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Coaching Log – Apr 4, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

It occurred to me that this is the first time I’ve begun work with a team in a Spring training type of situation. In basically every case up to now I’ve started coaching a team at the start of the season. The one exception is when I took over the Devon Ladies halfway through the 2012-13 NVL season in England. It’s in an interesting new situation.

Anyway….

We started MSU team Spring Training on Wednesday after the team got back from Spring/Easter break. The schedule we’ve got worked out looks like this:

Monday and Wednesday: 6:30-8:30am team practice
Tuesday: 6:15-7:30am team weights, 7:30-9:00am group practice 1, 11-12:30 group practice 2
Thursday: 6:15-7:30am team weights, 4-5:30pm team practice, 6-7pm pool workout
Friday: 6:30-8:30am team practice, 12-1:30pm weight training group 1, 2-3:30pm weight training group 2

Thursday’s are actually a bit of a mix. That day is impacted by some different other activities going on. I’ll speak about them separately as they occur.

Wednesday
We decided to have blocking as a focal point in this session. That meant doing some station work during the first half of the practice where we had the front row players blocking in a rotation by position. This wasn’t against live hitters, though we did have an assistant setting the ball so they would have the timing element and basic set placement to work with. I was running this court and was basically using the exercise to evaluate where they were at with their footwork and to have them focus on getting good penetration – shooting the hands over rather than going straight up and then (maybe) pressing.

Generally speaking, the footwork was solid. There was one player using swing block mechanics for a very short move (maybe half a step) that I had her change to just a simple slide/shuffle. Other than that, though, I didn’t see any major issues with their movement. There was a bit of floating going on by one or two of them, which seems to be always the case.

We then had them face live hitters in game play. That’s where some developmental needs surfaced. Mainly that had to do with block positioning, though I did provide feedback on some hand stuff as well.

While I was working on the blocking station the head coach was running the others through some serving, passing, and a bit of defense on the other court. I didn’t really get to see any of it, though.

Straight after practice I had to spend 2.5 hours going through new hire orientation. Fun times!

Thursday
The day started early with the team doing weights, and then a suicide test where they had to do 5 timed suicides with about 30 second breaks in between. The target times were 23-24-25-25-25 seconds. This was all run by the strength coach. He then administered a punishment to the on-campus freshmen in the form of having to do another 5 suicides because of tardiness to a session with him.

We did a team training in the afternoon – but only 75 minutes. We continued working on blocking, this time with the pin blockers starting off going 1-on-1 against assistant coaches hitting in their approach line. The idea was to get the blockers focusing on their positioning. We later added the middles. Behind the block we had defenders working on reading the hitters and positioning around the block. We finished up working on a couple of rotations ahead of our tournament on Saturday by playing the 22 v 22 game.

In between the morning and afternoon activities we had a bit of drama. One of the defensive specialists announced that she was quitting unexpectedly – at least in terms of timing.

Friday
We had a prospective recruit visiting and playing in with us. Lovely early wake-up for her and her parents!

After doing some small-sided game play to begin practice, we split off the setter and middles to do some block-transition-attack work on one court while everyone else worked on serving and serve reception. After that, we returned to 22 v 22 to do the four remaining rotations, then wrapped up with a regular game.

Saturday
We played in a Spring tournament at Oklahoma Baptist University. That’s about a 2.5 hour ride from MSU. We went in style.

2016-04-02 07.08.12

The format was basically an hour per match, inclusive of 10 minutes of warm-up time. So call it about 50 minutes of play per match. That basically translates to two full sets and part of a third.

The competition was St. Gregory’s, Northwestern Oklahoma State, and then the host team. St. Gregory’s is an NAIA school playing in the Sooner Athletic Conference. The other two are NCAA Division II teams who play in the Great American Conference. The latter is generally a weaker league than the Lone Start Conference were we play.

