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Considerations in serve reception ratings

In the article Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness I talk about the common usage of a 0-3 type of scale for rating serve reception. In this post, fellow volleyball blogger Hai-Binh Ly discusses how he progressed defining these ratings. Basically, he’s reached the point of using very defined zones to judging a pass’s rating. These are the zones defined within the commonly used DataVolley statistical program. Ly outlines them in his post.

I have my concerns with rigid definitions. Ly mentions some of them with respect to grey areas, but I would focus more on the fact that they fail to account for setter athleticism. Simply stated, a pass that might only be a 1 for a given setter might be a 2 for a quicker one. It could even be a 3. Think about a tight pass that a short setter cannot handle, but a taller one has no problem with.

The thing we have to keep in mind is the underlying idea behind these pass ratings.

The intention was to speak to the probability of earning the sideout. This is what Dr. Jim Coleman had in mind when he developed the rating system. The premise is that a 3-pass results in a sideout some percentage of the time. A 2-pass, on average, sees a team sideout at some other frequency – most likely lower. And so on down the line. From this perspective, a team’s average pass rating indicates its approximate sideout rate.

If pass ratings are going to approximate sideout success rates, then it makes sense to use a more discretionary rating approach. By that I mean rating passes based on the circumstances of the team in question. In other words, what can your setter do with the ball? Rigid definitions for each pass rating do not make sense in that context.

If, however, we want to compare serve reception across teams, or between players, then a more fixed system is more appropriate. In that case, we need a common system of measurement. That removes setter variability from the equation.

So which is best?

As a coach, it depends on your setters. Are they of similar quality? If so, you can use the more discretionary approach. If they are noticeably different, though, you probably have to go with a more rigid system. This is especially true if your passers do not work with each setter basically the same amount of time. It’s the only fair way to compare them.

Coaching Log – September 11, 2017

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

Time for the second week of pre-conference action. We got a glimpse of where teams in the league might be at from the first week’s results, but only to a limited degree. In particular, Tarleton looked quite strong taking down two higher ranked teams. On the other hand, the two New Mexico schools both went 0-4, perhaps unexpectedly. It was against decent competition, though, so maybe not a good indication just yet. This week’s round of matches would help clear the picture up a bit further.

Monday

It was a light, recovery oriented return to the court after the prior weekend’s action. We took advantage of the holiday to do a midday session rather than our normal afternoon one. For about the first 20 minutes we talked about our performance and where we need to go to reach our season objectives.

The session itself was only about 60 minutes long. We did some ball-handling to warm-up generally, then used around-the-world serving to warm-up that part of things. The bulk of the session saw us work on serve-to-reception-to-middle/RS attack. In particular, we wanted to work on slides. They just weren’t where we need them to be.

The last part of practice was back on serving. I introduced the team to the Run & Serve drill. We wanted to do some pressure serving and I have used this drill with several teams over the years. It creates a the obvious pressure of making a serve while also adding the element of doing so immediately after physical exertion.

We adjusted it a little, though. First, we split the team over two courts to make it competitive (who finishes first). Second, we only served in one direction to avoid balls impeding our jump servers.

The initial round the objective was to get the serve in with the requirement that the ball not be higher than the height of the antenna. Not a major challenge for this level of player, but you have to start somewhere. It took one group two tries to finish, and the other three tries.

We did it one more time, making it a little tougher. Again, the serve had to be flat. Now it also had to land in the back third of the court. The same group who won the first time finished this one in just a handful of tries. The other group took several rounds longer. The comments after reflected the the players did indeed feel the pressure of it. One of them was heard to say it was like eight match point serves.

Tuesday

Back to the split sessions once more. We continued to have a serve receive to attack focus that we did quite a bit of last week. This time, though, there was much more focus on serving. We kept track of the servers in terms of both how effectively they were hitting their selected targets and how often they missed their serves.

I think broadly speaking those who did the best were at about 10% errors. The others remained about 20%, so basically what we saw from the weekend. In terms of hitting their targets, it seemed to be below 50%. Not exactly great figures. No doubt more work in these areas will follow.

Wednesday

Although it wasn’t necessarily our plan going in, we put the players under considerable pressure in this session. This came from two exercises.

The first was a high tempo transition oriented drill. We wanted to work on base reset and being stopped in defense and coverage. On one side a team of six was the focus. Their objective was to quickly get back to base and stopped before setter contact each time they attacked a ball over the net. Their objective was to do that five times in a row. Each cycle started with them getting a downball and running the offense. Once that rally was over, the other side had a ball tossed to the setter for them to attack. If at any point the focus team did not do their job, they reset back to zero. There was very little time between rallies, so it went very fast and was very demanding.

The other tough drill was one where we had the OHs attacking against a set double block. Their collective goal was to get to +10. Every good attack away from where a defender would be (including block-out attacks) was a +1. Any balls in or hitting the net or stuff blocks was a -1. Our MBs and RSs did the blocking. It was a frustrating experience for a couple of the hitters.

We finished up with regular games, but shortened. We want to create more of a focus on getting going strong in matches, so we decided to aim to be first to 8 in our games. We’re hoping that helps with the sluggish starts we had to all of our first four matches.

Thursday

This was a travel day as we headed south to Austin for the weekend’s tournament. We did, though, do a bit of a server & pass session when we got into town. It only went about 35 minutes, but was kind of intense. Mainly, we did alternating serve reception in rotations. After that, though, we did a couple of rounds of Continuous Transition and finished with pressure serving.

