Tag Archive for coaching philosophy

Improving pre-match warm-ups

The question of how to handle pre-match warm-ups is one that comes to mind every season. I’m not the only one who finds that. Here’s a question I got from a coach in Hawaii.

I have been coaching boys high school volleyball for 27 years now and am always looking for ways to educate and improve myself. We just finished the season losing a well played match, so a loss I can live with. In any case most of our players are multi sport so the little time we have to work with them has to be jammed packed with info and training. Sorry so long winded and I do have a question in here but stared checking you site and I do enjoy reading the articles and the different drills.

Now my question: I am looking for a better warm up drill before each match. The warm ups go as follows just before the match both teams have a 5 minute shared on there respective sides of the net. Then each team has a 5 minute on court (hitting) and 5 off court (digging usually)…. it’s the 5 minutes hitting that I wanted help with or to do something different with. So the routine is I along with another coach will toss balls to the hitters to assure an accurate set in which to hit the ball. I would estimate each player gets about 4-6 good swings. Then we’ll go to a 6 ON where the starting six with the position players are are placed in there position. The coach will toss a free ball and players move accordingly and execute pass set hit and cover…. any thoughts are welcome…

I have to admit, I like the simplicity of FIVB warm-ups. Shared hitting is the biggest part. The first four minutes are through 4, and the second four minutes are through 1 (I actually thought four minutes was took long, but those are the rules). Two minutes of shared serving wraps things up. My teams in England did a dynamic warm-up, then just peppered until it was time. My Svedala team mixed in a defensive drill run by the players.

I know a lot of coaches don’t like shared hitting. That’s fine. Admittedly, it does lack game-like elements. My general feeling, though, is that what we do in women’s college these days with the 4-4-5-5 thing is a bit ridiculous. That’s after already spending 30+ minutes warming-up on your own half of the court!

Moreover, I sometimes see coaches do 30-60 minutes of “serve and pass” right before warm-ups begin. I wrote about this in my post about match-day serve and pass sessions. Seems excessive to me.

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to the email inquiry above.

What is the purpose of warm-ups?

We need to ask the question, what is the purpose of our pre-match warm-up?

I think the automatic response is to prepare for the upcoming competition. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Well, there’s a line of reasoning that takes a different view. It suggests that warm-ups are just one more developmental opportunity. You need to decide which point of view you favor because that factors into the best use of your warm-up time.

Consider the warm-up described above where coaches toss balls to hitters for a certain amount of time. If you take a “warm-ups are learning time” point of view, then you probably would not want coaches tossing to hitters. Those are low quality reps for learning purposes. Plus, that leaves out an opportunity for players to also work on passing and setting – maybe serving too. It’s the coaches who get the most reps in this sort of exercise. And if the setting is so poor as to argue for coaches tossing, then the setters definitely need more reps!

Now, if you are taking more the “preparation to play” perspective on warm-ups, then maybe the coach toss hitting makes sense. Personally, I’m not so sure.

The purpose of the coach toss seems to be to get the hitters “good” reps. What is a “good” rep, though? Is it good from the perspective that it replicates the type of hitting they will do in the match? Sounds like probably not. Instead, it seems like these are mainly feel good reps. If that’s the case, is there a better way to get a similar psychological effect?

Mixing both approaches

During the 2016 season at MSU we eventually settled on a warm-up pattern that seemed to work. Our first four minutes on court was split in half. The first two minutes were the pin hitters receiving served balls and attacking sets from their passes. The second two minutes was the middles attacking, still off passed balls. This was a time where we could insert a bit of coaching. Just pull a player aside after they completed a rep.

In our five minute segment we did four minutes of just free ball initiated rallies and finished with a minute of serving. We didn’t start the year doing the free ball rally thing. It was something we switched to early on, though, and kept it. What better prepares you to play volleyball than playing volleyball? It was full-blooded hitting, blocking, and defense that really got the intensity level up.