Our first match was pretty comfortable. St. Gregory’s finished low in their league last season and we handled them pretty easily. We played a 5-1, rotating our 4 defensive specialists and our two OPPs. Our two OPPs also can play MB, so we gave each some time through there as well.

The second match we shifted to a 6-2, but not a “legal” one. Basically we had our setter go back to 1 each time she rotated to the front row, and then subbed OPPs. The first set was a bit rough, and we lost by a large margin. We turned that around in the second set, though, for a comparable win. We then won a close short third set as well.

The last match, against OBU, was the toughest. We went back to the 5-1 to start. The first set was a bit rough. In particular, we got stuck in a rotation (which happened in the first set of the second match as well), and never quite got back to level terms. We changed to the 6-2 for the second set and performed a bit better. Arguably, we should have won, but gave up a late lead. The short third set was kind of poor, the players were clearly tired and lacking focus.

Overall, I think we were generally happy with how things went. Obviously, there were plenty of things that we want to get better at, but it was a decent day in terms of how the team played. A couple of players really put in good performance as well.

I was told OBU would generally rank as a middling team in the Lone Star Conference.

How do I get a college assistant coach position?

A reader emailed me the following:

I have been applying for assistant coaching positions for college volleyball but haven’t had any luck. What step will you advise so I can get my feet wet. I was considering on becoming an volunteer coach for a local college.How would you suggest asking for a position as a volunteer coach?

In response to a follow-up email, she told me her background is as follows:

  • Played first at a Junior College, then at an NCAA Division I program.
  • Was a student assistant at her Division I school
  • Assisted at a junior college for a season
  • Coaches juniors volleyball

In terms of cracking into Division I or II coaching, which is where more full-time positions are available, one of the first things to consider is trying to find a Graduate Assistant position. This offers the advantage of earning a Masters degree. This is very desirable when it comes to getting a head coach job down the line. Obviously, you also gain coaching experience.

An alternative path into coaching is to become a Director of Volleyball Operations (DOVO). This is technically a non-coaching role. It is, however, an opportunity to learn a lot about running a volleyball program that could be handy later. It also lets you learn by observing and having regular interaction with the coaching staff. Such positions can be direct stepping stones into a coaching job with that program.

Volunteer coaching is certainly an option. I would suggest if someone were to go this route, though, that you have a very specific focus in mind. Volunteer coaching can be a path into a full-time coaching position, but only if you put yourself in a good position. That’s probably something worth it’s own article. The main idea is that if you’re going to provide your coaching services for no pay, you should have a pretty good idea of the path forward from there – either with that team or elsewhere.

It’s worth having a look at the annual jobs thread which runs at Volley Talk.

Regardless of which way you look to go, one thing worth doing is getting out and working a bunch of college camps. That will get your exposure to potential employers and help you develop your network, which is a very good thing.

Skip the warm-ups?

What if you could go straight into training without first running a warm-up routine of some sort?

Give me a minute before you start in on me about proper physical (and mental) preparation for practice. I’m not talking about taking players from zero to full speed straight away. I am definitely in favor of being as efficient as possible – in all regards – when it comes to the warm-up process. I won’t go so far as to suggest there be none, however.

Consider this, though.

What if you walked into the gym and the players were already warm?

I’m not talking about a situation where practice starts at 5:00 and you arrive at 5:20 after the team has done their dynamic warm-up or whatever led by the strength coach or team trainer. I’m talking about practice starting at 5:00 with the players already ready to go. They’ve taken it upon themselves to get warm on their own.

On the face of it, you might not think there’s much difference there. I’ll grant that it’s a subtle thing.

The difference isn’t so much a time consideration. That could be an element, but perhaps not the most important. Instead, the main difference is in who’s directing the warm-up, and probably by extension how formal it is.

We coaches tend to want to control things. Warm-ups aren’t exempted from this. The result is that basically players all go through the same routine. This is true even though they may have considerably different physical and mental warm-up needs. The latter can actually end up adding an addition time requirement to ensure everyone is optimally prepared to begin the day’s work.

