Parents laughing in training?

I don’t know the percentage of professional volleyball teams that have parents of the players attending training sessions. My guess is it’s not very high, though I’m sure in some places and at some levels it’s more frequent than at others. Sweden may be one of those places. Certainly, it was true in my case at Svedala.

To be fair, I coached at what is basically a local community club. We had the professional level team competing in the Elitserie, the top level of Swedish volleyball. We also had a 2nd team playing in Division 1 south, the second level of volleyball in Sweden. Although there’s no league age restriction, our 2nd team was effectively a Juniors squad based on their ages. Below that we had actual Juniors level teams, and then down to some really little ones – well south of U12s. Overall, there was something like 100 club members.

My own team featured two players whose families lived in town. A couple of players were originally from up north, while the rest were from other parts of southern Sweden. And of course I had three Americans. It’s the parents of the two local players who periodically turned up to training sessions – and boy did they enjoy themselves!

In training one Tuesday night I could hear at least the two moms laughing uproariously.

Yes, they were laughing at the team. No, this wasn’t the first time.

To be fair, it wasn’t ridiculing type laughter. That sort of thing means ejection from my gym. Rather, this was genuine comedic laughter at what they saw and heard from the players on the court.

I’m not talking slap-stick type stuff here. Yeah, there’s some of that. The team was pretty loose. They worked hard, but they had fun as well. Invariably, that led to some funny things happening. More than that, though, I think is the sound track that went along with it all. A couple of my louder, more talkative players were also the source of some funny comments and reactions mid-rally.

Old school analysis

In modern volleyball there are any number of applications and technological tools that can be applied to coaching. DataVolley, for example, is widely used for statistical and video analysis. There is also VolleyMetrics, for those who want to outsource this time of work. These things cost money, though, and not everyone has that – or the staff to put it to use. That means sometimes you have to revert to old school methods.

That’s what I found myself doing once when I coached Svedala in Sweden. I wanted to do a thorough analysis of a recent match. It was a disappointing loss. We were up 2-0 and had leads late in both Sets 3 and 4. Not having a better option at hand, I went through the video. I wrote out the rotation, pass/dig rating, set, attack type, and result for every non-serve ball played over the net by us and the opposition. I then plugged that into a spreadsheet so I could break it down.

Yeah. Fun stuff! :-/

We did have official match stats, though they are of dubious value – especially the first version of them. We also used SoloStats on the bench during matches to track serve reception stats and examine rotation performance. I needed, though, to be able to drill down and cross-section things to get a better handle on what we’re doing well and what not so well.

I hoped we could eventually come up with a better way to do all this, but it was a small club with a limited budget. More or less, I had to go that route for all our matches where I wanted more detailed analysis.

What were my findings, you ask?

The big one was we needed to be much better out of system. We got kills only 8% of the time and it was either errors or blocks on 20% of the plays. And therein is the value of statistics – even very basic or hand tallied ones. They give you ideas for things to look at more closely or to spend more time on.

Coaching Log – Oct 26, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Generally speaking, the weekend league results went probably about as might be expected. Gislaved won 3-0 over the youngsters at RIG and Lindesberg won 3-0 over Sollentuna. We might have expected Örebro to have a harder time with Engleholm than a 3-0, but they seemed to be able to contain Engelholm’s main attacker. This was of interest to us as we played the latter on Tuesday.

Those results have the league table looking very top-heavy, though Hylte/Halmstad and Svedala remain on top despite playing one fewer match.

ElitserieTable-18 Nov. 2015

Click for full-sized version

Obviously, it’s too early to make any real strong forecasts, but the distribution of results so far does tend to suggest it will be a 6-team race for the four places available in the Gran Prix. Those spots are based on the first half of league play, which basically means up to the December break.

As noted, Engelholm was on our schedule for Tuesday – at their place. This is one of the domestic matches which also counts toward standing in the Oresundliga. A win would see us go top of both that and the Elitserie.

Had a sick player, so only 9 healthy bodies in training. I allowed the players to determine a warm-up exercise to do. They opted for a new variation on volley tennis. From there the focus was on preparation for Tuesday’s match, but mainly from the perspective of working on long-term developmental needs as well.

After getting their shoulders warmed up for serving, I had them do some serving against a 4-person reception formation, which is what we were expecting to primarily see in Tuesday’s match. I used boxes to have them work on hitting the seams.

From there we did some serving and passing with one setter and a MB in to have the latter working on hitting the corners. This is something that we observed would likely be successful against Tuesday’s opposition, but is something I’ve wanted to get our MBs better at generally anyway.

