been nearly a month since my last update. Obviously, we haven’t been in the gym, but that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening.

Roster changes

Recall that we did a tryout last month for prospective transfer middles and liberos. As it turns out, one of the liberos was someone already committed to transfer to MSU – as a freshman. Literally that same day she met with a counselor about her schedule for the Spring semester. She’d played a fair amount as a defensive specialist for her prior school – a Division II program in our Region – but opted to transfer for non-volleyball reasons. She was club teammates with of one of our current freshmen, and did well at the tryout, so we felt she’d make a good addition to the team. Even better, she can be with us through second semester to get integrated with the team.

Recruiting

We’ve still been looking to add one or two additional players to our 2018 freshman class. A middle we offered, and thought we’d get, opted for another school. So it was back to work trying to find someone in that position. We plotted out the tournaments we’ll look to attend during this year’s juniors seasons to come and submitted the requisite travel authorization requests.

The first of those tournaments is actually this weekend. Nothing like jumping right into it in the new year!

Other stuff

There’s never a time when nothing’s going on, especially while school is still in session. The week after our tryout was the last week of classes – and the last time we were all going to be in the office at the same time for a while. We started putting together the Spring semester schedule, continued to do academic monitoring, and dealt with gear. Of course there was plenty of recruiting stuff to do, particularly with the juniors season starting to get rolling.

Review of 2017, look ahead to 2018

Well, 2017 was certainly an interesting year!

As is my habit at the turn of the year, I want to take a little bit of time to review the last 12 months. I’ll also get into some thoughts about what I see for the year ahead, as I did last year. I already did a review of the 2017 volleyball season. This post will focus on other things.

Travel

With Midwestern State I visited a couple of new locations during the course of our season. We played at Austin in a pre-conference tournament. While recruiting I also got to visit San Antonio. At this point, the only major Texas city I haven’t visited is Houston. Not sure that one is in the plans any time soon, though.

Personally, I made two big trips. The first was to the Olymic Training Center in Colorado Springs in February. I was there to attend my second High Performance Coaches Clinic. Here is my report on that. This time I also added in the Coaches Accreditation Program (CAP) Level III coaching course. I also wrote about that experience. I believe I have completed the requirements for my certification, but I’m waiting for final word at this writing.

My big trip was back across the Atlantic in May. The main part of that was spent in Poland where I hung out with Mark Lebedew while he ran pre-World League training camp for the Australian national team. I also spent a couple of days in Germany visiting with a coaching friend there. Of course I had to hit England as well. I spent an afternoon with a coaching friend there, visited with an old friend, and got back to Exeter for a meeting with my PhD supervisor to talk about our joint academic research work.

And then there was the MSU team trip to Buenos Aires. That was my first ever trip south of the US border, and also my first to a Spanish speaking country. It was a great experience, both in terms of the tourist side of things and volleyball.

Projects

It was a rough year for my various projects. Frankly, I did not get done nearly as much as I thought I would. All the organization for the Buenos Aires trip sucked up massive amounts of my non-coaching time. That was especially true over the Summer, which is usually a good time to get big things done. Not so much this year.

At the same time, Mark taking on the added work of coaching a national team alongside his work coaching a professional club team in Poland made it hard for us to collaborate on additional Volleyball Coaching Wizards work. It was my hope to have at least one new book published, but it just didn’t happen.

I did get do some work in the academic arena, but didn’t produce the second paper I had in mind. I also didn’t get a new edition of Inside College Volleyball published, as I wanted. Oh, well. It was still a worthwhile year.

The Blog

Once more I can report growth in readership of this blog. Quite big growth, actually! The year ended with over 100,000 visitors and nearly 220,000 page views, up about 35% from 2016. Honestly, that blows my mind. Along the way the site crossed half a million page views all time since it was launched in June 2013. It got just about 14,000 views that first year.

Again, readership has been basically global, though obviously the US dominates.

 

The most read posts for 2017 were the following.

