Tag Archive for mental toughness

Technical vs Mental Training

Once upon a time I considered myself a highly technically oriented coach. I focused a lot on how players executed skills. I came up from a highly block oriented training background (meaning skill repetition), and I think the two kind of went together. Somewhere along the way, though, I started to shift to a more mental view of training.

I don’t recall a specific moment when the light bulb went off. I think it was more of a gradual realization that the teams I was involved in coaching were just not playing the game as well as required. They could execute the skills, but that simply wasn’t enough.

What do I mean by a more mental focus?

Basically, I mean focusing more on the structure of play and the decision-making process. The latter relates to choices individual players make while they play. For example, should I attack the ball aggressively here? Do I need to make sure I keep my serve in this time? Who’s my best set choice at this moment? And so on down to the level the specific skill the player elects to use. This is the solution side of the solution-execution combo Julio Velsaco talked about when I was at the 2014 HP Coaches Clinic.

The structure of play aspect relates to how players work together. It’s an element of what Mark Lebedew wrote about in his The Key to Volleyball post. Mark has also previously talked about how as soon as you have more than one player on the court it becomes an organizational situation much more so than a technical one.

I should note that when I talk about structure of play I’m not talking about systems. Yes, systems are part of it. For me, though, structure begins with mentality and expectations. How do we train and play as a group? That then feeds into how each individual plays within the scope of their role in the squad.

Is technique important? Of course. But technique is at the end of a chain on things, most of which are not physical. The vast majority of a player’s time is spent not in skill execution, but in preparing for that execution (see Going beyond maximizing player contacts). That is largely mental, and it’s where truly great players and teams excel.

Striking the balance

Clearly, we cannot just coach the mental side of the game. If a player can’t execute the skills, the rest won’t matter much. The question is finding the balance based on where your players are in their development. In my case, I have mostly dealt with players who have at least some base level of skill. Gains from improvements in technical ability at that level are generally less than those from improvements in the mental parts of the game – at least up to a certain point.

As always, it comes down to you as the coach evaluating your situation, setting priorities, and remaining focused on them.

Dealing with perfectionist players

I came across an article which speaks to the issue of student perfectionism. In it the author focuses on students who are not satisfied with anything but being perfect. Does this sound like any volleyball players you know? I certainly have had my fair share!

Anything less than perfect is failure

You’ve seen it, right? A player gets frustrated and angry with themselves because they don’t play the ball perfectly. That just leads to further “failures”, which feeds back, creating a downward spiral. And chances are, many of the reps they aren’t happy with are ones we’d call good. It’s tough to watch and can be a real challenge to deal with.

There’s an interesting quote in the piece: “This tendency to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection is akin to the fear of failure…”

This brought to mind the fixed vs. growth mindset discussion, as outlined in Mindset by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read that book, I strongly recommend it. In many cases, the fixed mindset is driven by a fear of failure. That can lead to either perfectionism or to not being willing to try new things or otherwise challenge one’s self.

Changing the mindset

The focus of the article is on trying to get students (athletes in our case) to change their focus away from be perfect and toward more useful mindsets. The author suggests four “swaps” that can/should be attempted. This is something Hugh McCutcheon has talked about. Here are the four mental adjustments suggested in the article:

Can you swap out progress for perfectionism?
This is a healthy trade off. What if our report card was continual improvement, not perfection? It’s a game that’s challenging but winnable. Ask them: Are you OK with who you are, but becoming the best version of you?

Can you swap out excellence for perfectionism?
Excellence is a fantastic goal, because we all can excel in some area of strength. Help students find and focus on their gift, and remind them: You can get fired from a job, but you cannot get fired from your gift. Find your gift and you’ll always have work.

Can you swap out comparison to others for comparison to you?
If we must play the comparison game, it’s safer to compare your performance today to one of your former performances rather than someone else’s. This way growth, not perfection, becomes a win. Striving for growth resolves the performance trap.