What if we left the warm-ups to the players? Do you think they’d do a better or worse job?

Chances are those warm-ups would look quite different. Players tend not to like the formulaic warm-ups we coaches design for them. They instead favor something a bit more free form. In fact, they might simply prefer to just play themselves warm. This is done by starting at a low intensity and building up from there.

This is what the players at Midwestern State seem to like to do. In the 15-20 minutes before the official start of practice during my first Spring they did a little bit of shoulder warm-up, but then quite quickly got into playing small-side games (like Winners/Queen of the Court). They obviously didn’t go 100% right away. By the time we started practice, though, they were pretty ready to go. As a bonus, they’d gotten a fair number of quality contacts.

Aside from the players warming-up how they best see fit (or enjoy), this sort of player-directed system offers some other benefits. For one, it allows them to enjoy themselves without being under Coach’s supervision. For another, depending on the group it can either be a good collaborative exercise and/or one which furthers the identification and development of leaders in the squad.

Something to think about perhaps?

Trying to please television

The FIVB seems to always be at it. They have often experimented with changing the set structure to try to get a volleyball match to more predictably fit in to the 2 hour time slot television supposedly favors. Those of us who’ve been around the game for a while will recall something similar attempted early in the rally score era. Obviously, it didn’t go very far as we’re still doing best of 5 matches these days.

A question I have is whether it’s really worth trying to fit into that 2-hour time slot. Will volleyball suddenly be that much more attractive to broadcasters if the matches were of a consistent length?

I don’t know the answer to that. Evidence from other sports, though, suggest it doesn’t matter as much as some might think. Tennis is essentially the same type of scoring structure as volleyball. Baseball certainly can be all over the place in terms of game lengths.

I think if you’re going to confine volleyball to a certain preferred time length for matches you probably need to put it on the clock in some fashion. That said, I don’t think timed games is the way to go. The nice thing about the point goal set-up of the sport is that lopsided games get cut-off fairly quickly. When you’re on the clock things can get out of hand, and as a result become quite boring. I experienced this while in England. A team I coached won a 20-minute timed set by something like 55-10.

Actually, in order to keep underdog teams in those sorts of match-ups fighting to the end they gave credit for not getting totally blown out. A team got 3 points for a win (maybe it was only 2). If the losing team was within 25% of the winning team’s score, they would earn a point. That made for much more interesting play when it came down toward the end of those games as the losing teams were fighting to get/stay above that threshold.

But that’s a side note.

The thought that occurred to me is if we don’t want those kinds of very one-sided situations, but want to retain a time clock we need to think in different terms. I had the idea of teams playing a series of mini sets – say to something like 8 points. The team winning the most sets within the allotted time wins the match.

The reason I say mini sets is because there is more opportunity for upsets, which keeps things interesting. There are a lot of things in terms of line-ups and subs that would have to be worked out, though.

Assistant coach meetings?

While I was interviewing for my current job at Midwestern State I was told that there are regular Assistant Coach meetings. These generally follow the regular Head Coach meetings run by the Athletic Department. Basically, the idea is to ensure that assistants get the information they are supposed to get. Apparently there were some issues with head coaches not passing things along from their meetings.

Imagine that! Head coaches hording information – or simply forgetting to disseminate it to their staff. 🙂

This is the first time I’ve been somewhere that had these sorts of meetings just for assistants. At Brown and Rhode Island there were regular general coaching staff meetings where we went over administrative stuff and developments in the area of NCAA rules and compliance. Maybe that served to ensure information was getting out to everyone.

I’m trying to recall whether there were regular head coach meetings at those schools. For sure they happened periodically. And of course even very senior assistants tend not to be overly welcome at such meetings – no matter if the head coach can’t make it.