  1. Volleyball tryout drill ideas
  2. Volleyball set diagram
  3. The qualities of a good team captain
  4. Putting together a starting line-up
  5. Game: Winners (a.k.a King/Queen of the Court)
  6. Scoring serving and passing effectiveness
  7. Getting volleyball players to talk
  8. Volleyball camp drills and games
  9. Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?
  10. Volleyball conditioning – a sample program

The blog now has over 900 posts. I imagine I’ll cross the 1000 post mark in 2018. Kind of crazy to think about reaching that milestone!

Looking forward to 2018

I enter this new year with a wait and see type of attitude. The one thing I know with certainty is that staff changes are coming at MSU. Our graduate assistant will finish his degree in May, so for sure a new GA will be required. Where things go with that is an open question. Add in the big turnover in players (7 out, and probably at least as many new players in) and you get the prospect for a lot of changes in the program. We’ll see how that all plays out.

In terms of my various other projects, there are three big things I want to complete early this year. One is publishing the second Wizards book, which should happen shortly. Another is updating Inside College Volleyball and getting that out the door. I also have another, non-volleyball, content project I’m working on.

Looking at the rest of the year, there are some other things I want to do as well. Mark and I need to get back to recording and publishing Wizards interviews, and I’d like to publish another book from the project later in 2018. I would also like to develop some longer-form coaching education content. Think an online course, or something like that.

See shall see where things take me!

I have some extra money. What should I buy with it?

From time to time a coach in a forum or discussion group looks for some advice about buying new equipment. Often it starts with something like this:

I have $1000 left in my fundraising account. What should I buy with it?

My personal philosophy on this sort of thing is to think about what you’ll get the most use from over its lifetime. Maybe that comes from my background in business and finance. 🙂

Anyway, with that in mind, here’s what I would look at in order of priority. I should note, I’m thinking here in terms of stuff to help from a coaching perspective. I’m not thinking about things like uniforms and other player gear.

Balls and ball carts

There is definitely a limit to how many balls it makes sense to have. You need space to store them, and the size of your gym plays a part.

For example, when I coached at Exeter our main practice gym had almost no space around the court. That means stray balls were always at risk of getting underfoot. As such, having a big number of balls didn’t make sense. I think we had about a dozen balls. Different situation at MSU where the gym is much larger and balls roll well away from the court, allowing us to have four or five ball carts full of balls.

At a minimum, you probably want at least one ball per two players. That allows you to do partner work. More is definitely better, though. It lets you keep drills and games going without needing to stop to collect the balls. Granted, you can use that as a break, but you don’t want to have to halt things too often. So get as many balls as you can reasonable handle.

As for ball carts, you obviously need at least enough to hold all the balls. Beyond that, think about how you can distribute carts around your gym to facilitate ball entry and the like in your exercises. For example, if you like to do station work or otherwise split the team, you probably need at least one cart for each group.

Poles, nets, and stuff for additional court(s)

If you have the opportunity to increase the number of courts you can set up in your gym, grab it! That could be something as simple as creating a situation where you can suspend a long net across run mini volleyball courts. Or you could set up full competitive courts. Whatever the case, you can add more nets to use for practice – perhaps to do stations or small group work. You can also potentially use the extra courts to host tournaments, and maybe even make some money in the process.

Video equipment

These days, if you are not using video in your practices you are behind the times. It could be something as simple as an tablet you use to record players doing reps and playing it back for them. Or it could be an delayed video system. This is the sort of thing where you can find a solution that fits your budget.

Addition coaching help

If you’re in a situation where you don’t have a full staff and could use a bit more help in the gym, maybe you can put the money to use on an assistant. This is not something you’d think of as having a long-term benefit, which is why I put it here. You never know, though. An extra pair of eyes or another voice in the gym could make a big impact with lasting effects, even if it’s just for a short period.

Coaching education

Can you use the money to go to a coaching clinic or convention? If so, that might be a great investment. Increasing your coaching knowledge is something that can have both an immediate positive impact and long lasting ones.

Ball throwers, targets, and other devices

As it’s position on the list implies, I think investing in one of the many devices available on the market should be a low priority. Most of the time these devices are quite expensive and are not used all that often. You have to really look your situation and make a realistic estimate of how often you’d use the new piece of equipment your considering. Then you should probably reduce that estimate because we all tend to overestimate these sorts of things. We have all sorts of grand ideas, but then the reality of having to pull the device out of storage, set it up, and take it down hits.