After that we did a cooperative cross-court drill with the attacking from 2. I had the two MBs and the libero rotating around through the setting positions on both sides. The two starting OHs stayed in 6 while the Setters and OPPs flipped back and forth between positions 1 and 2. Again, this was to work on something defensively for Tuesday, but we also could stand the work on defense on that side of the court in any case.

Next up was back court attack Winners 3s. The last part of the session was a team serve reception through all 6 rotations with 3 blockers. Myself and the team manager were the servers. The focus was on attacking to certain areas of the court.

Overall, I think it was a good preparation session for the next day’s match.

Really tough match. We went up 2-0 in the match, and were up late in both sets 3 and 4, but ended up losing. A case could be made that we didn’t deserve on our own merits to have the 2-0 lead, but the other team made a lot of mistakes – especially in serve – to keep us in contention. At different points they swapped both their setter and libero. We definitely struggled to contain their strong OPP but my feeling overall was that we tightened up at the end of the 3rd and 4th sets and were playing not to lose.

The official match stats are a joke, so I can’t really use them for much in the way of analysis. Our bench stats point to major struggles scoring in Rotations 1 and 6 (using the international rotation labeling system based on where the setter is). In prior matches were were consistently above 50% overall, but this time only Rotation 5 was that high. That was our starting rotation, so it’s a positive from that perspective (and we sided out at 77%). Those other two rotations were below 30% in terms of point scoring, and in the case of Rotation 1 we sided out less than 50% as well. Despite passing only 1.80 for the match as a team, we still managed to side out at 57%. Admittedly, that was boosted by all the opposition’s missed serves.

I’m going to need to really go over the video and re-stat the match myself (probably at least the other Elitserie matches we’ve played as well) to do a thorough analysis . Generally speaking, though, we continue to suffer from a lack of composure. There were a number of inexplicable errors and poor decisions.

Despite the loss, we still temporarily went to the top of the standings in the Elitserie on the basis of earning a point for winning two sets. We also got a point in the Oresundliga, where we now sit 3rd.

I sat the team down before training to talk about the previous night’s match. It was a positive, productive meeting. There was a sense of anger about losing, but no one was down about it. Everyone was eager to move forward and get better.  I started it off by getting the observations of the players who were on the bench. Communication and defensive responsibility issues were mentioned. We talked about playing not to lose and getting too conservative in crunch time.

One of the more interesting parts of the discussion was on ways to improve training. There was talk about trying to incorporate more positional relationships in the game-like exercises – meaning making the line-ups more closely approximate match-day rotations. The issue there is not overworking players and trying to give them opportunities to be challenged in all their roles, which is the tricky part of having such a limited roster. I need to give the MBs breaks and I need to give my OHs the chance to play back row as well as front row.

We also talked about incorporating more drills in training. Not surprisingly, the desire for “more reps” motivated this from the player perspective. In parallel, though, my American OH expressed her feeling that the load of the game play exercises was too high for her – that by the latter parts of training she was telling our setter not to give her the ball. The players may not have realized this, but we have actually been doing more drills in training since the season started. The point on the game-play load is one I need to think more about. In particular, it occurs to me that perhaps the small-sided stuff I usually do before we shift to full-team games could be dropped or cut back – or counted as part of the game-play portion of training if I’m using them to focus on specific elements.

The actually training after the meeting was meant to mainly be recovery oriented – work on a few technical things and generally keep the bodies active. After they warmed-up and played a bit of volley tennis, I split out the setters to do some reps. For the American setter it was to work on the consistency of her sets for the OHs – each of which needs a slightly different height. For the young Swedish setter it was about working on her mechanics, in particular on her back sets. While that was going on, the rest of the players played 2 v 2 games of 2-touch.

After that, I brought everyone together for what was a serving and passing focused game at it’s core, but with a couple other elements. Each side had a MB and Setter front row, with an OH, Libero, and OPP in the back row. The teams alternated serving. The primary objective was to run the MBs on front and back quicks, but if that wasn’t on, they could attack out of the back row. We thus had the passers focused on getting good passes so the MBs could run their attacks, and the middles had a chance to attack against a solid 3-person defense to work on finding the gaps. The energy and attitudes were good. The passers did well, resulting in the middles getting some really nice swings.

I had planned for a few weeks to give everyone this day off. We don’t have a match until next Saturday and for the most part haven’t had more than a single day off at a time since we started training. The Swedish players primarily work or go to school, so for them it was a break to do some of their own things. For the Americans it was a few clear days to do whatever (they had talked about taking a trip) – and to allow aching bodies to recover some. I told them after Wednesday’s training to make sure they stayed active so that Monday’s training wasn’t some kind of shock to the system.

