Tag Archive for communication

Go ahead and yell at me coach

Spend time talking to athletes about what they want from their interactions with their coach an you’ll inevitably hear something to the effect of “I want you to yell at me.” I once had a player say, “I don’t care if you scream at me…”

You’ve heard that sort of thing, right? Maybe you thought it yourself in your days as a player.

To use some British phraseology, it’s rubbish!

Don’t believe a word of it. I’m not saying the players aren’t sincere when they say that. The issue is they’re not really being honest with themselves or with you about the yelling. They are, instead, telling you something about what the yelling represents to them.

No player wants you to yell at them. It may be effective at times. Some may have a thick enough skin that they can take it. They don’t actually want their coach yelling at them, though, and they do care if you do it. At its perhaps least upsetting level, it means in the coach’s eyes they’ve messed up. Obviously, no player is looking to do that. Above and beyond that, I’m sure any number of progressively more negative emotional responses come to mind. Think humiliation, anger, depression, etc.

Dig a little deeper with the players and you’ll find that what they are actually saying when they give you permission to yell at them. They really want ongoing feedback. Yelling – as much as it’s uncomfortable being on the receiving end – is at least a form of much desired information about their development and performance.

I have separate comments on the general idea of yelling in the Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive? post. For this discussion, though, I hope you realize as a coach that even if you feel as though yelling at a player can be useful at times, it is only one potential form of feedback – and generally one with a strong negative focus. As coaches we need to be able to use the broad spectrum of feedback mechanisms and operate in both the positive and negative realms in reasonable measure.

So the next time you have a player tell you it’s OK to yell at them, make a little mental note that you need to be more conscious of providing that player with a lot of feedback, and probably in a variety of ways.

Managing team cultural and language diversity

The topic of managing diversity came up in some of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. There are really two types of situation where this situation arises. One is the case where the coach is of a different nationality or cultural background from the players. An example of this is a national team where the head coach is not from that country. The other case is a team made up of players from multiple cultures. You see this a lot at the professional level where teams and staffs comprise players from potentially many  countries.

Both Paulo Cunha (Portugal) and Vital Heynen (Belgium/Germany) talked on this subject in their interviews. In particular, Vital shared one way he seeks to avoid cliques developing, which this clip speaks to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

At Exeter I didn’t have to deal with the language thing all that much. The players I coached generally spoke pretty good English. No surprise given we were in an English-speaking country. Also, the players were from so many different countries (like 25) that there wasn’t a lot of overlap. Often, developing their language skills was part of the motivation for the foreign players being in England. In my last season, though, there was a Spanish speaking gropu who tended to use that for conversations between themselves (in general terms, the Spanish players I coached were the ones who most struggled with English). Sometimes the Chinese players also used that language speaking together.

Also, when I was with German professional team SC Potsdam last year there were clear German and Italian language cliques (the coaching staff was Italian and spoke that between themselves). At TV Bühl, the other German team I visited with last year, the coaching staff spoke Spanish among themselves, but English was the clear team language.

Mental connection through physical contact and gesture

Former NBA star Steve Nash got some attention a while back for a blog post (unfortunately, the blog has since been closed down). It was on the subject of high-5s, and physical contact between players in general. In it he made the point that such contact helps to connect the players. It indicates approval and congratulations for something well-done. It also provides support after a miscue. Steve makes some excellent points on the impact of this sort of behavior on team chemistry and cohesion. It’s something which we can definitely see evidence for, and should be encouraged in volleyball.


I want to shift the focus, though, to coach-player contact as I think there are some related ideas. Obviously, there are a number of potential pitfalls in the area of coach-on-player physical contact. This is especially true when crossing gender lines and in adult-child relationships. I’m not going to get into a discussion here on where lines should be drawn and what should be considered appropriate or inappropriate. That’s an involved conversation with considerable cultural considerations. Let’s just stick to clearly non-controversial elements.

A very basic example of this is something I saw a lot coaching outside the US. At the start of a men’s team’s training you almost always see players shaking hands with the coach(es) – as well as each other. I even received handshakes myself as a visiting coach during my times with the professional teams at BR Volleys and TV Bühl in Germany. This wasn’t common practice when I came up, but may be something that’s developed in the men’s game in the US as well in recent years. It’s been a while since I coached guys in the States.

In my experience working with both genders, these handshakes serve a similar purpose for men as the conversational exchanges you see with women’s teams before training. It’s a simple person-to-person and group connection. It’s an indication of respect which helps reinforce the full team dynamic.

