Let them play!

There was a player in the Midwestern State squad when I first visited campus in early February 2016 who could not hit a down ball or a back row attack to save her life. I mean she literally did not have the skill.

I found out later the cause of this problem. Her high school coach never let her hit.

I will grant you that she was pretty tiny. It must have been obvious from early on that hitting and blocking weren’t going to be her thing. Genetics put her clearly into the libero/defensive specialist category.

I get that a coach probably isn’t going to have her spend much time in hitting drills and the like. But to not have her even learn how to do a good down ball? Come on! That’s criminal in my book. It’s specialization gone crazy.

First of all, even tiny little defenders sometimes need to use that skill. Heck, sometimes they can even attack the ball outright from the back row if they aren’t libero at the time. So there’s a very clear volleyball reason to teach every player to hit from either standing or jumping.

More importantly, part of what we must be doing as coaching is instilling a love of the game in our players. That’s a whole lot easier to do when you actually let them play!

And this applies to players in other positions as well. Let your setters block. Include your middles in defensive training. Give your pin hitters the opportunity to set. You never know when being able to whip a non-specificity skill out will make the difference between winning and losing.

Being more well-rounded makes players better. It gives them a deeper appreciation of the game and all it entails. It also makes it more fun for them, and that means they may stick with the sport longer.

So please let them just be players instead of positions sometimes.

Coaching Log – Mar 15, 2016

I’m going to start a new coaching log sequence to share the stuff I’m doing at Midwestern State for the rest of this current academic year. This is likely to be different from the ones I did for Exeter and Svedala in a couple of ways.

First, I’m not the head coach, so I won’t be the sole driver of the coaching involved. I’ll be part of a staff, with a head coach setting the tone and me working within that framework. Second, coaching at the college level involves a ton of moving parts. Yes, there’s on-court work, but there’s also recruiting and player academic supervision and lots of other organizational stuff which are integral to the job.

In fact, we’ve already started talking about how we’re going to revitalize the office area I work in. This wasn’t motivated by me, by the way. The rest of the staff were already thinking about it. Here’s the view from my desk.

MSU VB assistants office

I don’t know yet how frequently I’ll do updates. I need to see how things fall out. This time of year, since the on-court team schedule isn’t as full and defined as is the case in the Fall, I may just end up doing ad-hoc updates as things happen which I think might be of interest.

With that, let me start off telling you what I’ve been doing since I arrived in town on Saturday morning. Basically, I’ve been running around. I had to secure an apartment. I had to buy a car. I had to shop for furniture and other household goods. I’ve had to do various admin things on campus (visit HR, get my ID, etc.).

I’ve spent A LOT of money!

And I’ll be spending more getting my life in order. My to-do list is still a mile long with details big and small. Trying to secure auto insurance has been the single biggest hassle. Definitely making me miss the days of not needing a car. 🙁

I was in the gym for an hour on Monday, though. We did an individual session with one of the players. Mostly they do their sessions in groups of 3-4, but this one’s schedule doesn’t work with anyone else’.

You don’t need a new drill

“Are there any drills that you do to help with your blockers timing?”

“Any drills to help my middle not approach too close to the net when she hits?”

“Does anyone have a favorite drill that teaches top spin serving?”

These are just some of the examples of the types of queries you will often find if you spend time in a volleyball coaching forum or discussion group. In some cases you’ve got a coach looking for a new idea to shake things up in their training. Too often, though, they reflect what to me seems like a “give me a pill to cure what ails me” type of mindset.

If you find yourself wanting a new drill to “fix” something a player or a team is having a problem with, stop for a minute and think about things. Chances are, you don’t need a new drill. The ones you have will do just fine.

Let me take the first example above having to do with block timing. Ultimately, the player needs to learn to time their jump to the hitter’s attack. How do you do that? You practice blocking against hitters. There’s really no other way to do it. So how do you get blockers going up against live hitters? Run any game or drill where there’s living hitting and blocking.

More about focus and feedback than activity

It’s not the activity – as long as it has the blockers facing hitters, of course. It’s about the coaching cues and the focus. Any game or drill that features the skill you want to improve can be used, so long as the attention is being given to what you want to work on in that instance.

