A coaching documentary worth watching

If you have a Netflix account, look up the film Trainer! and put in on your watch list. Seriously. Do it now.

Trainer! is a documentary about a group of coaches. No, it’s not volleyball, unfortunately. It’s soccer. Specifically, it’s German soccer. In Germany, and across most of Europe, trainer is what they call the coach. In the film they actually translate it to head coach.

And before you ask, yes. The film is in German, but subtitled in English. It’s about 2 hours long, so you’ll need to be able to dedicate time to actually sit an watch if you don’t speak German.

But enough of the minor details. Let me get to why I think it’s worth watching – even for volleyball coaches. The film follows three coaches of lower division (2nd and 3rd) coaches over the course of the 2012-13 season. You see them in a variety of different scenarios, on and off the field.

Along with following the experiences of those three, the film intersperses commentary from several well experienced others. If you know European soccer, you may recognized some of them. Even if not, you can still gain from what they say. One of the best of the group is the lead trainer for the German coach licensing program. He’s got some really interesting stuff to say, especially with a couple of the coaches in the program going through his course.

A great feature of the film is how well it describes the situation of coaching in the professional environment. It is something I could very much relate to from my own experience coaching in Sweden and from spending time at clubs in Germany. There’s also plenty to it that can be related to coaching in a high school or college program.

Definitely give it a watch and let me know what you think.

 

Wait. I don’t remember it like that

One of the disadvantages of having a former player in the broadcast business is that sometimes you get thrown under the bus – intentionally or otherwise. The American setter I had at Svedala, Camryn Irwin, is in that arena now. She also sometimes features as a guest on The Net Live. She did the intro and outro audio for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast as a favor to me back when we started it.

A player’s recollection

One such episode was December 12, 2016. About an hour in, a discussion of block vs. game-like training developed. There were interesting perspectives shared by a combination of men’s and women’s players and coaches. Along the way, Cam cast me in a negative light.

She didn’t actually say, “John Forman … “. Instead, it was more “my coach in Sweden …”. I doubt most people who listen to the show have any idea that’s me. They would have to find out where Cam played in Sweden and then probably dig around to learn that I was the coach for that team. I’m guessing most American volleyball people won’t do that work.

But back to what she said. The conversation got into the subject of playing a lot in practice. I’m not going discuss the skill acquisition value of block vs. random and all that here, because that wasn’t Cam’s focus. If you want to get into it, you can start with this post. Cam talked instead about practice intensity and the potential impact on player fatigue.

Basically, what she said was at Svedala I just wanted to play all the time in training and the players felt like they needed more “drill” time to bring down the physical demands. She talked about meeting with the coach (me) to discuss it. The way she talked about it on the show was to say “We can’t just play for an hour and a half.” The implication was that they would physically break down.

Let’s put the question of whether 90 minutes of game play in practice is too high an intensity to the side for now. Maybe that’s a question for another article.

Instead I want to look at Cam’s recollection of things and compare it to my own.

A coach’s recollection

First, I remember the “We want more drills” request mainly from a skill acquisition perspective (in part a motivation for this post). It was less about training intensity.

Second, we never just played. Well, maybe the very first session. Check out my log entries for that season to see. Yes, we played a lot – especially small-sided games. I almost never had the bodies for 6 v 6. Those rare days we could play 6 v 6 (guest players) we did use the bulk of the session to do so because it would have been foolish not to. And the players were always very excited to do so. Every practice, though, included non-game activities. There was target serving, passing, various peppers, and defense drills mixed in at different points.

Third, even when we did do game play I tried to move players around to keep their workload balanced. For example, I wanted the six-rotation players equal back row and front row work.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I was generous with time off. We started with 10 players, and quickly dropped to 9. That means only two back-ups to the first team – a setter and an OH. Knowing the starters would have a heavy load, I always looked for opportunities to give the team breaks. We didn’t usually train on Thursday, so if we didn’t play on the weekend I sometimes (maybe always in-season) gave them Friday off for an extra long weekend. I know I also gave them off at least one Monday after we played on Saturday. Plus, they got 10 days completely off over the holidays. This is all on top of going lighter the days after matches and cutting things off if they looked tired.

So from my perspective I tried to not physically overwork them.

Reconciling the two perspectives

It is worth sharing something Cam related to the team at one point during the season. She often talked with players from other teams after matches as there were several Americans in the league. One of them was apparently in awe of the types of plays our team made during games – plays no one else made. Cam attributed that, at the time, to us playing a lot in training. So clearly there was a recognition on her end of the value of making practice game-like.

So why the difference in recollection?

