Coaching Log – Nov 27, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

Alas, Wednesday’s match didn’t see the team follow-up on last week’s victory. I wasn’t able to go on the trip because of my PhD work. Nor was the team captain able to make the trip because she had her own PhD commitment (presenting at a conference). To make matters worse, the starting OH1 was feeling ill (didn’t play well and sat out the second set), and they had just watched the men’s team lose 0-3 (albeit competitively). The first set was a blow out, but it was better after that from what I was told.

I only had 9 for this training due to an array of factors. Even though two starters and one fringe first teamer were among those absent, it still ended up being a pretty good session. The focus was there and the intensity level, while not super high, was reasonable given the mixture of talent levels.

After dynamic warm-up I had them do 3-person over-the-net pepper with one person acting as fixed setter on a rotating basis (about 2 minute cycles). From there I had them do serving & passing triads with each player going for 10 good passes, only counting if they called the ball, minus one for an overpass. I followed that up with serving – first 10-in-a-row good (apparently serving was an issue in the match the other day), then a few minutes to let them play around with jump serves for fun.

I then moved on to a variation on player winners. I had them play triples rather than doubles, but had it run on a half court to facilitate more rallies. That worked quite well as there were a number of good exchanges. I finished up with the Belly Drill playing full-court.

Thanksgiving thankfulness thoughts

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back in the States, and to my fellow Yanks currently living abroad. I’ll be celebrating the holiday with my housemates on the weekend as we all have commitments today (including coaching for me), but I figured I could still take some time out to give thanks. So here are some things from the last 12 months I’m thankful for in a volleyball coaching context.

First and foremost, I am thankful for the truly incredible experience I had coaching the Exeter University women to the BUCS national semifinals in March in Edinburgh. It’s something that will stay with me the rest of my life. Not only am I thankful for the commitment and effort of the players in the squad, but also for the outstanding support the men’s team provided (they didn’t end up doing too badly at Final 8s in their own right), as well as the coaching assistance of Steve and Kyle in helping get the team there.

I am thankful for Alberto Salomoni at SC Potsdam and Ruben Wolochin at TV Bühl allowing me to spend time when them and their teams during pre-season training, and especially for Mark Lebedew at BR Volleys allowing me to visit with him and his team before the German championship finals, connecting me with Alberto and Ruben, and letting me tag along to Poland with him to watch some of the men’s World Championships in September.

I am thankful for being able to share a loonnnggg dinner in Seattle last December with former player Alanna where we reminisced about the old days, talked about all the great things her teammates are currently up to, and made fun of the English. 🙂

Finally, since I have very likely coached my last match in UK volleyball, I am thankful for my time in England allowing me to reconnect with a long-time passion, make loads of new friends, and get exposed to the game from a number of different perspectives we often don’t get coaching in the States.

What are you thankful for this year? Definitely feel free to share below, on the Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Would you prefer great players or a great situation?

When I lived in England I had a conversation with one of my housemates (Maria) on the subject of the next step in my volleyball coaching journey. Maria asked a question along the lines of “Wouldn’t you just want to coach the best players possible?” It’s an interesting philosophical consideration that sometimes is a factor in the decisions we make regarding the teams we coach. My response to Maria was from two perspectives.

Coaches coach

I’ve related before a conversation I had with the captain of the first men’s team I coached in England. We were watching some high level NCAA women’s volleyball (Top 25 caliber teams). He asked how I could coach at the UK level after coaching Division I volleyball. My initial joking response was that while I’d coached against teams of the caliber we were watching, I hadn’t actually coached that level of team. Admittedly, that’s a difference without much distinction when making a comparison to the level of play in the UK.

My more serious response was to say “Coaches coach.” On the one hand what I meant by that was if you have the passion and drive to coach it probably doesn’t matter too much what level of player your working with. Admittedly, though, coaches do tend to specialize in some fashion. On the other hand I was also trying to communicate the idea that the coaching process is largely the same for all levels. You identify the player’s and/or team’s developmental needs and work to help them get better. That’s the same whether you’re working with U12 beginners or the Brazilian national team.

It’s not just about on-court

It isn’t just your day-to-day work which determines your level of job satisfaction. Anyone who’s been part of an organization knows that. It is also your working conditions, your relationship with your peers, the support you get from those above you, etc. In fact, sometimes the work itself is only a minor factor in your happiness. This is something inexperienced coaches (and those in any other career) don’t fully understand. Those who have been around the block a few times know what a difference it can make, though.