Friday

Our first match of the day was against Black Hills State, from South Dakota. They are a member of the RMAC, which is one of the three conferences in our NCAA region, making it a meaningful one for regional ranking purposes. In 2016 they finished in 10th, and the pre-season conference poll saw them finishing at a similar level this year.

This was a tricky match. Black Hills already had a match under their belt – a 5-set win over fellow Lone Star Conference team UT Permian basin. They definitely gave us some trouble early on. The first set was a close on that we lost 23-25. I think maybe the fact that we expected to win and didn’t played with our psyche some as we had a terrible second set. Also, we were mixing around the line-up a bit, experimenting some with a 6-2 system. We lost 12-25 and hit -.091. After that, things settled out. We won the next two 25-20 and 25-22. The fifth set was tight for a while, but we went on a long right on points and won easily, 15-7.

Overall, we hit .211 on the match. That, though, was seriously lowered by the poor second set. All the others were .225 or better, with the final two sets coming at .385 and .300. The work on serving during the week paid off. We had only 9 errors on the match out of 100 attempts. Our junior transfer DS tormented their serve reception, picking up 6 aces.

Our second match of the day was against the tournament hosts St. Edwards. We played them at our home tournament last year and lost rather disappointingly. They are from the Heartland Conference, with is also part of the trio of conferences comprising our NCAA region. So another meaningful match for the rankings. Last year they tied for 3rd in the conference standings and were picked to repeat that in 2017.

Once more, we had a difficult start to the match. A late comeback put us in position to win, but in the end we came up short at 26-28. We made 12 hitting errors on the set. From there we won rather convincingly, 25-20, 25-17, 25-15. This was one of our better defensive performances as we dug more than half of opponent attacks and had 13 blocks. As a result, they only hit .075 for the match. We only hit .185 ourselves, but if you drop that poor first set it would be .263.

Saturday

The final match of the tournament saw us play Southern Arkansas. They are from the GMAC, and not from an adjoining state, so are not a regional team. In 2016 they finished 10th in the conference, with the preseason poll seeing them come in at 11th this year.

We played a lot of players in this match, and for one whole set went with a 6-2. It definitely led to some sloppy play. In the end, we won 3-1 on scores of 25-20, 25-22, 24-26, 25-17. Honestly, the third set wasn’t really that close. That’s the one we went with the 6-2 on. It took a massive comeback in the latter stages to make it seem respectable.

Our offense was massive in this match, with a .353 final hitting efficiency. That’s the best an MSU team has done in about 10 years. The last set came in at .567, with 19 kills! Our freshman OH had 21 kills, with a better than 50% kill rate (her total of 25 points is tied for 4th in program history since keeping track). In fact, so did our junior transfer OH, who ended up at a .524 efficiency. Our defense, though, was poor. Overall, they hit .206, but that was dragged down by an .077 in the first set. Our blocking was all over the place, which not surprisingly left our defense exposed.

Final outcome

Our 3-0 weekend made us tournament champions, so we came away with exactly what we wanted. It was the first tournament sweep for the program in four years (that one was at home). Obviously, we’d liked it to have been a trio of sweeps, but we did get to see some new stuff that may pay off in the future. Our sophomore OH got some playing time after missing last the initial round of matches due to injury.

Not surprisingly, our players dominated the statistical leaders for the event. While it didn’t include the tally from the final match (played immediately after our last one), it likely was at least very close to the end results. We had three of the top 8 in terms of hitting efficiency, four of the top five in kills/set, four of the top seven in aces/set, and two in the top eight for blocks.

Or senior MB was tops in both efficiency (.389) and kills/set (3.31), as well as holding fourth in blocks (1.38). For that, she rightly was voted MVP. We honestly felt like she should have made all-tournament the previous week, but somehow we didn’t get anyone selected.

Our senior setter earned Setter of the Tournament. Our transfer junior OH was also picked to the all-tournament team.

Pre-conference vs. pre-season

I want to address something that confuses volleyball people outside the US at times.

In professional sports – including volleyball – pre-season preparation includes a certain amount of external competition. They televise and analyze these games in the NFL, for example. In other sports, not so much.

Volleyball is one of those sports.

Professional teams (and non-pros as well) play loads matches during their pre-season which they call friendlies. I watched one in 2015 when I was at Bühl. They hosted a Dutch team. If I remember correctly, they played something like 15 friendlies in 2014. That’s over the course of a pre-season lasting about two months. When I coached in Sweden, we played 5 or 6 friendlies during our month of preparation.

But they don’t count for anything.

Yes, my Svedala team won a pre-season tournament in Denmark. It did not, however, influence any kind of standings or rankings. This is where things are very different for NCAA teams.

In US college volleyball teams play lots of matches before they get into conference play. We don’t call them friendlies, though. We call them pre-conference or non-conference matches (not all happen before conference play) and they count toward our official season. The NCAA permits teams to play on a specific number of dates. Conference matches take up a certain number of those dates. Schools fill the rest with non-conference matches.

Once upon a time, pre-conference matches served the same purpose as do friendlies in the professional game. They helped prepare a team for conference play. Maybe also to give non-starters some playing time – especially when they happen during the conference season.

Then there came into consideration at-large bids to the NCAA championship tournament. Tournament selection committees had to compare teams from all over the country, which saw things like strength of schedule, polls, and eventually the RPI develop. And of course, once you have those things, you get schools aiming to make themselves look attractive to the committee. Generally speaking, teams don’t control their conference schedule. That just leaves their non-conference schedule open to manipulation.

