Tag Archive for coaching philosophy

Line-up and substitution strategies for a 12s team

I received the following email from a reader who is struggling with a personnel use strategy for her young team and wants some help.

My husband and I are new coaches to 12u club volleyball team in Missouri. One thing that we struggle with is the substitution rules and rotation strategies. We have been running a 5-1 for ease, but would like to introduce the 6-2. We have 8 players. Do you sub a player for position only? Can libero only go in for any player in the back row only? Do most setters play all around or come out when on the back row?

My immediate response in this case is to suggest that 12s is too early for positional specialization. This is something I talked about in the post Coaching Youngsters Like College Players (the comment by Rich is very worth reading). There should be no libero, and there shouldn’t be players who are only setters. Instead, every player should be playing in all positions. Plenty of time for specialization later.

With these young players the focus is 100% on development in all facets of play. I know this is the stance of USA Volleyball. Volleyball England has expressed the same view, and I’m sure there are other national federations who agree.

It’s not about winning on the scoreboard. It’s about winning in terms of development. Sally Kus talks in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully about using alternative scoring methods to have the kids focused on playing the game properly, not simply trying to win.

From that perspective, the preferred system is a 6-6 where everyone sets and everyone hits. Substitution strategy is then down to appropriately sharing out playing time.

That’s my view, anyway. I’m happy to hear other opinions.

A young coach learns about ego and other things

Long-time experienced coaches can sometimes struggle to remember what it was like when we were rookie coaches. Yes, you can (and should) retain that desire to keep learning and improving. It’s hard sometimes to remember those early days when we were a clean slate, though. Well, at least a cleaner one. Their own playing experiences influence all coaches, along with what they saw before they began coaching.

That’s why it’s interesting to read the Life of a Coach blog. In it, a relatively young coach named Lauren documented her experience and what was on her mind. Her first entry was on the subject of ego, In it Lauren shared the lesson she learned that as coaches our internal value shouldn’t be determined strictly by whether our teams win or lose.

I say internal, because inevitably people on the outside will judge us by wins, championships, and the like. There’s not much we can really do about that.

Lauren posted pieces on her motivation for coaching and dealing with playing time, among other things. She even has a rant about the modern generation of athletes. That seems obligatory on coaching blogs these days. 🙂

Teaching or facilitating?

Mark Lebedew once asked how much a coach is worth. In this post much of the focus is on how much player talent drives team success vs. other things, part of which is coaching. One commentator suggests that talent is 80% and coaching is only 5%, with the rest being organizational considerations. While I think the general point about the importance of talent in terms of winning and losing is valid, I would suggest that the influence of the coach is highly dependent on the level of play in question. The professional ranks and U14s are worlds apart from that perspective, to my mind.

This is all part of a larger discussion Mark and I have been involved in for a while now. It came up in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview of Redbad Strikwerda and again the interview with Giovanni Guidetti, and it’s a feature subject of a Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast episode. In that case the focus is more on which aspect of a coach’s role is more important, training (teaching) or match coaching. It’s an interesting debate.

At a certain point I began to think of myself as less a teacher and more a facilitator.

I consider myself an educator and very developmentally focused by nature, so this isn’t a question of teaching and not teaching. Rather it’s about the structure of the educational process and its effectiveness.

Retention is higher when a player figures something out for themselves rather than being told what to do. We’ve all seen it. You tell a player to do something 50 times and they don’t do it. Then something happens where they work it out in their own way and everything changes.

From that perspective, coaching becomes mainly about putting players in position to learn for themselves.

Does this mean that you never actually teach players anything? Of course not!

At the lower levels there is considerable need to instruct players on elements of the game and skill execution. As players progress, though, a lot of what they are doing is learning to adapt to varying situations and circumstances. And those adaptations necessarily change as their physical abilities and/or skills improve. We cannot possibly tell them what to do in every different scenario. The variations are effectively infinite.

Instead, what we need to give them is the tools to be able to handle what comes their way. This is basically the core of the random and game-like training ideas.

But it’s more than just an individual development thing. The same applies to teams as well.

You can tell a team to play a certain way. They will never play exactly that way, though. At least they shouldn’t! There’s too much variation in the game for one single set of rules to cover every situation. Players need to be able to adjust. We’re not training robots.