It’s also about the feedback. In fact, that is probably the biggest consideration. This is part of what I talked about in the Fixing bad passing mechanics post. In some cases the feedback is inherent in the activity – missed hit, service error, bad pass, etc. In many cases specific feedback in the form of video and/or coach observation is required.

When you think in terms of giving a player/team opportunities to execute the skill or tactic you want to develop, with specific focus, and being able to provide meaningful feedback you’ll realize there are lots and lots of options.

Want to work on serving? Do something that includes serving. Want to working on serve reception? Do something that has passers receiving balls from servers. Want to work on hitter transition? Do something that requires players to attack after having blocked, passed, or defended.

It’s really that simple. A new drill or game isn’t going to change the primary needs of focus, cues, and feedback.

Heading for Texas!

I’ve shared this news with some folks already. Here’s the official and full announcement for everyone who reads this blog, though.

On Tuesday I was offered the Volleyball Assistant Coach position at Midwestern State University, which I accepted. Later today I’ll be ending my stay in Long Beach, where I’ve been since early February after my departure from Sweden, and heading to Wichita Falls, TX. That’s a bit under 2 hours drive northwest of Dallas. Oklahoma City is slightly further than that to the north.

Midwestern State Volleyball (MSU) is an NCAA Division II program competing in the Lone Star Conference (LSC). The conference is part of the South Central region. You can see the full set of Div II regions and the top 10 rankings for each here. The full 2015 set of rankings for the region can be found here (PDF). Angelo State, also from the LSC, was top. They ended up reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament (full bracket PDF). Tarleton State and Texas Women’s also both made the field, though both fell in the first round. To get a sense for the level of play, give a watch to the 2015 LSC tournament championship match.

Why Midwestern State?

As you will see in the regional rankings, MSU ended up 25th out of 34. The squad finished 0-16 in the LSC, making it two years in a row ending the season at the bottom of the league standings. In other words, I’m heading into a program that needs a lot of work. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way! As I’ve said before, I want to be in a program building situation, as I was when coaching at Exeter University in England. This is exactly that kind of opportunity.

That said, you can only turn something around and properly build a program if there’s something to build. MSU has only once made the NCAA tournament in its history. That was back in 2007. If you look at the other teams at the school, though, you’ll see a lot of conference titles and tournament appearances. That tells you there is the commitment to athletics and the resources available to be successful. When I sat with the Athletic Director during the interview process he told me he’s pretty much sick of volleyball not performing. He clearly wants a winning team.

Now, a question which might come to mind is whether there’s something about MSU that hinders volleyball’s competitiveness. I haven’t seen anything about the school or the athletics which would seem to be an issue. Volleyball is fully funded (8 scholarships, the max allowed in D2), just like all the other sports. The Dallas area is a fertile recruiting territory and LSC is a strong league, making for good competition. That leads me to believe that with the right coaching, recruiting, and organizational work we should be able to build a competitive program.

I’m not the only one to think that. Ruth Nelson, who I interviewed for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, was the one to point me in the direction of MSU. That was back in January. She told me at the time that she thought within a few years this could be an Elite 8 caliber program.

Why assistant coach?

Given that I’ve been a head coach for the last four years, it’s natural to ask the question as to why I would take an assistant job. It might not be as much of a surprise, perhaps, if I were to take an assistant job in the upper levels of Division I, but I can understand how doing do in Division II might be a surprise. It must seem to many like a step backwards.

I did look at head coach jobs, and applied for ones I thought potentially interesting. At the end of the day, though, it was about the situation and not the title. The priorities I had were 1) to be somewhere I could have an impact on the program’s path forward, 2) to be in a location where volleyball isn’t a minor sport, and 3) being somewhere I would have the opportunity to pursue my other interests and activities.

To the first point, my new boss at MSU only has 3 years as a collegiate head coach (just one season at the school) and has a relatively inexperienced pair of other assistants (GA and volunteer). She was looking for someone with a stronger background that she could bounce ideas off of and problem-solve with at a higher level. She was also looking for someone with strong organizational skills to help carry the off-the-court load. It was this combination of things which saw Ruth encourage the two of us to connect (this is why networking is so important folks!). She felt like we’d make a good team to drive the MSU program forward.

