If you could ask just one question …

Imagine you get to talk with one of the world’s great volleyball coaches. For example, you bump into them in the hotel at the AVCA convention. You don’t have much time, though. You can ask them one question. In that scenario, what would that question be?

This is a question that popped into my mind. Of course, that’s my work on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project I get to ask a whole bunch of really successful coaches lots of different questions. In pondering that, though, I found myself wondering what one question would be the best one to ask if that was all I got.

For me the question I ask would vary based on the coach. They all have different backgrounds and experiences, different strengths and weaknesses, and differing perspectives on things. As a result, I’d try to ask something that would really let me drill down on a topic they might have some unique insight or perspective.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about you, dear reader. I want to hear what you’d ask. Use the comment area below let me know.

You can make it something general – a question you’d ask more or less any Wizard-type coach. Alternatively, you can put in a specific question you’d ask a certain coach.

Either way, write your questions below – and who you’d ask them of, if you want – down below. It just might be that I can get them asked and answered!

Being a sponge

In a recent email exchange with a coaching contact in Germany, I made the comment that I’m ready for my vacation to end. He laughed that he couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind would want a holiday in Southern California to come to an end (it’s basically middle 70F/24C and sunny every day, some days warmer). He’s probably right, but I’m ready to get on to whatever comes next. It’s now been a month of relative inactivity, which is long enough.

Of course, I haven’t exactly been doing nothing. I’ve been active in the job market. I’m working on developing an online course. I’ve also conducted several interviews for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. In fact, just last night I interviewed Terry Pettit, legendary Nebraska coach. The Wizards work has kept me in developmental mode.

I’ve written before about the value of watching other coaches in action in terms of helping to affirm what you’re doing. Obviously, that’s great for learning new stuff and gaining a different perspective on things. It’s highly recommended.

For me – and I suspect my project partner Mark Lebedew would agree – conducting these interviews has served a similar role. Some of them get me thinking about things in a different way. Some of them give me ideas for ways of dealing with different situations. Some of them help to affirm my coaching philosophy.

A common recommendation from the Wizards to developing coaches is to be a sponge. During this time away from coaching that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

How to get a setter to go for the ball and use their hands

I came across a question in a volleyball coaching group on Facebook. It was about getting a setter to chase down the 2nd ball (not call help) and to use their hands. Here’s how the coach in question worded it:

Good drills to get a setter to stop being so lazy? She will call help on so many balls that I know she can get to, she just doesn’t bother trying. And she ALWAYS sets with her forearms instead of using her hands when she can take one more step and use her hands.

Before I share how I would look to address this, I need to comment on something I see all too often in forums and the like. People with no real knowledge of the situation start throwing out recommendations with no thought as to whether they are reasonable given the circumstances. Here are some examples from this particular thread:

  • She shouldn’t be setter
  • Maybe you should train someone else
  • Bench her. That will get the message across

Then there’s this one, which takes things in a different direction:

I rip my setter a new one when she calls for help.

As it turns out, in this particular case the poster later went on to say in the follow-up comments, “it’s just a lower level club/team, she was one out of 2 setters that tried out that were any good at all.

So the “train someone else” and “she shouldn’t be a setter” comments were probably very unrealistic options in this case. Benching may or may not have been an option, depending on a number of factors.

It’s also worth noting that despite how people answered the question, the coach didn’t ask, “How do I deal with a lazy setter?” Instead, she was basically asking, “How can I train my setter to be less lazy?” The difference may be subtle, but it’s important. I might even say “lazy” isn’t the right way to put it. Sounded like some confidence building was required. I seriously doubt ripping the kid was going to be the best way to go.

Regardless, the poster was asking for some suggestions on what she could do to train this player. Now, a lot of coaches think a new drill or game can fix a problem with their team. That’s rarely the case. They don’t realize the main issue is having the right focus and incentives (or disincentives). That’s why I didn’t suggest a specific drill or game, but rather a scoring approach.

I recommended only counting repetitions or points (or whatever) when the setter set the second ball with her hands. Not only does this serve the purpose of encouraging the setter to be aggressive in running balls down and not playing them with their forearms, it also serves to encourage the passers and/or defenders to play balls more accurately and/or higher.

Two drills I have used quite often over the years where this comes into play are the Hard Drill and the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. (or the rotating version). In each I only count good reps if the hitter legitimately attacks and the setter sets the resulting dig with their hands. Believe me! When it’s the difference between being able to finish a challenging drill or not, the players are right there to remind the setter to take the ball with their hands.

This principle can be applied anywhere you have a pass/dig-set-attack sequence. And it works for encouraging jump setting as well!

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Feb 26, 2016

I got an update from the coach at the school in Texas that the hope was they’d be ready to make an offer soon – perhaps early next week.