Players also need to learn to play with each other,  which is an on-going process. Granted, a lot of this happens when they first come together, but it’s not a one-time thing. As a season progresses the players will constantly be fine-tuning things along the way with respect to communication, positioning, play-calling, etc.

Our job, as I see it, is to facilitate all that.

It may seem like this is a semantic difference, but to my mind it alters the way one approaches things like how one develops a training plan.

Avoiding player feedback dependence

I once came across the following question from a fellow volleyball coach.

What do you do to make sure your players don’t become dependent on you for feedback in matches?

This sort of thing is a significant touch point for me. I hate seeing athletes turn to their coach(es) after each play during competition. The captain of my women’s team at Exeter back in 2013-14 had this habit. She once specifically talked about it with me. It was presumably something that developed as a young athlete. By the time she played for me she wasn’t actually looking over expecting feedback. It was just an automatic, likely mostly unconscious thing.

Gives you an idea of the sort of long-term impact a coach can have, doesn’t it?

I have written before about how I strongly favor an approach which encourages the players to be responsible for their own decisions, adjustments, etc. (see Calling plays from the bench). I’ve also written about the value of helping players reach the point where they can self-coach. Both of these are areas where we can focus on making our athletes more self-reliant.

At it’s core, encouraging players to make their own decisions and become their own coaches is the need for us to be able to stand back and let the players learn lessons for themselves. I know as teachers we all want to “fix” the mistakes we’re seeing being made. Keeping players from being reliant upon us, though, means resisting the urge to provide feedback on each and every rep. My own personal approach is to not say anything until I see a string off the same error being made. Even then, I want to take a more Socratic approach – asking the athlete to tell me what the problem is rather than just telling them – to get them thinking about it in their own way.

I think you can probably get away with praising a good execution more quickly, especially when working on something new. That tends to reinforce what you’re after. Just don’t go overboard and praise every single repetition.

You should probably also avoid a pattern I apparently fell into. Back when I was coaching at Brown I apparently had the players convinced I was only ever watching them when they made a mistake! While the players were joking about it, and not really taking it seriously, it made me realize I probably wasn’t mixing in enough praise. Lesson learned.

The other thing that factors in to the “look at the coach after the play” response is if they think you will yank them for making a mistake. That’s an athlete playing in fear, which you definitely don’t want.

Coaching Log – Jul 31, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

I have to confess that I’ve actually done more relaxing and chilling out over the last week than actual work. That is particularly true of last weekend. After being really wound up in the lead up to the move out of Exeter, it was a much needed few days break. I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting something to the blog, though I did put up a number of things to the Facebook and Twitter feeds.

There’s still lots for me to do, of course. Just yesterday I submitted a draft of my thesis to my PhD supervisor for review after a couple days working on it in the Svedala library. It’s less than 2 months to when we’re aiming to submit, so a bit of pressure there. I also have some other content type stuff on my to-do list and this little break in things is a good time to get it done.

I met with most of the club’s Board on Monday evening. Basically, it was just an opportunity for them to get to know me since they were not directly involved in my hiring. It was kind of like a group interview in a way. We talked about things like my coaching style and philosophy. The feedback I got afterwards was that they were impressed. Good way to start things off I guess. 🙂

I’ve been told some of the local players have begun doing a bit of training in our main practice gym. I’ll admit to being tempted to pop in on them at some point. I don’t want them to feel any kind of pressure having Coach watching, though. I will try to at least meet up with them at some point before I head off for Germany next weekend, though.

I’ve had both setters post their set terminology in the team’s Facebook group. Not surprisingly, they aren’t the same – and neither matches the sample set diagram I posted a while back. The one the Swedish setter outlined seems to have a mix of naming conventions. We’ll have to sit down and work out a single approach.

We’re still trying to land an OH to fill the third foreign player spot.

Coaching leadership differences between the genders

During my Volleyball Coaching Wizards conversations I’ve spoken with coaches who have worked with both male and female players. I always make a point of asking each of them how they approach the two genders. Is there any difference in their coaching? What’s been interesting is that many have responded that they don’t really change anything.