A serving machine is a prime example. First, you want to consider whether you really want players passing off a machine instead of from an actual server where they are also learning to pick up on visual cues. Second, could you not simply use real servers, thereby also giving them serving practice?

Admittedly, there are situations where a machine makes sense. For example, in men’s volleyball it is hard to get a high volume of reps off a live jump serve because of the physical demands on the servers. A serving machine in that situation makes quite a bit of sense.

Another situation where it might make sense is in a small group or individual training session. Maybe you don’t have someone who can serve, or at least serve they way you need. That’s another time when it makes sense to have a serving machine. Even still, you have to consider how often that kind of situation comes up to decide whether the machine is worth its large price tag.

Coaching career motivations – ladder climbing vs. maximizing what you have

My friend Ruben Wolochin forwarded me a link to the Forbes article about Western Kentucky head coach Travis Hudson. I’d seen the article floating around, but hadn’t read it yet. I found it really interesting that an Argentine (Ruben) coaching in Germany (for top division team Bühl) forwarded it to me. Of course, the fact that a mainstream site like Forbes is writing about a volleyball coach is quite exciting for our sport.

Maximizing what you have

Ruben made a comment in our conversation related to Hudson’s performance.

Success means getting the best possible from your circumstances.

I agree with him 100%.

We don’t all have great athletes. Nor do we all have high quality facilities, or good support. We have to do the best we can with what we do have. Sometimes that means winning lots of matches and being a champion. Other times, though, the win/loss record doesn’t reflect the real accomplishment.

Perhaps the team I’m most proud to have coached is the 2013-14 Exeter women. Reaching the national semifinals that year was an accomplishment far beyond anything anyone would reasonably have expected. We had no scholarship athletes, but finished above teams with them. It was literally the best season we could possibly have had (the teams above us had FAR superior athletes and resources). We got the absolute most out of ourselves.

The experience of that season at Exeter reinforced in me the need to constantly look for ways to maximize performance and the rewards it can bring. That applies to everything. It’s not just about the on-court performance. Certainly, it seems like Hudson has been able to do that.

Ladder climbing

Flipping things around, my response to Ruben was that Hudson seems to know what’s important to him. The article highlights how he’s had plenty of opportunity to move on to a higher level for probably much more money. That doesn’t motivate him, though. He’s not interested in climbing the ladder, and he’s making plenty of money at Western Kentucky.

When I interviewed Mike Lingenfelter for Volleyball Coaching Wizards we talked at one point about finding your niche. That’s the idea that each of us as coaches should figure out where we best fit in the coaching spectrum. There are a lot of different age groups, competitive levels, and locations. Some suit us better than others.

Hudson’s clearly found what suits him. As a result, his personal satisfaction and sense of reward are extremely high. Going somewhere else would risk reducing that. Why bother?

Now, it’s true that sometimes you have to do the ladder climbing thing to reach where you want to be (I bemoaned the requirement for it at times in a previous post). And for sure some coaches are motivated toward greater prestige, earning more money, or whatever they perceive as the reward(s) of coaching at a higher level. I’m not here to argue what is the right or wrong motivation – only that each coach should understand their own (though we’re pretty bad at understanding what we’ll want or be like in the future).

Hudson said his motivations are, “… to help kids grow, see them graduate and develop them as people.” Do you know your motivation? I wrote about my own in the Why I Coach post.

Looking forward myself

The combination of getting the most from your situation and finding your niche is something I think about quite a bit when I consider my own situation moving forward. I’ve spoken with Ruth Nelson (another of the Wizards I’ve interviewed) on this subject. She was heavily involved in my move to Midwestern State, and we’ve talked career stuff a number of times since then. Motivation is a big part of that.

The thing I often wonder is whether I could do something like Hudson has done. I don’t mean take a team from obscurity to national significance. I actually did that already at Exeter. 😉

What I mean is whether I could become a lifer somewhere. Can I find a place where I’m able to settle and coach until retirement – whenever that might be? My history doesn’t really show much indication of being able to do so.

I honestly think the answer is yes, though. It comes down to the challenge.

