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 the date of my first MSU assistants meeting it conflicted 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 not 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, though.

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 an article once. In fact, hitters in baseball have some of the more ridiculous pre- routines.

In particular, Natalie’s discussion of pre-serve routine focused on keeping things simple.

“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.

Don’t tell me I can’t or get in my way

This post might seem like an unusual detour from the normal content of the blog. Hopefully it will make some kind of sense, though.

One of the things that has long motivated me is someone telling me I can’t do something. I’m not talking about not being allowed. I’m talking about not being capable. One of the surest ways to motivate me is to say “You can’t…”

This is even more so when people throw obstacles in my way in one form or another.

I recently came across a song that kind of encapsulates my feeling on the subject. It’s Throne by Bring Me The Horizon. It’s an angry song in the hard rock genre that may not suit everyone’s musical tastes. As the lyrics below indicate, though, it’s basically about sticking it to those who put you down by not just succeeding, but coming out on top.

Here are the lyrics (courtesy azlyrics.com)

Remember the moment you left me alone and
Broke every promise you ever made
I was an ocean, lost in the open
Nothing could take the pain away

So you can throw me to the wolves
Tomorrow I will come back
Leader of the whole pack
Beat me black and blue
Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

The sticks and the stones that
You used to throw have
Built me an empire
So don’t even try
To cry me a river
Cause I forgive you
You are the reason I still fight

[x2:]
So you can throw me to the wolves
Tomorrow I will come back
Leader of the whole pack
Beat me black and blue
Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

[x2:]
I’ll leave you choking
On every word you left unspoken
Rebuild all that you’ve broken
And now you know

Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

So you can throw me to the wolves
Tomorrow I will come back
Leader of the whole pack
Beat me black and blue
Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

A 1-hour practice plan

One Spring day at MSU we had the last of the off-season practice sessions with the team before they went on Spring Break. After the break we were shifting into the non-traditional season (Spring Training). Those with an NCAA background know we could only do 2 hours of on-court work in the off season. All the players had done an hour already earlier in the week – either individually or in small groups. This session, though, featured everyone. As I had recently found out, that was allowed in Division II. It wasn’t in Division I when I coached that level.

Since we only had two practices before our first Spring tournament, the head coach wanted to give the players a chance to go 6 v 6 for the first time in a long while. We therefore decided to devote 30 minutes to that. The first 30 minutes was build up to it.

Here’s one of the tricks of maximizing your time with the players in this kind of situation. Get them to warm-up on their own before you get into the gym. That way you can go right to work. By the time we got there, the players were already into playing back row Winners 3s.

Activity #1

We had 12 players with just one court set up. The first thing we did was to have them play 3 v 3 on a narrow court. In other words, we had two games going on next to each other. We grouped the players by position, then did a count-off to decide their teams. We ran two rounds of play, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers for the second one. If I’m remembering correctly, it was a back row attack only game. The games went to 8.

Activity #2

The second activity is something I did at times with my Svedala team. I developed it as a kind of a Belly Drill or Speedball variation in teams of 4 (counted off as above). Two teams were on the court with one off waiting to come on. The teams on played out a 4 v 4 rally (all hitting options available). At its conclusion, the waiting team replaced the losers while a coach initiated a ball to the winners (down ball over the net).

This is a fast-paced game. The players don’t get much down time. We played for 15 minutes and the teams kept track of rally wins. I think it was something like 27, 25, and 20. So we got in at least as many points as you’d get in 1.5 sets in less time than it generally takes to play a single one. This is more rallies we would have seen in Winners 4s, with the inherent delay of teams waving through to the winners’ side.

Activity #3

The last half of the session was simple game play. We divided the players by position. That created some imbalances and caused some funky rotational requirements. One of the assistants jumped in to balance out the hitting, while a pair of defenders split time playing back row for one team. They got into a second set before the hour was up and decided to keep going after we left.

Skill coverage

Let’s think about how much we included of the various skills in this short session.