Let me provide an example from NCAA Division II.

At this level the first three rounds of play are regionalized. By that I mean the country has been divided up into 8 regions. Each comprises a group of conferences. From those conferences, a committee selects eight teams to compete in their NCAA Regional tournament. The regional tournament winners then advance to the national quarterfinal round.

The eight teams who reach the regional tournaments do so in two ways. First are the automatic qualifiers. Those are the champions of the conferences in that region. Midwestern State is in the NCAA’s South Central region as part of the Lone Star Conference. The Heartland Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference are the other two conferences in the region. The winner of each earns an automatic bid to the NCAA regional tournament.

Now that three automatic spots are covered, that leaves five for the selection committee to fill. These are done primarily from the Region’s ranking of teams. The rankings reflect how teams in the region do against each other and how they do against common opponents, among other factors.

So if a team wants to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA regional tournament it must demonstrate its strength relative to other prospective at-large teams in that region. Teams do so by playing non-conference teams within the region. It can also mean playing teams outside the region that demonstrate your level of play in comparison to others.

The bottom line is that non-conference match selection matters for at least some teams. Not only must a team select its opposition well, it must do well against them. This is why we don’t call them friendly, and why we count them as part of our official season. You can compare this whole process to how the CEV ranks countries and teams based on their performance in CEV competitions for consideration toward bid distribution and seedings.

Coaching Log – September 4, 2017

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

The 2017 NCAA Division II season is underway!

Player meetings

As we prepared for the first weekend of competition, we did individual meetings with all the players. They were basically a check-in to talk about where each of them was at in their development, how they were feeling about the team, etc. Of course we also talked with each of them about where we see them vis-a-vis playing time.

Monday

After a weekend off, we were back in action on Monday. The players had an early morning weights session to kick things off. Unfortunately, it was also picture day for the team. Pictures were supposed to happen in the 15 minutes before practice. If you know anything about how this sort of stuff goes, though, you know it never takes that little time. We had a 2-hour practice slot scheduled, but I think we only got to go for something like 1:15 by the time the picture dust settled.

The abbreviated session ended up being mainly about competition. It started with Brazilian 2-ball. We did a upper-classmen vs lower-classmen game in Buenos Aires that the older team lost. They asked for a rematch, and won convincingly. Of course, now that means we’ll have to do it one more time to break the tie.

After that we did a serving warm-up, then moved on to back row Speedball 4s. From there it was on to what we call Side v Side. That’s a competitive version of the Cooperative Cross Court Hitting drill. We played a series of games to 4 points where only earned points counted (kills, blocks).

The last 15 minutes or so was a 6 v 6 game. We wanted something fast-paced, so coaches initiated balls to the side that lost the prior rally. While that was happening, the winning team did substitutions.

Tuesday

The players’ Tuesday class schedule makes it impossible to do a full team session, at least at any reasonable time of day. Further, we have several Tuesday matches. As a result, we opted to split the team into morning and afternoon groups based on availability. Serving and passing was the major focus of the groups for this week, but mainly with offensive and blocking elements added in. It was a tough day for the passers as the servers were really going at them.

Wednesday

More fitness testing and weights in the morning. We carried elements of Tuesday’s serve reception work in to the start of the day’s practice. First, though, we worked through a couple of elements of our pre-match warm-up. We’re making some adjustments to what we did last year.

The two core element of the session were games. First we did a 4 v  4 out-of-system game to work on that phase of play in terms of setting and hitting. We then shifted to 6 v 6 play to work through rotations.

Thursday

We practiced our pre-match warm-up at the beginning of the session to prepare for the weekend action. After that, we repeated the prior day’s serve/pass/attack drills, then moved on to 6 v 6 to continue working on rotations.

I think the session started out pretty well, but the focus seemed to drift as time went on. Lots of bad errors started to come in to the action. That suggested to me a mentally fatigued group.

Friday

Our competitive season started at Tarleton, our fellow Lone Star Conference team who was hosting a tournament. It’s an event that featured not only relatively short travel (about 2.5 hours), but also an interesting competitive mix.

Our first match of the day was against preseason #23 Rockhurst. The were the champions of the western division of the Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC) last year, and made the NCAA tournament. To be blunt, we played pretty poorly in a 3-0 loss (-8,-13,-17). You expect to have a tough time against good competition, but we just made too many mistakes and didn’t put them under nearly enough pressure.

The one bright spot was our serve reception. We passed better than 2.00. Also, in working through a few different lineup variations we got to something that seemed to put us on the right track moving forward.

The second match was against Maryville. They too represent the GLVC, but were at the bottom of the league in 2016. We started off poorly, managing only six kills in the first set, but our opponents made a number of errors that kept us in it and we eventually got our noses in front. The remaining two sets we were much more effect, hitting over .300 in both and getting comfortable wins for a 3-0 final result (-21,-21,-18).

Saturday

Our first match of the day was once more a challenging one. This time it was preseason #18 Central Oklahoma. UCO is a member of the MIAA, where they finished 3rd in 2016. The teams above them were Nebraska-Kearny, who we see in a couple weeks, and Washburn, who we played last season. Although they are not part of our NCAA region, UCO counts as regional opposition for us because they are from an adjoining state. That means playing them impacts our regional RPI. None of the others do.