To the second point, Texas loves volleyball. It is a huge sport in the state, with Dallas being one of the big hubs. Obviously, it doesn’t have the history of the West Coast, but it’s still got a pretty good pedigree. In 1988 Mick Haley led the University of Texas team to the first NCAA championship won by a non-West Coast team and that program has been a consistent top contender ever since (another title in 2012 and seven other trips to the Final 4). That’s encouraged a ton of kids to play high school and club ball across the state. Unlike my prior coaching stops, I’m not going to have to go very far to find good volleyball. In fact, Dallas will be hosting one of this year’s World League stops for the US men’s national team.

As for my final point about being able to pursue other activities, a big part of that is just being back in the States where I think there is probably more ability for me to connect and develop opportunities. That’s not so say I won’t continue to do things internationally, though. I definitely will. I’ll leave discussion for all this stuff to future posts, though. 😉

Final thoughts

At the very end of my interview process at MSU the A.D. sat down with me for a few minutes. We’d already met and talked the day before, but he wanted to leave me with something to think about. That was to make sure MSU was a good fit. I can understand why he had that on his mind. Arguably, I’m WAY overqualified for a Division II assistant coaching job. He wants someone who is going to be committed to the program, not someone who will quickly find themselves feeling like they should be somewhere else. I got it.

From my own perspective, there were a few key things I was looking at when evaluating MSU (or anyone else). Did I think there was an opportunity to be successful (support, etc.)? Could I get along with my immediate co-workers (volleyball staff)? How was the overall working environment? Did I like the location?

The first three things were to my mind answered very positively. It was the last one that was the big question. I’ve never lived anywhere like Wichita Falls. I have no point of reference for that, and a couple days visiting doesn’t really tell yo what it’s like to live in a place. After doing my research into things like housing options and stuff, though, I started feeling like I could be reasonably happy there.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee in any of this, but it’s a good starting point. That’s all we can ask for.

What makes for a good coach?

Previously, I wrote on the subject of whether great players make great coaches. Here I want to talk about what sort of talents or skills are required to be a great coach. This is something that we ask in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. Here are a few thoughts of my own mixed in with a few shared by the Wizards.

So where to start…?

Playing experience

Well, let me first address the playing experience question. I do think having played the sport is beneficial. In particular, playing at the level you’re coaching (or at least a reasonable facsimile) is useful. It provides you with a perspective that can sometimes help understanding what the players are going through and how to communicate with them. Having this experience isn’t necessary. The lack of it can be overcome. It just tends to make things easier – especially early in one’s career.

Playing position

Here’s something else that falls in the “useful, but not required” category. In baseball, you often see catchers become managers. It’s a position with a lot of leadership requirements as well as one which includes a broad perspective on the game. To my mind, setter is similar in volleyball. Because the setter is at the heart of most of what’s going on for a team, they inherently develop an understanding for tactics and strategy, plus have considerable work as leaders. Again, this doesn’t mean that non-setters can’t coach, or couldn’t be good coaches, just as not every manager in baseball used to be a catcher. It’s just that being a setter gives one a leg up in many ways.

Communication skills

This is where coaches can really get separated. If you want to be a great coach you need to be a good communicator. Technical knowledge is pretty easy to gain. Read a few books. Attend some clinics and seminars. Watch a bunch of matches. The key is being able to communicate that to your players. Doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t pass that on effectively. Think about the example of a professor who is a true expert in their field but can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. You don’t want to be that type of coach.

Organizational skills

You may be wondering at this point, feeling like organizational skills aren’t really coaching. If you are then you need to adjust your thinking. They may not have much to do with what you’re doing on the court with your players, but they have a lot to do with how you structure things – including stuff as basic as practice sessions. Strong organizational skills help your develop good, effective practice plans. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many parts of coaching which take place off the court where your skills in administration and management are put to the test.

Put players first

At its core, coaching is an exercise in service to another. We are guiding and teaching and motivating others, but it’s those others that actually do all the real work. As such, we must be prepared to put the welfare of those we coach ahead of our own. This isn’t to say there isn’t some ego in coaching. It takes some just to believe that you can do the job. It’s a question of whether you’re coaching for you or for those on the team.

Coaching experience

This one seems pretty obvious, but let me provide a bit of detail. A couple of the Wizards have specifically talked about the need for developing coaches to get as much head coaching experience as they can because of the things you learn when you’re the one making the decisions. I would extend that by suggesting that you get as broad an experience base as you can because the more different types of situations you face the better you’ll be equipped to take on the variety of challenges you’ll face along the way.

