Reader questions on approach, knee slides, and run-throughs

A reader submitted three questions.

  1. Do you prefer a 3 step or 4 step approach for young outside hitters
  2. Is it proper to teach a player to slide to both knees for short serve receive balls
  3. Your thoughts on “run throughs” when passing a ball versus getting a balanced base set?

Let me address them one-by-one.

Approach length

I personally don’t have a strong preference on 3-step or 4-step approach. I know some coaches favor one over the other, but I’m just not one of them. For me it’s more an individual basis sort of thing. Some players do very well with a 3-step, while for others the fourth one definitely helps them.

To my mind, the first major thing new players need to sort out is the last two steps. Those are by far the most important, especially since there are many situations where a player cannot make a full approach. It’s really important for a hitter to be able to use those two steps to open up. If not, they will end up hitting square, which is not good for the back or shoulder.

Slide to knees

I am not in favor of players going to both knees, really in any situation. When I coached the Exeter women I had a player who went straight from standing to both knees to play low balls. And this was one of my middles! I used to cringe every time I saw it. Ouch!

In contrast, one of the Exeter men was excellent at going to one knee to play a short ball in front of him. Think of it as basically a lunge lead step, with the trailing knee then sliding up to be tucked underneath.

My view is that we don’t need players’ knees hitting the floor if we can avoid it. Too easy to cause harm, and given how sweaty kneepads get, they’re bound to leave a wet spot on the floor in the middle of a rally.

The one possible exception to this is when the player is trying to take the ball with their hands. That’s a situation where the ball is perhaps too high for a platform dig or pass. Even there, though, you may argue in favor of a different technique.

Obviously, in emergency situations you have to do whatever it takes. If we’re talking about training techniques, though, I’d not be working on two-knee stuff.

Run-throughs

A run-through is for balls you need to chase down, not for balls you can relatively easily get under. Generally speaking, you will have better platform angle control when you are stable than when running. Why add in the extra variable if you don’t need to?

Book Review: Dream Like a Champion – Wins, Losses, and Leadership the Nebraska Volleyball Way

There are loads of volleyball books, but there aren’t a lot of books with a biographical and/or historical perspective in the volleyball literature. That’s one of the motivations for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. Dream Like a Champion – Wins, Losses, and Leadership the Nebraska Volleyball Way by Brandon Vogel and John Cook adds to that list. It joins Mike Hebert’s books there, adding much-needed depth.

Try not to be jealous

The first thing you may have to get over while reading this book is jealousy. Nebraska volleyball has access to resources most of us could never dream of having. In some ways, the book is a constant reminder of just how well off that program – and others on their level – really is. I’m sure you can get past that, though. 🙂

Fourteen chapters, fourteen topics

The book begins with what is essentially a personal biography from Cook. After that, though, each of the chapters has a different theme. They include things like going deeper on player physical development, understanding how to coach the current generation of college athletes, looking at who you work and surround yourself with, and continuing education and development as a coach.

Cook uses stories to make his case on the different subjects throughout the book. I might argue too many in some cases, but it’s not over the top. I’m sure some folks will enjoy them as they focus on elements of volleyball history at Nebraska. I’m not a part of the Husker universe, but I can appreciate Cook’s perspective on the program’s past.

Some real nuggets

A sure sign of a good book is the number of pages or sections you flag throughout the text. I pulled out several along the way myself. Here’s one of the deeper ones where Cook talks about how his coaching mentality changed over time.

“I coached for a long time like that before realizing that it did not have to be that way. I had a choice to make when I walked into the gym every day: I could coach with love or I could coach with anger. I could be in the moment every day and remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. I could marvel at all of the amazing athletes I was getting to work with and really be grateful for the opportunity we get each season to take a group of players, coaches, and staff and try to make our dreams come true.

He continues.

The other option? I could focus on every practice failure. I could take every loss personally. I could try to eliminate mistakes through fear. Every coach gets to make that choice. I write daily reminders to myself to make sure I am choosing to be the coach I want to be. I wish I had recognized sooner that the choice was up to me.”

This theme of personal growth is a common one throughout the book, and it is clearly part of the message Cook wishes to share. I flagged some other, more narrow, thoughts and ideas as well, though. For example, he shares different policies he’s had and ways he’s helped encourage improved team chemistry. And while the book certainly isn’t drill oriented, he even mentions one or two that he likes.

