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What is true competitiveness?

Mark at the At Home on the Court blog penned the Is Kobe really competitive? post. In it he presents us with a question. Is an overarching desire to win sufficient to be considered truly competitive. That may sound a bit strange, so let me explain.

It comes down to a player’s committed to winning. Will they they do anything required to do so? And by anything required I mean perhaps sacrificing their own personal desires for the greater good. We would probably call these types of people real team players, but do we consider them real competitors?

To quote Mark;

“…I would argue that I have actually met very, very few people who are actually competitive, people who would really do anything to win.  If you are prepared to do anything to win, you will work with others and you won’t take credit. “

We talked about this sort of idea in the MSU Volleyball office one day. It wasn’t so much in terms of competitiveness, but more broadly in the context of pursuit of team goals.

For a team to reach its objectives everyone needs to be on board with them. Everyone also needs to prioritize those objectives. Necessarily, prioritizing the team ahead of the self means you probably have to make sacrifices along the way.

Now, when we talk about sacrifices in this context we often speak of players not getting the playing time they want or having to play a different position or role in the team than they’d prefer. Let me provide you with a different example.

During the 2013-14 season the University of Exeter women I coached were on a mission. They wanted to reach Final 8s, played in Edinburgh that year. Everyone was totally committed and we ended up reaching that objective (and more).

A few weeks after the season the team came together to do a few training sessions ahead of playing in a regional tournament together. After one of them I was walking and talking with the team’s captain. One of the players on the team was someone who commonly expressed strong opinions that could rub people the wrong way at times. The captain told me during that walk that she had been reminded of this particular “quirk” that evening. She said it was something she had forgotten about during the season because the focus was on the team an its objectives.

In other words, the captain had sacrificed her own desires to disagree, argue, or otherwise be made upset or feeling in conflict with this other player. Being a cohesive team was more important to her than any interpersonal issue. In fact, it was so much of a higher priority that the lack of response at potential conflict points, or simply avoiding them, had become unconscious.

Was my captain a special player? To be sure! She was captain for a reason. That’s not to say, though, that other players in the team weren’t making similar types of sacrifices to help maintain team harmony. I’m sure all of them were on some level or another.

The point is that group of players put the team’s mission ahead of any personal agenda of their own. This is what we look for, is it not? When expressed in terms of the objective of winning, then to Mark’s point, this is the ultimate expression of competitiveness.

Book Review: Gender and Competition by Kathy DeBoer

I’ve had Gender and Competition  by Kathy DeBoer on my list of coaching books to read for a while now. As a male volleyball coach who has mainly worked with female athletes (though having coached a few male teams along the way), I have long been interested in the differences in how you need to approach coaching the two genders. Kathy’s book has come up many times in the discussions I’ve had with other coaches on the subject. That includes multiple Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews I’ve conducted.

Bottom line? Read this book!

You’ll find it a pretty quick read. It comprises just four chapters that add up to a little over 150 pages. Kathy’s writing style strongly favors story telling. The book is full of anecdotes from her coaching and athletics administration career. Basically, it’s teaching by way of example.

There’s one key phrase that I’ve heard attributed to Kathy on the basis of this book. It goes something along the lines of, “Men battle to bond and women bond to battle.” While I don’t recall seeing that exact phrase in the book, certainly it is what is expressed when looking at the differences in how the genders approach competition. It’s something that comes out very early in the text.

The first three chapters look to describe the difference in communication style and general approach to life, competition, and cooperation between men and women. It also looks at the challenges they pose. This isn’t true just for cross-gender interactions, but even for same gender ones, as Kathy demonstrates in some examples of her interactions with her own female athletes. The forth chapter focuses on advice for how to deal with the differences from both perspectives.

I can tell you that a lot of what Kathy talks about in terms of how men and women approach competition and the differences in how the two genders view leadership ring very true to me. I’ve seen them in my own coaching and have heard similar views from fellow coaches.

I can’t recommend Gender and Competition more strongly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female coach. It doesn’t matter whether you coach male or female players. You will gain insights that will help you do a better job working with your athletes – as well as colleagues, supervisors, and everyone else in your life.

