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Staff conversations before the season

Someone on Facebook asked the following two questions in a volleyball coaching group.

Head coaches: things you wish you discussed with your assistants prior to the season starting?

Assistant coaches: things you wish your head coach talked about prior to the season starting?

Obviously, these are after-season questions. They introduce, though, the subject of staff conversations before the season starts. What should we talk about in our coaching meetings?

Yes, you should have at least one meeting before you get started!

I think broadly speaking there are a few key conversation topics. How far do you think the team can reasonably go this season? Given that, what are our initial priorities to get us there? What is the staff’s division of responsibilities?

The main focus here is to get everyone on the same page. For sure as things develop through the season priorities will shift. At least at the initial stage everyone, though, the staff will all know the plan. After that, you can turn to details.

And these kinds of discussions should not just happen between the coaches. At a minimum, the head coach needs to also talk to their boss – athletic director, club president, etc. You probably also want to bring team leaders in on the conversations as well. Perhaps the whole team.

Too many setters! What do I do?

A high school coach emailed me with a roster issue.

My question is how to handle a situation where I have three setters who all played on varsity last year returning. To start the season last year we had planned on using our number one setter (upcoming junior) to run a 5-1, she got injured and missed all but the final two matches. Our number 2 and 3 setters (upcoming sophomore and freshman) had to be moved up to varsity and play the entire season there.

This season our number 1 is healthy and is currently much stronger than the other two. We plan on running a 5-1 at this point. My question is what to do or how to handle the other two possibly moving down to play on JV this year as they would likely (if there is no injury) never see playing time in any meaningful matches. Neither are truly varsity level players yet and cannot play another position. Any suggestions on how to make this as easy as possible?

To my mind, this coach answered their own question at the end. They said neither of the two setters is really varsity level. That means they should play junior varsity. Pretty simple from a roster decision, really.

The difficult part of this situation is how to handle it with the two players in question. They were varsity starters last year. No doubt being JV this year will be a blow to their egos. Generally speaking, I feel being honest and straightforward is best. Right now they are well behind the #1 setter. The team runs a 5-1, so they probably won’t play much, if at all. Putting them on the JV team will let them play regularly. This will be better for their development. You have to make them think longer-term to get past the immediate disappointment.

That said, there is the question of having a second (and maybe third) varsity setter for practice. If you need someone to fill that role, then one or both of these setters will have to train with the varsity.

Beyond having enough players in the position to run drills and scrimmage, there are a couple other considerations. Should the #1 setter get hurt again, you’ll need a back-up. Preferably, that is someone who is already familiar to the team. At the same time, though, the setters need to practice with the JV team. They will, after all, play with them in matches. You can’t just throw them in to run the offense without practicing with the team.

Do you train those two setters with varsity and with JV? Do you rotate the two setters such that one of them practices with varsity and one with JV?

These are questions in need of answers before you address the players.

Book Review: Legacy by James Kerr

Legacy, by James Kerr, is a book that often comes up when coaching book recommendations are discussed. I want to stress up front that this in not a coaching book. Amazon at this writing has it listed in Sports Psychology, but that doesn’t fit either, to my mind. I think the book description does a pretty good job of saying what it’s really about.

In Legacy, best-selling author James Kerr goes deep into the heart of the world’s most successful sporting team, the legendary All Blacks of New Zealand, to reveal 15 powerful and practical lessons for leadership and business.

Focus on that last part about lessons for leadership and business. That is most definitely what the author provides.

As for the rest of it, I have my issues. The description makes it sound like the story of the All Blacks is the core material. In particular, the team’s transformation after a period of uncharacteristic under-performance is meant to be the main focus. While that story provides a framework, that’s about all. You can perhaps work out the time line of that transition, but it’s presented piecemeal. One of my problems with the book was that at points I didn’t know where the author was in the All Blacks history when he shared certain stories. It was rather annoying.

Also, the All Blacks are not the only references the author makes. He includes ideas from the likes of Phil Jackson and Bill Walsh as well, in terms of sports. There are a number of non-sports references too.

