Playing for each other

Anson Dorrance is the head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team. His program has won more than 20 national championships. I read his book Training Soccer Champions back in the very early days of my coaching career. Needless to say, I think he’s worth listening to any time you get a chance to hear him talk.

Here’s a video of Anson talking about getting players to play together by giving them a common focus. Warning: Anson shares a couple of touching stories, so you may need a hankie. 🙂

 

At what age should kids compete?

What is a good age for kids to start playing in legitimate competitions?

I’m not really asking here whether little ones should have scores kept. That’s a bit tricky in volleyball since it’s a point target sport. You have to switch to a timed model to be able to toss out the score, if you really wanted to go that route.

Rather, what I’m asking is at what point it really make sense to have kids playing in meaningful competition. I’m talking about big tournaments and things like that rather than simply playing in an in-house type of league. Is there really any benefit to these youngsters playing in regional or national level competition? Is the potential higher level play meaningful in their development?

This is something Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Turco talked about in his interview. He runs a Juniors club, but for the 12s age group they do not take part in even regional competition. They are strictly in-house. Tom doesn’t see any potential benefit worth the added time and expense involved for the families.

I go even further and wonder whether the kids would be better off not playing in these bigger tournaments from the perspective of early specialization. I challenged a 12s coach from Texas a while back on this basis. By all accounts it’s very hard to judge at that age what position a player is likely to be best suited for down the road. That being the case, it doesn’t make much sense to have them in fixed positions.

Unfortunately, the desire or pressure to win encourages coaches to field their best team, which often means positional specialization. If we take that aspect of things away for players in these younger age groups, would we end up producing better players in the long run?

And maybe reducing the competitive pressures early on helps keep more kids in the sport.

Thoughts?

Structured learning vs. overt teaching

While reading this blog post on the different values of explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning, I got to thinking about some coaching conversations I’ve had.

Let me define those terms. Explicit is what most of us probably think of in terms of the teaching/coaching/learning process. It is about showing or telling someone how to do something and then them going out and doing it. Implicit is more about players figuring out how to do things for themselves. They get an objective, and are left to sort out how to accomplish it.

Once upon a time, I posted on the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic development based on something John Kessel wrote. It follows along a very similar thought process as the explicit vs. implicit one outlined above. Both have at their core the idea of allowing players (in our case as coaches) figure things out for themselves.

Admittedly, this is a hard thing for many coaches to handle. Letting our players come up with the best solutions to a given “problem” can feel awfully lazy to someone who believes their role is one of teaching and guiding. We feel like we should be doing something. This goes doubly so when you consider those evaluating us in some fashion or another – owners, athletic directors, board members, parents, media, etc.. You feel like you need to do something to make it look like you’re actually working and not just standing their watching.

The difference is teaching vs. facilitating. If our athletes learn better by finding their own solutions to the problems presented by game situations, then it behooves us as coaches to assist them in that process. This isn’t done by telling them what to do, but by putting them in situations to help them come to the desired conclusion. In other words, we create a structure in which the desired learning takes place.

A learning structure example

Let me provide an example of something I use in this way. The exercise called The Hard Drill is basically a cooperative back row game which serves many purposes. On the physical side, it works on back row attacking and defending against such. Depending on how you set it up, it can also work on setting in an out-of-system context.

More importantly – at least for me in how I use the drill – are the mental aspects.

This is very much a “beat the drill” type of exercise. The players need to learn how to most efficiently accomplish the objective. There are a couple of key things involved in that. One is to focus on setting to only the most effective hitters. The second is to attack mainly to the best diggers from a ball-control perspective. Finally, there is understanding when you are in good position to go for a strong swing and when to just keep the ball in play. You can also add in good communication so that players know what to do with respect to these three factors.

Now, as a coach who wants to see the drill completed as quickly as possible, you could tell the players to only set to certain hitters. You can tell the hitters only to attack to certain defenders. That would certainly speed things up. But would there be any real learning benefit? What happens next time you do the drill with different combinations of players? Will you once more tell them exactly what to do? And the next time? Can you tell players exactly what to do in every game situation?

Yes, it can definitely be a challenge watching the team struggle with this drill. It’s tough to see them get frustrated if they have to keep starting over. We have to resist the urge to go in and “fix” things, though. Instead, we should guide them toward the right solutions – toward the thought processes we want to instill. Instead of telling them what’s wrong or what to do, we should be asking them so they can figure it out for themselves. That leads to better long-term retention and cross-over application in other situations.

Believe me, this can sometimes be a slow process. And there are times when you have to really do a lot of asking and guiding and hinting to get them thinking and acting the way you want. Once you get them there, though, you’ll find it worth the effort.

They might surprise you!