Get it, read it

I think the title, Dream Like a Champion – Wins, Losses, and Leadership the Nebraska Volleyball Way, probably overstates the whole “Nebraska way” concept in terms of the book’s content. Yes, Nebraska is central in terms of most of the anecdotes, but at the end of the day this is mainly a look into the mentality of one coach – John Cook. From that perspective, it’s well worth a read for coaches at any level.

One bit of advice. At the time of this writing the print book is listed as $19.99, while the Kindle version is $23.70. That’s pretty expensive for an e-book. If you can find someone who owns a copy of the Kindle version, though, they should be able to lend it to you. That’s how I read it.

Coaching Log – February 26, 2018

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

Nothing new on the the head coach subject. As of this writing, the position has not yet officially been opened for applications.

Recruiting

We had a pair of 2018 prospects on campus on the 13th to work out with the team – one middle and one setter. On the 20th we also had 2018 setters visit. The setter is the bigger priority given the decommit we had. We’d like to add another middle for cover, though. It’s a bit risky to only carry the three we have at present.

Because we don’t currently have a head coach, we’ve been holding off of making offers. It’s something we’ve talked with each recruit about so they know the situation. Basically, we’ve told them to let us know if they start feeling pressure to make a decision. This came up in one case. As a result, I spoke with the Athletic Director. He said he’ll back us on the decision we make.

Looking ahead to 2019, it was back on the road to attend a North Texas regional event on the 24th.

Training

Because of the recruits coming in, our schedule was a bit inconsistent. Strength and conditioning work continued three mornings a week. The players did standing and approach jump testing on the 12th and 14th respectively. Some of the results were surprisingly. The real test, though, will come when they are re-evaluated later in the term to check their progress.

When the two came on the 13th we used our whole week’s allocation of court time in a 2-hour session. Evaluation of the recruits was our biggest priority, so we did a combination of activities. We got the moving and talking and competing by starting with some Brazilian volley tennis. From there we did 3s back row only Winners, then some target serving. That rolled into some serve receive-to-attack so the two recruits could get a sense of our offensive tempo. Then we basically played for the final hour. That was mainly a couple different versions of 5-a-side 22 v 22, but they played a short normal game of 5 v 5 at the end. We got the session on video for later analysis.

In a funny quirk, we actually had to push our practice on the 20th back to the 21st, then roll that whole thing into the 22nd. It started with a bunch of rain on the 20th causing outdoor sports to come indoors. We were also down a couple players to injuries. Then, the university was shut down on the 21st due to freezing rain conditions, so we couldn’t go that day. Poor road conditions kept campus closed on the 22nd as well. Thus, what was supposed to be a Tuesday/Thursday week became just a Friday week.

In the end, we decided to split into two groups and go about an hour for each. That was because they had a heavy morning workout, so going two hours wasn’t going to make a lot of sense. The pin hitters and liberos were in one group. They worked mainly on serving and passing. The middles and setters were in the other, working on set timing.

Community service

Saturday we did our second round of tutoring with the local area kids. A couple players weren’t available because of club coaching duties. One other had to go to Kansas for a family thing. A pair of our seniors filled in. It was funny talking to them after. In some cases, the stuff they worked with the kids on challenged the players. 🙂

 

Setting up your starting rotation: 5-1

How should I set my line-up?

I’ve addressed this in broad strokes in the Putting together a starting line-up post. Here, though, I want to drill down. I’m going to look specifically at how you place the players on the court by position.

Here’s the most common way teams line-up when playing a 5-1 system.

Let me explain the abbreviations.

S = Setter
M1 = Stronger Middle
M2 = Weaker Middle
O1 = Stronger Outside Hitter
O2 = Weaker Outside Hitter
OPP = Opposite

So, if someone (like me) talks about their O2 or M1, you know they are referring to positions relative to the setter. The 1’s are next to the setter.

Note: The fact that the setter in the diagram is in Position 1 isn’t meant to suggest that’s the best place to start them. There are a number of factors which figure in to whether you start there or in a different rotation.

Balance

The basic idea with the ordering of the player positions this way is balance. That’s how the above diagram came to be. The better middle is next to the setter and the weaker outside. Likewise, the stronger outside is also next to the setter as well as the weaker middle. Further, when the O2 and M2 are both in the front row, the opposite is also in the front row, providing three attackers, rather than just two.

Now, how you judge your stronger/weaker middles and outside hitters can vary. The initial thought may be balancing things offensively, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, if your setter is not a good blocker, you may put your better blocking middle at M1 to create more balance from that perspective.If your middles have similar attacking abilities, then looking at their blocking can be very useful.