Obviously, I have no problem with references to all-time great coaches. Sometimes the language of the text is a little too stereotypical of leadership books, and there is too much repetition of certain elements for my taste. Overall, though, the “lessons”, concepts, and explanations are quite worthwhile.

Overall, I’d say this is a book worth reading if you go into it with the right set of expectations.

Picking your libero

A coach thinking about team selection asked the following question about deciding which player should be the libero.

How do you decipher who would be your libero and who would be the defensive specialist?

Serve receive

First and foremost, you need to rate and rank your libero candidates by serve reception ability. I don’t mean you have to prioritize that, necessarily. You do, however, have to know how they all stack up. Reception, after all, is a big part of the libero’s job.

By the way, it’s best to rate players based on game passes. The scores you get from passes made in a scrimmage are a better indication of match performance than scores from a passing drill. A lot of elements contribute to this.

Now for the defensive considerations.

As a starting point, you may want to consider how you want to play defense. Do you play your libero in Position 5 or Position 6? If you know where you’ll place your libero, the decision process if fairly straightforward. You are looking for the best person to play that spot. It’s that simple.

Broadly speaking, you want someone mobile with good reading skills to play in Position 6. They tend to have more side-to-side responsibility and may have to chase balls down off the back of the court. In Position 5 you’re usually looking for someone quick and aggressive moving into the court. They have responsibility for setter dumps and tips, and when they do defend hit balls their area of responsibility is usually more narrow.

The above is how things usually go for a standard perimeter defense. Your system might vary from that, though, so think about each position’s requirements.

If you are more flexible with how you use your players, then the thinking is a bit different. Here you want to find the best available player, and then put them in the position that works best.

What’s your priority?

You’ve rated and ranked your libero prospects by their passing skills. You’ve also looked at who plays best in your defensive system, or ranked your players on their defense. Now you need to combine the two factors.

If your best defender is also your best passer, life it good. Easy decision. On to the next one!

If, however, you have a different top passer than top defender, you have a decision to make. Do you prioritize passing or defense higher? This should probably be based on which side of the game you think your libero will have the biggest impact. How you use them likely will factor into your evaluation here. Also, the abilities of the other players around them factor in here.

Think of the decision like this. Are you more comfortable with your libero being strong in serve reception, but weaker in defense? Or are you more comfortable if your libero is a strong defender, but not so strong in passing? And at what point does the weakness in the secondary skill become too big?

My own thinking

Personally, I will probably favor serve receive over defense when making a libero choice. I say that because it’s usually harder to hide a poor passer than a poor defender. Getting stuck in a rotation because your libero can’t pass the ball is worse than missing a few digs.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m only going to decide based on passing. If Player A has an average pass rating of 2.20 and Player B has a rating of 2.10, but is a much better defender, I’ll probably go with Player B. The small difference in passing quality is outweighed by the large difference in defensive capacity.

Don’t forget personality

Keep in mind the libero is going to be on the court most of the time. You want them to have the type of personality that contributes to and/or supports the mentality you expect from your team overall. You might have a player who doesn’t come in tops in passing or defense, but who makes the team better on the court. If that’s the case, you probably need to make them the libero. Don’t leave this part out of your decision-making.

How to teach the overhand serve to volleyball beginners

volleyball serve

A reader asked the question, “How we can teach the over arm serve for beginners?”

I see a lot of difference in how coaches coach serving. Here’s a video that I think gets the basic elements in place, though.

Getting it all pointed in the right direction

Broadly speaking, the main thing I’m trying to get a beginning server to do is to have everything move in the same direction. By that I mean I want to see their body and their arm swing all pointed the same way. Preferably, that’s at their target. This is how to generate optimal power and accuracy.

The first part of having everything going in one direction is the step. The step is what generates weight transfer, which is the first phase of power generation. I’m sure you can see how you want the server’s weight moving in the direction of their intended serve to generate the strongest possible serve.