Can you swap out conquering others to adding value to others?
If life has become about competing with and conquering other people, why not shift your perception of others. What if your “report card” was about adding value to people, not being better than other people? Suddenly, we can all make straight A’s.

Admittedly, that last one might be a bit tricky for us. In fact, it might run counter to some of the work we’re trying to do to make our players and teams more competitive. 🙂

Creating a forward focus

For my own part, in training I try to short-circuit the perfectionist spiral by not giving the players an opportunity to fixate on that last rep. The time you tend to see that kind of feedback loop is when a player is doing successive reps. Think one player passing or digging X number of balls in a row. I’ve seen all kinds of non-productive reactions to “bad” reps – cursing, stamping, slamming the floor, etc.

In order to prevent that sort of thing, I like to use drills and other exercises where the player is forced to immediately do something else. A very basic example would be doing a pass to hit type of drill where after receiving serve the player must attack a set ball. This serves not only to blunt the hypercritical reaction (hard to scream and yell when you need to go transition to attack), but encourages the player to quickly move on to the next thing, which is what they’ll need to do in a game.

You can do the same thing in a game context. It’s simply a matter of introducing another ball immediately after a rally ends.

Admittedly, these sorts of things done in training may not directly address the larger perfectionist issue at the individual level. They primarily seek to limit its impact. To the extent, though, that they make the player aware of their responsibilities in a team context, they can help to do some of the swapping outlined above.

What if you’re not coaching “the game”?

Over at the Arizona Sidelines Coaching Blog there was a recent post which addressed the subject of doing non-game-like drills. It included a lot of references to videos of activities which would appear to have very little to do with actual volleyball. The leading example was one where a coach was rolling balls and requiring a player to moved to them and roll them back. I’ve actually seen a variation of this drill run. The author said the following:

“Motor learning science is adamant about Game-Like Reps in practice; better skill acquisition, better transfer and better retention. Chasing rolling balls across the floor while 10 girls stand and watch doesn’t come up a whole lot in the game. So why?”

Now, I am very much in line with the philosophy of making things as game-like as we possibly can in training. Just the other day I had a go at men’s volleyball players at a recent match for some of what they were doing. Here’s a question, though.

What if we’re not actually training the game at the moment, though?

Let me clarify. In volleyball, as in anything, there are technical skills and there are game skills. Motor learning, as noted above, strongly suggests that skills are best developed in a game-like environment. And I doubt anyone will argue that learning things like reading and decision-making are also best accomplished in a similar fashion.

What about things that are not specific to the sport, though?

I’m not talking about physical stuff here. First off, you can make the case that any strength and conditioning work you do should be directly related to the sport you’re playing. Further, you can also make the case that much of that type of development is best accomplished on the court.

Instead, I’m talking about mental development. I have in mind what might broadly be classified as mental toughness. More specifically, it could include things like dealing with adversity, focusing on the next play and letting mistakes go, and those sorts of things. I know personally these are things I specifically work on with my teams. I’ve talked about ways of doing so in my Training beyond techniques and tactics post.

If mental training is the primary focus of a specific exercise, can we accept deviations from “the game teaches the game”?

Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

How do you motivate players to win?

A reader sent me the following question about keeping a team focused and having the killer instinct when they have the opportunity to win.

As a club volleyball coach for several years, one of the challenges I face mostly is motivating my players to maintain their winner’s mentality… if anything their killer instinct. My current age group are 13s and 14s and they have the talent and skills but mentally, it’s a rollercoaster — they can’t seem to maintain the aggressiveness and fail to beat the teams they can and should beat…. just too many mental mistakes. I’ve collected many sports motivational quotes and use them during our timeouts and team meetings but can’t seem to absorb. I’ve used some of your drills as well.

I had two initial thoughts on reading this question.