Thoughts and observations
Losses are great motivators for change. I’ve been feeling like in some ways we were winning despite our performance. To a certain degree, that was even true in the first part of Tuesday’s match when we won the first set in large part because the other team made so many errors. I’ve identified some of the broader issues in need of focus before (e.g. lack of composure), so in this case it’s not about a major change in concentration.

That said, I do feel like I need to really map out where I want the team to be going into the play-offs. Then it becomes a question of getting buy-in from the team and plotting the path toward that destination.

Other stuff
I spent a lot of the latter part of the week trying to sort through video and statistical analysis options, applications, and efforts. We have access to a very basic version of DataVolley (Media) which has no video integration. Part of what I was trying to do was learn about the options we might be able to use to overcome that and to get to the point where I can do a more specific analysis of different segments of play. Because of my internet access limitations, it took me a LONG time getting the match video from Tuesday downloaded so I could share it with the team and go through an do my own analysis (and eventually to pull individual player clips).

I was approached by our second team coach on Friday about using up to 6 of the first team players on a Svedala team for a national U23 tournament the first weekend of November. We have no matches then (because of said tournament), and nothing until the following Sunday, so no issue on my end. It’s up to the players if they want to take part.

Dealing with perfectionists

Once in training I had my Svedala team doing a defensive drill. It was a very repetitive digging exercise. I’m not a big fan of that block type training, but sometimes I use drills like that to examine things. Or maybe I want to work on some of the mental aspects of being a volleyball player.

This drill featured defenders in positions 1 and 5. They dug first a line attack and then a cross-court hit (or maybe it was the other way around). They had to individually reach a score of 15. For each good dig they earned a point. For an overpass they lost one.

My main motivation for running this particular exercise was to see where the players were at in terms of platform control while digging the ball. In other words, were they able to keep their platform pointed toward the central part of the court when they had to move/reach for a ball or when digging a line hit?

Answer: Not as well as I’d like.

The other thing I observed during this drill was just how much perfectionism there is in the team. I heard players yell and curse at themselves. They made faces. I even saw one slap the floor in frustration. It was quite the spectacle!

This sort of behavior is actually one of the reasons I like to use a lot of up-tempo, quick ball initiation activities. Players who are prone to be hard on themselves for mistakes have that process short-circuited when they immediately have to do something else. It encourages focusing on your next responsibility and on letting go of mistakes.

This, however, must go hand-in-hand with having a training atmosphere which is accepting of errors as part of the developmental process.

The importance of how we as coaches talk about errors

Mark Lebedew once shared a video clip on his Facebook page. If features USA and UCLA men’s coach John Speraw talking about how errors are handled in coaching volleyball. I would embed it here for easy viewing directly. It’s got some privacy settings, though, which don’t allow that. You’ll need to click the link. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The video is only about a minute long, but it summarizes quite nicely my own views on the subject.

Basically, John talks about the importance of addressing the subject of errors with players and the team in a way that avoids them being afraid of making mistakes. Instead, coaches should encourage risk taking as part of the development process. This is something I’ve written about before. It’s one of the first things I talk about with any team I take charge of when we have our first meeting.

Professional volleyball country league rankings

When I took the job coaching at Svedala in Sweden I knew the Swedish league was not generally ranked highly compared to other European domestic leagues. What I wasn’t really sure about, beyond some vague sense, was how they actually ranked. Then I found out.

Mark Lebedew pointed me to the CEV’s club rankings. It is what they use to allocate spots in the Champions League, CEV Cup, and Challenge Cup. They also use them to determine seedings.

There’s a limitation to these rankings, however. They are basically based on performance in CEV competition. If a country doesn’t ever send teams to play in them, they never get any ranking points. As such, they have some limits. The rankings at the top end might be pretty reasonable. Once you start dropping down the list, though, they are going to be less representative of relative levels of play.

In the case of Sweden, clubs generally don’t enter CEV competition. They do not feel the benefit matches the expense and considerable travel. The same mindset is clearly at work in many other countries as well.There are 20+ nations in each gender listed with zero points.

The other thing to consider is just how deep some of these leagues are. In some cases, not very deep at all. They rank high in the CEV table, though, because they have a couple of teams that do really well in those competitions (or maybe just one). This can mask the fact that their domestic league is not really all that good once you get past the first 1 or 2 places.

Needless to say, looking at the CEV rankings isn’t quite as helpful as looking at the NCAA RPI rankings to figure out where the various conferences in US collegiate volleyball rank. It’s at least a starting point, though.

The next question I have is how the different leagues rank from a coaching quality of life and opportunity perspective.