A conversation I had with Ruben Wolochin, head coach at German Bundesliga side TV Bühl, relates to this subject. Long coaching tenures tend not to be the norm in professional sports. Ruben, though, told me that he could easily see himself remaining in his current position for long term. Why? Because he was happy with the lifestyle, his family situation, his relationship with the club, and those sorts of things.

Priorities and measuring success

Your own priorities and how you define success are major factors in how you think about things when it comes to whether you favor coaching great players or being in a great situation. Do you prioritize winning and measure success in terms of win/loss record and championships? Then you will be biased toward wanting to coach the best players possible. We all know that the team with the best players doesn’t always win. Having the best players does tend to help in that regard, though. From that perspective, you will want to be at the university where you can recruit the best athletes, the highest profile club volleyball program in the area, or the high school with the biggest population from which to draw.

If, however, you can be satisfied without winning loads of championships then you can look for a great situation for your personality, lifestyle, etc. While Ruben would love to win a championship one time, he realizes he’s at a smaller club without the financial resources to compete with the big clubs. That means championships will be hard, but there are still lower level objectives which can be aimed for, such as making the playoffs, earning a spot in CEV competition, and things like that.

As for me…

While I’m competitive in certain ways, I tend not to get overly caught up in winning and losing. Yes, I would rather be in upper half of the standings than the lower half. For me, however, coaching is more about forward progress. Are the players getting better? Is the team getting better? Is the club/program overall getting stronger?

I can get by without winning championships as long as things are moving in the right direction. My situation in Exeter reflected that. Volleyball was not a priority sport. We didn’t get the same level of support as many of the schools we competed against (up to and including scholarships in some cases). That meant we generally had to set our sights lower. We didn’t win any titles. We were able to do things Exeter volleyball hasn’t done in a long time, if ever, though. I’m quite satisfied with that.

If I go after a head coaching job in the States it likely will mean that I would be taking over a struggling program. The thing I would need to try to gauge in that kind of situation is what kind of influence I think I could have on making the program better within the context of the level of support and expectations there would be from the administration. Some programs are perpetual weak performers because they just don’t have the resources to compete and never will, while others perhaps just need a change in approach to start moving up the ladder.

Coaching Log – Nov 24 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

The team has a long road trip on Wednesday for their next match, a big one against a team close to us in the table. That being the case, the focus for this training was on trying to continue to build on the momentum of last week’s win. I started them off doing some ball-handling, but quickly moved into game play with winners 3s on a narrow court. To begin with they were only allowed to hit down balls to work on proper movement to the ball, hitting technique, etc. After a while I switched that to back row attacks, and then eventually to allowing hitting on the net.

The rest of training was done in 6 v 6 fashion, A team vs. B team. I did something new this time. I wanted to combine having serve-initiated play with high intensity, up tempo action. This I did by having one team serve three times to the other with normal rallies, then after the last rally finished I put the receiving team into scramble mode. My original intention was to go 30 seconds, with 30 seconds added for any balls allowed to drop uncontested, but it kind of morphed into doing it for a minute. That worked out well, though.

To sub or not to sub, that is the question

Once when I coached at Exeter the captain of the university women’s team emailed on a couple of team issues. She brought up the subject of substitutes. Her comment on the subject, “Apart from Jo and I, nobody knows that you are not a fan of subs…” Jo was the only other returning player involved in the discussion which triggered the email. Now, that comment taken out of context suggests concerns about playing time being voiced. It really wasn’t the case, though. It wasn’t intended as a critical comment at all, in fact. That said, it got me thinking about two things.

Better Communication

I sometimes need to communicate better with my teams and players. It’s a long-term developmental need of mine that I always work to improve. While it was not a specific issue with that team at the time, I should still have informed them of my philosophy toward substitutes. I should have been part of the general expectations development conversation.

My substitution philosophy

Contrary to what the captain suggested, I don’t actually have an inherent bias against substitutions. If I think someone on the bench can perform better in a given situation than a player on the court, then I’ll make a sub. In making that decision, though, I’m thinking multi-dimensionally. I’m not just rolling the dice and hoping something good happens. This article actually challenges the effectiveness of making subs (hat tip to At Home on the Court).