Serve reception is another way you may try to balance things. I once saw a coaching friend of mine put his strongest outside hitter at O2 rather than O1. When I asked him why he told me it was about passing. In his system the O1 passed in the middle of the formation more often than the O2, but his stronger attacker was not his strongest passer. Moving him to O2 reduced his exposure in serve receive, helping to balance things out in that way.

Middle leads, or outside leads?

You will notice in the formation above that the M1 leads the setter in the rotation. We refer to this as a “middle leads” arrangement. Though it’s not as frequently seen, some teams do use an “outside leads” set-up.

Why is the middle leads system generally favored?

It comes down to serve receive. The system where the outside leads can create some awkward reception formations, and fewer options. The middle leads approach tends to offer more flexibility.

The above, though, assumes you’re mainly using your outsides and libero to pass. Most teams do this, of course, but you may find yourself in a situation where you can pull someone else in to pass. Maybe your opposite is a good passer, or even one of your middles. In that case, you may find it better to use an outside leads approach.

I definitely recommend that you take some time to write out each of your rotations. Map out a primary reception pattern and also look at alternatives. If nothing else, it’s good to know what your options could be if you need to change things up. Make sure you know how the overlap rules work and how they can actually be used.

Book Review: The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

While The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier, does feature “coaching” in the title, it’s probably thought of best as a management book. It’s not about coaching as we sports coaches would think of it. It is, however, about managing people. Since this is at the core of our work as coaches, I think you might find it worth a read.

The subtitle of the book, “Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever”, touches on the approach the author takes. I don’t think, though, it really provides a full sense of what the book’s about.

Basically, this is a book of questions. The idea is to use them to help get to the heart of issues. It’s also about helping people help themselves rather than solving problems for them ourselves. You may find at least some of them useful in working with your athletes.

There’s also a set of questions presented later in the book aimed at succeeding and achieving. I think they are foundational with regard to expectations and seeing your path forward. Here they are quoted.

What is our winning aspiration? Framing the choice as “winning” rules out mediocrity as an option. If you want to win, you need to know what game you’re playing and with (and against) whom. What impact do you want to have in and on the world?

Where will we play? “Boiling the ocean” is rarely successful. Choosing a sector, geography, product, channel and customer allows you to focus your resources.

How will we win? What’s the defendable difference that will open up the gap between you and the others?

What capabilities must be in place? Not just what do you need to do, but how will it become and stay a strength?

What management systems are required? It’s easy enough to measure stuff. It’s much harder to figure out what you want to measure that actually matters.

I won’t say this is a must read book. All in all, though, I think it’s worth a look if you’ve got a bit of time. It’s pretty quick to get through.

Book Review: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

If you’re a coach, or teacher, and haven’t read the The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, make it the next book on your list.

The book starts of with some serious science about myelin development, which is a major factor in skill acquisition. Don’t worry, though. It’s not hard to follow, and more behavior based concepts quickly come in to play.

Basically, the book talks about how we develop skill (deep practice), what motivates that development (ignition), and how coaching fits into that equation.

There’s a part of Chapter 9 that I think really hits on a major factor in sports coaching. It compares the coaching of Brazilian soccer players with the training of violinists in Japan. In the latter case the teachers are constantly providing specific feedback to the students. In the former case, though, the coaches hardly say anything. Why is this?

It’s not cultural. It’s about the requirements of the skills to be developed. Playing violin is about consistency of very specific execution. Playing soccer is dynamic. Situations constantly change. As a result, the player has to continuously adapt to stimuli and find the right solution for their current situation. The games the Brazilian coaches have the kids play both create the situations they want them in and provide the feedback.

To quote Coyle, “The lessons the players teach themselves are more powerful than anything the coach might say.” This relates close to what I wrote about in Teaching or facilitating? It is also part of our need to think more broadly about feedback.

The book’s epilogue provides a bunch of real-life examples of the ignitition/deep practice/coaching link. They are from a bunch of different parts of life and society. You definitely want to give this book a read. It could change how you think about your coaching.

That said, there are a couple of little things worth mentioning.

First, while the book clearly presents a path toward creating skill in just about everything, it doesn’t really address constraining factors. In the case of volleyball, height is an obvious example. A short player can develop maximum skill as an attacker. That simply won’t be enough, though to make the national team roster.

Second, Coyle walks a line with respect to whole vs. part training. He talks at a couple of points about breaking skills down into their parts. That may be fine when you’re learning to play a specific note on a violin. As the late Carl McGown preached for years, though, in terms of the science of motor learning in our arena, training in parts is not as effective. This also ties in with block vs. random training.