Assistant coaches acting unprofessionally

I heard something really disappointing.

Actually, “disappointing” is probably too mild.

I was chatting with the parent of a player I did some work with in the past. We were talking about a match she was playing in that I was able to see a bit of streaming online. I made a comment about the warm-up routine they were gong through. In response, said parent told me his daughter had mentioned that there was some dissent in the coaching staff. Basically, the assistant coaches weren’t in agreement with the head coach on things.

There’s one firm bit of advice I give to any new assistant coach (for example, here). This goes for whether they work with me or with any other coach. That is that the coaching staff must always present a united front. It’s fine to disagree. In fact, that can be a very good thing. You don’t do it in front of the team, though, or in a way that can get back to the players.

In this particular case, apparently the assistants made their dissatisfaction known to the parents, which naturally trickled down to the team. Totally unprofessional behavior in my opinion. I don’t have a horse in this particular race, but it still pisses me off to hear about this kind of thing happening.

And by the way, the unified front thing applies to head coaches as well.

Coaching Log – Oct 19, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

There were some interesting results in the Elitserie over the weekend, most notably Engelholm beating Gislaved in three. The official stats, for what they are worth, suggest that Gislaved simply couldn’t deal with the Engelholm attack. We certainly don’t mind if the other teams in our southern group knock each other off. That should make it easier for us to qualify for Gran Prix. I was initially thinking we’d need 6 wins out of our first 10 matches, but we’ll see.

I was generally please with how things developed last week in terms of being more focused on being effective in the middle. Our passing was better and we hit for a much higher percentage in Sunday’s match. We also had a much more balanced attack. Those are things I want to keep building on moving forward.

This was a challenging week from a training perspective. Our two young Swedish players were away with the U19 national team playing in the NEVZA Championships through Thursday (they won gold). That meant having only 8 of the core group, with just one setter and one regular MB. One of our part-time players was available to fill in for Tuesday’s match, fortunately. Monday was always going to be a lighter session being in between Sunday and Tuesday matches, so the lack of numbers wasn’t a big deal. Training later in the week was more the issue. I talked after Sunday’s match with the 2nd team coach about bringing in a couple of his players to have more bodies, and in one case to offer something specifically useful.

The main focus of this session was keeping the player fresh for Tuesday’s match by having them do a bit of everything at a moderate intensity while also getting our part-time MB some reps with the setter. I had them play a different version of volley tennis after warm-ups. The rest of the session was a combination of small-sided games and some serving and passing with the MBs working on front and back quicks. They also did some slides at the end of training.

Our Oresundliga season began with a match against Danish team Holte. In the first set it was looking like we might be in for another short match as we jumped out to an early lead and ended up winning something like 25-10. After that, though, things got much more interesting and competitive. We ended up dropping the second set 23-25. The third set was a 25-18 win, though it was tight for the first half. The fourth was another tight one that we ended up pulling out 26-24.

After have two relatively easy matches to start the season, it was good to have a bit of a battle. As with us, Holte’s offense mainly when through two strong players – an OH and a MB. We definitely felt the absence of our young MB on the offensive side of the ball. The part-time player who filled in did well, but it was clear pretty early that offensively she wasn’t going to click with the setter. No real surprise given their lack of work together.

Holte likes to run a fast offense, which we struggled to cope with from a blocking perspective. Too much chasing of hitters. Fortunately, we kept them from being able to go fast for the most part. For our own part, we were able to take advantage of some match-ups, though I’d like to see us do even better there. My two big issues are that the offense just isn’t balanced enough in terms of points production and we continue to by hyper in situations.

Training was pushed to Thursday because the 2nd team had a home match. I went and watched their match. One of my current bench players was in the squad as a starter, and I wanted to see her in action. I also wanted to have another look at some of the younger players who we might bring in to training with the 1st team.

We were in the alternative gym again for two hours, which basically means training in parallel with the 2nd team. After talking with the 8 core players in attendance about Tuesday’s match, then warming up, I had the players do some passing and digging work. They were fairly “block” drills, which I don’t do much off. When I do them, the focus tends to be less on the physical execution of the skill and more on the mental side of things. In this case it was interesting to see some really strong expressions of frustration during the digging drill. Players were cursing, pulling faces, even slapping the floor in disgust at their performance. I spoke with them afterwards about that and how it’s one of the reasons I don’t do those type of repetitive drills much. Too easy to get in your own head, especially for a group of perfectionists.

Since I had 9 players total, including a guest, I ran them through the Belly Drill for 10 minutes or so next – back row attacks only. It served as both a continuation of the defensive work in one respect, and a game-play preparation in another.