 

Looking back on the 2015-16 season

The professional leagues in Europe have finished their seasons. The NCAA has crowned a set of men’s champions, and its first one in sand. Around the world national teams have come together to get going on their Summer’s work. I suppose it’s time for me to look back on the last year from my own coaching perspective.

At about this time last year I was in an uncertain situation. My PhD funding at the University of Exeter was quickly running out and my path forward was unclear. I applied for many college coaching jobs in the States, but got just one phone interview. I also put in for a handful of jobs with clubs in Europe. It was to the point I was very seriously beginning to look at jobs in the financial world. That’s where I worked before shifting to Exeter in 2012.

As you probably know, I ended up being hired to coach the Svedala club in Sweden. You can read my coaching log for my time there here. I’d heard good things from people I knew who coached and/or played there, so I was looking forward to it. Needless to say, things didn’t end up quite the way I was expecting. I have since moved on to an assistant coaching role at Midwestern State University (MSU).

As you can imagine, I’m not nearly as stressed out now as I was this time last year! 🙂

Unhappiness in Sweden

I wrote shortly after leaving Sweden about how without realizing it I was at least somewhat unhappy in my time there. Or at least I was less happy. My feelings about the experience are certainly mixed.

I had an exchange with a coaching friend a while back about how I should feel about being let go by Svedala. In particular I wondered whether I should hope they did well or poorly following my departure. He said I was well within my rights to hope they totally went in the tank. That would clearly show the club was wrong to get rid of me. 😉

I actually couldn’t go quite that far, though. I sincerely liked the players – even if my feelings about the club were somewhat less positive. There’s no way I would wish poor results on them. As I reported, they finished 4th in the playoffs after ending the regular season 3rd in the standings.

Could I have done it better?

I won’t lie. There’s a part of me that feels like I could have at least gotten them into the finals. And if we made it to the final, I feel like Svedala had a better chance of beating the team who won than others did. Who knows, though? Maybe they would have finished 4th regardless of who coached. I can take at least some credit for signing three players who were selected to the all-star team. The squad lacked depth and breadth beyond those three, however. The club lost a couple of domestic players after the prior year, and couldn’t replace them.

I’m definitely curious as to what changed after I left. I haven’t heard a single word since my last match in Sweden from the manager. He took over after my departure. I’ve been in touch with a couple of players since, but stayed away from questions about the team. It wouldn’t have been right. The only squad difference was that one of the players who quit because of a new job during the first half of the season came back part-time. That was actually something I’d already arranged with her, though.

One thing that did annoyed me was that the Svedala manager’s name was submitted for Coach of the Year. He’s probably the one who put himself in. Regardless, it was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, he didn’t get it.

So what do I feel like I could have done better?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing was being more engaged as a kind of broad thing. At times it was a struggle for me to motivate myself to get in and provide the feedback I should have provided in training along the way. I just wasn’t as invested as I needed to be. That probably most played out in being more quiet than I should have been – in practices and during matches.

I’ve said before that I quickly realized at Svedala that the situation wasn’t the sort of longer-term developmental project I really wanted. I decided fairly early on that I was probably going to be one-and-done. That certainly influenced my investment level, which I probably should have recognized and fought to avoid happening.

This is a lesson that I plan on taking with me moving forward.

And on the positive side?

Beyond that, I certainly had the opportunity to continue developing my practice planning skills. In particular, I had to do a lot of creative work in terms of trying to find ways to challenge players of different capabilities at levels appropriate to each in a situation where I had a varying number of players – usually fewer than one would like.

Of course I also got more experience working in a different culture. You could say two cultures when you factor in that we played against Danish teams and in Denmark several times. That expanded upon my coaching at Exeter.

In terms of what I’m proud of, very high up is being able to develop the confidence level of our two Swedish pin hitters. It was one of my top coaching priorities at the start of the year. Both of them were in need of a major boost at the start of the year. I’m not saying it was an immediate improvement. Nor will I suggest there weren’t bumps in the road along the way. By mid-season they were both much improved, though.

I think I’d also have to say I’m proud of being able to maximize what we had in the squad. Obviously, we didn’t always get the results we could have gotten. We developed a way of playing that suited well the players we had, though. I was complimented on the team’s style of play a number of times, including by one of the most respected coaches in the country. Clearly we were doing something right!