Could we have created more of a learning opportunity with that latter segment? Probably. We went with free balls mainly for the sake of keeping the tempo high. We could, however, have initiated balls in certain ways to replicate something we wanted to work on. Also, we could have dictated certain types of playing patterns. For example, the first ball must be a high ball to the OH.

My thoughts

Returning to the question of the 5-minute warm-up time the coach above asked about, here’s something I would at least try. Jump straight into free ball rallies. The easy first ball should guarantee a decent set to start the play and things will proceed from there. The players should already be more than warm enough to jump and hit by this point, so that’s not the real issue.

If the players are not quite ready to go into game play, first try to figure out if you could do something different beforehand to get them ready. If so, you will make your warm-ups more effective and efficient. Maybe you do need to insert something like a little hitting into the over-the-net period, though. That’s fine. When all is said and done, even if you want to make your warm-up development, it still needs to leave the players in a good position to play.

 

How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does this so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

Providing players room to create

There’s an article you should read. It’s an interesting discussion of how much coaches seem to appreciate creativity in their players, yet how they do so much to limit it. The article is aimed at business managers, but speaks from a sports perspective. Here’s a quote that hits the main point:

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control.

This doesn’t just apply to professional environments. It happens anywhere coaches look to constrain player freedom. I’m not talking about creating a dictatorial state here, mind you. Some coaches certainly act in that fashion, but that’s not really where I’m going. Think instead about coaches teaching specific techniques. Think about coaches employing very structured systems of play.

I doubt most coaches in those latter categories think of themselves as constraining their players. My guess is they think they will simply be the most effective ways to go. What they are doing, though, is providing solutions to players. They aren’t letting the players find their own solutions. The latter is where creativity comes in.

This is why it’s great to just let you players play at times. They might surprise you with the solutions they develop.

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. 🙂

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.

“[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. 🙂

Convincing players random is better than block

John Kessel is a major advocate of making things as game-like as possible where volleyball training is concerned. In one of his blog posts he talks about the “false confidence” block training (simply doing reps) can create in players – and coaches. No doubt, John will continue to bang that drum. It’s a major feature of the USA Volleyball training philosophy, and shows through in the CAP program. It definitely showed through when I did my CAP III course.

I’ve done my fair share of that as well. Going beyond maximizing player contacts is one example. As game-like as possible is another. Episode #17 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast also has block vs. random training as its theme.

Here’s the question, though.

How do we convince players that more game-like training is better?

Once, during a serving and passing drill, the MSU setters took turns setting off of the pass. One asked why they did not just do one setter at a time. She wanted more repetition “to develop a rhythm”. My response was she never set two balls in a row in a game. She started to push back, but I told her she always does something in between. There’s hitter coverage and blocking and defense, among other things.

That mollified this particular player. I’ve had others on different teams, though, who felt like block reps were better than game-like ones. One of them once told me they let her pass without having to think about anything else. She was an OH who obviously had to think about attacking as well in actual game play. Plus, there’s that pesky issue of dealing with seam responsibility when passing next to another player.

Like in anything else, we have a mixture of personalities among our players. Some are open-minded and accept what you say. They are at least willing to try. At the other end is the close-minded group. They fight you on things. They say stuff like, “We’ve always done it like this,” or “This way works for me.”

It’s fine if those players aren’t key performers or team leaders. You can marginalize them if they persist with the negative attitude. If they are leaders, though, it creates a major problem. They say things like “This is stupid.” That has serious negative consequences for both team chemistry and coach authority. It cannot be tolerated.

So, how do we convince the more resistant players that more game-like training is superior to blocked training? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experience.

Match-day serve & pass questions

This is an open question to especially college volleyball coaches, but potentially also to professional volleyball coaches.

Do you do a serve & pass session on match day?

If so, I’ve got a few follow-up questions.

Do you do it both home and away?

How long do you go?

What do you do?

When do you do it relative to the start of the match?