Back in Europe?
Since the Texas position remains in limbo for the moment, I’ve stayed active in the job market – even to the point of applying for a potentially interesting non-volleyball position. I was in touch with one of my contacts in Germany on Sunday who asked me whether I would pursue a job in Europe. My response was that if nothing interesting developed on this side of the Atlantic over the next few weeks (basically until clubs started winding down their seasons and positions begin opening up), then I would consider it. The situation would have to look really good and interesting, though.

Camping
I’ve had a few conversations with one of my other coaching contacts in Germany about running a Summer camp over there. It’s something he’s interested in doing, though he has concerns about handling the logistics. In any case, the situation with his club is muddled at the moment. Things need to settle out before we could make any plans, which probably means we’re talking 2017. I have an idea for something Stateside that I’d want him involved in this Summer, though. Hopefully, more on that later. 😉

Other positions
I saw a posting for a potentially interesting job back over the weekend – a joint men’s and women’s position at the Division III level. There’s a definite appeal to being somewhere with both genders. It was a dynamic I really liked while coaching at Exeter. In this case the situation also involves building a program from scratch (men’s), which is the sort of challenge I’d like to take on. The problem is coaching both means you’re in-season almost the whole school year. That wouldn’t offer much opportunity to do some other things. Plus, it’s in a region I’m not overly keen on at this particular moment, and is a religiously oriented school, which likely wouldn’t be a good fit.

There was another head coach job for a religion-based school that I bypassed, and a couple others where I just wasn’t interested in the part of the country and/or the situation. I’m at the point where if I am going to be serious about a job, it needs to offer some things above and beyond just the opportunity to get paid for coaching volleyball. It’s kind of like when I decided to do my PhD in England. That had a lot to do with having a new type of experience and being able to grow in new ways as an individual.

A pair of other head coach jobs, though, were interesting enough for me to send off my resume. One was in Division I and the other in Division III. Very different parts of the country, and different from the other jobs I’ve applied for thus far. I’m not saying that either would necessarily be my dream job, but they made me want to have the discussion.

What if you’re not coaching “the game”?

Over at the Arizona Sidelines Coaching Blog there was a recent post which addressed the subject of doing non-game-like drills. It included a lot of references to videos of activities which would appear to have very little to do with actual volleyball. The leading example was one where a coach was rolling balls and requiring a player to moved to them and roll them back. I’ve actually seen a variation of this drill run. The author said the following:

“Motor learning science is adamant about Game-Like Reps in practice; better skill acquisition, better transfer and better retention. Chasing rolling balls across the floor while 10 girls stand and watch doesn’t come up a whole lot in the game. So why?”

Now, I am very much in line with the philosophy of making things as game-like as we possibly can in training. Just the other day I had a go at men’s volleyball players at a recent match for some of what they were doing. Here’s a question, though.

What if we’re not actually training the game at the moment, though?

Let me clarify. In volleyball, as in anything, there are technical skills and there are game skills. Motor learning, as noted above, strongly suggests that skills are best developed in a game-like environment. And I doubt anyone will argue that learning things like reading and decision-making are also best accomplished in a similar fashion.

What about things that are not specific to the sport, though?

I’m not talking about physical stuff here. First off, you can make the case that any strength and conditioning work you do should be directly related to the sport you’re playing. Further, you can also make the case that much of that type of development is best accomplished on the court.

Instead, I’m talking about mental development. I have in mind what might broadly be classified as mental toughness. More specifically, it could include things like dealing with adversity, focusing on the next play and letting mistakes go, and those sorts of things. I know personally these are things I specifically work on with my teams. I’ve talked about ways of doing so in my Training beyond techniques and tactics post.

If mental training is the primary focus of a specific exercise, can we accept deviations from “the game teaches the game”?

Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Train them together, or separately?

When interviewed noted Juniors coach Mike Lingenfelter (Munciana) for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, the conversation at one point turned in an interesting direction. We were talking about the difficulty of moving a player up or down over the course of a club season based on their performance (or lack thereof). It’s not something you see a lot of in my experience.

Mike and I both agreed that there’s a lot of value in being able to move players around. Inevitably, certain players placed on lower level teams end up advancing quite rapidly in their development. That brings them up to the level of a higher team. Similarly, it isn’t unusual for players on a higher team to fail to keep up with their teammates progress. Thus, realistically they deserve to drop down.

Yes. We can all hear the parental screaming and yelling should their dear child get a team demotion. Let’s turn our attention to another consideration, though.

Team Chemistry

With females teams in particular, the bond between teammates is important. Moving players around mid-season can have a very serious chemistry impact. Popping a new player into a team that has trained and played together for half the season already can lead to all kinds of problems. It does not matter how good that player may be.