The bottom line is that it was a worthwhile experience, even if the way it ended rankled.

And moving forward?

There are already things I’ve taken from the Svedala experience with me in to working at MSU. Mainly that has been in the area of developing practice plans through the Spring season. As we get into pre-season in August, though, there will be other areas. Squad integration, team management, scouting, and the like will come to the fore.

Of course, should I find myself in a coaching job hunt again, the Svedala experience will play a big role. I definitely learned some things that should help me find a good fit. One could say that’s already the case in my MSU job. More broadly, my time coaching at that level will combine with the exposure I’ve had to German professional volleyball the last couple years to give me a better understanding of things should I pursue projects related to European volleyball.

The bottom line is every experience has value in some fashion – if you let it.

Is volleyball business or entertainment?

This post is motivated on an article on the WorldofVolleyball site.

That article’s title is Volleyball – Entertainment or Business? My immediate response to seeing it was, “Yes.” The two are intertwined. Volleyball is an entertainment business. It’s just as the NFL is an entertainment business and the English Premier League is an entertainment business.

Obviously, I’m talking primarily about the professional and international level of the sport here. That is the main focus of the WoV article. That isn’t to say, though, that lower levels of the sport aren’t about entertainment either. The waters just get a bit muddied when talking about something like high school or Juniors. You could also add marketing into the mix when it comes to colleges and universities. Clearly, sports impact applications and attendance at schools.

Professional teams

The primary focus of the WoV article is on teams, specifically teams from Poland, excluding themselves from competing in next season’s CEV club competitions – Champions League, Cup, etc. The reporting goes that the clubs are doing so because they don’t feel like they will be strong enough to legitimately challenge to win. As a result, they would rather save themselves the expense. This is a similar sort of discussion to the one I brought up in Properly professional or just participating?

When I coached in Sweden, this sort of decision-making was very much going on for the clubs there. No doubt it will continue to be the case. For the most part they did not see enough value being derived from taking part in CEV competition (or NEVZA) to justify the expense involved.

Non-Professional organizations

And it’s not like professional clubs are the only one making these sorts of choices.

Clubs and teams at all levels make decisions all the time about whether certain competitions or matches makes sense. When I coached at Brown we made choices about pre-conference tournaments. They were based on likely recruiting potential (which is why were frequently went to California). College coaches regularly pick out-of-conference competition with an eye toward the level of competition and how it will help them achieve their season objective (e.g. helping their RPI for NCAA tournament inclusion/seeding). Juniors clubs evaluate tournaments to play in with regards to the level of recruiting exposure they will provide, among other factors.

It all comes down to a cost vs. benefit (at least perceived) analysis.

Make it make sense to stay in

My view with regards to CEV and the like is that they should be doing everything they can to bring the clubs from the lower level countries into their competitions. You want to make the sport more relevant and financially stronger? Then you need to expand its popularity in places where it doesn’t get the exposure you’d like.

Find ways to incentivize clubs to take part in your competition. The NCAA pays travel expenses for teams playing in its tournament. It also does things to try to minimize those costs and travel times through how it structures it’s tournaments. The CEV needs to look at the reality of the sport at the lower levels and find ways to make their competitions more inclusive.

And this obviously isn’t something for just the less competitive countries and leagues, as the Polish clubs seem to be demonstrating.

I’ll return to the point I made above. Volleyball is an entertainment business. A major part of any business is ensuring that is will be able to continue operating – which means this applies to non-profit organizations as well as for-profit ones. This is something every confederation, league, and club needs to understand.

Cementing my coaching reputation

In May of 2013 the Devon Ladies team I coached won the South West Championships at the end of my first season coaching in England.

2013 South West Championships

The players on the court for championship point shown above represented six different nationalities – English, Polish, Czech, Italian, Spanish, and Filipino. That’s a taste of the ethnic diversity of U.K volleyball. I figure I coached players from about 25 different countries in my time there.

That tournament win was really satisfying. I took over the Devon team midway through their National League Division 1 campaign that season. They were 1-7 at that point, sitting on the bottom of the standings. We turned things around and won seven straight after I took charge. It was tough going at the start, with lots of 5-setters, but we built momentum and handled teams easily later. Our only loss was on the very last day of the season. We dropped a 5-set match away to the team that won the league. We beat that same team in the finals of the South West Championships tournament to take the gold.