I’m not sure I’d call this a comprehensive list of desirable skills or traits. I think it’s a reasonable starting point, though. Definitely feel free to share your own thoughts through the comment section below.

Do great players make great coaches?

My life experience includes multiple coaching-related activities over the years. As a result, I’ve come across different forms of biases toward favoring current/former high level performers as coaches or teachers. It happens anywhere credentials are evaluated in some fashion.

On the negative side of things, this bias is expressed as “Those who can’t, teach”. The presumption there is that if you truly knew what you were talking about, you’d be doing it. You would not just tell other people how to do it. Among other short-comings of this mentality is that it ignores the fact that it’s possible to both do and teach – at least in some fields.

Whether expressed positively or negative, however, there is an assumption in this bias. It says the talent and/or skills required to be a high level performer are the same as those required to teach or coach. To put it bluntly, they most definitely are not.

Clay at Open Source Volleyball wrote about this in a post a little while back. In it he referenced some research from baseball. It examines hitting coaches’ effectiveness. The finding is that at best a coach’s abilities as a hitter when they played has no influence on how well they do as a coach. In fact, it might even be a negative.

In other words, being good at “doing” doesn’t imply any ability at all for coaching.

And yet, what do we see in the promotional material for so many clubs and clinics? We see current and recently former players with strong on-court credentials highlighted as a major feature of the coaching staff. That shouldn’t be the case. Those running the camp/clinic no doubt realize the lack of coaching credential involved. They also know, however, it’s the sort of thing that impresses would-be attendees. Granted, it isn’t 100% about coaching.

The sad thing is that those looking to hire coaches also seem dazzled by playing credentials. Or maybe they just cynically look at them as a way to impress the masses. Not good either way.

That then begs the question. What makes for a good coach?

I share my thoughts on that in the this post. 🙂

Fixing bad passing mechanics

A reader of the blog has a problem with one of their players. Specifically, it relates to bad passing mechanics. Here’s the note I received:

“I am a relatively new coach and this is my first season coaching boys. I have one boy on the team in particular that I’m having a hard time with his passing skills. He is doing what I call butterfly arms (Looks like he’s swimming the butterfly stroke) and delayed foot movement during passing. He waits until the ball is almost on him, then swings his arms backwards and around to get them into his hitting stance then leans forward instead of shuffling to get under the ball.

I’ve tried all kinds of passing and footwork drills with him (rolling the ball and having him shuffle to get it between his legs, having him hold his arms out, shoulder width apart and tossing him the ball without requiring foot movement, etc.) and I haven’t been able to cure this extra movement. Needless to say, he shanks a LOT of passes. Do you have any suggestions for drills or repetitions to help this?”

I’m having a hard time visualizing exactly what the problem is with the arms. I think I’ve got a general idea, though. In a case like this my first thought is the player needs to see himself to be able to understand what’s happening.

What I would start by doing is having the player watch some good passers in action. That could potentially be someone on his own team. It could be someone that they play against. Of course, it could also be some prominent high level players that could potentially be bigger role models for them. That stuff should be easy enough to find on YouTube, etc.

Once the player knows what good passing mechanics looks like, I would get them watching themselves pass. You could use one of the apps like Coach’s Eye (I think) that allow you to do side-by-side comparison of video. More than that, though, I’d want to be able to give the lad persistent feedback by using video delay, if you can (ideas for a set-up are here and here). That would let him see himself basically every repetition. He can then compare what he’s doing with what he’s seen is good mechanics. No better feedback than that!

Beyond the video, I don’t think it’s the actual drill or game that really matters. It’s more about finding the right cues to use with him. Those are the things that carry through across all activities, so you can include them throughout practice, which is important. The player needs to learn to pass in game situations, so you need to be able to have those cues established and ready for use.

Be careful, though, and don’t overload the kid. Try to only focus on one or two things at a time. If you have too many points of emphasis it’s not going to work.

Dealing with perfectionist players

I came across an article which speaks to the issue of student perfectionism. In it the author focuses on students who are not satisfied with anything but being perfect. Does this sound like any volleyball players you know? I certainly have had my fair share!