This was a far better match for us than the initial one on Saturday. We had our struggles in the first set, just making a few too many errors. That improved in the second and third sets. Instead, we had UCO under constant pressure in rallies. It very nearly resulted in a win in Set 2. We were up 20-16, but just couldn’t close it out. In Set 3 we rode an 85% sideout rate to a relatively comfortable win. Unfortunately, the final set saw us fall back to making too many errors, so we lost 3-1 (-17, -22, 25-20, -21).

Service errors was a problem for us. We had 21 of them (against 6 aces). Our aggressiveness was rewarded in UCO only passing 1.80 on the match, but all the misses contributed to an overall sideout rate of nearly 70%. In contrast, we passed a 2.26, which was the best of the weekend.

It has to be said, this was probably the best match MSU Volleyball has played in years when you consider the caliber of competition. The energy level was great. We just needed to be a bit cleaner in our execution and to close things out better when we had the chance.

The final match of the tournament for us was against Southwest Baptist. They were the bottom team in the MIAA last year. I figured going in it would be a trap match after the big energy exerted in the first. I was right.

We really struggled to get back going again to start the match. The unsurprising result is that we fell behind early in the first set. Our offense was pretty ineffective and we weren’t stopping them. We managed to start to get the engine rolling as the set progressed, but a bit too little, too late, so we lost a close one.

After that, we ended up winning relatively comfortably, though it didn’t always feel like it. We hit .400 in the final set, which pulled our final hitting efficiency up to .195 for the match. That gives you an idea of how enemic our attack was for much of the time. It was our middles who led the charge there. As the match progressed they became nearly impossible to stop. Our freshman went 4 for 5 in the final set. The end result was a 3-1 win (23-25, -19, -18, -14).

For the fourth time in a row we passed better than 2.0 in this match. We arguably made too many serving errors once more (15), but this time we got the aces (13) to balance that out.

Thoughts from the tournament

All in all, the 2-2 record on the weekend is what I expected. I would have liked our first and last matches to have been better ones, but you expect that kind of thing early in the season with as many new players as we’ve got.

The UCO match definitely showed us what this team is capable of. It’s going to be a question of building from there. There are definitely things we need to get better at. I think we could dig hard attacks better than we did. We can vary up our attacks – in particular our OH attacks – more than we did, both in terms of direction and mixing in shots. Obviously, serving needs to improve. I think overall we missed about 19%, which is simply too high.

The thing I did like is how many improvements we made just over the course of the event. The middle connections became better. Our new players definitely learned some good lessons, while our experienced players were very solid and consistent, as you’d hope.

Cooperative vs. competitive for games and drills

Generally speaking, there are two types of games and drills you can use in your volleyball training. One is cooperative where the group is working together toward some objective. The other is competitive where you divide the group and pit one part against the other. Each type of approach has its uses.

Cooperative

Broadly, going cooperative means having a collective goal. That could be something like 20 good passes when doing a serving and passing drill. The Continuous Cross-Court Hitting drill is a game-play example of a cooperative drill.

I personally find these sorts of exercises most useful when working on decision-making. For example, the Hard Drill – and variations on it – is good to help players learn when they should attack aggressively and when they should keep the ball in play. It helps train a more intentional type of play, as well as control.

There is a drawback to cooperative activities, though. The players tend not to challenge each other as much. In serve and pass the serves are a bit easier. In drills with hitters attacking, the swings are not as aggressive. Even if you make it a point to only count the hard swings, they still won’t be consistently as hard as would otherwise be the case. It’s a trade-off. You have to weigh the benefits of the control elements against this.

Competitive

Any exercise where teams (or players) earn points and compare those points to someone else is a competitive one. That ranges from normal games and wash drills to things like servers vs. passers games.

Obviously, when you go competitive you help to further develop your team’s competitiveness. The tricky part can be making sure what you give points for is what you want the team doing. Players will inevitably figure out the most straightforward way to score. That might not always be the sort of solution you’re looking for to the problem you are trying to present them.

For example, there’s a competitive variation of Continuous Cross-Court Hitting where a team scores points for kills and blocks. Since the defense only covers half the court, however, an attacker could easily just hit the ball off the block and into the open part of the court to score. Certainly, from one perspective that’s a good thing. The attacker has figured out how to use the block. The point of the exercise, though, is to stimulate good attacking and defending sequences. Hitters going block-out all the time defeats the purpose.

That’s the sort of thing you need to keep in mind when setting up your games.

Also, you have to consider whether being competitive is appropriate or not based on the balance of the teams. It’s a real challenge, even when using modified scoring, to make an A-team vs. B-team scrimmage competitive if there is a meaningful ability gap.

Cooperative-competitive

There is actually a third way to go that blends to two primary approaches. It’s one that can help to overcome the more passive elements of cooperative exercises. The idea here is that the players are rewarded for challenging each other, not for simply playing the ball to a teammate.

Consider again the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. The objective there is to sustain a rally by hitting the ball at a teammate so they can produce a controlled dig. That’s fine when you want to work on general control. The hitter has a set of clear targets.

At a certain point, though, you want your hitters aiming for the holes in the defense, not the defenders. A cooperative-competitive version of the drill would be to count as successful reps only those attacks that are aimed at seams or open areas. That might not sound cooperative, but if the whole group is aiming for a certain number of good reps, that’s exactly what it is. They collectively gets points for trying to beat each other. And you could add points for good defensive plays so it’s not just about hitting.

Can you see the benefit? Now you have everyone working hard to challenge each other. Attackers are working to find new ways to beat the defense. The defense is working to get better about reading the attackers’ intentions. As coach you get to decide what counts.