One of the early influences on my own coaching was Anson Dorrance. He’s the long-time women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. He started off on the men’s side and for a while coached both men and women. As a result, he’s got some very interesting observations on the differences in leading the two groups. They tend to disagree with the “I treat everyone the same” idea. Check out this discussion of his on the subject (hat tip to volleyballcoaching101)

One of the things I can’t help but wonder about coaches who claim they are the same coaching male athletes and female ones is if there really are differences they just don’t recognize. I know that I am different coaching men than coaching women. It’s not an intentional thing for the most part. I don’t consciously say I’m going to have this demeanor on the court with the men and this other demeanor with the women. It just sort of happens.

Listening to Anson, the other thing I got to wondering was if coaches tend to niche themselves based on whether their personality better suits working with one gender or the other.

Show respect by dominating, but not too much

The picture at left comes from the 2014 beach season. To say that the Swedish pair dominated the duo from Ireland in this set is an understatement. You don’t see many 21-0 score lines at international level events. You also don’t see a set of abs like #2 has either, but that’s a totally different conversation. 🙂

I present this photo as a lead in a subject that I’ve had conversations about over the years. That is the idea to respect your opposition enough to give full effort, and probably thrash them as a result.

Simon Loftus discussed it during his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview. His view was that you should respect the other team enough to beat them 25-0 if you can. The Swedish ladies seemingly did just that. Listen to Simon’s thoughts on the subject of respect and how you approach lower caliber opposition in the following excerpt.

I agree with Simon in basically all he says in that snippet. From the perspective of lopsided scores, volleyball is different from other major sports. There is a point objective to finish a set. That contrasts with a proscribed time limit as in football, basketball, and soccer – or being open-ended like baseball. A 25-0 score line in soccer is definitely running up the score. University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance famously told his teams not to win by double digits. In volleyball, though, that is just being as efficient as possible.

During a conversation I had once, however, I had a thought on the subject. He said it may be true that for some players/teams being beaten 25-0 would see them concede they were soundly beaten by a superior team. He also said, though, it’s perhaps just as likely to be completely demoralizing. I coached on the wrong side of a couple of 0-15 score lines in NCAA Division I volleyball back in the pre-rally days. I can tell you the players weren’t thinking about how much the other team respected them.

Which way the response goes, though, depends. I think it has to do with how the losing team perceives the quality of their own performance.

In our 0-15 case, we definitely played strong opposition, but we also did not play well at all. When I coached the Exeter women against Northumbria in the 2014 BUCS semifinals we were WAY over-matched. Aside from the initial shock of just how strong the other team was, though, I think the team largely handled getting pounded pretty well. Our focus wasn’t on winning, but on enjoying smaller victories. It was similar for the Exeter men playing Northumbria in the 2013 version of Final 8s. The competitive gap was fractionally narrower in that case, but it was still a big one. We went into the match knowing the reality and enjoyed the experience of going up against a far superior opponent.

That all speaks to the psychology of being on the weaker side of the court and the sorts of things we as coaches need to think about to prepare our teams for those types of matches. The thought I had during the conversation I mentioned, though, related to being the dominating team. Basically, I said as a coach if your team won 25-0, or by a similar type of score, then you made a mistake.

I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but stay with me.

In the interview excerpt above, Simon talks about having non-score related objectives for matches where you face a lower level team. The idea in cases like that is basically to use the opportunity to help the team and players to continue their development. I tie that in with the idea expressed by Karch Kiraly at the HP Coaches clinic that if you’re not making some amount of errors you’re not pushing the envelope enough. As such, you are losing a chance to learn and grow.

If a team wins a set 25-0 it basically means they didn’t make any errors – at least no significant ones. No doubt there will have been less than perfect execution at points along the way. That’s it, though. If we use Karch’s benchmark of about 2 good against 1 bad, then in 25 rallies you should be thinking to drop about 8 points due to failed execution (missed serve, hitting error, etc.). That is not precisely what he means, but I think you get the point.

Of course I’m not suggesting we tell our player that we expect to lose 1 point out of each 3. Rather, what we should do is create a scenario where that is the outcome because the things we have the players focus on push them. They are working on new or more precise serves. They are trying new offensive plays. You are using non-starters. That sort of thing. The players are still trying to win each rally. It’s just that you’ve introduced factors which are likely to result in more mistakes.