The second part of having everything in the same direction is the toss. In order to make contact, the server’s hand must go to the ball. If the ball is tossed to the left of the hitter’s shoulder it will tend to go left, and if it’s tossed to the right the serve will tend to go right. Neither of these is an optimal situation for either power or accuracy. Instead, we want to the toss directly in front of the hitting shoulder.

If you can get the new server doing these two things, you will have gone a long way toward making them a consistent server. A good way to work on this is to stand directly behind them and provide feedback. Even better is to let them see themselves on video from that angle. That will really help to highlight things for them.

Coaching the toss

The vast majority of serving errors have poor tosses as their root cause. It takes a lot of practice to get this part to be consistent. I personally teach the toss as a “place”, which I picked up from someone along the way.

The idea of the “place” is that you really don’t want players tossing the ball very high. The higher they put the ball up in the air, the greater the chance for error. Instead, I teach the player to hold the ball out in front of their hitting shoulder, at about shoulder height. They then lift the ball a short way into the air – just high enough for them to swing their arm and contact at good reach – at the same time they take their step.

So basically you have a step-toss joint movement. This is instead of what many new players do, which is to toss, then step. You can see the step-toss demonstrated by the girls in the video above.

Coaching ball contact

When it comes to ball contact, you must ensure new servers keep their wrist and hand firm through ball contact. If they allow the wrist to get floppy and/or the hand to be soft, the result is usually a ball served into the net.

The other thing to make sure they do is to hit through the ball for the sake of power. I do not coach players to “pop” the ball. That’s when they pull their hand back immediately on ball contact. The theory is that it helps to create better float. First, for beginners I’m not worried about whether the ball spins or not. There are other priorities. Second, the ball has already left contact with your hand by the time you start to retract it, so the popping thing really doesn’t accomplish anything. Finally, popping puts unnecessary strain on the shoulder. Just let the player follow-through on their serves naturally.

Generating power

Even if they get all the other stuff (step, toss, hand contact), some players still struggle to generate enough power to get the ball over the net. This is especially true of younger girls. In my experience, this is mostly a function of swinging too slowly at the ball.

The power of the serve is a direct function of the speed of the hand at the time of contact. To serve harder the hand must move faster. Increasing arm (hand) speed in serving is very much like doing it in hitting. You have to look at the power being generated through torso turn and how that is extended up through the shoulder. Mechanical issues there will have to be addressed.

In many cases, though, it’s not a mechanical issue that is the problem. It’s a mental one. The player just doesn’t understand the need for a fast arm swing, or potentially how to generate it. One way I’ve found to get them moving in the right direction is by having them work with a towel against a wall.

Tie a knot in the end of a bath towel. Have the player hold the other end in their hitting hand. Have them face the wall, then do their arm swing. They should make the knot in the towel snap against the wall with as much speed as they can. Make sure their mechanics are right. You want them generating a whip through their arm, not trying to power with the shoulder.

A few reps of these towel swings should be enough to set the idea in the player’s head. Then get them back to hitting the ball. I’ve seen little girls unable to even get the ball to the net have no problem serving over after a little bit of time with the towel.

Multiple steps

I personally am not a fan of servers taking multiple steps in a kind of walking approach. It just tends to introduce more room for error. That said, though, I’ve had a few players who served that way pretty effectively. If a player needs a little extra power and can control their toss, then so be it.

Final thoughts

The stuff I’ve outlined above is mainly what I think about and look at when working with new servers. I like to keep things as simple as possible. The more complicated you get, the more likely you are to introduce error into the process. Aside from the mechanical stuff, I encourage servers to reset themselves after each serve. There’s no rush. Relax. Take a breath. Then serve. If you can get them to just focus on these basic things I think you’ll be pretty successful coaching your new servers.

 

Are we trying to solve the wrong problems?

A member of the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook group posted something I think is worth a broad share. Here’s the snippet that really hits on the main point.

“…how far back do we coaches look for the fundamental and underlying errors in our coaching philosophies that make it difficult to find effective solutions? Are we, in fact, trying to solve the wrong problems.”

The volleyball angle

There are a couple of different angles on this. One of them relates to how we work with our teams and players. Are we trying to fix the last contact? Or are we trying to look at why there was a problem with the last contact?