Understand gender differences
The first was to wonder if the coach in question is talking about a girls’ team – and got confirmation that this is indeed the case. It’s been my experience that female players tend to be less naturally competitive than their male counterparts, and instead more cooperative. I think this is probably even more true for younger players. I’ve had conversations with other coaches on this subject – male and female – and they generally agree.

This is something Kathy DeBoer wrote in her book Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently. She made the observation men battle to bond and women bond to battle. In my experience, it’s very true.

A lack of competitiveness definitely doesn’t apply to all female athletes, of course. The setter I had at Svedala, for example, is one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. That means you need to consider the individual aspect of things along the way. You could have a mixture of competitiveness levels, which impacts how you try to address things.

I think the broader point here is that for certain types of players or teams it’s best not to address competitiveness just from the perspective of winning for winning’s sake. You need to think about looking at things in other ways. Winning could be seen as an indication of excellence in performance or teamwork, reaching a joint objective, or something else which is important.

An example of that would be my Exeter women’s team from 2013-14. They had the collective goal of reaching Final 8s in Edinburgh. To get there, they had to win matches, so they were very motivated to do so. Without that strong group objective, they probably wouldn’t have been so focused on winning.

Focus on non-win related objectives
The second thing that came immediately to mind when reading the email above is that the coach needed to shift the focus away from winning and on to something else. This can be especially helpful when playing weaker competition – or alternatively, when playing a better team from a different perspective.

When I was coaching at Exeter we often faced teams that could have been considered inferior. In those situations I went in with specific areas of focus for the team for that match. An example was serving. I’d tell the team I wanted them to focus on their more aggressive serves or their serving accuracy. Against another team the focus might have been on our offense or some other facet of the game. In every case the idea was to work on things I wanted to develop or improve upon for the more important matches down the road.

In all these cases, while I certainly wanted and expected the team to win, I put the focus on process rather than outcome. Obviously, what I had them concentrating on was things that I felt would contribute to winning.

Breaking things down into chunks
Another thing which might help in situations like those described in the email is breaking each match down into smaller “games. This is something which got discussed in a recent episode of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. I encourage you to give that a listen as Wizard Mike Lingenfelter shares his own method for doing this, and my podcast partner Mark and I offer our own thoughts on the subject.

Thoughts from readers?
There are other things I know coaches do to try to encourage competitiveness. I’d love to hear what readers use to this end – what they’ve found useful and what hasn’t worked. Use the comment section below to share your experience or ideas – or questions if you have them.

 

Coaching Log – Feb 1, 2016

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

On Sunday Engelholm beat Hylte 3-1 at home. Combined with our loss on Saturday, the results created a log jam at the top of the standings, with four teams within 2 points.

ElitSerie-Table-012516

The Elitserie schedule for the week was a fairly full one. Engelholm hosted Gislaved on Tuesday and RIG hosted Örebro on Wednesday. On Saturday, alongside our trip to Gislaved, Örebro hosted Hylte and RIG hosted Lindesberg. The only possible question mark in there in terms of expected outcomes was Örebro vs. Hylte, so in order to keep our position among the top group we needed to match everyone else and take a win against the 6th place team.

The concern I had starting the week was our seeming reversion back to the team we were when we gave up winning positions against Engelholm and Hylte to lose those matches in our first league meetings. We were not mentally tough against Örebro and our serving in recent matches has been problematic at the very least.

The struggles with the offense I outlined in the last entry are something we need to work on from a technical perspective. Missed serves and poor passing, though, are mental issues rather than technical ones for the most part. Obviously, being resilient in the face of adversity falls into that category as well.

I have to confess, I do have some concerns about fitness levels which could be contributory. I don’t have anything objective to point to from that perspective, though.

Monday
During the day I took the 3rd set from Saturday’s match, added notes and highlights to the video, and posted it for the team. That took most of my afternoon. I got it done only a short while before having to leave for practice, so there wasn’t enough time to expect the players to watch it. I spoke to it a bit at the start of the session and the players talked about a few things in terms of moving forward. The gym was too cold (again) to just be standing around chatting, though, so we swiftly got to work.