That aspect of things aside, I can see the value of having regular meetings for assistant coaches. It’s very easy in college sports for each team to operate in its own little bubble. Even when that doesn’t happen, we tend to operate in different facilities and on conflicting schedules, so our paths don’t necessarily cross readily. Yes, sports that share a facility will naturally tend to interact (like volleyball and basketball), but aside from that, not so much. Meetings like this give the staff a chance to meet and get to know each other a bit.

They can also provide a forum for assistants to talk about things at their own level. I can see the value.

Of course today I got an invite to my first assistants meeting and found out it conflicts with team practice.

Move your feet or move your platform?

A topic of fairly frequent discussion in coaching conversations I’ve had in the last six months or so has been serve reception technique. A lot of us were taught some variation on the idea of getting yourself to the ball – perhaps center line, perhaps pass left. Call that the “move your feet” school of passing.

This is a school with deep roots. It basically goes back to the beginnings of forearm passing (no, people didn’t always pass with their forearms, but don’t ask me when that changed). In those days serves were comparatively weak. They were almost exclusively done from standing, so they had an arc and often had little in the way of velocity. In other words, there was time for passers to move – as witnessed by the USA men employing a 2-person serve reception when they won their Olympic gold medals in the 1980s.

Then came the Brazilians. In the 1980s they started doing topspin jump serving. It wasn’t quite to the point you see it today – especially in the men’s game – but it was fast enough to force a change in serve reception to generally having a minimum of three passers, which is what you see today.

Then came the jump float serve. Granted, it’s not as pacy as the topspin version, but the lack of an arc on the ball (because you’re serving from above the level of the net) combined with higher velocities than normally seen from the standing version made for less reaction time. One can often find coaches targeting 40mph+ for jump float serves. At that tempo the ball goes about 59 feet per second – so just under the length of the court. Not a lot of time to react and move.

Now imagine how quickly a strong jump serve gets to a passer – especially considering the broad jump taking them further into the court on contact. How much time do you think a passer has to move their feet.

So, basically we have a fundamental question:

At what point do serves move too fast for passers to use that perfect reception technique that we’ve all been taught?

One coach I spoke with recently joked, “14s.” Obviously, the answer comes down to the quality of the serving.

You can tie in here the idea of using arms vs. legs to add impetus to the passed ball. I’m not going to get into an argument here over which is better. Rather, I will ask a similar question as the one above:

At what point are serves hard enough that you don’t need to add anything to them to get the ball to target?

The answer is probably very similar to the answer to the first question. And at a certain point you’re trying to take something off the ball.

The bottom line in serve reception is the platform angle. It, and only it, will determine where the ball goes. This was a point made by Tom Tait when I interviewed him for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Along with being the original coach for both the men and women at Penn State, Tom is a long-time professor of kinesiology, so he knows a thing or two about this stuff. Though in this case he speaks in terms of physics and Issac Newton. 🙂

When I was at the HP Coaches Clinic last year, French coach Laurent Tillie caused a ruckus when he suggested a cross-over step and end passing with bent arms. After hearing about this, Mark Lebedew did a review of the French passing in recent international competitions and found that the main focus was on setting and holding a proper platform angle (the cross-over step only happened after the pass).

So while training passers, are we better off giving feedback on the platform rather than the feet?

Coaching Log – Mar 25, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

We’re actually on Spring Break this week at Midwestern State. In fact, that will be extended by Easter coming up this weekend as well, which the school gives off, so we won’t be back in the gym until the 30th. That’s when we’ll officially start our non-traditional (Spring) season. Lest you think I’m just kicking back and relaxing while the players are away, though…

Hah!

We’ve had multiple meetings as a coaching staff to develop our priorities for the Spring season, to talk about recruiting, and to start getting things going for the camps and clinics we’ll be running over the Summer. We’ve also been looking at ways of getting more technology (video especially) incorporated into our training to increase effectiveness.