Your players – unless they are very new to the sport – might know more than you give them credit for, especially from their own perspectives. Let them solve things for themselves and you might be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they develop. If nothing else, they are likely to have more confidence in applying those solutions later.

A reasonable hitters on boxes vs blockers set-up

I’m not a huge fan of blocking against hitters on boxes. One major issue is they tend to eliminate the read/react element of things. Also, the tempo usually isn’t very game-like. This version is perhaps the best I’ve seen, though. Including a live setter working off a pass forces the blockers to read and react. Plus, the tempo of the attacks is pretty much game speed.

Now, that said, there is still a big short-coming. It’s one that is tough to get around with hitters on boxes. I’m talking about the lack of a hitter read for the blockers. They basically know exactly where the hitter will attack the ball, so there is no reading of that. In other words, it trains the blockers to simply go to a spot, which is a problem I see all the time.

That being the case, as much as I think this is a better version of blockers vs. hitters on boxes than most, I would still be inclined to only use it infrequently to work on very specific things (penetration, communication, movement, etc.).

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Feb 12, 2016

Monday’s Interview
I mentioned in my last update that I was returning to the States to interview for an assistant coaching job at a Division II program. It was actually a multi-day process. It started on Sunday when I was picked up by the head coach for the ride to campus and eventually lunch before getting dropped off at the hotel. We talked about a lot of coaching topics, as you might imagine.

Monday was the high intensity day with not just one interview, but several. My initial schedule looked like this:

10am: Tour of campus
11am: Meet with HR
12pm: Lunch with volleyball staff
1pm: Meet with women’s basketball coach
2pm: Meet with Senior Women’s Administrator
3pm: Meet other coaches on campus
5pm: Dinner with Athletic Director

The lunch was with the current 2nd/Grad Assistant and the Volunteer Assistant coaches.The SWA is actually the former head coach.

That last entry was a real surprise. I’d never have expected a dinner meeting with the A.D. for an assistant coach candidate.

A couple of other meetings with administrators actually got inserted along the way. One was the Associate A.D. and another was with the head of the department through which I would teach were I to land the job. Not surprisingly, I answered the same questions several times (especially “Why here?”). Long day, but it gave me a lot of exposure to the school and especially the Athletic Department.

You’ll notice no player meetings scheduled. The head coach debated my getting together with them as a full group after their morning strength and conditioning session vs. doing it in smaller groups on Tuesday when they came in for their on-court training. She ended up going with the latter because she thought the players would be more open and conversational in the smaller group situation.

Tuesday’s meetings
The result of the player meeting decision was that I met the team in groups of 3 and 4 on Tuesday after they got done with their small-group practices. The head coach had told them to look me up, so they had questions related to my experience – in particular what it was like coaching in Sweden. The groups were comprised of different mixes of players (one was all freshmen, one was all juniors, one multiple classes), so the other questions they asked and what we talked about varied.

In between the meetings I took a detour over to the business school. I spoke with the head of the Finance department about maybe doing some adjunct teaching. This would be in addition to the teaching requirement for this job – a volleyball activity class each semester.

After another lunch with the head coach, my final meeting on Tuesday was a follow-up 1-on-1 with the A.D. Basically, he just wanted me to think about whether the job and locale was a good fit. Made it sound like if I thought it was, then they would think so too. At least one more interviewee is scheduled to visit campus in about a week’s time, so there will be some time before anything could move forward.

Rest of the week
On Wednesday I flew to California. I’ll be hanging out in Long Beach for a while – probably until my next step is decided. Top priority – getting some rest after all the travel and getting my internal clock set to the right time zone!

Possible paths for volleyball research

The subject of the influence of a coach’s decisions on match outcomes is now a talking point in coaching circles. That wasn’t always the case in the past. For many years the assumption was that coaching interventions (timeouts, subs, etc.) without doubt influence outcomes. This is the coaching mythology. The research challenges that mythology.

Examples of this come from Mark Lebedew. He did a basic study based on the question of whether timeouts in any way influence the likelihood of the server missing their serve. In other words, are servers more likely to miss after a timeout. This is believed by many coaches. Confirmation bias is likely a factor here, though.

A while back Mark also wrote about some research into whether timeouts impact the next point. That piece was was based on some findings from basketball which suggest they are actually counterproductive. Not content to stop there, Mark followed up with additional posts here, here, here, here, here, and here. A researcher in a presentation at the 2016 AVCA convention also took on the subject of timeout effectiveness.

This research is definitely a good start. That’s all it is for the moment, though. I’d like to go down some other research paths with respect to volleyball. What do you think? What question(s) do you have?