The idea that Mike and I discussed to try to get around this sort of thing was to avoid fixed teams. Instead, a group of players all trains together. Then, when it comes time to compete, the players are divided up into teams based on where they are at that point in time. This allows for upward and downward mobility, but without the chemistry issues noted above. Or at least there is a reduced risk of them since the whole group practices together all the time. Everyone knows each other.

This was something we did, after a fashion, when I coached at Exeter. Going into my second year we decided the number of players in the club warranted adding second teams to play in university competitions. We didn’t have enough practice time to have these teams train separately, however. So what we did was to train the first and second teams together as one group. We then divide them as needed when it came time to play matches. Certain players were always in the first team and certain players were always in the second team. Some, though, swung back and forth based on performance and development.

This system definitely has it’s challenges. You can read about how I handled coaching them in my 2013-14 coaching log. In the end, we had a pretty good season – if you believe reaching the national semifinal for the first time in school history counts as good. 🙂

Coach Development

Potential player movement aside, the other aspect of this kind of set up that Mike and I talked about is from the coaching perspective. By training the group all together rather than as multiple separate squads, you can create a master coach/mentee coach situation. By that I mean one master coach is in charge of training. Multiple under-coaches help out. Those sub-coaches then take charge of individual teams come competition time. At Exeter my assistant coached the second team on days when both teams played. This sort of arrangement is very useful in the development of inexperienced coaches.

Ever tried or seen something like this?

My question to you is whether you’ve seen or tried this sort of structure out before. And if so, how’d it go?

Clearly, this is mainly something you’d be looking at in terms of a club program. It could also come into play for high schools, though. Or even colleges that run junior varsity teams. And obviously whatever roster locking rules there are need to be accounted for in all this.

Guys, I’m not impressed

One Friday during the 2016 season, I went to watch my first ever NCAA men’s volleyball match. I’ve watched them on TV, but I’ve never actually attended one before. That probably sounds a bit pathetic. In my defense, I’ve watched professional matches in Germany, have been to the CEV Champions League Final Four, and went to Poland to watch some of the 2014 World Championships. So it’s not like I’ve never seen high level men’s volleyball in person. And of course I coached the University of Exeter men.

Conveniently, I was hanging out in Long Beach, which was the home of the then #1 ranked Long Beach State (CSULB) team. They hosted a pair of matches that week, with the one on Friday being against #11 UC Irvine. I’d been to the Pyramid before for a Long Beach State women’s alumni match when I was visiting back in 2013. This was a better production in terms of the game day experience, which probably isn’t a surprise.

Long Beach State at the Pyramid

Take a look at the crazy number of guys on the Long Beach bench!

2016-02-19 19.18.23

Between set warm-ups

I was a bit late arriving to the match because of a late start to dinner beforehand. As a result, I missed warm-ups. Between sets, though, the non-starters came out on the court hitting (which I’ve never seen before). In a typical display of male whatever, the setters put the ball on – or even over – the net and the guys saw how high they could bounce the ball. There was no concern about hitting the net.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing. I’m sure it won’t be the last. I wanted to say to the players, “Guys, I’m not impressed.”

What’s the point of this? You will never do this sort of thing in match situation.

It reminded me of things I’ve written about before in terms of warm-ups with respect to throwing the ball and slamming the ball off the floor the way many players do. Needless to say, I’m not a fan.

How do you motivate players to win?

A reader sent me the following question. It’s about keeping a team focused and having the killer instinct when they have the opportunity to win.

As a club volleyball coach for several years, one of the challenges I face mostly is motivating my players to maintain their winner’s mentality… if anything their killer instinct. My current age group are 13s and 14s and they have the talent and skills but mentally, it’s a rollercoaster — they can’t seem to maintain the aggressiveness and fail to beat the teams they can and should beat…. just too many mental mistakes. I’ve collected many sports motivational quotes and use them during our timeouts and team meetings but can’t seem to absorb. I’ve used some of your drills as well.

I had two initial thoughts on reading this question.

Understand gender differences

The first was to wonder if the coach in question is talking about a girls’ team. I got confirmation that this is indeed the case. It’s been my experience that female players tend to be less naturally competitive than their male counterparts, and instead more cooperative. I think this is probably even more true for younger players. I’ve had conversations with other coaches on this subject – male and female – and they generally agree.

This is something Kathy DeBoer wrote in her book Gender and Competition. She made the observation men battle to bond and women bond to battle. In my experience, it’s very true.

A lack of competitiveness definitely doesn’t apply to all female athletes, of course. The setter I had at Svedala is a perfect example. She is one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. That means you need to consider the individual aspect of things along the way. You could have a mixture of competitiveness levels, which impacts how you try to address things.