After warm-ups I had them do the final part of the Twenty-one drill as something to have them moving and being active from the start. I followed that with Continuous Cross-Court Digging. Then it was on to Winners 3s, back court attacks only.

The bulk of the session was spent doing serve receive and attack against three blockers to work on reception, attacking the block, and blocking. Myself and my assistants did the serving. I switched the players around from hitting and blocking and setting, blocking, and hitting in the case of the setters. The passing started off rough, but seemed to improve as the exercise progressed. My OPP in particular looked good in attack, though continues to have technical issues with her blocking.

We finished up with a couple of minutes of narrow court Winners 2s.

Tuesday
We had a young guest player in training – a girl trying to make a decision between potentially playing for Svedala next year and going to RIG and being in the academy program there. We also had our usual visiting player from the second team and our former player, giving us a full gym. That always makes things more fun and interesting.

After pre-hab and some group pepper as a ball-handling warm-up, I split the group. On one court the MBs worked on transition attacks coming off of blocks. On the other court, the OHs and RS were doing serve reception and attack.

I then brought them together and played a variation on Winners 4s – one I’ve used before. The setters were fixed (rally-winning setter goes to/stays on the winning side). The MBs did their own winners rotation, with the rest of the group on the usual one. Normally, I have them play on a narrow court, but this time we went full court. This was basically a build-up of the attacking work to add the block.

From there we did hitters vs. a full 6-team unit, taking things up another level. They played out any rallies which ensued.

I then moved them on to 22 vs 22 to bring in the serve reception element. Because of the mixture of ability and experience, I set the teams to have the starters against each other in the front row for the first two games (one side was the server in each), then flipped front and back row for the second two games.

We finished up with a regular 25-point game using the same teams.

It was a good session. The energy level was high. The players were generally more aggressive in attack. I saw more block-out, high hands swings, which is something we’re trying to work on. Serving was pretty good. Defense was very strong. It was good to see. The second team coach was in the gym with us, providing a bit more technical coaching.

Wednesday
I think lifting before training tends to take a bit out of the players (not surprisingly) and lead to less energy and intensity. That certainly seemed to be the case in this session. Though, my young MB did ask about how much jumping there would be given that they’d done a fair bit on Monday and Tuesday, so there was perhaps a little bit of an overall fatigue.

As per usual on Wednesday, the session started with 2-ball volley tennis. That was followed by cooperative cross-court hitting in which I had the group first do attacking through 4, then attacking through 2, then 2 and 4 and finally 4 and 2.

The second team was still going on center court, so I needed to extend our time on the side court a bit longer. I had the team do serve and pass 3s. That hadn’t been in the plan, but it served the time-fill purpose.

Switching to the center court, next up was back row Winners 3s to get into game play and competition. That was followed by a new version of the servers vs passers game, which the passers won again.

The primary full game play exercise was a 5 v 5 focused on right side vs left side. Each team had three back row players, but only two in the front. On one side, it was OH and MB. On the other it was RS and MB. We played games to 5 with one side serving each ball and playing two games before I rotated players around to get different hitting/blocking match-ups.

The 5 v 5 games end up being lower intensity and focus than I’d have liked. After going through a few rounds, I decided to do something much more uptempo. I had 3 front row players and two back row on each side. I alternated tossing a free ball in to each side and let them play out the rallies.

We finished with target serving. At the end, my American MB did some work with the young Swedish MB on her arm swing hitting off a box.

Friday
This session was a classic build-up one, starting with fairly simple and progressing to complex. After warm-ups and pre-hab I had them do a 4-corner setting drill. That was followed by target serving where I told them to do 10 good of the best serve, than work on their next best. I gave them about five minutes.

Next up was servers vs. passers. This time I only went to 15 points and started the score at 4-0 for the servers. No bonus points. The game ended up much closer this time, though the passers won once more, 15-13.