Game: Positional winners

As volleyball coaches, most of us are aware, and make regular use, of the game Winners – also known as King or Queen of the Court. There is a variation of the game much favored by John Kessel from USA Volleyball which is known as Speedball. That one, though, requires the right numbers to do properly. I also sometimes use yet another variation in which it is individual players rather than groups (teams) of players who operate in the winners fashion.

Something I started doing with Svedala was another variation on winners that allowed for more positional specialization. It started by having fixed setters, but otherwise playing winners around them. Simply put, the setter who won the rally went to/stayed on the winners’ side.

At times I also had the MBs fixed. That was in order to have the middles and setters working directly with each other – and against each other. So like with the setters, the MB whose team won the rally went to/stayed on the winners side.

Now, I only had two setters and two MBs in the team, so the switches were pretty straightforward. Just two players swapping places.

There were times, though, when I had some extra players in training. In those cases when I wanted to do the fixed MB system I basically had them rotate through like a more normal winners idea. The middle who won the rally was the winner, the losing middle came off, and a middle waiting on the side came in on the challenge side.

So basically what this turned into is a triple Winners rotation. The setters were on a rotation. The middles were on their own rotation. Finally, the rest of the players where in the bigger rotation. Usually, in those situations I had the game played in 4s. That means there was a pair of players from the collection of OHs, OPPs, and Liberos joining up with an MB and a Setter in each team.

I came to like this winners variation because it allowed for more specialized positional work.

The influence of happiness on coaching

This post definitely falls into the category of coaching introspection.

I had a number of interesting exchanges last week with folks all over the world in the wake of my stint coaching in Sweden coming to an end. Most were of the type you’d expect in that kind of situation. A few, though, actually addressed more specifically my state of mind. They really got me thinking.

More relaxed now

The first of those exchanges happened on Thursday while talking with a volleyball friend. He made the comment that I seemed more relaxed than he could ever remember me being. We’ve known each other for a couple of years and have had the chance to hang out in a number of different circumstances. We’ve also talked online numerous times, so this covers a reasonably large sample.

Now, I wouldn’t have said I felt more relaxed at the time, and I was surprised he made that comment. In thinking about it, though, it occurred to me that maybe this was reflective of somewhat less uncertainty in my life. Obviously, I’m now between jobs. For much of the last couple of years, though, I’ve been in a regular state of wondering where the future was going to take me while also wonder when I’d get my PhD work done. The latter is now finished, which is a big load off my mind to be sure. My employment future is hardly fixed, but maybe eliminating one source of stress is enough for me to seem noticeably more relaxed.

Enjoying myself

Looking at things from a slightly different angle, a non-volleyball friend last week asked me whether I enjoyed coaching in Sweden. That was a tough question. I didn’t have a good response. On the one hand, I couldn’t say “No”. On the other hand, I couldn’t immediately say “Yes” either. There were plenty of frustrations during my stay in Svedala, but plenty of good experiences as well.

Even thinking more about the question, I don’t have a clear-cut response. The only thing I think I can reasonably do is make a comparison. Did I enjoy coaching in Sweden more or less than coaching in England? In response to that question I believe the answer is clear. Definitely less. And that is without considering how my time in Sweden ended. There were plenty of frustrations coaching BUCS volleyball in the UK, but all things considered I enjoyed coaching the Exeter teams. It was really rewarding. Sweden less so, though I don’t regret my Swedish experience by any means. Part of the difference was that at Exeter I was involved in meaningful program development. No such opportunity with Svedala.

Happiness

Related to the enjoyment thing, my mother offered up her own perspective. She told me her impression from my updates was that I wasn’t as happy in Sweden as I was in England. This has less to do with volleyball than with life in general, but naturally the two are connected.

In thinking about that observation, I had to generally agree. Life in Sweden was quite isolated. I was living away from town, and for the first 3 months or so in a place that wasn’t very comfortable and lacked internet. I didn’t have housemates to interact with on a day-to-day basis, or professors and peers during the day when I was on campus in Exeter. Plus, as much as most folks speak English, the natural first choice is Swedish. It’s very easy to feel isolated when you don’t understand the conversations going on around you.

It’s also possible the climate impacted my over happiness level. Granted, England isn’t exactly full of sunshine and warm weather all the time. In many ways the Swedish weather was very similar. The days are clearly shorter in the Winter, though. I’ve had some seasonal depression issues in the past, which was a concern in taking the Svedala job. I never felt like I was experiencing anything acute from that perspective, but it may have had a low level persistent influence.

Did it influence my coaching?

I have to figure on some level being less happy and enjoying things less must have had some influence on my coaching. Maybe I was less motivated to perform certain types of duties or act in certain ways. Maybe my energy level while coaching was lower than it would have been in another situation.

This would have been an ideal situation to have someone on-hand who could have watched me and compared my coaching psyche this season vs. prior ones. Unfortunately, I was working with all new people, so that option wasn’t available.