Maybe in the moment during the TNL discussion Cam didn’t have a chance to really think back on the season. Or maybe the time off didn’t really register as you might expect.This sort of thing can happen to players. For example, a player can complete a practice and think they should have passed more balls, forgetting that they passed a bunch of them in the games or in drills that were not “passing” drills. It’s a question of the perspective on the activity (or lack thereof). We coaches are subject to this as well.

Maybe because of other stuff going on for her (like coaching the club’s youth players) Cam had a different perspective on time off than mine. She also had to deal with a back injury, which forced some additional work on her part. Perhaps that factors in to her recollections as well.

For what it’s worth, my player-coach relationship with Camryn was a positive one. I don’t think she holds any ill will toward me. She was just a player with a player’s perspective and I was a coach with a coach’s perspective. I don’t take her comments from TNL personally, even if at the time there was a bit of an “Ouch!” response. πŸ™‚

Were the players overworked?

The team definitely struggled at times during the first weeks of the second half of the season. By that point we only had 8 players, the only back-up being a setter. I was already paring back training time. I can remember talking with the team about how we’d look to do that, but how we’d still need to keep the intensity up as much as possible in that shorter time. They needed to keep challenging each other to continue progressing.

At the same time their weight training regime had recycled. Might the combination of the two been too much? Conversely, did I given them too much time off over the holidays? These are among the things I’ve thought about as potentially contributing to a couple of poor January performances. Unfortunately, I was let go at the start of February (season runs through April), so I have no way to know how the physical side of things might played out long-term.

The lesson

Players are individuals with their own inherent biases and perspectives. It’s inevitable that they see and remember things differently than you do as a coach. Many a coach has been surprised/embarrassed/mortified at the things players remember. It comes with the territory. We want to do our best to not teach what we don’t want learned, but we have a very different view point from our players. Accept it. Try to understand their perspective. Do your best to learn when you come across an example of divergent recollection.

AVCA Convention 2016 – Wrap-up

The AVCA Convention for 2016 is over. See my reports on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. I want to wrap things up in this post, and provide my final thoughts.

I only actually attended one session on the final day (Saturday) of the convention. That one focused on fundraising – something of immediate potential use for us at MSU as we plan an overseas trip for August 2017. It was probably a little more long-term in thinking, as it focused largely on developing relationships. I still came away with some good thoughts on what we can do, though.

Aside from that session, I mostly just talked with some people.

I ran into one of the leaders of Juniors in New England. That’s where I came up as a coach, but I haven’t been involved in a decade. Hearing the progress made since then was interesting. The inter-regional tournament we started in about 2003 as a 10-court January event is now a big 3-day convention center-based competition. They also now run another big tournament in Boston in early March. Plus, membership is growing at 10% a year. That’s awesome!

I also saw a former college club teammate of mine. He’s the assistant coach at our alma mater, and in line for the head job now that the head coach is retired. I think the last time we saw each other was 2013 when I visited them in pre-season.

Of course the NCAA Division I final match was that night. I did not attend, but those I spoke with afterwards said the environment was much better than for Thursday’s Semifinals.

Overall, I enjoyed the event quite a bit. Although the city of Seattle was more interesting to me, I didn’t have as good an experience at the convention there in 2013. That is a function of not knowing as many people there, though. I had lost a lot of contacts after my years away from US volleyball (see my reports here, here, here, and here), and was there by myself. I have since developed a based of contacts, and it’s always more fun when you can spend time with people you know.

AVCA Convention 2016 – Day 3

My third day at the AVCA Convention was a pretty big one (see Day 1 and Day 2).

It started with attending the early morning “Super Session”. That combined five 15-minute presentations with recognition of coaches reaching victory milestones. One of the latter was 1900! The presentations included Chris McGown talking back row attacks in women’s volleyball, Christa Dietzen talking about wearable tech for health management, Terry Pettit on skill vs. talent, Roberta Kraus talking about converting threat into confidence, and Giovanni Guidetti sharing why he coaches so much. They were all good sessions.

Actually, I was shaking my head during Guidetti’s presentation. It was very entertaining, but he shared some things that were in my own presentation later on! I was glad he only talked for 15 minutes. πŸ™‚

After that I sat in a on a session about performance statistics at different levels. The figures were interesting, but I found the overall presentation went off too often into coaching methods.

Next up was my own presentation. I had no idea how it was going to go. The slides I prepared could have been too few or too many. All in all, I think it went well. The guy running the room told me the attendance was something like 233. No bad, especially up against the All-America awards banquet. And no one left until we reached the Q&A period. Even then it was only a couple.