Obviously, it is important to live in place I like and to work with good people. Beyond that, however, there needs to be the opportunity to continuously challenge myself and push things forward. And I’m not just talking about the volleyball. Organizing the Midwestern State team trip to Buenos Aires, for example, was a massive challenge that had nothing to do with the on-court work. Not that I don’t care about the team’s performance, because I definitely do. I just need for things to be multi-dimensional.

That’s what I’ll have in mind as I ponder my future career direction.

Book Review: A Fresh Season by Terry Pettit

I previously reviewed Terry Pettit’s book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams. I also interviewed Terry for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. A Fresh Season is Terry’s second coaching-related book (he published a book of poetry). Like the first, this one is a collection of different essays and the like, including a poem or two.

This is not a coaching book, per se. You are unlikely to learn from it how to do X, Y, or Z.

Rather, it’s a variety of stories, observations, and commentary. Some of it is recent in origin, while other stuff seems to have been written years ago originally. The subject matter is all over the place.

For example, there is an essay by one of Terry’s daughters that is a kind of “letter to my freshman self”. In it she offers advice on how to get through that first college season, and the seasons to follow.

There’s a chapter called A Letter to the Parents of a Prospective recruit that is a coach’s appeal. If you coach college volleyball you will seriously think about using it in your own recruiting efforts!

A theme of a couple of different chapters is the idea of being uncomfortable. Terry advises recruiting players who have willingly made themselves uncomfortable. He talks about how players need to be put in uncomfortable situations to develop. He also admonishes coaches to put themselves in uncomfortable situations. We cannot, he says, demand less of ourselves than we do of our athletes.

There is a chapter outlining the factors which predict future head coaching success. Prior head coaching experience is top of the list. Not surprisingly, passion and integrity also rate quite highly.

Terry focuses directly on juniors coaches in one section. It’s perhaps the one part of the book where he gets pretty explicit about what he thinks they need to focus on. People probably won’t agree with everything he says, but at least is provides plenty of food for thought.

Another repeated theme in the book is recruiting, requiring, and relating. Terry introduces them as the Three Rs of Coaching in one chapter. They then pop up again from time to time in other chapters.

Those are some of the highlights. There are nearly 40 chapters, but the book is only about 180 pages, so each is quite short. The only lengthy one is the last (nearly 20 pages), which relates the history of Nebraska Coliseum, where Nebraska Volleyball played for so many years – including all of Terry’s time coaching there.

Overall, I think A Fresh Season is a good book. It’s length and structure make for a pretty quick read. At times it’s funny. In many places it’s thought-provoking.

Increasing player intensity in practice

What are some ways you get your team to pick up the intensity more in practice?

This is a question that comes up among coaches on a regular basis. I think there are two primary ways to accomplish this.

Up the tempo

Perhaps the easiest way to increase training intensity is to raise the tempo of your activities. Generally speaking, you can do this by increasing the pace at which balls are entered in or shortening the time between rallies. The latter is something I wrote about in Washing to increase scrimmage intensity. When you add a new ball in as soon as a rally ends, it naturally increases the tempo. The players don’t have any time to drop their intensity back down, so it stays at a higher level.

Add competition

Adding competition to your practice can definitely make things more intense. And it doesn’t even have to be strictly a volleyball game. Sometimes you can use seemingly silly things to get the players competing and having fun. That ups the intensity, and oftentimes it carries through the session. Two games like this which immediately come to mind are Amoeba Serving and Brazilian 2-ball. They aren’t the most complicated games in the world, but players get into them.

Don’t let it drop

Having increased the tempo and/or added competition to you practice, make sure you don’t then put in something that will bring the intensity crashing back down. For sure there will be carry over from one intense activity into whatever comes next. If, however, that following exercise is something like a serving and passing drill, it’s all going to fade away.

You will have a hard time sustaining intensity when individual technique is the main focus. It just doesn’t work that way, so plan carefully. I favor putting the lower intensity stuff first, then building up as the session goes along.

Give them a purpose

Going beyond what you actually plan into your practice, you should also consider what the players are thinking. They are much more likely to be invested, and thereby intense, if they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It helps them focus, and focused players tend to be more intense players.