This is a review I wrote of my second season coaching at Exeter. I wrote it a few months later as I was starting to think about the new one ahead.
The other day I talked about facing the start of a new volleyball cycle and my coaching commitment moving forward. Over the next couple of posts I want to take some time to reflect on last season’s coaching and where I would like to take things this season.
Last season was really intense. The Exeter university club (EUVC) expanded by one men’s and one women’s team. That put us at one each in BUCS Division 1 and Division 2 for each gender. The BUCS1 and BUCS2 teams (as we call them internally to designate 1st and 2nd teams) trained together, splitting out for competitions. The BUCS2 teams both played in the Western Conference Cup as well as league play. As unified squads, both groups played in the regional league (SWVA) and in the Volleyball England Student Cup qualifiers. Adding in the post-season play for the BUCS1 squads, the teams had a combined 87 matches
It ended up being a very successful year for EUVC.
The BUCS1 women finished 8-2 in their BUCS league, putting them in a first place tie. The tiebreak went against them, but it was still their best result in many years. They went on to Final 8s where they reached the semifinals. That’s likely the best an Exeter women’s team has ever done. The BUCS2 squad also finished second in their league. They fell in the quarterfinals of the Conference Cup. The combined squad went 14-4 in SWVA to take third place. This would have been second were it not for a bit of a facilities snafu on the last fixture date. At one point they’d won 30 straight sets.
The BUCS1 men finished 4-4 in their BUCS league. That saw them finish 2nd in the table for the second year running. They went on to Final 8s where they took 7th, improving on the prior year’s finish. The BUCS2 team finished third in their league and made the semis of the Conference Cup. The combined team finished 6th in SWVA play.
All together, the EUVC BUCS teams collected the third highest total points of any school. Both BUCS1 teams also gained promotion to the newly formed Premier League.Not bad for a club with no scholarship athletes.
I personally coached almost 60 matches all together. Most of the ones I did not coach were the men’s SWVA matches as I only coached the women in that competition. The rest I mainly could not coach due to schedule conflicts between the teams. In May I also coached the women in South West Championships. We finished among the NVL 3 teams in the middle part of the standings (tournament included teams from NVL1 down to SWVA). Some of the guys also played in the tournament with their NVL 3 team Exeter Storm (moving up to NVL 2 next season).
Reflections – Women
The advantage I had with the women was the common objective. They wanted to make BUCS Final 8s and the returning players knew from the prior year’s playoff experience that we needed more offense to be competitive with teams at that level. Having everyone on the same page made it really easy for me to sell the process to the team. I’d seen the women’s teams at Final 8s the season before. That made it so I could communicate requirements to the players. It also gave me an added measure of authority with them because of it. Importantly, the squad’s new players offered sufficient talent to give us confidence in having the strength to do well.
Everything we did was with an eye toward being able to play at the level of the teams we might have to beat in the playoffs to reach Final 8s. More than that, we wanted to have a good showing once there. With that season-long objective in mind, and the confidence that we’d finish high enough in the league to qualify for Championships given the strength of the squad, I was able to take a patient long-term approach.
I think a couple of things I did along the way were beneficial. One was making everything very team focused in a positive and supportive context. I tried to spin everything in terms of how what each player was doing contributed toward the team’s play. I also wanted to make them feel less uptight about making errors. The time and focus on serving I think paid off quite a bit. I also I feel I did a good job in matches against weaker teams of keeping the team focused on things other than the score. Having individual meetings with players each term – and getting feedback from them between terms – I think was important. It made sure players knew their roles. They understood what as going on, could feel connected to the process, etc. I didn’t do them the year before and regretted it.
What I feel like was a big factor for me was my total commitment to doing whatever the team needed for their consistent development and success. If that meant saying I’d wear a kilt if they reached Final 8s (it was in Edinburgh), then I’d do it. If it meant giving up some of what should have been my PhD time to focus on team stuff, so be it. That sense of commitment and my part of the team effort was important, I believe.
In terms of the things I think I could have done better, integrating the quick attack was one of them. That actually links in with passing. I just wasn’t as consistent in working on those things as I probably should have been. As a result, we never got it into the offense. Player availability was a factor there, but that speaks to an issue regarding planning I’ll circle back to later. I could have spent more time on blocking as well. It wasn’t something that hurt us, but we could have done better at times. In the first term there were probably a couple of situations regarding individual players I could have handled better.
Reflections – Men
The men were coming off their first Final 8s appearance in a number of years, but doing so having lost several key players including their captain and setter. We started the year with a very thin squad in terms of talent and experience. In all honesty, the expectations for the year were low. I thought just finishing high enough in the league to qualify for Championships was going to be a challenge. If I’m fair, that may have tainted my attitude toward coaching the men, though it wasn’t helped by other issues which developed at times.
Throughout the year I had a feeling of unevenness about the guys’ training because of the nature of their coaching situation (at least partly). On the women’s side I was the lead coach without any question. On the men’s side there was another coach as lead, though he could only run trainings one night a week and couldn’t attend matches. This had been the case the year before as well, but the other coach had so many schedule conflicts that year that I basically ran everything almost the whole year. This time around the schedule conflicts were few, resulting in an inconsistent approach to team coaching as who ran training alternated. The other coach and I communicated about focal points, but more needed to be done to ensure a smoother progression.
The diversity of skill level in the team (keeping in mind BUCS1 and BUCS2 trained together) created a number of challenges which we coaches probably could have handled better. Either or both may have also tied in with some issues we had on the commitment and attendance front. One particularly angering instance during first term really turned me off coaching them and encouraged me to focus even more on the women’s team, which is probably not the reaction I should have had. The uneven commitment was also probably contributory to the unevenness I perceived in the training focus.
A major issue with the guys was that they played too little as a unit and too much as a collection of individuals. They handled adversity very poorly. It was so glaring that even the women’s team became incredibly frustrated watching them play – or even train. Some of this was poor leadership in the squad that needed to have been addressed from the outset.
The setting position was problematic. We probably stayed with one setter much longer than should have been the case because the other option was such a useful attacker. This only became clear at Final 8s when illness forced a change.
Just the other night I was talking with one of the women’s team players about how amazing the season was. None of us would have even dared think that we could be national semifinalists. I noted some things I felt I could have done better, but when I look back on the 2013-14 season where the women were concerned I can’t help but feel like it went just about as well as any coach could ever hope. The men, of course, were a different story. Even they, in the end, surpassed expectations, though. I feel like I’ve learned from both experiences, though. I share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the next post.