High 5s

Returning to the high 5s, as a coach I personally use them and their like to communicate three main things:

Good job

Let’s go

You’ll get ’em next time

One quick bit of physical contact with more than one use! And sometimes one high 5 actually serves multiple purposes. For example, “Good job” and “Let’s go” often get combined in one hand slap.

And you don’t even need actual contact to transmit something to a player through physical means.

Body language is a whole subject in itself. What I’m thinking of here are specific gestures with meaning to given individuals, though. Sally Kus talks about this a bit in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully. She used a specific 2-part gesture to express the idea of “key dig” to one of her players on the court. Giving a player a clap after a good play, or giving them a “chin up” signal, or any of a number of similar types of things are all non-verbal ways we coaches can get things across to our players and express a connection with them – just as players do between and among themselves.

Ice-breaking and bonding games

The most interactive session at the HP Coaches Clinic I attended in 2015 was run by Steve Shenbaum. You may recognize him from his days as an actor. He focused on ways to get players to know each other in a safe, fun, and often funny way through a series of games. He had all of us play a couple of them.


This is a very simple game but can get quite funny. Two people stand in front of each other and alternate counting 1-2-3. As in Person A says 1, Person B says 2, Person A says 3, Person B says 1, and so on. Easy enough. There three variations that make things a bit more interesting. The first one is to replace saying 1 with a clap (clap-2-3). The second is to replace 2 with a snap of the fingers (1-snap-3). The third is to replace 3 with a foot stomp (1-2-stomp). Replacing a number with an action forces more concentration and creates a pattern change. It also allows for the introduction of some personality as how people clap, snap, or stomp is completely up to them.

Red Light/Green Light

This was the other game Steve has us actually play with a partner. Basically, it’s an improvisational story-telling type of conversation. One person is the talker while the other is the listener. The teller says a sentence like “I had cheese on my eggs this morning.” The listener then says Yes or No. If the listener says Yes, then the talker continues along the same line. For example, “I had a bagel and some orange juice as well.” If the listener says No, then the talker has to change things up. For example, they might say “Actually, I had a bowl of cereal.” After each new sentence the listener says Yes or No and the talker reacts accordingly. You can imagine all the random directions this can go. Each person spends a predetermined amount of time as talker (say 2 minutes).

There were three other games Steve showed us. They were Coins, Dimmer Switch, and Hitchhiker. Honestly, I can’t remember what Coins was about. The other two were very improvisational as well, but a bit too complex to really describe here. I brought up the Dimmer Switch concept in the Ideas for new team integration post. Basically it has to do with raising or lower an individual’s personal level of energy and enthusiasm.

Having done both the 1-2-3 and Red Light/Green Light games I can very easily see how they could be useful in helping players start connecting with each other on a personal level. Definitely more fun and better for breaking down inter-personal barriers than being forced to tell each other three things about ourselves and some of the other stuff that gets used in team building exercises.

Ideas for new team integration

Most of us volleyball coaches at some point along the way have had to deal with a situation of having a bunch of players on the court who don’t know each other and have never played together before. I certainly dealt with that in my three seasons coaching at the University of Exeter. Annual turnover was better than 50% each year. I also definitely dealt with it back in my days of coaching Juniors volleyball. You get done with try-outs. Now you have a group of players that need to be integrated, sometimes very quickly. How do you do that?

One of the sessions at the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic was on this subject. Shelton Collier is the head coach at Wingate University. He also coaches at the USA junior national team level, and he shared some thoughts on how to accelerate the integration process. This is something they deal with frequently because they often have very little time between team selection and their first match. It might only have a handful of training sessions.

One of the ideas Shelton offered as a way to quickly get players working together and communicating on the court is to put them in scramble mode. Basically, that means stressing them in a game-play environment with unpredictable situations and a high tempo. The Scramble Game is an example of this. Think of it as the volleyball equivalent of throwing someone in to the deep end of the swimming pool. The rapid pace leaves no time for thinking, which tends to break down barriers. Will there be mistakes? Of course. But as the action goes on the players will start to sort things out with each other through communication and understanding.

The other thing Shelton brought up was the use of the “dimmer switch” idea with respect to intensity. This is something from Steve Shenbaum’s presentation at the clinic. It goes something like this.

Usually, with a new group of players together on the court, the intensity level and communication are pretty low. On a 0-10 scale it might be something like a 2-3. The players are quiet and look at each other to figure out who’s going to play the ball.