  • The 3 v 3 game and the 6 v 6 both included serving, though in the latter case not everyone ended up doing it because of the team compositions (some players front-row-only).
  • Serve reception was part of both the 3 v 3 and 6 v 6.
  • All of the games included setting, though it was only in 6 v 6 where the setters specifically took all the second balls. In the other games sometimes they did, but often times it was other players.
  • Hitting was included in all three games from a variety of locations.
  • Blocking was included in all three games, though only in the 6 v 6 was their regular double blocking.
  • Defense was included in all three games, with the 4 v 4 essentially starting each rally with a defense ball (down ball from the other side of the net).

So you could say the balance was skewed toward the “open play” type of skills – setting, hitting, blocking, defense – with a bit less in serving and passing. We could have boosted the serve reception by having the assistants serve a ball to start the next rally in the 4 v 4 game.

How do you prove your value as a coach?

In what was nominally about coaching motivation, Mark Lebedew included a quote from Shane Battier (basketball) in one of his At Home on the Court posts. The first line of it goes:

“There’s not a coach out there who doesn’t want to prove their worth.”

If you want to go further with the motivation subject, I encourage you to go to Mark’s post and follow on from there. You can argue for or against Battier’s suggestion and/or what Mark says in the first line of the piece (has to do with winning). What I want to focus on in this post isn’t the motivation side of things, but rather the “How?” which must necessarily follow on from Batteir’s statement.

How do we as coaches prove our worth?

There is a secondary question which I think must be asked before we can even start to address this one, though?

To who do we need to prove our worth?

For the sake of discussion, let’s exclude anything related to the idea that we don’t need to prove our worth to anyone. I think at a minimum we all want to prove our worth as coaches to ourselves on some level or another.

Generally speaking, there are a few potential constituencies involved in answering the “Who?” questions. Many of us have a current employer and prospective future ones. We all have players on our team, and in many cases parents of players. There may be boosters and alumni. Certainly there are our coaching peers. This ties in with our perspective of our broad coaching motivation.

No doubt there’s a lot of overlapping interest between these groups – for better or for worse. For example, winning and losing probably factors in for all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Each, though, also has its own perspective on things. For example, if you coach at a college you are going to be judged by your Athletic Director a lot on the things you do off the court, but your players probably won’t care too much about that stuff. They’re more interested in the training and competitive environment you foster.

Unfortunately, for many of us we have multiple individuals or groups we are proving ourselves to at any given time. Sometimes they conflict, which means we have a balancing act to try to keep things going well. At times it means we have to prioritize one group over the others.

So who do you have to prove your value to and how do you do that?

And does this conflict with your own motivation for coaching?

Shifting from cooperative to competitive

I like to use cooperative drills like this, this, and this with my teams for a couple of reasons. One is that they give players a lot of quality – meaning game-like – contacts. They sustain longer rallies, so the ball crosses the net more often. Another is that they help train players to make good decisions in situations you want less aggressive play to just keep the rally going. You can potentially add in a couple other things as well.

At MSU we sometimes run a competitive version of the rotating cooperative cross-court hitting drill. Obviously, instead of having the players keep the rally going, they play to win each one. In this variation, points can only be scored actively, not on opponent error. Basically, that means you get a point for a kill or a block, but nothing for an opponent hitting error. At the end of a rally, a coach initiates a new ball (over the net) to the winning team (whether they earned a point or not).

The team plays 4 games to eight points – 4 vs 4, 4 vs 2, 2 vs 2, 2 vs. 4.

On the face of it, this might be a nice way to work on cross-court defense and things like that. At one point, though, I was tempted to call a time out and see if I could get the hitters to think about the easiest way to score.

Have you figured out what that would be?

Consider this. You have one blocker in position 2. You have defenders in 4, 5, and 6 basically covering half the court. That leaves half the court wide open. Yes, it’s technically out of bounds. But if you can tick the ball off the block …

If the players were to get smart enough to realize this, then the drill/game kind of falls apart – at least from the perspective of wanting lots of touches from more sustained rallies. On the other hand, it could be an interesting exercise in getting hitters thinking outside the box and working the block.

My broad point in all this – like using other scoring systems and/or bonus points – is that you definitely need to make sure you think about the potential implications involved. Specifically, what might the scoring incentivize above and beyond the basic level?

Just something to consider in your planning.