So, as much as this book has some really great information, realize it’s just one part of the whole set of factors.

Coaching Log – February 12, 2018

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

As I noted in my last update, the head coach here at MSU resigned her position. While the process to decide on a new head coach is on-going, I am basically in charge of the program, with help from our graduate assistant.

Recruiting

We have continued to work on recruiting on two fronts. One is completing the 2018 class. Adding a setter to replace the one who decommitted is the top priority there, but we continue to look for a middle to add as well. We definitely need a setter as we currently only have one. We have three middle blockers (MB), so we could potentially get away with not adding there, but we’d very much like to have a fourth for depth and competition.

Of course, the second front is the 2019 class. We don’t actually anticipate a big need there. A right side hitter, who also has experience at MB, has already verbally committed. We will graduate an outside hitter (OH) and a libero next year. We’ll have three other defensive specialists remaining, so adding another isn’t a priority. We’ll definitely want to add another OH, though. We may want to add a setter, but if we have four MBs then we won’t look to add another in that position.

The first weekend of the month we attended a pair of large tournaments to evaluate prospects in both the 2018 and 2019 classes. The teams of three of our incoming freshmen where on-hand, though only one of those athletes was playing. One was out sick and another was being rested for injury reasons. The following Monday we had a 2018 MB on campus for a visit.

Training

While we have 11 players on the roster this semester, not all of them are active. The OH who injured her knee during season will remain in rehab mode throughout. Another OH has a back injury that has her inactive for a while. We’ve also had players out due to illness. Between those considerations and player class schedules, it’s been interesting to manage the two hours per week of court time we have available to us with each of them.

Until a new head coach is chosen, I feel like it’s probably best to leave any system-related training for later. In any case, we’ll have a whole bunch of new players joining the team in August. As a result, we’d have to redo that work then anyway. Instead, my focus is on individual technical improvements.

One big area of need for the group is setting with their hands. To work on that I had them play some out-of-system games where points could only be scored on kills from hand sets. Mainly, it was about developing the confidence to take balls overhand. Was it ugly? You bet! But it’s all about climbing mistake mountain.

Last Thursday we played a game I called 3-2-1. I think Mark Lebedew gave me the idea. It’s a normal game but with bonus point scoring. A team gets 3 points for winning a rally on a first contact, 2 if they use two touches, and one if they use all three allowed contacts. We decided blocks and aces were worth 2 points. The idea is to get them thinking outside the box and having more situational awareness, while also encouraging better defensive readiness and awareness.

Other stuff

We are likely changing equipment suppliers after being with Asics. This is a department level decision, not our own. We’ll need to replace one set of jerseys, for sure, and will have some other stuff to get for 2018. So we brought the team together and let them loose on the equipment catalog. 🙂

Recruits don’t worry too much about coaches, apparently

Here’s something that might deflate the egos of some college coaches. 🙂

We recently had a 2018 recruit on campus for a visit. This is actually a girl who we brought to campus in Spring 2017. We made her an offer then, but she was at the beginning of her process. As a result, she wasn’t ready to make a commitment then. We then kind of fell out of touch with her over the Summer. Approaching the first Juniors tournament of the year we were going to for recruiting, we looked to see if she had committed somewhere else, but didn’t see any indication she had. That being the case, I stopped by her court to watch her play. She did well. Better than what I remembered.

We were all set to reach out to her again, but she beat us to it. She texted the head coach to express her interest, and that led to her coming back to campus again. This was mainly about giving her mom a chance to have a look as she wasn’t on the trip the first time. It also, though, gave her a chance to meet all our new players. We only have three left from when she visited the first time.

Now, in the middle of all this the head coach was getting ready to leave following her resignation. She made her announcement to the team two days before the visit and spoke this this recruit that same night to let her know as well in case it mattered.

Nope! Didn’t matter at all.

We got the girl’s commitment the night after her visit.

Further, of the four girls who committed to us earlier, only one decided to rethink things. She did ask to be let out of her commitment, making it sound like she wanted to stay closer to home. At the same time, though, we continued to talk with 2018 prospects and getting them on campus.

Guess the head coach doesn’t matter. 😀

Honestly, I think this is the way it should be for at least the majority of recruits. It should be mainly about the school.

Coaching Log – February 1, 2018

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

The new semester is underway. Time to get back to work!

Recruiting

They don’t wait too long to get Juniors tournaments going, so we were off and running with recruiting before school even started. This is the time of year when we get seriously focused on the next recruiting class. In this case, that means 2019. We did, however, still have to look at 2018 middles to finish that class.