Obviously, you can take it too far. If the players are taking too many risks things will get ugly fast and the score might get uncomfortably tight. And if the players get silly about it, that’s just disrespectful. Best to keep the focus on 1-2 objectives, though each player could have something of their own to work on.

Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?

What is the point of yelling at a team?

My guess is you’re probably thinking of something along the lines of communicating to them your displeasure. In response to that I ask two questions.

First, does your displeasure actually need to be communicated?

When does most coach yelling and screaming happen? Generally when a team is losing and playing badly (or has just done), right? Do you think the players aren’t already well aware of that? Seems to me Coach isn’t providing them with any extra information or feedback by hollering in a situation like that.

In fact, most of the time yelling at a team in that scenario is really just piling on and making them feel even worse. Is that really something that needs to be done? Doubtful. In which case you must evaluate the real motivation for the yelling.

I contend – and I know others agree – yelling in a situation like that is very often more about the coach venting than any kind of actual useful communication between coach and team. I have seen situations where coaches ripped into teams. They even brought up the recent death of family members in post-match talks. No good comes of something like that. There are much less destructive ways for a coach to blow off steam than taking it out on their players. This is especially when we’re talking about youth players and young adults.

The second question is in situations when your displeasure does need to be communicated, is yelling really the best choice?

Personally, I hate yelling. I have something of an aversion to drawing attention to myself. Being loud like that is very attention-drawing! As I told a player once, if I get angry enough about something to feel the need to yell, then I become doubly angry because I hate being put in that sort of situation. I don’t turn into a raving lunatic or anything. I’m definitely not a happy camper in those situations, though.

As you can probably imagine, based on that and what I wrote about yelling as player feedback, I am not one who thinks yelling is the best choice in most cases. I can express my disappointment or displeasure perfectly fine without raising my voice or using abrasive language. I seem to be able to get things across with a combination of facial expressions, body language, and saying things like “I’m not happy” in a fairly normal tone of voice. That said, though, clear expectations is key. It goes a long way toward making it easier to express one’s self without having to resort to histrionics.

Some yelling may be required, though.

Having said that, I will admit there are times when I think yelling is justified. Mainly this has to do with getting attention and focus. If players are goofing around or chatting amongst themselves or otherwise not engaged as they should be – especially if it means they are not performing a job like ball circulation or keeping their teammates safe from balls rolling under their feet – I will have a few sharp words with them. That’s it, though. I don’t go off on a rant. I get their attention and make my point, then get back to business.

On occasion I have yelled and/or used colorful language (with an age appropriate group) for a kind of shock effect. Since I don’t often yell or swear – especially with my women’s teams (young men with their lack of focus seem to need it a bit more) – when I do it tends to get them to take notice. Obviously, this is something we need use very selectively, though. The examples that stand out to me have been times when a team simply did not play up to its standard (winning or losing) in a particular match.

The point of all of this is to have you think about the motivation and reasons for yelling and what you want to accomplish when you do so. If you yell, make sure it’s to positive effect. That sounds perhaps a bit paradoxical, but it’s the idea of being constructive rather than just making players feel even worse or keeping the focus on the past rather than the future.

What do you want other coaches to say about you?

There’s a piece in the April/May 2015 edition of the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball magazine worth a read. Terry Pettit’s column Writer’s Desk has a talk with Nebraska head coach John Cook. In it Terry asks John to say the first thing that comes to mind when he mentions some other coaches. They include Mick Haley (USC), Dave Shondell (Purdue), Kelly Sheffield (Wisconsin), Geoff Carlston (Ohio State), Christy Johnson (Iowa State), John Dunning (Stanford), and Hugh McCutcheon (Minnesota) individually. The replies are mainly two short sentences and they look to hit on the essence of the coach in question.

Thinking about those replies got me wondering whether the coaches about which they were said would agree or disagree. Or do they otherwise see themselves in a similar or different fashion. That then got me wondering what I would want other coaches to say about me in a similar context, and how that may vary from what they actually would say now.

I’m definitely going to give it some thought.

What would you like your coaching peers to say about you?