The last part of training was dedicated to a 6 v 5 game. I was able to borrow a tall MB and an OH from the 2nd team. Our competition coming up on Tuesday features a tall OPP, so I used the MB as a blocker on the right side. She isn’t technically a great blocker, but she was in the team of 6 with our one on-hand middle so as to present a good sized block for the OHs to work on hitting against. That team served every ball. The other side had no middle, but did have the OPP in the front row, which gave them attacking options at either pin, plus the pipe (and sometimes a play set in the middle). Overall, I felt like the game served the purpose.

Our U19 players were back from NEVZA and I invited a local men’s player in to play OPP in training to replicate the big right side player we’ll see in our match on Tuesday. I had been hoping to also have the young OH from our 2nd team who trained with us the night before, but she wasn’t available. After pre-hab and warm-up, I had the players prepare for full game play by playing a couple of variations of Winners – one backrow 4s with fixed setters, one narrow court 4s with fixed setters and MBs.

The rest of the training was 6 v 5. I started off with a couple rounds of Scramble, then moved on to 22 v 22, rotating the OHs around so they all got a chance to work against the big OPP. For the first time this year, I introduced a kind of bonus play. If the receiving team scored on a first ball or the serving team got either an ace, first-ball stuff block, or a first ball transition kill, that team automatically got the point without a second ball. The result was faster games, though maybe too fast.

We finished up with 6 v 5 regular play (Zone 6 out on the side of the 5). Here I added bonus points for aces, stuff blocks, and quick set kills as well as for 1 v 1 attacking situations for the in hitters. Service aces ended up being probably the main bonus point driver, which is both a positive and a negative.

Thoughts and observations
Friday’s training wasn’t the most focused and intense. A couple of the players were clearly tired. Hopefully, that will be remedied by our first full weekend off since we got started. I do think, though, the players are eager to get at our next opponent, Engelholm. On Wednesday and Thursday I spent a lot of time reviewing their weekend match and preparing video for the players.

Overall, I think it was a good week. The team got a good battle at Holte, which it needed. At the same time, the two U19 players got in several matches, including competing for a championship, which is always a good experience.

Other stuff
During Friday’s training I introduced something new to combat the persistent issue we’ve had with hyperactive play. Basically, I blew the whistle to stop a rally when a ball was played 1-handed/armed when in my judgement it could have been reasonably played with two. As I told the players, the idea is not only to encourage them to slow things down a bit, but also to better control the ball.

On Friday I was also finally able to incorporate video delay in training. Basically, I needed to get an HDMI to VGA adapter to be able to connect an Apple TV device to the Sport Hall’s projection system so I could then stream delayed video from an iPad to the big screen. We still need to work through a few things in terms of best lag time and camera location, but it’s a starting point for allowing all the players to get immediate feedback.

Seeing how things are done in different places

An advantage to coaching in a new country is learning the different ways they do things there. That also applies to the places you visit.

Different leagues, different rules

For example, when I coached in Sweden my Svedala team played at Holte in Denmark (outskirts of Copenhagen). The attendance was shockingly low. Just 16 people, and four of them were our supporters who drove over for the match (just about an hour away). After the match we had a conversation while waiting for the players to shower, etc. Our team manager told me the Danish teams work in a different type of system from the Swedish ones. Their local communities very heavily support the clubs. I don’t know what that means in terms of money, but Holte had 3 or 4 people on the bench, including a stat guy (commonly called a scoutman in Europe). We were just two.

Community support

What I find interesting is that although there’s big community funding, there’s no restriction on the number of foreign players allowed in the team. In Sweden we could play three. Holte had at least 5 – two from the US, two from Canada, and one from Scotland.

In Svedala we also had community support, but as I understand it, not quite to the same degree. One thing we did get is free use of the sport hall – at least for training. There was a wrinkle to that, though. We only got it so long as none of the players was over 25. If any were, then we had to pay 175 Swedish kronor (about $20) per hour.

I definitely know of situations in other places where free/cheap gym time is tied in with age group or geographic considerations. For example, a high school gym is available for free for Juniors training so long as at least 50% of the players are from that town.

Other factors

Thinking a bit more broadly, in England there was in my time there a big general national level push for younger people (basically up through university ages) to be more physically active. That’s resulted in a lot of support for sports programs targeted at those age groups.

Interestingly, in Sweden there are major tax considerations which impact on the players clubs are incentivized to bring in. People over 25 pay a significantly higher tax rate than do younger ones. That directly factors into club budgets.

These sorts of higher level considerations are important to know. They can be a big factor in the general context in which certain types of policies and systems operate.