I think the broader point here is that for certain types of players or teams it’s best not to address competitiveness just from the perspective of winning for winning’s sake. You need to think about looking at things in other ways. Winning could be an indication of excellence in performance or teamwork, reaching a joint objective, or something else which is important.

An example of that would be my Exeter women’s team from 2013-14. They had the collective goal of reaching Final 8s in Edinburgh. To get there, they had to win matches, so they were very motivated to do so. Without that strong group objective, they probably wouldn’t have been so focused on winning.

Focus on non-win related objectives

The second thing that came immediately to mind when reading the email above is that the coach needed to shift the focus away from winning and on to something else. This can be especially helpful when playing weaker competition – or alternatively, when playing a better team from a different perspective.

When I was coaching at Exeter we often faced teams that could have been considered inferior. In those situations I went in with specific areas of focus for the team for that match. An example was serving. I’d tell the team I wanted them to focus on their more aggressive serves or their serving accuracy. Against another team the focus might have been on our offense or some other facet of the game. In every case the idea was to work on things I wanted to develop or improve upon for the more important matches down the road.

In all these cases, while I certainly wanted and expected the team to win, I put the focus on process rather than outcome. Obviously, what I had them concentrating on was things that I felt would contribute to winning.

Breaking things down into chunks

Another thing which might help in situations like those described in the email is breaking each match down into smaller “games. This is something which got discussed in a recent episode of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. I encourage you to give that a listen as Wizard Mike Lingenfelter shares his own method for doing this, and my podcast partner Mark and I offer our own thoughts on the subject.

Thoughts from readers?

There are other things I know coaches do to try to encourage competitiveness. I’d love to hear what readers use to this end – what they’ve found useful and what hasn’t worked. Use the comment section below to share your experience or ideas – or questions if you have them.

 

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Feb 19, 2016

Following up on last week
I started the new week with some follow-up correspondence. As you may recall from my last entry, the Athletic Director at the school asked me to give some real thought as to whether the position would be a good fit for me. From a volleyball and coaching perspective, and from an overall work environment point of view, everything looked good to me – at least as best you can judge these things based on a couple of days. The big question mark in my mind was whether I’d enjoy living there. It’s the type of environment I’ve never lived in before, both in terms of climate and culture.

Since the interviews, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that question and doing a bunch of research. As strange as this may sound, I looked at housing costs and car prices and general cost of living considerations. That’s obviously not the same as being feet on the ground and experiencing day-to-day life, but it definitely helped me feel more comfortable about the prospect of living there. Maybe I won’t be a huge fan of the climate or the environs, but I at least feel like I can carve out a pleasant existence there, which is key. I struggled with that in Sweden, which probably fed my apparent unhappiness there.

I should also note that I also had a few email and text exchanges with the head coach there after I left and over the weekend. Not really job-related stuff, though.

New application
On Monday I put in for a head coach position in Division I. Very different part of the country in this case My qualifications should be more than sufficient in multiple ways, but there is at least one potentially important factor which doesn’t work in my favor.

On Tuesday I also put in for another head coach position. This is for a Division II program in yet another different part of the country. I was in part motivated to do so by the fact that I think I crossed paths in England with the current assistant coach.

One that could be interesting
I also found out on Monday about a job in England that under a different circumstance I might go for. This one isn’t a coaching position, but rather is meant to work at the sub-senior national team level to coordinate the efforts of the senior academies, among other things. Seems like a position that could really help grow and develop the game there. Here’s what got posted by Volleyball England:

Working with partners in the University sector to establish a network of accredited talent development environments for players exiting junior academies including the delivery of existing Senior National Development Programmes for Indoor and Beach.

Coordinating the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme for Volleyball acting as the key point of contact for partner institutions and athletes.

Working with partners to develop senior domestic and international competition opportunities in Indoor and Beach ensuring that they meet the needs of developing talented players. 

We are looking for a candidate whose skills and experience include: 

  • Firsthand experience of talent pathways either as a participant, parent, coach or supporting staff.
  • Experience of managing projects/ partnerships with multiple external stakeholders.
  • Knowledge of sports agencies and stakeholders that contribute to the provision of performance sport in the UK (UK Sport, TASS, Sport England etc.).
  • Ability to meet deadlines, systematic approach to tasks with efficient time management skills including the ability to work under pressure. 

Unfortunately, my lack of UK/EU citizen ship and the fact that the completion of my PhD means the end of my student visa (and the potential to extend it now) makes me an unlikely prospect.

Other options
I of course kept my eye on the postings and considered which ones might be a good fit for me. Honestly, I’m being very picky. I won’t be rushing into things, especially since the recent completion of my PhD gives me options in other directions. I will seriously explore them if I don’t find something I really want to take on in the full-time coaching arena.