I couldn’t help but have a laugh at being able to do that. That probably sounds a bit odd, so let me explain.

From the first time I stepped on a court in England – even before I made the decision to go there for my PhD – I would hear whispers of, “That’s the American coach.” There was this sense of awe that seemed to follow me around during my first year.

It was very strange and kind of unsettling. I did not bring some big, amazing track record with me. By American standards I was pretty middle of the road, most likely. The fact that I was a coach from the States, though, apparently gave me an aura of volleyball majesty.

The reason I was laughing about winning South West Championships is because I couldn’t help but think doing so just tended to support people’s perceptions of my quality as an American coach. This was especially so given how the Devon team did in the league and how the Exeter University teams I coached did in BUCS competition that year.

Fortunately, that American aura thing eventually wore off as people got to know me. Any respect toward me thereafter was earned. That was a much more comfortable feeling.

Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule

Thanks to the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, the so-called 10,000 hour rule came into broad use in the areas of achievement and talent. If you’re not familiar with the rule, here’s the gist. Basically, it suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of something. Tagged on to discussion of the rule is the question of the quality of those hours. There is a body of writing and research related to “deliberate practice”.

Well, according to this article, Gladwell misportrayed the research findings that were the basis for his book. Presenting academic and scientific papers in a mass-market friendly fashion can lead to this. The article goes on to explain the different ways there really is no such thing as a 10,000 rule.

Then there’s the question as to whether lots and lots of deliberate practice is sufficient to be a truly top performer. We as coaches know that’s not the only determining factor. In sports you need the physical attributes. I’m sorry, but if you’re 5’6″ you’re not going to be a hitter on the national team no matter how technically proficient you become at attacking.

The authors of the article do say Gladwell was spot on with one thing:

“…becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.”

Do you think coaching falls into that category?

Talking serving aggression and effectiveness

volleyball serve

Alan at VolleyMetrics wrote a post talking about serving effectiveness. It discusses the trade-off between aggressive serves and error control. This is something I wrote about before, perhaps most directly in the Serving: Go for it or get it in? post.

In the 2016 NCAA men’s final match between Ohio State and BYU there was an interesting serving dynamic. Ohio State was aggressive throughout the match. They made a number of errors early on. Eventually, though, they settled down. That kept BYU under constant pressure. It reached the point where the Cougars really struggled to receive well. As you can imagine, that OSU had a lot of transition point scoring opportunities.

Flipping things around, BYU actually seemed to get quite conservative in serve. They were pretty aggressive at the outset, but as the match progressed you saw more and more of the jump serve equivalent of lollipop serves. The result was good passing for OSU. That allowed them to run their MBs and score virtually at will.

This is the sort of trade-off Alan talked about with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season in his post. Do you rip your serves? Or do you take something off to not miss, knowing the opposition will be more effective in their sideout offense?

During the finals broadcast, commentary guy Kevin Barnett made comments about how the BYU program adhered to the Gold Medal Squared (GMS) philosophy. He described it as, among other things, one which espouses minimizing errors. I’ve yet to attend a GMS clinic or presentation, so I can’t speak to that personally. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit of that might have been part of BYU’s downfall.

Now, before the GMS proponents reading this get upset, let me explain.

I do not blame the GMS philosophy itself here. I speak instead to the conservatism that seemed to take hold of BYU’s play as the match progressed. Some of this may have been from the GMS influence. It could just as easily have been a function of game planning. Maybe it was the psychological reaction of players and coaches to the pressure of the situation.

BYU was touted as statistically the best blocking team in the country in 2016. Certainly at the outset they showed that strength. They made it very hard on the OSU pin hitters by regularly putting up big triple blocks. I can’t help but wonder if that led the team to say something to the effect of “We’re blocking really well, so let’s keep the errors down and allow our block to do what it does best.”

And it might not have even been a conscious thing.