After that I went to Guidetti’s presentation on the Dutch Women’s National Team’s Olympic build up and experience. This was part of the pre-convention programming. It had to be done on Friday because of Guidetti’s travel requirements. He talked about taking over the program a couple years back, and the qualification process. Of course he also talked about the Rio Games. He shared quite a lot of statistics on all facets of play, which was interesting.

Guidetti also did an on-court presentation after that. It was on blocking and defense. I wanted to attend, but I got caught up talking to some people. The other MSU assistant went, though. He takes lots of notes! πŸ™‚

The last seminar for me was one on developing your coaching philosophy. I mainly went to see Bill Neville and Sue Gozansky. They ran the session as part of CAP. You can see my own coaching philosophy, as it currently stands.

The rest of the day was mainly about networking. I connected with some folks I know and met some new ones. Among the latter was Avital Selinger. He is son of the legendary Arie Selinger and an accomplished coach in his own right.

Things wrapped up on Saturday.

AVCA Convention 2016 – Day 2

Educational sessions were in full flow Thursday (see Wednesday’s program). I attended three of them.

The first session was nominally about the most important things for point scoring in mens’ and boys’ volleyball. It turned out to basically be a talk about serving and blocking. There was supposed to be a discussion of transition play too, but there wasn’t enough time. The men’s coaches for Stanford, Ohio State, and UCLA made up the panel.

The second session was on in-match setter management. Salimia Rockwell of Penn State was the presenter. It was a really entertaining talk. A lot of what Salima talked about actually had to do with pre-match work. That’s scouting and game-planning.

The last session I attended could be thought of as kind of statistical benchmarks. It was a look at key team statistical performance metrics. They went through 14s girls, 16s boys, Division I and II college men, and Division I college women. The presentation showed a couple of things. One was which metrics most correlate to winning, while the other was where teams came in at for those metrics.

More sessions were on tap for Friday. I also had a Wizards-themed presentation to make. It was to be a long day in the convention center!

AVCA Convention 2016 – Day 1

The 2016 edition of the AVCA Convention is in Columbus, OH. This was the scene when I arrived on Tuesday.

First snow seen after leaving Sweden!

Day 1 of the convention was mainly pre-convention programming. Not surprising, the focus was the 2016 Olympics. It was a 2-part set-up. The morning session (about 2.5 hours) was on-court stuff. The afternoon session was basically a review of the Games. The presenters for the sessions were USA Men’s coach John Speraw, USA Women’s assistant Tom Black, and Netherlands Women’s coach Giovanni Guidetti. Due to travel considerations, though, they ran Guidetti’s portion on Friday afternoon.

The on-court session was the usual mix of games and drills. Speraw talked quite a bit about small-side games and over-the-net pepper variations. The afternoon session I found more interesting and meaty. Black focused on technical and tactical stuff. Speraw went more into organizational and managerial things. He said some really interesting things about team chemistry, and I think some will be in a Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast.

The first official session for all attendees was presented by Sue Enquist. That was in the late afternoon. Sue won 11 national championships as the head coach of the UCLA softball team, though she is retired now. She focused on coach relationships with players.

Thursday was the first full day of the convention proper, and was also the NCAA Division I semifinals.Β I presented on Friday. Saturday was the last day of the convention, and the Final was that night. I did not buy match tickets this time. Instead, I planned to watch on TV. I wanted to boost ESPN viewership. πŸ™‚

Coaching is its own art

Volleyball Coach

There is an article about some issues troubling the Australian national cricket team that Mark Lebedew brought to my attention. Mark, being an Aussie, is much more knowledgeable about the sport than I am. As an American, I wasn’t raised on the sport. I can follow it in broad strokes, but lack the more nuanced understanding of those who grew up with it. This article, however, is less about cricket and more about coaching. That’s more in my wheel house. πŸ™‚

There’s a quote in the article I think worth sharing. It comes from a highly experienced coach named Trent Woodhall, who seems not to get a lot of respect in certain quarters because he isn’t a former high level player.

β€œ[But] coaching is its own art. It has to be respected and it has to be learnt, because just like players are born to score 12,000 Test runs, coaches are born to be elite coaches.”

Now, we can debate whether one is born to coach or not. The basic point he makes here, though, is that coaching is it’s own thing separate from playing. One need not have been a great player – or even a particularly good player – to be a great coach. You can find way more examples of outstanding coaches with uninspiring playing resumes than you’ll find great players who go on to become great coaches.