Could you get the same from a competitive version of the drill? Yes and no. Obviously, in that case the hitters and defense are trying to beat each other. In normal point scoring, though, attackers can sometimes still score points even when they play the ball directly to a defender. That’s not really what you’re after.

Also you may have an imbalance in your groups, or you may want to help develop an overall team spirit. In those cases, a more cooperative approach might be best. It’s great to see players excited for the good plays of their teammates. That’s easier to foster within the collective group when those great plays benefit everyone explicitly.

Thoughts?

Coaching Log – August 29, 2017

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

We’re back from Buenos Aires. I wrote a fairly detailed post about the trip here, but I’ll have a bit more to say about it from a coaching perspective below.

School starts today and our 2017 schedule begins on Friday. As I posted on social media earlier, we have five teams in the preseason AVCA poll Top 25 on the calendar. Two of them are teams we play this coming weekend – Central Oklahoma and Rockhurst.

Pre-season conference poll

In an interesting development, we were picked to finish 9th in our conference in the pre-season voting. That’s worse than our finish last year. The two teams below us are Cameron and UTPB. We beat both easily each time we played them last year.

Angelo was picked to finish 1st, with Tarleton pegged for 2nd place, in line with the pre-season rankings. Angelo lost their All-American OH to graduation, but had some depth last year. They might not deserve #9 in the nation. They probably deserve #1 in the conference at this point, though.

Buenos Aires trip

From a volleyball perspective, the Buenos Aires trip was definitely worthwhile. It presented the players with a number of challenges. The balls were different (harder and lighter) and the training facilities were more limited than what we’re used to and with very different lighting. That forced some adaptations. The first part of our first training session was really, really ugly in terms of ball-handling. Things got better pretty quickly though.

We practiced every day but one, albeit sometimes shorter on the days around our matches. A lot of our focus was on the defensive side of things. That doesn’t mean we didn’t do everything, but the feedback tended to be concentrated on defense.

Getting to face outside competition was very useful. We played everyone on our roster, though not equally. We switched around between 5-1 and 6-2 systems and had fun trying to work within the FIVB rule structure used during our first match against San Lorenzo. All the lineup mixing meant we didn’t have a consistent starting six, but the point was to see how everyone performed and reacted to the circumstances. To that end there were definitely some pleasant surprises – particularly among the newcomers.

We played four sets the first match. The second set was a close 24-26 loss, but the rest were quite lopsided. Not surprisingly, we were pretty tight in the first set. Our serving was not nearly strong enough to trouble San Lorenzo. Overall they sided out 71% of the time. We made quite a new in-the-net service errors and had too many hitting errors overall. The bright spots were in serve reception and blocking. We got 7 blocks to their 4 and passed a respectable 1.95 against a pretty good serving team.

The second match against San Lorenzo also went four sets, but this time we won one of them. They started off with a strong team and beat us pretty good again, but brought in a number of younger players for the second. That’s the set we won, but even then it was tight. We were a bit sloppy. The remaining sets they played a more balanced squad and won comfortably.

Our passing in this match was solid to start, but took a dive especially in the 4th set. We ended up at 1.84 overall. We served a bit better this time, but still not strong enough to really put San Lorenzo under consistent pressure.

The final match we played was against Boca Juniors. We used their gym for our practices. They were down a bunch of players to national team call-up, so we basically just played them in a scrimmage during our last training session. We had to loan them a couple of our pin hitters for the match. It ended up being a 5-set match, which was a great way to end the trip.

They want our players!

One of the more interesting developments on the trip is that both San Lorenzo and Boca Juniors had positive things to say about some of our players. One of them actually said they’d sign our senior setter for their next Metropolitan League campaign starting in March. There were some conversations about doing player exchanges which might carry forward. NCAA rules are a major consideration there, however.

All-Staff meeting

In a complete reversal of my experience with such things, we actually had a meeting of the full athletics staff that ran shorter than the planned time. It was just a bit of an information dump ahead of the new school year. The only thing that really caught my attention was the potential expansion of the Lone Star Conference (LSC) via a merger with the Heartland Conference. That could get the LSC up to 20 teams, which would certainly force changes in the scheduling.

Pre-season concluded

We wanted the players to get moving again on Thursday after all the travel Tuesday/Wednesday, so we had them do weights and a short practice. The latter was mainly about getting a bunch of touches and re-acclimating to our balls.

On Friday we did two sessions for the last time. In the morning we only went an hour. It was similar to Thursday’s session in that we focused on ball-handling and the offensive patterns for the middles and right side hitters. In the afternoon we went longer and almost exclusively competitive.

Mustangs in Baires!

The title of this article ties in with one of the hashtags we used for the Midwestern State University (MSU) Volleyball team trip to Buenos Aires. Baires is apparently how the locals refer to the city, and the MSU school mascot is the mustang. Thus, #MustangsInBaires. We also used #HITM, which stands for history in the making. The trip was the first ever by an MSU sports team, so truly a history making experience.

Travel: Wichita Falls, TX to Buenos Aires, Argentina

The trip started with a 6am bus departure from campus to DFW airport. There we boarded a flight to Miami to connect on to Argentina. We had a bit of a delay before our second flight, but otherwise the trip was without meaningful incident. We arrived in Buenos Aires at a bit after 5am and were to our hotel by a little after 6am, if memory serves.

Day 1 in Baires

Fortunately, we were able to get everyone in rooms within an hour or two of our arrival at the hotel. That let everyone get a nap before lunch at noon. Afterwards, we headed off to the La Recoleta area for some exploration. We had a couple locals to help as guides that day. The group split up and went in different directions. Mainly, it was a lot of shopping at the outdoor market and getting coffee at one of the area cafes. Some of us also managed to have a look around the famous cemetery.