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Feb 5, 2016

Leaving Sweden
As you are probably aware, on Monday my contract with Svedala was terminated. I had already decided several weeks ago that I wouldn’t look to sign with Svedala for another season, so all the early exit did was move up my time line.

Coaching in Sweden was a worthwhile experience and I have absolutely no regrets about making that move. I just want to be somewhere I can do more program building – to have aspirations beyond “Do as well as you can this year”. That wasn’t looking like it was going to happen at Svedala – at least not within a reasonable time frame. It’s kind of the nature of the club’s current structure, and also Swedish volleyball more broadly. Just a personal thing at this point in my career. Nothing against either the club or volleyball in Sweden, there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work there.

Leaving professional volleyball
In January I further decided that continuing in European professional volleyball probably wasn’t going to be my path forward. The season is a long one and, as was the case when I was coaching at Exeter, I found my mind wanting to shift to other things around January. Perhaps that’s something that developed during my time coaching college ball in the States. At least at Exeter the feeling was moderated by my volleyball time commitment only being a couple of days, giving me more scope to do some other things. Obviously, with a professional club it’s at a higher level and intensity than that.

Along with the attention factor in my decision was my desire to be able to do things like go to the AVCA Convention and/or the USA Volleyball High Performance Coaches Clinic and other similar sorts of events. Because both of those in particular happen during the professional season, they aren’t doable in a professional coaching circumstance. If I were coaching back in the States it would be a different story, and with the added benefit of still being able to attend similar European events. Plus, as weird as this might sound, I always liked the recruiting side of things – getting out to different places, meeting people, and all that.

Being back in the States would also likely considerably boost my visibility and connectivity with the coaching community there and lead to opportunities I might not otherwise have. I could potentially get involved with national team programs, though I have some contacts in Europe that might allow me a similar opportunity overseas as well. Importantly, having a lesser in-the-gym and team travel commitment during part of the year will provide me more scope to work on my other projects, including academic research and publishing related to my PhD.

My path forward
The conclusion that I came to was that I should look to do one of two things – either look for a college coaching job back in the States or take a non-volleyball primary job and coach on the side. Given my new PhD credential, one possibility would be to find a teaching job and coach locally. I could also return to working in the finance industry, though that would likely have higher time demands, making coaching a bit more of a challenge.

Before Monday’s developments, it didn’t make a lot of sense applying for the US coaching jobs getting posted. No doubt those would want to be filled quickly to have people in place to be at work recruiting and the like. I figured I would probably have to wait until late February to start putting in applications where the hiring time line would more mesh with my need to stay in Sweden through April when my contract ended (coinciding with the end of playoffs). I did keep an eye on the market, though.

Obviously, that’s all changed now.

An early application
That said, I did apply for a job in December. It was the assistant position at a school where I have a connection. I hadn’t really intended to do so. I know the coach there from our days as competing assistants, and it would have been about working together with her as much as anything else. I didn’t figure the time line was going to work with my Svedala commitment, though. She encouraged me to apply – probably for HR purposes – which I did, but they clearly needed someone in more quickly.

Had I known how things were going to unfold, maybe the situation would have been different and I could have been a more realistic candidate. That job has since been filled.

A path unexpected
One potentially interesting development did come up in January, though. A contact from the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project put me in touch with an NCAA Division II coach looking for an assistant. Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have considered going for that kind of job, but my contact knows what I’m thinking and knows the coach in question well. She was of the belief that we would make a good team in a program with a lot of upside potential. Also, the position would offer me the flexibility to continue to pursue my other projects, which would be harder at a higher level program. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk.

I ended up having about an hour-long conversation with this coach last week. I’d already been talked up by my Wizards contact (something which always makes me a bit nervous), and the coach was impressed with what she’d read on this site. Her other assistants were young and relatively inexperienced, so she wanted to bring someone in at a higher level both in terms of organizational skills and knowledge and experience. She said she really wants someone she can bounce ideas off of and talk about things with at a higher level, as well as obviously carrying part of the administrative load for the program.

I think we both came away with positive thoughts about the conversation. I officially applied for the job the next day. She said she had two others she was looking at seriously and that initial interviews were likely to happen the following week or so. We’d talked about using Skype for that, since I wouldn’t really be able to go there any time soon. This was all with the understanding that I wouldn’t be able to start until May.

Clearly, with things changing on my side, my availability to interview on campus suddenly opened up. As a result, I’m headed there this weekend to interview on Monday. That will end my time in Sweden.

Services in demand
And I haven’t just gotten interest from the States. Yesterday morning I had someone email me about potentially taking over some coaching for a club in Norway. It was a tentative idea that wouldn’t have been a sure thing, but it was good to know that others value what I have to offer.