From there it was back row Winners 3s to get in attacking and defense, with some “live” serve reception. I then progressed that to Winners 4s with fixed setters and middles (one of the others was front court as well). That kept the passing and added in the middle attacks and blocking.

After that it was more full game play – though one side only had six players so Zone 6 was out. I used 22 v 22 as the structure. We did 3 total rounds of that, by which time the players were looking fatigued, so I called it a day.

After training the MBs once again did work on arm swing. The two passers who struggled last weekend also wanted to stay and do some more passing. We talked a little about technique and ready position, but the biggest issue for both is what’s going on between their ears. They pass well in drills (though are very hard on themselves if it”s not perfect), so I told them it’s all about clearing out the negativity come playing time.

Saturday
That match didn’t go as planned. I had a warning during our warm-ups that we perhaps weren’t as focused as needed. During the defensive drill the team does (2 hitters, a setter, 3 defenders rotating in and out) there were balls getting hit between players not getting dug – to the point where I stopped them for a few words. That’s the first time I’ve felt the need to do anything like that.

The first set was nip and tuck early, but eventually they got out to a 14-10 lead, and then 17-12. We clawed back to 19-17, but it ended 25-18. Part of what saw us fall behind was missed serves in the early going, which was theme through the match. We seemed to have them in clusters near the start of sets, but got much more consistent after that and ended up with 11 aces to 11 errors for the match.

We actually passed fairly well in the first set, but our hitting was poor. We only sided out at 44%.

The second set saw things turn around sharply. We got out to a 9-4 lead, which ended up extending to 19-9. We had no service errors in that set, but managed 4 aces.

At 19-10 I subbed in our back-up setter for the starting one. The starter had just finished serving, so she was in 1. Unfortunately, the passing let her down and she maybe could have made a better decision on one of her sets. We gave up I think 4 points and I had to put the starter back in. Even from there they managed to keep coming back and get to 20-16. From there it was even and we won 25-21.

Hitting in the second set was miles better (13 kills against 1 error). We sided out at about 62%, though our passing was a little worse than in the first set.

The third set saw our first four servers miss three serves, though we missed none after that. It was tight up to 10-10, then they nosed ahead to 13-10. From there we never got back to level, though we fought hard. We weren’t helped by some poor officiating. Our hitting was pretty solid and our passing decent, we just struggled with stopping them from scoring (only 32%).

The fourth set had a very similar beginning. We missed 4 serves in our first trip around the rotation – once more not missing any after that. Our passing dipped a bit in this set, though our offense overall remained pretty effective (17 kills vs. 3 errors). Again the issue was stopping the other team from scoring (33%). It was very even up to 13-13, then they nosed ahead  to 18-15. We came back and eventually reversed things to 23-22, but then gave up the last three straight points.

This one hurt. We were clearly favored and had beat Gislaved three times before. They were a team on the ropes having gotten pounded on Tuesday and with a bunch of players recovering from injury and illness. We needed this one to stay in the fight for a top playoff seed. Losing puts us in a bad position given our remaining schedule.

As much as we looked great at times – especially on offense – we had quite a few lapses. Hitters didn’t expected to get set. Players didn’t cover their hitters or expect a ball to get played by teammate. A few execution and decision errors. My concern is that the team was mentally and/or physically fatigued, which led to the focus issues. Some of the players are also dealing with minor injury issues.

Thoughts, observations, and other stuff
On Tuesday Engelholm beat Gislaved rather easily. Apparently, Gislaved was dealing with a rash of injury and illness issues. Their top OH, for example, was relegated to playing Libero. Not that we’d have expected them to beat Engelholm in any case. Similarly, Örebro won 3-0 at RIG on Wednesday night.

On Thursday we found out that Engelholm had replaced the American MB they’d had to send home due to a back injury. The player is reportedly a part of the Canadian nation, so a potential upgrade in quality. That team has used it’s middles very little offensively, so it might not add much to them from that perspective, but it could improve their block.