Our first event of the year was the Tour of Texas qualifier in San Antonio. Annoyingly, it was spread over I think four different sites for just the 17s age group alone. Saturday was all about looking at 17s. We had a number of 2019 prospects who have reached out to us to look through. While doing that, though, we also tagged a number of other potential recruit prospects we saw along the way. On Sunday I continued looking at 17s, but the 18s began playing that day, so I watched some uncommitted 2018 middles as well.

Following the Tour, a middle we actually brought to campus last Spring, and offered, reached out to us. We hadn’t heard from her since I believe July. I made it a point to watch her play in the Tour qualifier, as she still came up as uncommitted. She saw me, and ended up texting the head coach a couple days later. That turned into plans for a second visit (unofficial this time, as she’d already done her official) so she could meet new members of the team (8 since her visit) and show her mom around campus. She ended up committing to us that evening.

Academics

The Lone Star Conference does a Commissioner’s Honor Roll for each academic term. A student-athlete must have a semester total GPA of 3.3 or better to earn selection. For Fall 2017 we put 8 players on that list.

Overall, the team did pretty well last semester. The team had a collective GPA of 3.0. Unfortunately, a few individuals dragged the average down with failing grades. For one of them it’s going to cost her eligibility in the Spring. She didn’t pass enough credits, so she won’t be able to compete for us this term. She can still train with the team, but she can’t play in any Spring competition.

Scheduling

Now is the time of year Fall schedules are made. This year it’s been a bit trickier than usual. You see 2018 is a Festival year for NCAA Division II. That means they have all the sports for a given season do their championships at the same time, in the same location. Unfortunately, the other Fall sports finish earlier than volleyball. That means they cut a week off our season. A proposal was made, however, to make up for that cut by adding a week back at the beginning of the season. That was voted on and passed in mid-January. As a result, we’ll start our season August 24th rather than August 31st.

We committed to tournaments for our first two weekends. We’ll go to Tarleton again the first week, as we did in 2017. It’s an easy trip with some good competition. We played two ranked teams there this year and look forward to something similar for 2018. One of the top teams in the country is on the list of attendees.

The second weekend we’ll be going to Nebraska-Kearney. We played them at West Texas early in the 2017 season. They are traditionally quite a strong team – as in top 10 in the poll. The other teams in the tournament, however, were ranked below us this year. Two of them, though, will be regional competition.

There is also scheduling Spring competition. Because we can’t play any of our MBs due to their academic eligibility, we are keeping things limited. We will host a tournament in April, but that’s it. We did the same thing last year when we had only one MB available. We’ve had five area teams commit for the date.

Team Meeting

We held our first team get together of the term the afternoon of the first day of classes (Jan 16). That basically involved going over the the training schedule for the first part of the semester (up to Spring Break). We also had to discuss our community service hours, study hall, and other stuff like that.

Training

The team started strength and conditioning work with our Strength Coach the first week of school. The first day he started off by having them do some simple agility work in the gym, and then some foundational exercises in the weight room to start getting them back into the swing of things. That sort of work continued in the second week.

We held off on starting the volleyball until the second week to let them settle in with classes and such. At least some of them, though, did take part in an open gym session on Thursday of the first week. The combination of injuries and class schedules looks like it will force to into having two 2-hour full team sessions per week rather than the smaller group work we originally had in mind for this part of the year. Spring can be really tricky like that.

Volunteer work

All athletes at MSU are expected to do a certain amount of volunteer work each year. Even if there was no requirement, though, most of us likely would make it part of our program anyway. It’s a difficult thing to get in during the season in the Fall, for obvious reasons. The team did, though, work a fair one day for a couple hours.

This Spring we will once more be involved with the Cafe con Leche program. It’s one which aims to help mainly minority kids become the first in their family to go to college. We helped out with one of their tutoring sessions last year. We’re doing the same again this year on a monthly basis.

And the big news

When she returned from the semester break, the head coach announced her intention to resign. This was not a major surprise as it was totally based on family considerations. It was a question of when, not if it would happen. She informed the team in a meeting on the 23rd, with a press release going up on the website the next day. She also reached out to all the incoming players to let them know. Fortunately, there wasn’t any drama.

Well, at least we thought so. Then we heard on the 29th from the setter we signed that she’s decommitting. Ugh! Scramble time to find someone else after we’ve been telling kids we’re done in that position for 2018.

The outgoing head coach’s final thing with the team was on the 30th. She showed them a short video on the team concept and we played a series of team oriented non-volleyball games.