Anything less than perfect is failure

You’ve seen it, right? A player gets frustrated and angry with themselves because they don’t play the ball perfectly. That just leads to further “failures”, which feeds back, creating a downward spiral. And chances are, many of the reps they aren’t happy with are ones we’d call good. It’s tough to watch and can be a real challenge to deal with.

There’s an interesting quote in the piece: “This tendency to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection is akin to the fear of failure…”

This brought to mind the fixed vs. growth mindset discussion, as outlined in Mindset by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read that book, I strongly recommend it. In many cases, the fixed mindset is driven by a fear of failure. That can lead to either perfectionism or to not being willing to try new things or otherwise challenge one’s self.

Changing the mindset

The focus of the article is on trying to get students (athletes in our case) to change their focus away from be perfect and toward more useful mindsets. The author suggests four “swaps” that can/should be attempted. This is something Hugh McCutcheon has talked about. Here are the four mental adjustments suggested in the article:

Can you swap out progress for perfectionism?
This is a healthy trade off. What if our report card was continual improvement, not perfection? It’s a game that’s challenging but winnable. Ask them: Are you OK with who you are, but becoming the best version of you?

Can you swap out excellence for perfectionism?
Excellence is a fantastic goal, because we all can excel in some area of strength. Help students find and focus on their gift, and remind them: You can get fired from a job, but you cannot get fired from your gift. Find your gift and you’ll always have work.

Can you swap out comparison to others for comparison to you?
If we must play the comparison game, it’s safer to compare your performance today to one of your former performances rather than someone else’s. This way growth, not perfection, becomes a win. Striving for growth resolves the performance trap.

Can you swap out conquering others to adding value to others?
If life has become about competing with and conquering other people, why not shift your perception of others. What if your “report card” was about adding value to people, not being better than other people? Suddenly, we can all make straight A’s.

Admittedly, that last one might be a bit tricky for us. In fact, it might run counter to some of the work we’re trying to do to make our players and teams more competitive. 🙂

Creating a forward focus

For my own part, in training I try to short-circuit the perfectionist spiral by not giving the players an opportunity to fixate on that last rep. The time you tend to see that kind of feedback loop is when a player is doing successive reps. Think one player passing or digging X number of balls in a row. I’ve seen all kinds of non-productive reactions to “bad” reps – cursing, stamping, slamming the floor, etc.

In order to prevent that sort of thing, I like to use drills and other exercises where the player is forced to immediately do something else. A very basic example would be doing a pass to hit type of drill where after receiving serve the player must attack a set ball. This serves not only to blunt the hypercritical reaction (hard to scream and yell when you need to go transition to attack), but encourages the player to quickly move on to the next thing, which is what they’ll need to do in a game.

You can do the same thing in a game context. It’s simply a matter of introducing another ball immediately after a rally ends.

Admittedly, these sorts of things done in training may not directly address the larger perfectionist issue at the individual level. They primarily seek to limit its impact. To the extent, though, that they make the player aware of their responsibilities in a team context, they can help to do some of the swapping outlined above.

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Mar 4, 2016

Late last week another interesting Division I head coach job was posted for which I put in my application. Strong academic institution, which one would think might find some extra appeal in a candidate with a doctorate. Also an attractive part of the country from a living perspective, though perhaps not as great in terms of the strength of the local volleyball.

I also put in for an assistant position with one of the Power 5 conference teams in Division I. I’ve seen a number of assistant jobs post, but for the most part I steered clear of them. None really offered anything that I thought would be appealing. This case was a little different, though. It struck me that I might be in a position there to apply my experience and connections to the program’s benefit. Of course jobs at that level that get posted often are already filled, effectively, so it might have been a waste of time.

As for Texas…
I got a call on Tuesday basically asking me if I’ll accept the job if offered. My answer was “Yes”. Obviously, though, that comes with the assumption the offer is a reasonable one. The expressed hope was that things could be sorted out to be able to get me that offer later in the week, but the Athletic Director was out of town, so delays were anticipated.

There was also the question of setting the hire date. I said I could basically start right away. For sure the desire would be for me to be on campus when the players return from Spring Break and begin their Spring team training. Actually, getting there ahead of that for planning and organizational purposes would be ideal – not to mention giving me a chance to get my living circumstances sorted out before things got busy.