The article goes on to say:

Woodhill is intent on emphasising that Australia has some excellent ex-players who can, or have, transitioned to become great coaches. But on the whole, the cricket community’s natural conservatism has led it to seek answers from the rear view mirror.

When he talks about the rear view mirror, Woodhill is referring to players coaching based on their own experience. In the interview he did for Volleyball Coaching Wizards, the Canadian National Team coach for the 2016 Olympics, Glenn Hoag, mentioned a quote from Julio Velsaco. The legendary Argentinian coach said that coaches must kill the player inside of them.

Think about the implications of that for a moment.

The article also goes on to talk about the impact of over-coaching. By that I mean not allowing players to develop their own solutions to the problems the game presents. This is something I wrote about here, here, and here.

Definitely give the article a read – even if you have no idea what they’re talking about when discussing cricket. πŸ™‚

Coaching Log – December 9, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Overall progress from 2015 to 2016

With the season over and done, it’s time to have a look at how we at Midwestern State did this year compared to last year. In 2015 the team was 6-26 overall, and 0-16 in the Lone Star Conference. They finished 9th out of 9 and did not make the conference tournament. One player was selected to the All-Conference team as Honorable Mention, and one made the Academic All-Conference list. Their region rank finished at 25, with an RPI of .458 and a .553 strength of schedule.

For 2016 we went 12-21 overall, 6-14 in conference play. We finished 8th of 11 teams in the league (two newcomers added this year) and qualified for the conference tournament. Three players earned All-Conference selection (one 2nd team, two Honorable Mention), and one made Academic All-Conference. Our region rank moved up to 20, our RPI ended up at .484, while our strength of schedule was .528.

At least some of the dip in strength of schedule was a function of the conference not being quite as strong this year. In 2015 the LSC had the top three ranked teams in the South Central region, plus the #7. This year we had two of the top three, then #8 and #9.

A major factor in our improvement was getting a couple of players into the team who were medical red shirts as Juniors in 2015. Both were significant contributors throughout the season, though they both also had persistent health issues slowing them down. Even with those two in the side, though, we were inexperienced. In terms of eligibility, we had no Seniors.

Drilling down

Statistically, we had both steps forward and steps backward.

Offense and serving are the two big improvement areas. We upped our hitting efficiency in-conference by 53 points (.163 vs. .110). That was driven almost entirely by a higher kill %. In terms of serving, we improved to 1.56 aces/game from 0.79. That took us from bottom of the league to third best.

Where we slipped was in block and defense, and in serve reception. Our opponent hitting efficiency slipped from .210 to .221. Blocks dropped to 1.27/game from 1.66, and digs declined to 13.76/game from 17.47. Service aces suffered rose to 1.61/game from 1.16.

Now, the block and digs numbers at least partly reflect the fact that in 2015 the team’s offense was poor. That resulted in more transition opportunities for the other team. The digs also, however, along with the passing issues, reflect a meaningful change in the libero position. The two players in that position in 2015 left the team last year. They each averaged about 4 digs/game. This year we had libero by committee. Four different players got meaningful time in the position. That was largely influenced by injuries. The player who got the most time was actually an in-season convert to the position (from setter).

Areas for improvement

Blocking, defense, and serve reception are clearly areas we will look to improve for 2017. We made some good improvements in defense in the second half of conference play. In fact, our dig % in our last 10 LSC matches of 2016 was better than the overall conference dig % for the 2015 team. Still, it’s an area where we feel like we can be much better. We probably need to lower our opponent hitting efficiency by about 60 points to really be competitive with the top teams in the league.

As much as the team hitting efficiency was significantly improved this year over last, that was just the start. We probably need to be 50 points better in that area next year. That will require both a higher kill % and a lower error %. We were at 33% kills this season. The best team (Tarleton) was at 40%, but the other three of the top four teams were at 37%. In terms of errors, we were at 16%. Angelo was tops there at 11%, with the others in the 14-15% range.

The other thing I’d like to see improved is serving. Specifically, I’d like to see us cut the errors down a little bit, while keeping the aces at a comparable level.

Player year-end meetings – structure

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve run individual meetings with the players to wrap up the season. Before I get into some of what came out of it, let me share with you the questions we asked. We gave them to everyone so they could think about their answers beforehand. Some came to their meetings with stuff actually written down.

They were:

  • What does the team need to do to get to the next level?
  • How can the coaching staff help the team reach the next level?
  • What do you as a player need to do to help the team get to the next level?
  • What can the coaching staff do to help you make that/those improvement(s)?
  • How can the coaching staff help you get the most out of your experience as a student-athlete?

That last question was mainly aimed at off-the-court, non-team type of stuff. Think academic support, facilities, travel, and things like that.