Saturday’s other matches saw Lindesberg win easily at RIG, as expected. The more interesting match was Örebro hosting Hylte. The visitors won a tight one, 3-2.

Is it easier to play better teams?

Here’s a story from my days coaching in Sweden. On the train ride back from Stockholm, a group of my players talked about the prior evening’s match. We played the team second from bottom in the league. It was a team that only managed wins over the team last in the standings.

During the exchange, one of the players commented on how it can actually be harder to play weaker teams.

Now, as coaches I’m sure the first thing which comes to mind in a situation like that is motivation. For sure, it can be hard to get yourself up for a match you’re expected to dominate. Moreover, it can be hard to maintain your focus when you’re winning comfortably.

That’s not what this player was talking about, though.

She was actually looking at things in terms of predictability. The general thrust of it was that with better teams you basically know what they’re going to do. The ball comes over the net at predictable times and in predictable ways. With weaker teams, though, you are less sure of when and how the ball will come across the net. That makes things tougher.

One of my middles actually commented that during a certain stretch we had put them under so much pressure with our serve that for several points in a row she didn’t have to block at all. When they finally were able to run a good attack, she forgot she needed to block! 🙂

In situations like this, along with trying to keep the team focused on that things we want to work on, I also talk about the need to be constantly ready. You never can be sure when or how the ball will cross the net, so you have to be alert and in a position to make whatever move is required.

It’s important that we coaches also maintain our focus in matches like this.

Coaching Log – Dec 7, 2015

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

On Sunday in a potentially surprising result, Engelholm beat Hylte 3-1 at home, giving the latter their first loss on the year. Combined with our win over Lindesberg, that sees Svedala and Hylte equal on 17 points. We jumped Örebro, who was inactive. The victory saw Engelholm strengthen its 4th place position. The only other match on the week saw Sollentuna get their first win in a 3-0 pounding of RIG. Here’s the table to start the new week.

Elitserie-Nov2915

Gislaved remained in mathematical contention for a spot in Gran Prix to begin the week as they could still get up to 15 points. If we beat them at their place on Thursday, though, or if they lost at home to Hylte on Saturday, it would officially knock them out of the running.

The remainder of the week’s schedule featured us hosting Engelholm and RIG hosting Lindesberg on Saturday, with Örebro hosting Sollentuna on Sunday. With Lindesberg and Örebro favored in their matches, our second go around with Engelholm was the one with the most likely chance of impacting on the hunt for Gran Prix spots. Two wins on the week would assure us of a top-2 seed for that tournament.

There were no matches counting toward the Oresund Liga standings, so the picture there started this week unchanged. Three matches this week, however, are on top for that competition. One of them is our away match to Gislaved. It was indicated originally that this one wouldn’t count, so maybe things will change at some point. The other two are Amager vs. Holte, meaning their Danish league match counting toward the Oresund Liga as ours with Gislaved does. The other is a cross-border battle: Holte vs. Engelholm.

Monday
I spent a whole bunch of time doing video work this day. I had to prepare some video on Thursday’s opponent, though just as a refresher since we’ve played them before. I shared game footage from their most recent match, and also pointed them to our prior meeting. I also prepared and posted video from our last two matches (Hylte and Lindesberg) so they could review.

For training, I was without my two starting OHs. One is still fighting a persistent illness while the other is recovering from the leg issue she developed during the match on Saturday. As per usual following a match, we started training talking about developments and started the process of looking forward to the next match.

One of the key components of that was our serving, where we’ve seen our error to ace ratio in recent matches push a bit higher than we’d like (it was 14 to 7 against Lindesberg). I don’t normally call out individuals in this kind of situation, but three players in particular have been the biggest factor. For the season they have something like 17 aces against 47 errors. We talked about the need to be more consistent, though I have also encouraged two of them in the development of their serves so, there’s balancing act.

As tends to be the case, this was a more technical session.