For example, our libero in Position 5 shanks a ball attacked in their direction. Are we trying to fix what we perceive as the reason the libero shanked the ball (usually something mechanical)? Or are we looking to our block and realizing that it was badly placed or formed? Maybe we’re going back even further to see that our blocker’s footwork and/or initial positioning weren’t right.

You see where I’m going with this?

I’ve often told the story of my own development as a newer coach. I can remember an almost physical sensation of feeling my awareness of the court and the play expand. Like so many, I’d been fixated on each individual element. I wasn’t seeing the whole. As a result, I didn’t see root causality for the errors made on the last contact. At some point, though, my vision expanded.

I’m not saying that all at once I went from just seeing individual contacts to seeing the whole volleyball ballet. It was a progressive thing as I gained better understanding of how elements linked together. Watching a lot of volleyball with a critical eye helped a great deal too. I believe that was all part of my shift away from being very technically oriented as a coach to putting more emphasis on the mentality and structure of play.

The coaching angle

Let’s return to the piece that started this whole discussion. The bigger picture of our coaching is the other angle to consider. That’s the more direct focus of the quote above.

We see something “wrong” with our team or our coaching. Naturally, we want to fix it. As with the issue of only seeing the final outcome, though, are we only seeing the end result rather than the whole chain of causality getting there?

To once more quote the post, “If we were able to move back in the chain of events that have lead us to this point in our coaching and fix that one errant assumption, would coaching suddenly become much easier and more effective?”

So are you doing that? Do you try to work backwards from where you are at with a series of “Why?” or “How?” questions to figure out how you reached your current point? If not, it’s definitely something worth considering.

Improving team communication through acknowledgement

One of my early influences when I became serious about coaching volleyball was Mike Hebert. I read his books, The Fire Still Burns and Insights when I was coaching for Dean College. I coached against him once when I was at Brown and he was at Minnesota. His most recent book, Thinking Volleyball, is one I strongly recommend.

Mike authored a post for the Art of Coaching Blog. It’s focus is on the subject of acknowledgement. Basically, the rule was an individual must always indicate they heard something said to them. That applied to both something said by a coach and things said by other players. Mike developed a rule about this for his teams based on an experience with a player who didn’t show she’d heard what he was saying to her.

I think we’ve all been there. It’s really frustrating, isn’t it?

Of course, it’s not just a question of showing you heard something said to you. There’s more nuance. Mike had a set of acknowledgement rules to encourage constructive communication. Here they are in an edited fashion.

  1. When spoken to by a coach or teammate, acknowledge to the speaker that you heard and understood them – without emotion.
  2. You can make your acknowledgement verbally or by gesture, but it must convey that you heard.
  3. Keep in mind, acknowledgement does not necessarily mean agreement.
  4. Develop an acknowledgement style that invites further communication.
  5. Respond every time a coach gives you feedback or instruction.
  6. When a teammate communicates something in the heat of battle that offends you momentarily, acknowledge in a non-inflammatory manner.

As you can see, Mike went beyond simply showing that you heard. He also addressed how you indicate. You do not get emotional, and possibly inflame a situation. You try to demonstrate a willingness to communicate.

Importantly, as Mike says, acknowledgement does not have to mean agreement. You can acknowledge and still disagree. In doing so, you demonstrate respect for the other person and do not appear to be dismissive. This can foster more positive communication and lead to better team cohesion.

It’s more about the feedback than the drill

Someone on Twitter tagged me in a tweet in which they shared a link to a handful of setting drills. It said, “some new volleyball setting drills that improve your team setting technique.” I took a look and wasn’t impressed. For the most part, it was just variations on setting back and forth. One of them actually recommended setting a served ball.

None of the drills was game-like at all. In my reply I suggest setting always be done off a pass. How often in live play do setters set a ball straight back the way it came to them? Very rarely. So why practice it so much? Let them practice movement and body position based on something more realistic. Even setting off a coach’s toss is more realistic than just setting back and forth.