We walked to La Recoleta from our hotel a short way from the Obelisk. Coming back, we had the first of many experiences using the local public transportation. In this case, it was the subway (Subte). Someone with a step counter figured we walked 8-9 miles that day. I know I felt like it!

Day 2 – The work begins

Our first full day in Baires began with breakfast in the hotel. Then it was off to take a city bus to practice. There was some question as to whether we’d get everyone in that time of day (about 8:30am), but it worked out. We traveled to the Boca district where Boca Juniors has its training facility. There we did some strength work before shifting over to volleyball. The facilities weren’t really set up to accommodate our numbers, but the players worked out alternative exercises.

The big challenge of the day was trying to get used to the different balls. While the ones they have are similar in style to those we play with back home (Molten), they have a little bit of a different feel and play somewhat lighter. The first hour of practice was ugly! 🙂

There was some down time after lunch. Then it was off to the Puerto Madero area for a bit more exploration and dinner. That added to our mileage count, for sure, but the sights were great and the food fantastic.

Day 3 – Tranquile

We kept things fairly chill on the third day, knowing we had our first match the next night. There was again morning practice, but we kept the afternoon activities limited. The players were allowed to go for coffee and/or shopping within 5 blocks of the hotel, in the company of a member of the staff. We were all back to the hotel by 7:00 for a team video review session, followed by dinner and a relatively early night.

Day 4 – First match

We did a short practice at Boca in the morning, after a later start to give the players a bit more rest. Some errands were run in the afternoon, but mainly it was quiet time ahead of our match.

The trip to the match was definitely an adventure! We took the subway, and it was rush hour. A lot of people live in Buenos Aires. Let’s just say the players got real friendly. 🙂 It took us like 90 minutes to make the full trip, which was not what we planned.

San Lorenzo hosted us that evening for an 8:30 start (matches start late in Argentina). Along with Boca, they are one of the two strongest clubs in Buenos Aires. That means they have some very strong players. We knew going in we would be up against some very tough competition and that’s indeed what we got! Two of San Lorenzo’s hitters had as much power as I’ve ever seen in a female attacker.

We played the match using FIVB rules. Mainly, that means we couldn’t use nearly as many subs as we normally could. We ended up using a decidedly non-traditional approach where sometimes we ran a kind of 6-2 and others we used DSs for our RS players.

Four sets were played in total. San Lorenzo won them all, as expected. Mostly the scores were like 25-15, but we did have a tight second set of 26-24. The difference, of course, was in the errors. We missed a lot of serves – many of which landed in the net. And when that wasn’t the case, we gave them a lot of lollipops all too often. Our block did a decent job, but you can imagine the end result when facing talented attackers.

Day 5 – Continuing the learning

We did another morning practice at Boca, then at lunch in their cafeteria. Interestingly, females are not usually allowed to eat there. It’s only for the boys soccer players in the Boca academy. Something about not wanting the boys distracted.

After lunch we toured La Bombonera, their soccer stadium.

We also got to go inside Boca’s competition gym.

Then we went around the local neighborhood and to nearby Caminito. Mostly, that means shopping. After the late night before, it was a pretty tiring day. We ate a dinner of pizza and empanadas, then did a video review session from the previous night’s match. It was good for the players to see what they did, and what San Lorenzo did as well.

Day 6 – Second match

After a later wake-up, it was back to Boca for another pre-match session. Before we got started we were able to take a joint photo with the Boca men’s and women’s teams who were also training. I got to make yet another trip to the stadium to pay the previous day’s lunch bill.

That night it was back to San Lorenzo for our second match. Originally, the plan was to play Boca. Unfortunately, we they were short on available bodies. So instead we played San Lorzeno again. This time we did it using NCAA rules. It gave us a chance to practice the sort of changes we will probably make during our season. Interestingly, the San Lorenzo coach has apparently argued to increase the number of subs they are allowed to use in the league here.

After Wednesday’s experience, we opted for a chartered bus trip option to the match this time. Some of the players were horrified by the driving of the buses through the rush hour traffic, but everyone made it in one piece.

San Lorenzo started with a fairly strong lineup and the score of the set was similar to the ones from the prior match. That said, I think we played better generally.

In the second set, their coach made wholesale changes. He made ample use of the more generous subs to use a lot of younger players. I think there were four who made their debut in the first team. Some were very young – like 15 or 16. We ended up winning the set, but it was a bit of a struggle at times.

In the remaining sets they did more mixing of older and younger players. It gave them a bit of an advantage, especially with us mixing our lineups around. In the end we fell 3-1. The energy was very good throughout, though. The players really enjoyed the singing post-match by the local supporters. Excuse the sideways video. Not my doing.

Day 7 – Tango

We had another morning practice this day to keep working on things. That meant another trip to Boca. It was a bit drawn out by the fact that we needed to get the bus from a different place than usual. Also, for the first time on the trip it was raining a bit.

Practice wasn’t the day’s big event, though. That was the tango lesson the team did later, and the dinner & show we attended. The team learned a few tango steps during a session that lasted a bit over an hour. We all then moved downstairs from the dance studio to the restaurant. It was located in the San Telmo area of the city. The show was a mixture of dancing and signing. There was a bit of crowd participation in both. One of the players, who did quite well in class, was brought up on stage when members of the audience danced with the performers.

