Setting your season expectations

One of the trickier elements of being a good volleyball coach is establishing the expectations for your team at the start of a new season. It’s something we all must do, though – even more so if we are in a developmental situation, whether that be from a player or a program perspective. Expectations in large part establish how we prioritize various things in our training and line-up decisions.

If you’re wondering at this point what’s so tricky about setting expectations, then either you are in a very lucky situation or you might need to give some things a bit deeper consideration. There are only a couple of cases where a coach need not think much about expectations. One is when they are seen as favorites and called on to win the championship. The other is the flip side where the focus is less on performance and more along the lines of “keep them happy”. Both scenarios allow for pretty easy setting of priorities as they limit conflicts between competitive requirements and other considerations (e.g. playing time).

For those of us not in either of those situations, the question of season expectations can see us walking a fine line. On the one hand, being too aggressive can lead to serious disappointment and confidence issues. On the other hand, not setting the expectations high enough can lead to under-performance and even players feeling like we don’t have believe in them. Oh, and then there’s the case where we have an Athletic Director, Club Director, Owner or other boss to which we are accountable. As a result, we’re always trying to find that Goldilocks expectation – not too high, not too low, but just right.

So, how can we get the expectations thing right?

First, know the level of competition
It starts with having a good understanding of the competitive landscape, which definitely isn’t always easy. Every league and level of volleyball play is different – not always in big ways, but often just enough to make it unclear of exactly how your own team compares.

I faced this situation when I first started coaching in England. I’d never seen any BUCS level matches when I started coaching the university teams. Likewise with NVL Division 1 when I took over the local women’s team playing at that level midway through their season. I had to learn all that as I went, and in the meantime could just deal with what I had in front of me.

Actually, in the case of the NVL women’s team I was revising expectations just prior to matches! The team was bottom of the league when I took over and in the 2nd and 3rd matches I coached we were away to two of the top three teams in the league at that point. Naturally, my expectations going in weren’t particularly high for getting wins. Once I saw the competition (talented, but much less experienced than my team), I completely shifted from a “Let’s see what we can take away from this” to “We can win, and here’s what we need to do to accomplish that” mentality.

This past season it was a very different situation. I’d been through a year of seeing not only BUCS league play, but also the competition level at Final 8s. As a result, I had a good idea of how competitive my team would be in our league while also let me know exactly where the team needed to be in its level of play in order to compete with the teams at Final 8s. This understanding was massive in my working with the team to set goals and expectations from the start. It also featured heavily in planning my training focus and progressions over the course of the season to get the team to level it needed to be at to reach and compete at Final 8s. Considering the team ended up playing in the national semifinals, I think things went pretty well. 🙂

Second, know your team
Just as important as understanding the competition and what it takes to be successful is being able to honestly assess the strengths and weaknesses of your own team. It’s all fine and good to want to win the championship, but that expectation can be quite destructive if the reality of the situation is that your team just doesn’t have the necessary level of talent.

Using myself as an example, the university team I coach does not have any players on scholarship. A number of others do, however, putting us at a competitive disadvantage. In particular, a couple of teams have squads stacked with scholarship athletes, allowing them to line up a bunch of ex-Team GB and US collegiate players – and in some cases former professionals. There is no way we could compete with that, so we have to have more realistic expectations. We knew we couldn’t contend for the BUCS championship, so we set our sights lower.

Being successful in this context is about being able to work to your team’s strengths and minimize the impact of its weaknesses. You have to be able to make a realistic assessment of each, however, to both gauge where to focus your coaching efforts and to ensure the team and players have a productive mindset.

Importantly, you have to be able to account for the developmental progress your team is likely to make over the course of the season. If we’re doing our job as volleyball coaches, after all, our team should be better at the season than at the start – all else being equal. The extent to which this happens, and it what way(s), will be a function of a combination of our ability as coaches and the capability of our players individually and collectively to improve their play. So not only must you be able to judge where the team is at, but where it’s probably going.

Be ready to adjust
As I noted above, sometimes you have to shift expectations as you go. It perhaps won’t be as dramatic as doing it on match-day, but any number of developments can influence things. Injuries and other roster factors is an obvious source of changing expectations. Changing level of play in your league, which any experienced coach will tell you happens from year-to-year, is another influence on expectations you won’t necessarily be able to gauge until competition starts. I’m sure you could come up with others. The point is that you need to be both willing and able to make changes to your expectations – both yourself and with the team – as circumstances dictate.

Aside from the implications I’ve already mentioned, doing a good job of setting season and adjusting expectations is also of considerable value in a coach’s mental well-being. Constantly coming up short of overly lofty targets is a sure way to have a miserable coaching career. At the same time, out-performing artificially low objectives won’t end up being particularly rewarding in the long-run. Inevitably, you’ll exceed expectations some years and come up short in others. If you do a good job of establishing those expectations, though, you’ll find many other aspects of your coaching going better than otherwise would be the case.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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