I ask because I can’t help but wonder at some things.

Serve & Pass routines

It is regular practice in the Lone Star Conference for visiting teams to do 30 minutes on-court prior to the match. Generally, this is done in the hour prior to the 60-minute match countdown. For example, if the match is at 6pm, the visiting team might do a session from 4:00 to 4:30. Some teams look to do them earlier in the day.

One of the other conferences in our area has a specific arrangement. The home team gets 75 minutes before match start to 60 minutes. The visiting team then gets 60 minutes from the start to the 45 minute mark. After that it’s shared until the 19 minute mark when the 4-4-5-5-1 begins.

These sorts of arrangements are not unusual in my experience. It was the same way when I coached in the Ivy League. No doubt this sort of thing happens all over the country. When I coached in Sweden, we did a serve & pass session on home match days. For Saturday matches, it happened in the latter morning, with team lunch to follow (we played at 2:00 or 3:00). Visiting teams didn’t usually have time, though there was never an issue with jumping on the court before the 60-minute countdown started if the home team wasn’t on the court.

Serve & Pass, then full team warm-up?

One of the things I find curious is when a team does a fairly active serve & pass time, then roll almost directly into a full pre-match warm-up. Aren’t the players already warm?

I saw a team doing a fairly intense 45 minutes (well at least the end was fairly intense), then 20 minutes later start pre-match with a dynamic warm-up.

Why do that? Is it a case of being married to the idea that pre-match warm-up must always be done a certain way?

Why Serve & Pass on match day?

The next question I have is the value of doing a serve & pass session. To be clear, I’m talking about a session on match day, not something the day before. The automatic response from coaches, I’m guessing, is that it gives the players a chance to acclimate themselves to the gym. I’m also thinking there’s a secondary motivation of getting extra practice time – especially time that doesn’t count toward NCAA limits in the case of US college volleyball.

So where’s the trade-off between the value of getting those reps and the added physical and mental exertion on match day? Players have to mentally ramp themselves up for the serve & pass session, then obviously have the physical workload for that period of time. Then they have to wind back down, recover, and do it all over again for the match.

Are the extra touches worth the fact that the players probably won’t be at full 100% for the match?

I’d honestly like to hear some opinions.

 

Post-match team talks

During the 2016 women’s college season I witnessed a team having a lengthy post-match talk. It came after they lost a match to my current team, Midwestern State. Interestingly, it looked like the assistant coach was the one doing most of the talking, while the head coach stood by fairly quietly.

This wasn’t a ranting, raving type of coach talk, though there was definitely a negative tone. I only heard bits and pieces. They made it sound like the focus was on mindset – at least during that part of the talk. The real standout about the meeting to me was its length. That, and the fact that it took place in the corner of the gym rather than in a locker room.

I’ve seen some ugly, long-winded post-match team talks in my time. Some involved teams I coached. Others involved teams I coached against. In the former, very rarely did I think that sort of meeting was productive (see Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?)

In the case of witnessing a team getting scolded, my reaction comes in two forms. On the one hand, sometimes I feel bad for them. When I coached at Exeter, our men’s team beat a team from Northern Ireland in a playoff match. That coach, who seemed like a nice guy, laid into them for a ridiculously long time afterwards. I felt really bad for them. So did the guys on my team, who wanted to invite the other team out for a post-match point (they do that in England).

The alternative reaction is more a competitive one. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to beating a team so badly that they get yelled at afterwards. It’s kind of like targeting a single opposing player to the point they eventually have to be subbed out. It’s a psychological victory above and beyond the one on the scoreboard.

Can’t help but wonder if coaches who yell at their team in public realize this? Or if they’re just trying to embarrass their players.

Teaching center-line passing vs. platform angle

My partner on the Inside College Volleyball book, Matt, answered a question on his blog about passing technique. The question came from a mother and is as follows:

For years, my 13 year old has been taught to “get around the ball” to pass, rather than reaching left or right for it. So today, she went to a high-powered libero training clinic where the teacher told her essentially the opposite.   It really blew her mind because the instructor just kept on her about it. Is there an absolute correct way to receive a dig or serve, or is this a disputable matter?