For each player we also came up with some things we wanted to make sure got talked about. They were a mixture of what we saw of them this year and thoughts on development moving forward.

We had a sheet for each player where the head coach made notes during the meeting. The players reviewed and signed the sheets at the end. We then gave them a copy.

Player year-end meetings – outcomes

I won’t bother with individual level stuff here. Instead I’ll focus on the common themes that came up from a team perspective. Two of them were the related areas of expectations and accountability. These things came up in different ways, but the general idea was the same. The team needs to set and maintain higher standards and expectations for themselves – individually and collectively – if we’re to step up our competitive level. Players need to be held accountable when they don’t meet those expectations – by the team as well as the coaching staff.

Leadership was the other major theme. Part of this had to do with the accountability element mentioned above. Leaders within the team are needed to make sure the group is at least meeting their level of expectations. There are other elements of leadership, though, and they came up as well.

Departures

We had two players tell us they needed to leave the team. One of them was a red shirt sophomore libero/ds with back injury issues. She was told by the doctors that it will take maybe three years for her to rehab her way back to even being able to get back into a regular workout level of health. The other was a freshman middle who felt like she needed to be able to focus more on the academic side of things.

There may yet be others added to this list. We have two players who graduate this year, but both who have eligibility remaining. They have some decisions to make about their respective futures. Both were all-conference this year, so they’d be big losses. There’s also another with an injury question.

Incoming players

We had four incoming freshmen sign letters of intent in November. One is a middle who was the best blocker in her Texas high school district. As noted above, that’s definitely an area of improvement need for us. One is an opposite who also earned district honors. Her high school and club background isn’t the strongest, so we feel like she’ll have a steeper developmental curve. The third is a lefty opposite who doesn’t have the same physical gifts as the second player, but who is much further along as a volleyball player. The problem there is she’s recovering from a Summer ACL injury, though it sounds like her rehab is progressing very well. The fourth is a local area OH who is very athletic and a multi-sport all-district competitor. She isn’t the tallest player in the world, though.

Recruiting

We had four players come to campus for an evening tryout last week. Three were liberos and one was a middle. Whether any of them come is yet to be decided. Between our losses and our need to strengthen certain positions, we are likely to bring in at least two more players. Obviously, that means we’re still looking and evaluating – both high school players and prospective transfers.

What if you received after winning a rally instead of serving?

In an article on Volleyballmag.com, Russ Rose of Penn State responds to a question about changes he would make to the sport. The very first thing the legendary coach said was he would return to sideout scoring. That’s the old system where you can only score when you serve.

Rose is realistic, though. He doesn’t see a change from the current system happening. Even still, it brings up something to think about.

Under sideout scoring a team was rewarded for winning a rally with an opportunity to score a point on the next rally. Losing a rally meant you had no chance to win the next point because you didn’t serve.

In other words, a team gained an advantage by winning a rally. That’s above and beyond the point they scored if they served to start the rally in the first place.

These days, once you reach a certain level it is no longer an advantage to win a rally. Obviously, I mean aside from the point earned. You gain the serve. That’s actually a liability once sideout rates go above 50%.

I can think of two ways this changes things.

Longer runs of points

The first way is you get more strings of points by teams. Think of it in terms of flipping around the idea of being stuck in a rotation. That’s when you give up points in a row because you can’t pass and execute your offense well enough. Under this variation, though, the runs happen because your serve receive offense is effective.

It’s simple odds. Consider two teams who sideout at a rate of 60%. Under the current system, the odds of the team winning a second rally after winning a first one is only 40% (100% – 60% chance the other team sides out). If, however, winning a rally earns you the right to receive, your odds of winning that second rally go up to 60%.

That means you’ll increase the frequency of teams winning multiple points in a row. That means less times when teams just alternate scoring by repeatedly siding out. I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Bigger premium on serving

Under the current system, the worst a poor server can do is lose you one point. If they miss their serve or serve so ineffectively that the other team can easily sideout, they just lose that rally. If you flip things around, though, poor serving would be a killer. Instead of earning strings of points when a very good server is back at the line, they would lose points in a row when a poor server is back there.

I’m not sure this would have much impact on serving strategy or aggressiveness. Teams would still try to put the receiving side under as much passing pressure as possible. I think it would more be a question of making sure less effective servers develop better skills.

Anything else?

I’m not sure how much the rest of the game would change, to be honest. I’d be interested to hear what others think would happen, especially in terms of coaching focus. My feeling, though, is that coaches would probably have a similar balance between offensive and defensive work as they do now.