I’ve had to develop a flyer for our Spring tournament and coordinate with Sports Information on getting the word out about that. I need to do something similar for camp. I’ve also have to shop for equipment. Of course there’s been a bunch of stuff I’ve had to do as part of starting a new job. And of course I’ve had loads and loads to do to get my new apartment furnished and configured.

And it’s not like I don’t have other things on my plate either, like preparing papers for academic publishing. It’s been a busy couple of weeks!

I’ll have more technical stuff in the next log entry after we get the team training going. The planned schedule is to do team training four days a week (three of them with 6:30AM starts!), and a group work on the 5th day. Along with our home tournament on the 9th we’re going to an away tourney on the 2nd, which is a bit quicker than you’d normally prefer. That will pretty much the schedule all the way through April.

Sticking to your training philosophy

A question was posed in a volleyball coaching group on Facebook. It went like this:

“So my team is pushing back on my approach of training ugly and limiting/avoiding singular focus drills. We started out winning our first tournament, but after a series of unfortunate events they don’t believe in it or the process. Any thoughts or helpful advice????”

In case you’re not aware, the “training ugly” concept is one focused on random (game-like) training rather than block (straight reps). It also celebrates making mistakes along the way (think Climbing Mistake Mountain).

As I’ve experienced myself, sometimes the players push back. They say they want more reps. I got it from some of my players at Svedala – mainly with respect to serve reception and defense. To my mind, there are two issues which need addressing.

First, the players probably don’t have an understanding of the benefits of random training over block training. After all, more reps is a good thing, isn’t it? The chart I included in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post shows a pretty clear advantage to random training. We have a sales job to do in this regard. We need to convince them that one game-like repetition is worth multiple reps that aren’t game-like.

Second, we should be careful that we don’t go too far in terms of creating a high error environment. This is something I addressed in What percentage of reps should be good? The approach in the USA women’s gym is to try to be at about 2 out of 3 reps be successful ones. More than that an you’re not pushing enough. Less than that and you run the risk of leading players into frustration. It’s a balancing act.

Of course at the end of the day being able to show players how much they are improving with your training method would be of considerable value. The problem is this isn’t always very easy to do. And outcomes (like winning tournaments) isn’t really a good measuring stick because of the various influences involved (the competition, player availability, etc.). If you can find a way to do it, though, it will go a long way in helping your credibility with the players, which ultimately is at the core of it all.

Having a pre-serve process

volleyball serve

Serving is the only closed-chain skill in volleyball. By that I mean it’s the only skill which is no reliant on someone else first doing something. Setters need a pass. Hitters need a set. Blockers and defenders need an attack. The server, though, is in full control of their own execution. That allows them to develop a routine before they put the ball in play.

Having a pre-execution routine is something we see in other sports. Baseball is probably the most obvious example for American sports fans because it has so many discreet plays. You can definitely put tennis in the same category.

In volleyball, some servers have very simple routines – hold the ball up, wait for the whistle, toss and hit. Others get more involved with a bunch of bouncing and/or hitting the ball. Perhaps the most over-the-top pre-serve routine I’ve ever seen involved a bunch of bouncing with weaving body/leg movement. Not something I personally would have encouraged.

And it doesn’t just apply to the player with the ball – the server or the pitcher. It also applies to the receiver, as Natalie Hagglund (US national team and former USC libero) pointed out in a recent post. In fact, some of the more ridiculous pre- routines can be found by hitters in baseball.

In particular, Natalie’s discussion of pre-serve routine focuses on keeping things simple. To quote:

“Your process should be short, sweet and should be able to trigger some sort of reaction.”

I’d say the same thing about serving.

And beyond the process, there’s also the focus. Here too Natalie recommends keeping this limited. If you’re focused on too many things you’ll probably find yourself overwhelmed. This applies to coaches just as much to players, by the way.

So give Natalie’s post a read. I would suggest, though, that the “simple” process described in one of comments left by another reader sounds anything but.