The players seemed to enjoy the experience, though things ran rather late. You could see them flagging at the end. We Americans just aren’t acclimated to the later hours.

Day 8 – Off Day

Sunday was a rest day. Everyone had a chance to sleep in. We didn’t come together until 11:00 when we headed over to the Palermo area. That’s definitely the high rent district, as witnessed by the US embassy being there. We were not allowed to take photos by the gate, but we did so from across the street with the building (and the flag) in the background. We wandered through one of the parks there and had some lunch.

The second stop was a return to La Recoleta. Remember we were there on Day 1. The players wanted to a chance to revisit the Sunday market stalls, and most of the group didn’t get to see the famous cemetery the first time around.

From there, it was back to the hotel for dinner and a relatively early night.

Day 9 – Back to work

It was a holiday Monday in Argentina, so we were not on our normal practice schedule. Instead, we had a 2pm – 5pm slot at Boca. We got together as a team at 11:00 for another video review session to look at the second San Lorenzo match. After that, it was lunch, then off to training.

Practice followed weights and was perhaps the best of the trip in terms of competitiveness, energy, and focus. Afterwards, we stopped near Casa Rosada (Argentina’s equivalent to the White House) and took photos of the area.

In the evening, we had 8:00pm dinner. The rest of the time we left for the players to start packing for the next day’s departure.

Day 10 – Last day in Argentina

We once more had morning practice at Boca. This final one was a twist, though. We did a sort of mixed squad scrimmage with the available Boca players. We loaned them a pair of pin attackers to fill in for national team call-ups. It was a good match. We went five sets because that’s how the match played out, not just to get five sets in. Boca won the first and third. We won the second and fourth. The fifth set they won fairly easily in the end.

As was our pattern, we swapped lineups around throughout the match. Could we have won? Perhaps. But our focus was on giving every player court time, and for a couple time in different positions.

After lunch we took the afternoon off to nap and get ready to check out. The hotel allowed us to stay in our rooms until 6:00pm, which was really helpful. We actually had everyone out at 5:00 so we could do a team meeting before our 6:30 departure for the airport.

Our flight out of Buenos Aires was at 11:15pm. Another overnight flight for the trip back!

Day 11 – Return to Wichita Falls

After a brutal pair of flights (uncomfortable and I slept very little), we reached campus at the end of a 2-hour bus ride. We were quite excited to see the school’s big bus roll up at the airport. Then a big cheer went up as we turned into campus.

The Day After

The President of the university came to team practice the day after we returned. So too did the Athletic Director. Yes, we had team practice. And weight training. We wanted to get the team moving again and to get used to our balls once more.

Conclusions

Did everything go perfectly? Of course not. But that’s actually partly the point. A trip like this is about taking people out of their comfort zones and letting them overcome a new set of challenges. So it’s not a big deal that some parts of the trip could have been better. It went well enough with no major issues.

The point of the trip was to give this group of players a collective experience. It was the sort of experience that can be a foundation for years to come. The players all now have a common set of memories they can share for years.

They also got to see a very different type of volleyball – both in terms of play and atmosphere. That is stuff they can use immediately this season.

I talk more about this trip with respect to what we did on the volleyball side of things in my coaching log. I’ll also write a separate piece about the organization. Maybe it will help you plan your own event.

Coaching Log – August 12, 2017

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

As this post goes to press, so to speak, the team has begun its trip to Buenos Aires. Look for updates – for sure on Facebook and Twitter. I’ll eventually post something here on the blog as well, but I don’t know when. It’ll depend how things go. Definitely look for a comprehensive piece afterwards.

Preseason continued

Last update I talked about what we did through our first four days of preseason sessions. We had already planned to give the team Friday (the 5th day) off. Saturday was going to be back to two session, but we decided to add in a little more rest by dropping the morning session. It definitely seemed to pay off. We heard the players took advantage to sleep in and get some additional recovery.

In Saturday’s session we did target serving for the first time, having the players work on serving seams. We did some work on transition offense on two courts by having attackers self-toss and attack at the block and defense in a controlled fashion. That was a bit ugly, but so be it. We ended with some 6 v 6 play. It was interesting in that to note the serve reception stats were down from what we saw in the first four days. Not sure how much of that was linked to a little rust from the time off and how much might have come from better serving.

Sunday it was back to two sessions. The morning one was more technical work. We did more serving, some serve & pass, and had the setters working to get the tempo and placement right on the outside sets. We also did the Continuous Cross-Court Digging drill for the first time this year. This is something I suggested to work on our dig control as I’ve not been happy with it.

Monday featured an early practice (6-8am) because of the afternoon high school event and the needs to avoid conflicts with player classes. It was not a great session. Very sloppy. We did a combination of control and competitive exercises, concluding with 22 v 22. Honestly, none of it looked great. The only sort of positive was that our transfer Right Side was finally in training, having missed the first week. Not surprisingly, she was up and down between her own rust and having to figure out the court connections with her new teammates.

Tuesday we were off, but we were back in action on Wednesday. We did once more do split groups on Wednesday morning. The first was middles, setters, and right side attackers. They worked on blocking and setter-hitter connections. The second group was the outsides and defenders. Perhaps not surprisingly, they focused ball-handling skills. That work paid off when we had everyone together for game play in the afternoon. The passing was the best we’d seen to that point and the attack was much more fluid. It was, for me, the first time I watched our offense and could see envision where it could be this year.