Matt’s response I found very appropriate:

My belief is correct passing technique is a combination of footwork and platform.  In a perfect volleyworld, the passer wants to move his/her feet so the ball is centered into the stomach.  But, because of the geometry of volleyball, the platform must be angled to redirect the ball to the setting area (depending upon where the serve was received).

In general, I wanted my passers to move their feet to get behind the ball, and then keep their arms no wider than their hips to redirect the ball to the setter. Depending on how tough the serve was and how much they were able to move their feet, this would impact how much right or left (from the centerline of the belly button) they moved their arms.

I think Matt’s second sentence hits the mark – in a perfect world. In other words, if the player has time to move and get into a stable passing posture, then you’d probably like to see them pass center-line. It reduces variability, which should improve consistency.

But, the world is rarely perfect

A center-line passing technique, though, goes out the window once serves get tougher. Obviously, that means serves with more pace. They simply give the passer less time to move.What top level men’s volleyball. There is just about zero time to move to take the ball center-line against a jump serve.

Importantly, we have to also consider late-moving float serves. It’s all well and good to have the ball centered on your bellybutton. If the ball drops and/or curves away as it’s approaching, there’s little you can do to get your body there.

There is also the question of seam responsibility considerations.

Should we teach center-line?

If players eventually have to be able pass away from center-line, does it make sense to spend a lot of time training it? Personally, I think we need to focus much more on platform angle. I see so many issues with that among players at levels where they should be more aware.

I can understand the value of teaching center-line passing to young players, though. The biggest issue you usually get at that level is players not moving. They tend to want to just stand in one place and wait for the ball to come to them. Training them to pass center-line encourages movement – especially at a time when serves tend not to be overly challenging. It also encourages them to not be lazy.

That said, once you have players moving to the ball unconsciously, I think a shift has to be made to focus on platform angle as the key (I won’t get too far into the weed with the specifics there).

Thinking about the player’s future

Here’s a major issue for us coaches. There is a strong tendency to coach our players based on what works best at our level. In other words, coaching to win matches. After all, our status is closely tied to how our teams perform at our current level (see Coaching youngsters like college players for a discussion this in terms of specialization).

The problem with that, however, is it doesn’t necessarily prepare players for the next level. Are we doing kids any favors if we require them to pass center-line beyond a certain level of introduction? What happens when they reach the level where they face tougher serves?

Something to think about.

Sometimes old ideas are the best ideas

A lot of good ideas have been around in the world for a long time, getting recycled periodically. They pop up in different forms. New perspectives are applied based on whatever the current generation needs. The packaging may change, but the underlying idea remains.

I wrote about one of these ideas a while ago. It’s the concept of becoming progressively unnecessary as a coach. I don’t take credit for that. It came from John Kessel. He himself picked it up at a USA Hockey seminar. There it was presented as coming from teaching.

Let’s really wind things back, though.

Here’s a quote attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu lived during about the 5th century BC. That means this concept is around 2500 years old. I don’t think it’s very likely Lao Tzu thought of it all by himself, though. Leadership in human endeavors goes back much further than that. No doubt someone else before him in ancient history thought the same.

Consider this when you come across a shiny new idea in coaching. Training ugly, the game teaches the game, mindset, and all of these related things are tossed around in our discussions.I’m not knocking any of them. Instead I’m saying they’ve been around for a long time. They maybe had different terms associated with them, but the concepts are nothing new.

My point in all this is that we don’t need to look for some new concept to become better coaches. Most of the best ones have been around for a while. We should definitely keep up with the research, but we should also not brush aside “old” ideas. There’s a good chance tomorrow’s new latest thing will be a repacking of a well-worn idea of the past.

Just look at the movie business! 🙂