Shelton ran a mixed group of collegiate players through a drill in his session.That’s about where they were at. After a bit he stopped them. He talked about them being at that 2-3 level, getting them to buy into the idea. He then asked them to try to move that up to a 6. The players immediately increased their intensity and communication. After a bit longer Shelton then asked them to jack it up to a 9. That’s higher than you’d expect to see during training (at least for any sustained period), but it served to show them where they could really take things.

The important aspect to this dimmer switch or intensity scale idea is that Shelton didn’t actually tell the players what to do. He didn’t say “Talk” or “Call the ball” or anything like that. He simply identified the current level and indicated where he wanted it to be. That allowed each player individually to figure out what they needed to do to get their own intensity level to the proper point. This is key because players vary considerably. The dimmer idea allows them to get the the right intensity level in a way that is comfortable for them.

So next time you find yourself with a new bunch of players to start to integrate into a team, think scramble and dimmer switch. You might find both ideas quite useful.

Got any favorite team integration ideas of your own? Leave a comment below to share them.

Recognizing players for good training

Player recognition for their performance in matches tends not to be something which needs all that much coaching focus. Those who do well in competition tend to get plenty of praise for it from all different corners. Though sometimes we do need to point out good play which is not so obvious to those outside the team.

Training is a different story. Some rare circumstances aside, practice is only attended by the team, so there is no external source of recognition. That means it has to come from within the group. If there’s a good team dynamic, players will tend to provide on-the-spot recognition for each other during the session. That covers one aspect of it. You, as coach, are responsible for the rest.

Importantly, a big part of “the rest” is setting and maintaining expectations. You want praise and recognition parceled out when it’s deserved and it’s the result of doing things the right way. Training is when that right way is being established and developed. That makes it a key time for recognition, and for warranted constructive criticism (handled in the right way, of course).

The question is how to dole out that recognition.

The Exeter women’s team I coached had I think a quite good way to recognize players for a good practice. At the end of each session I brought them together to talk about how things went. That’s when I reinforced what we were working on, go over any administrative details, etc. We would then do the team cheer to conclude. Then I selected a player who stood out in my mind as doing well that training to lead the cheer.

I did not initiate the procedure myself, as it was basically already in place when I started working with the team. I definitely found it worthwhile, though. Not only did it allow me to recognize someone for having a good session – by their own standards – at times I could also use it to recognize a player who perhaps hadn’t received much in the way of specific notice or otherwise I thought could benefit from being at the center of attention for a moment.

A side effect of using this team cheer leading is that it sometimes led to moments of levity. I surprised a lot of players by picking them, which led to some funny responses like monetarily forgetting how to start the cheer. One season I had two players whose names I always flipped for some reason. I would look at one of them in the cheer huddle, meaning for her to take the lead, but say the other one’s name.

Funny moments aside, one of the things I like about this particular recognition procedure is that it serves the desired purpose of giving a deserved pat on the back. It does so in a low key fashion, though. You want to avoid making a player uncomfortable by singling them out for praise. Also, you don’t want the team resentful of someone who gets individual praise. Those sorts of things can have severe effects on team chemistry.

The cheer approach represents one sort of recognition – that is for doing well over a period of time, in this case a practice. There should also be recognition of a more immediate nature when a player (or group) does something deserving of it. We call this positive feedback. 🙂

Players today!

“I really would not recommend the profession to anyone right now. Kids are different, kids, parents, administrators have way to much influence! Coaches hands are tied…..can’t push, can’t discipline…..parents and administration are one! YUK!”

Those comments are from a coach who’s been in the game at the NCAA Division I level for many years. They aren’t the only one I’ve heard these sorts of things from either. It even goes beyond volleyball – and beyond sports in general. I’ve heard similar sorts of views expressed by professors I know as well. They make me kind of chuckle in a way. After all, we always see the older generation complain about the younger one in some way, shape, or form.

Actually, from a coaching perspective the competitive part of me loves to hear that kind of stuff. There’s two reasons for that which might give me an advantage in either the coaching or recruiting arenas (or both). 🙂

The first reason is that I worked in a very player-centric environment while coaching in England. I didn’t have an administration to please (at least not directly), but rather a collection of student-athletes and their elected leaders. I essentially coached at their pleasure. That meant I had to earn and retain their respect. I had to both coach them on-court and guide them in the off-court club management. I must have done at least something right as they presented me with a signed ball (a legit one too!) at my final Christmas Party to thank me for my time with them.