Thursday and Friday were also two session days. Here, though, we made all the sessions full-team affairs. The mornings had more of a control focus, though with a bit of competition mixed in. The afternoons were straight game play almost exclusively. There’s plenty to be worked on, for sure, but we’re making nice progress toward being the sort of team we want to be this year.

High school event hosting

Monday and Tuesday we hosted I think 15 high schools playing in the opening matches of their seasons. Mostly it was varsity play, but we had a few JV and freshman fixtures mixed in as well. The deal we made with the teams was that they would cover the cost of officials, we would supply line judges and score table personnel, and we would keep the gate plus concessions.

That might not sound like a great deal for the schools, but consider a couple of things. First, a number of our alumnae are coaching at local high schools, and this event is a fund raiser for our program. Second, it’s a chance for these kids to play in our coliseum, which they might otherwise not get. We did host a high school playoff match last year (one which featured one of this year’s freshmen), but otherwise it’s not something we can often do.

Between the gate, concessions, and t-shirt sales (mainly pre-sales to teams) we netted about $6000.

Buenos Aires trip prep

After Saturday’s practice we had a team meeting. It was mainly just to go over some team stuff, but we ended it talking about trip details. Primarily, that had to do with packing and non-volleyball clothing selection. Our itinerary was still a developing thing in terms of some of the event details along the way. I did on Monday, though, send out to the players what I had to that point.

Recruiting

A 2018 prospect was on campus Friday for a visit. She’s from a state where high school season hasn’t started yet. That means she could play in with the team. NCAA rules prohibit “tryouts” during a prospect’s season.

Obviously, we won’t get much recruiting done while on our trip. Though one of the clubs in Buenos Aires has brought up the idea of player exchanges. A formal university exchange program is a necessary component for something like that, though.

What does it mean to be an elite coach?

Volleyball Coach

I came across an interesting topic in a coaching group. The original poster asked the following question.

What characteristics or skills do you think are an absolute necessity to be an elite coach or coaching staff?

Sadly, only a handful of people answered the question. Their answers were pretty good ones, though. Here’s a summary list, in no particular order.

  • Always strive to improve
  • Being coachable and humble
  • Trust the process
  • Strive to be your best
  • Communication skills
  • Explain they Why
  • High level understanding of the game
  • Clear objectives
  • Knowledge of your athletes
  • Well-planned practices
  • Being a listener
  • Consistent feedback
  • Creator of a strong, winning culture

I’m going to address the subject of a coaching staff separately. I think it’s a separate discussion. The above list focuses mainly on the individual coach, so I’m going to concentrate on that here.

Here are the things I think are probably key in being an elite coach.

Knowledge of the game

This is a pretty obvious thing for a coach to have, but it’s an area where new coaches can come up short. Many of us – perhaps most – started out as players at some level. Playing the game for sure develops a knowledge of the game, but it’s not the same as that required of a coach. Players tend to focus on parts, while the coach has to be aware of how those parts link together. This sort of thing tends to come primarily from watching a lot of volleyball, but not as a spectator. You have to do it with an analytic eye, watching all the various moving parts.

Up-to-date understanding of training methods

I’m not talking about know the latest drills here (see my post on Fancy New Drill Syndrome). Rather, I’m talking about the science of motor learning. It’s very easy to think you know how it works because it’s intuitive stuff. Really, though, it isn’t. See Going beyond maximizing player contacts for an idea of what I’m talking about here. The point is you need to stay on top of this stuff, not just persist in doing stuff you’ve always done or your coaches before you did.

This applies to stuff like strength and conditioning as well. Things are changing on a fairly steady basis there.

Communication skills

To put it simply, you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t communicate it to your players, it’s useless.This isn’t just about teaching skills and tactics. It’s also about communicating your vision and getting others to buy in. It’s learning about your players and letting them get to know you as well. As coaches, communication is at the very core of what we do, and you will never become an elite coach without good skills in this area.

Drive

What are you trying to accomplish? Where are you trying to go with your coaching? Your team has its goals, but no doubt you have your own as well. It’s the thing that pushes you to keep moving forward and encourages you to be better, or to make things better.

In the Why I Coach post I shared some of my drive in the “Building something” section. I’m motivated to take a program to a higher level. That isn’t just about winning as that isn’t really in your control. Instead, it’s about reaching new milestones and generally pushing things forward. If I reach a point where I don’t see the potential to keep doing that, then I know it’s probably time for me to move on.

A vision

This is somewhat related to drive above, but is more focused in the present on the current team. In order to lead others you need to know where you’re trying to go. And going to back to another prior section, it needs to be something you can communicate in a way that gets others to have the same vision and to be willing to follow you in that direction.

Organizational skills

This can cover a fairly wide array of things. For some coaches it’s at the level of organizing practices and generally managing the affairs immediately related to the team and players. Think of a club situation where there is someone (or several someones) higher up taking care of the larger administration.

In some coaching roles – a college coach, for example – there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole lot more overhead. Much of what is handled by a club director, a manager, or a board is on your shoulders. You need to deal with budgets, scheduling, facilities, and interacting and coordinating with any number of on-campus and off-campus constituencies. If you don’t have good organizational skills in that context it can really hamper your on-court efforts.

An unquenchable thirst for knowledge

One of the very clear things to come out of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews we’ve done is that those great coaches all have the mentality of constantly looking to learn and improve. They take every opportunity they can to gain more knowledge and insight.

So those are some of my thoughts on what it takes to be an elite coach. Do you have thoughts of your own? I’d love to hear them. Just leave a comment below.