As I wrote about in Looking at serving and blocking together, there is a definitely link between the amount of pressure you put on a team with your serving and the effectiveness of your block. BYU’s block was a lot less effective when OSU was able to pass well and run their middles. So if there was that mentality of keeping the errors down, it backfired.

Surrounded by people, but lonely

Just finished another weekend spent recruiting. This will probably be the last trip for 2016. Once more it took me to the Dallas area. This time it was for the North Texas region’s national bid tournaments.

For those who don’t know, each USA Volleyball region is allocated a certain number of bids to Nationals at the different levels of play. These are additional bids to the ones that teams can earn through the national qualifying tournaments. The one I was at a couple weeks ago is an example (in the case of the Open division, qualifiers are the only way to get a bid).

On Saturday I was at the 17s tournament to watch pool play to evaluate prospects for the 2017 class. We’ve got two verbal commitments (both played), but have at least one position to sort out. The event was hosted at the Dallas Skyline facility. Here’s a rather random picture I apparently took at some point. There are 5 courts in use (I think they can do 8 total) – sportcourt over concrete. The banners on the wall are from recent National’s medal finishes.

college volleyball recruiting

Sunday I shifted to the 16s tournament as they went through brackets. Six courts used in this case. With the 17s I actually had a specific list of players to evaluate. In the case of the 16s, though, I was just there to make note of interesting potential 2018 recruits. It’s too early to contact them (though not by much). It was more about getting them on our list for later. Some won’t be realistic for our level, and I generally marked them down as such.

Of course watching a bunch of 15-16 year-olds and trying to project what they will be like as players (and people) two years down the road – and even further to the end of their college career – is a serious challenge. That’s the real trick of recruiting.

By yourself in a crowd

It’s funny recruiting at a 16s tournament because no one is allowed to talk to you. NCAA rules prohibit you talking to prospects during an event regardless of age. In the older age groups you can at least chat with parents. Not so with the younger ones. There weren’t many other college coaches there recruiting – at least overtly.  Some may have been there as club team coaches. Either way, not much in the way of peer conversation either. Being new to the area, I don’t yet know the region’s Juniors coaches. I was recruiting on my own, so there wasn’t really anyone for me to chat with.

Of course you can’t go to any events like this without seeing “those” parents. I saw one father who looked like any error was causing him physical pain. I felt like walking over to him and saying something to the effect of, “It’s a game played by kids, not life or death.” Not sure that would have done any good, though.

Libero in 5 or 6?

A question that most volleyball coaches have to answer at one time or another – oftentimes on a regular basis – is whether we will use our libero to play in Zone 5 or Zone 6. That generally is meant to be addressing the case of the libero playing back row for the two middles. It is part, however, of a broader question of how to maximize your back court, both offensively and defensively.

There are three primary considerations involved in answering this question.

Back row attack
Generally speaking, if you want your back row OH to be an attacking option then you probably want to position them in 6. Because that usually (but not always) involves them taking up a deeper position, it means they are better able to get a good approach for their attack. It also provides a bit more attacking flexibility, especially when working in combination with a front row quick attack (e.g. running the bic or back row quick). Having them playing in 5 limits things.

Second ball setter out-of-system
In the situation where the setter has to take the first ball, who takes the second? I wrote about the setter-out setting question previously. If the player in 5 is expected to take the second ball then you have to think about whether a back row attack is desirable in your scheme. If so, then having your OH setting isn’t desirable. There is also the question as to who’s going to set better ball to the front row players, which is more of a personnel question than a system one.

Best digger
The other consideration has to do with how you’re setting up your defense. Will most balls tend to go to 6 or to 5 in your system. Is there a meaningful difference in the digging ability of your OHs vs. your libero? If so, you may want to favor one or the other defending in the zone where more balls go. But keep in mind the question of the purpose of defense.

Different situations, different schemes
When I was coaching the Exeter women in my second year we played a system where we left one MB in and only used the libero on the other with both playing in 6. My reasons were because I had OHs who were strong reacting forward into the court (good for playing in 5), but not strong moving laterally (needed in 6), and we didn’t use them much for attacking back row as the MB and setter or OPP could all take those swings. When I was at Svedala our OHs played in 6 for attacking reasons.

The bottom line is that you need to think about your team and your players and go with what maximizes the effectiveness of the personnel.