Say Suzy is having a rough match hitting and I have Debbie on the bench who could probably go in and do a better job. Whether I make that sub depends on whether I think I lose more overall by taking Suzy out than I gain by putting Debbie in. For example, say Suzy is a much better passer/defender than Debbie while Debbie would likely only be a moderately better hitter. In some circumstances you may want to make the switch. But generally speaking, though, that’s a trade-off you probably don’t want.

There can also be a non-competitive reason for leaving a struggling player on. Sometimes you just need to give someone a chance to work through it and learn to overcome the adversity. Of course, this is easier done when you operate in a developmental scenario and not fighting for a league championship! Similarly, though, you’re also more likely to share around playing time in a non-competitive context.

Sometimes you just don’t have the horses

Circling back to the original captain comment … there’s a reason she didn’t see me make many subs in the three seasons she’s played for me. Generally, the level of the bench was markedly lower than for the starters. There were maybe one or two exceptions, but that was it. We also had numbers constraints based on having to field squads for multiple competitions, some of which created “cup tie” situations. Hard to make subs when you only have 6 or 7 players!

Four hundred posts and counting!

Friday’s entry in the Coaching Log series marked the 400th post in this blog’s history, which goes back to June 2013. It still amazes me at times how much interest and readership the site has garnered. As I write this there have been nearly 25,000 users and almost 70,000 page views. Content from the blog has been used in the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball 2.0 magazine on three separate occasions, and the site was a big part in my developing contacts in professional volleyball and elsewhere. Not bad for something that started off to be a resource for volleyball coaches in the South West of England!

The 10 most viewed individual posts to this point in the site’s history are:

  1. Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas
  2. Volleyball Conditioning – A Sample Program
  3. Drill: Run Serve Receive
  4. Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?
  5. Volleyball Set Diagram
  6. Game: Bingo-Bango-Bongo
  7. Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness
  8. Planning your volleyball strength and conditioning training
  9. Game: Winners (a.k.a. King/Queen of the court)
  10. Drill: Passing Triplets

It’s worth noting that both of the first two posts, have actually each received more visits than the site’s home page thanks to how often they bring in visitors from Google, etc.

Happily, several posts have generated some interesting exchanges via the comment section. They include:

Hopefully I can continue to write stuff that people find interesting, thought-provoking, and/or useful.

Coaching Log – Nov 20 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

The big focus of this training was to try to set up some line-up decisions for next week’s match. The team is going to be without its captain and starting OH2, leaving a large gap in the roster in a number of ways – particularly in passing and defense. A couple of options were available to address this, some involving more radical line-up changes than others. I needed to evaluate a couple of players in particular before making any decisions.

Believe it or not, for the first time in weeks we had all 15 players in training. We were in the bigger gym, but that’s still a lot of players for one court. I had them start off with 5-player over the net ball-handling shuttles – first forearm passing, then overhead passing – to get them moving, then had it shift to a 5-person over the net pepper. Messy.

From there I had them do some target serving after a warm-up spell. The focus was on deep serves. I wanted to do make use of the larger gym to work in serving & passing, but rather than do it in drill fashion I opted for winners 4s as the next exercise since it would feature lots of serving and 3-player reception. I started them off hitting back row, then about halfway through switched to on the net. As I’ve done a few times now, I enforced bump-setting only to continue their work on being calmer and more controlled in playing second contacts. I allowed the server coming in on the challenge side a re-serve if they missed their first, with instructions to be aggressive with the first ball. This served a few purposes. First, it encouraged the players to work on stronger and/or more strategically placed serves. Second, it enforced the idea of not missing consecutive serves. Third, it put increased pressure on the receivers.

From 4s I moved to the 5s I used a bit last week, with each side having an OH, MB, and S in the front row, plus defenders in middle and right back. Setters were fixed, with the one who’s team won the rally staying on/moving to the winners side. The intensity level was poor, though, and I called a break after a relatively short period of time, during which the captain got on the team’s case.

To try to up the intensity I next did Scramble, with the likely starters for next week’s match going against the rest. I went four times through (switching front and back row each time) with each side receiving balls for a minute. Could have gone longer, but I wanted to leave time for some regular game play. Scramble served it’s purpose, though.