But that’s not the biggest thing I thought skimming the article.

The thing that really stood out to me, though, was the idea that you need new drills (or games) to do a better job teaching player to set. You probably don’t need a new drill. Instead, you need to provide good feedback, regardless of the activity. This is a key factor in intentional practice. Any activity in which you can focus on a given skill will work to train that skill.

What makes a drill or game useful for skill development is the quality of the feedback the player gets.

  • Are you talking to them?
  • Can they watch themselves on video?
  • Did you structure the activity so the outcome provides direct feedback?

These are all key considerations.

So if you want to help a setter improve their skills, do two things. First, put them in as game-like a situation as you possibly can. Second, make sure they have very good feedback.

This, of course, goes for any position or skill.

What is wanted when hiring a head coach

Volleyball Coach

A while back Terry Pettit (who I interviewed for Volleyball Coaching Wizards), wrote an article outlining what he looks for in a head coach candidate. Terry mostly works with colleges and universities, so that is the focus perspective. I think the points he makes are pretty universal, though.

Top of the list, head coach experience

The very first thing Terry mentions on his list of what he looks for is prior experience as a head coach. His point is that until you are head coach you don’t really have final decision-making responsibility. That is a very different sort of thing that being an assistant coach. It is really the difference between being the leader and a follower.

Fellow Wizards interviewee Mick Haley has a very similar point of view. When I asked him in his interview what his career advice would be for developing coaches he specifically recommended getting some kind of head coach experience. He called the experience of having the decision-making responsibility key to a coach’s development.

By the way, what Mick said applies even to those aiming for assistant coaching positions. You will be a much more effectively assistant if you know what it’s like to be head coach. You are better able to anticipate the head coach’s needs.

Make sure it’s a good fit

The second big thing Terry talks about is the need for there to be a good fit for both sides. This is crucial. If the fit isn’t there, things simply aren’t going to work out well. I can tell you that from personal experience. It was pretty clear to me relatively early on in my time coaching at Svedala that it wasn’t a great long-term fit. Predictably, things didn’t work out there.

Of course, judging fit is not always the easiest thing in the world. You for sure should do your research about the school or club. That will at least give you a basic sense for whether the broad structure is a fit. That means the type of institution and its philosophy, the location, the academic standards, and the other things you can judge at least to a degree from outside.

The trickier part is trying to gauge the more internal aspects of fit. What are the ambitions of the organization. What is the management style of the Athletic Director? How is the administrative and financial support? Is it a collegial staff? These, and other fit type questions are only likely to come to light during the interview process. You’ll probably have to ask some questions of your own to get the best sense for it.

Good character

Terry’s third factor is the coach’s character. To quote, “I will not forward a candidate who has a history of bending rules, physically or mentally abusing athletes, or not interacting with peers in a professional manner.” I don’t think I need to add much to that, really.

A collaborative leader

Fourth on the list is that a head coach should work well with others. Terry focuses on assistant coaches, but I would add in anyone else associated with the program. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to running a team. Just as they would with a starting lineup, a good coach looks to use their staff in a way that highlights their strengths.

Curiosity above all else

While Terry puts curiosity last on his list, he calls it the most important trait he looks for in head coaching candidates. I might have used the word “reflective” instead, based on what he seems to be getting at here. It’s all about evaluating things, positively and negatively, and using your assessments to further yourself and your program. He describes someone who is basically always looking for ways to learn.

Additional thoughts

Terry has outlined the broad framework for what he considers a good head coaching position candidate. I generally agree with it. These are the higher level things you’ll want to get right. Of course, there are also finer details that become more or less relevant based on the position(s) you’re pursuing. Some of this relates to fit, as note above.

Some of it, though, is just technical and managerial skills you can develop. For example, most university head coach jobs require a master’s degree. High school jobs very often require first aid certification. Some jobs involve a fair bit of fund raising. Many positions require you to regularly interact with the media. You’ll want to do research into the requirements of the sorts of job you’re after to find out exactly what you need on your resume to make yourself a legitimate candidate.