The second reason is that I deal with my players as they are and am constantly asking the question of how to better communicate with, motivate and educate this team or this particular individual. It could be viewed as having a growth rather than fixed mindset as I discussed in How do you view your coaching exams? I just think of it in terms of looking at the situation I’m currently in, getting the most out of things, and trying to find ways to improve it.

So to all those coaches out there whining about players today … hope you don’t have to go up against me because I’m going to eat your lunch! 😉

Getting young players to communicate and move

A reader recently asked the following very common question:

I am assistant coach of Grade 8 girls and they need to come out of their shells. What drills do you suggest to help with their first pass?

Basically, this coach is after ways to get them to call the ball and move more aggressively to play it. I can tell you that this isn’t something confined to just to girls or just younger players. I’ve had to address it with older players and with members of both genders.

Calling the ball

Communication is all about habit. You need to develop in your players the habit of calling the ball before they play it. Really, the only way to do that is to have them do it repeatedly. Unfortunately, there’s no magic drill to make them suddenly start talking. As a coach you simply have to prioritize that focus. Then you need to continuously reinforce it in different ways throughout your trainings. Put them in situations where they have to cooperate. Have consequences for failure to call the ball, like not counting repetitions in passing drills, or even making it a minus. Maybe add a bonus point in a game for any time all three contacts for a team have someone calling the ball. Be creative, but most importantly make sure to consistently focus on it. If you only intermittently encourage them to talk, they will probably only communicate intermittently.

Moving to the ball

Standing around waiting for the ball to come to them is the hallmark of new players. This is something that needs to be very quickly addressed. Regular work on court footwork (shuffles, cross-overs, etc.) is a starting point. That gets players used to the idea of moving and how to do it properly. That’s just the starting point, though. The second step is to incorporate movement before playing the ball into your drills. Even if you work on the very basic stuff, you can still have them shuffle a step or two before they pass. The more they become used to the idea of moving prior to playing the ball, the more it will start to come naturally.

Confidence and connection

Let’s face it. A lot of what makes players quiet and tentative is a lack of confidence and not feeling connected with their teammates. To the extent we as coaches can help overcome that we speed up the process of getting them to talk to each other and come together as a team. Something I’ve found useful in that regard is the Amoeba serving game. I’ve seen quiet groups turn into a yelling, screaming bunch of players as they encourage each other in trying to beat the other team. Lots of exactly the sort of things we want to develop in our players. And I’m not just talking about youngsters here. I saw the same sort of thing with my university players in England, where I used the game to help integrate players from all different nationalities and backgrounds.

Coaching Log – Oct 16 2014

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

Wednesday was our first BUCS match of the year. To say things didn’t go optimally would be an understatement. We had to drive over 4 hours (players driving) leaving before 7am to get to the match, closer to 5 hours by the time we got parked and across campus, changed and into the gym. Then we found out we had basically zero time to warm up before the official pre-match routine started because our Athletic Union failed to inform us that said warm-up was set to begin about 25 minutes before the team was changed. Needless to say, we weren’t anywhere close to mentally or physically prepared to play the match.

The opposition was solid, but by no means overpowering. They reminded us a lot of the third place teams from our league last year in terms of style of play. I have no doubt we have the players capable of beating them. Not, however, if we play the way we did on Wednesday. Way too many mistakes driven by tentative, fearful play. And our blocking and defense weren’t nearly good enough (the latter definitely a function of the former). Lots of work needs doing – technically, tactically, and mentally.

It was an early training session on Thursday as we swapped spots with the men’s team since they played a late-day match Wednesday. Not surprisingly, there were some sluggish minds and bodies. We only had six balls, which put some serious limits on what I could do with them. It ended up being a session developed dynamically.

I had them start with rotating pepper after the dynamic warm-up, then moved to a variation of the hard drill. My decision to do that latter was to get the players doing more thinking on the court. After that, I did half court (narrow) winners 4s with fixed setters.

It was not a great session. Too little focus. Too little commitment. Balls dropped. Players made numerous bad decisions. I was sharper with them because of it than I’ve been so far this season. I actually ended training early after yet another ball hit the floor with two players standing there looking at each other (which got the team captain shouting at them).

I told them at the end of training that certain players need to get more focused (no names) and were at risk of being excluded from training because they were negatively influencing the ability of other players to practice at the necessary intensity. They were warned that Monday’s session had better be MUCH better in terms of intensity and focus.

On the plus side, after telling the two setters I would make them do a push-up (just 1) if I caught them leaving target early (which they both had been horribly guilty of up to that point in the session) they were much more disciplined about that.