I had them finish off with the same teams in a speed play standard game. By that I mean once a rally was finished the players quickly reset for the next serve and I would feed a ball into that player while the one from the last rally was cleared away. There was also a 3-serve rule such that if one team served three points in a row, after the last one they were finished and serve went across to the other team. This let us get at least twice through the rotations in about 15 minutes.

While there were a number of things I wasn’t happy with in terms of continuous development point, there were a couple of specific areas of immediate concern which I was happy with. First, the most natural replacement for the captain in OH2 played much better than she’s done of late. If she repeats that next week the team will be in pretty good shape. Second, the first teamers really dominated the second teamers for the first time all season, which suggests the stuff that clicked into place while winning Wednesday’s match wasn’t just a one-off.

Coaching Log – Nov 19 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

The second swing through the league competition started with this match. It was against the team we faced to start it all – that horrible long trip with no warm-up. My recollection was they seemed generally solid and were aggressive in the attack, both front row and back row, but without any real stud hitters. My recollection of them might have actually been a bit inflated by our own poor performance, though.

I was able to basically use the same line-up as from the last match – with the bonus of having a libero available to play on the M2 (the M1 is an all-around player). The first set was a bit back-and-forth. A string of errors put us in a hole that we never quite were able to get out of. The 28-26 score line, though, was the closest of the season thus far, which the players took some positives from. The next set was similarly tight, but we managed to come out ahead, which was a definite easing of pressure on the players. The third set it remained fairly close, but the team was getting locked in on what they needed to do to win and they won again. The opposition basically fell apart in the last set, which ended 25-10.

Things came together in a lot of ways in this match. The team learned the value of cutting down the errors and of being fully committed to keeping the ball off the floor in a team fashion. There were still some panicky moments and the occasional communication lapse that need ironing out, and I’d like to see a bit better on defense. The setter is learning to focus the offense through her strongest hitters, and is moving better on the court, but needs more consistency in set execution.

Problematic for the team moving forward is the team captain will miss the last two matches of the term – next week and the following. She plays O2 and is a major part of serve reception and defense. Those are important matches in the relegation fight. I’m going to have to consider and explore a few options in the next two training sessions.

I should not, this was my last match with the team. I’ll continue to run trainings the last two or so weeks of the term, but I won’t be with them for the two upcoming as I cannot afford the lengthy road trips at this stage of my PhD work. And I won’t be back with them second term as my focus will be on finishing up any remaining PhD work and on pursuing gainful employment. There is a definite sense of leaving a job undone, especially seeing how the team has made steady improvement these last few weeks. I go out on a high note, though, especially since the men’s team also won their first league match of the season right before the women’s match.

A Collection of Secrets of Brilliant Coaches

An article went up a while back on Huffington Post on the subject of coaching that I’ve meant to discuss for a while. It includes 35 “secrets”. They are generally worth looking through, but I wanted to address a few of them specifically.

6. Begin with the end in mind. This is all about knowing your priorities, which I’ve written about a couple of different times before (here and here to name two). You can’t map your course if you don’t know where you’re going!

14. Give feedback in short, clear, precise, action-oriented spurts. Coaches need to keep in mind that they aren’t lecturers – at least not when they are on the court. The more you talk, the less they train. You need to keep your interruptions short, to the point, and geared toward what the players need to do.

15. Are careful about how they measure success. This is a tricky one. The focus is meant to be on keeping things process oriented rather than outcome. That’s fine in general terms, especially since outcome depends on a lot of things out of our control. Unfortunately, as coaches we sometimes (oftentimes) have wins and losses as the key metric of our own success. We need to be able manage things from both perspectives.

27. End practice before the athlete is exhausted. Mark Lebedew, in a post from At Home on the Court, talks about something related to this. From a technical training perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to exhaust our players. Granted, conditioning is a different story, but in that case priorities must be clear. This is something that you probably need to communicate to your athletes. Some of them will feel their level of fatigue at the end of a session equates to session quality.

34. Understand that fun is an essential element in training, no matter how elite an athlete becomes. In the grand scheme of things, players definitely need to have fun training for and playing their sport. I would argue, though, that as coaches we sometimes have to put our players and teams under pressure in less than fun kinds of ways to help them grow and develop. I periodically will design a session that I know is likely to be frustrating because those sorts of things happen in matches and the players need to learn how to overcome it.