One of the three things I wanted to focus on were to continue training the step in digging. We did that using attacks from boxes over the net in a step up from what we’ve done.

A bigger priority, and what we spent the most time on was blocking. That started with an exercise in movement and footwork. We’ve had some issues with floating blocks, so I had the players working in their position to move fast and get a good plant with the outside foot. Later, we extended that by having the blockers work against hitters on boxes to add in the hand positioning.

Mixed in was a serving drill. The players were told to serve in to one half of the court. If they got the ball in that zone they got +1. If they missed the zone, but the ball was still in the court, that was 0. If they had a serving error, it was -1. The objective was to get to +10.

We finished up with a small-sided, narrow court game to 21.

Tuesday
The two starting OHs were once more out for training, but we had a couple of additions for a total of 10. After warm-ups, I had them continue their work on digging balls to the side with a cut-off step, but only in partners this time. I then also had them repeat the blocking footwork done on Monday. To complete the trio, they did the same +10 serving exercise, though focusing on the other half from what they did the prior session.

I had them play Speedball in teams of 2 with fixed setters as a game play warm-up. The rest of the training was spent doing 6 v 4. One of the sidelined OHs served from the 4 side to the 6. Once that rally played out, I gave a free ball to the 4 side. The setter on that side was back row. I started the 6 side with the setter in 1. Because I wanted to limit the amount of jumping for the starting setter, I had her play her three back row rotations, alternating rotations in which the MBs were front row (so 1, 5, 6). For the three front row setter rotations, I had the back-up setter playing on the 6 side.

A really fun element of the 6 v 4 was the excitement of one of our guest players – a young member of the 2nd team. She was playing OH on the 4 side. During the latter part of the exercise she started really connecting on her attacks and hit several balls really well. After each one she jumped and screamed as if she’d just won a championship. 🙂

Wednesday
Because the team in on “active rest” this week, we didn’t do team lifting before training. That will resume next week when they start the next training cycle.

The OH with the leg niggle (turns out to be hamstring related), was back for this session, but the one who’s been struggling with a long-term illness remained on the sidelines resting. As per usual, they began Wednesday training with 2-ball volleytennis.

A bit of pepper to extend the warm-up was followed by the cooperative cross court hitting drill. We haven’t done that one in a while and will face a team that is very left-side heavy in their offense – and further favors cross-court attacks. It’s not the most game like exercise in terms of replicating what we’ll see, but at least it gave us some work on defending.

From there we did some serving for consistency. That was then followed by the Winners back row 3s where instead of waving through, the losing team is replaced directly on their side while I initiate a ball to the winning team. Thursday’s opposition also likes to use the pipe attack, so this was a chance to work on defense against it.

From there we moved to a set of 5 vs 4 half court games. The 5 side had a front row setter, MB, and OH, with the libero in 5 and a guest defensive player in 6. The 4 side had a MB and RS in the front row and a setter and OH in 6 behind. They played the win or revert game I mentioned in a recent post, starting with the score at 20-20. I had them play 2 games in the initial player configuration. I then swapped players around after each set of 2. I think overall we played 8 or 10 games.

The session wrapped up with a bit of serve & pass. The MBs took turns working on reading the setter.

Thursday
This was a long midweek road trip than I think most folks would judge reasonable – 2.5 – 3.0 hours drive. Even the opposing team coach said as much. We left Svedala at a bit after 2:00 for the 7:00 match. Granted, we generally look to get to the facility about 2 hours ahead of start time. It wasn’t a horrible ride – certainly less onerous than the one to Lindesberg on the weekend.

2015-12-03 21.00.02

The match stared out well enough. We took the first set 25-15. Then it seems like we lost focus and let the energy we had bleed away. The result was a 14-25 loss in the second set.

The first part of the third set (after a 15 minute break) started off better, but still with a few niggles. We were having problems getting a good block formed against their outside attack because we were floating. I got a bit angry after seeing it happen one more time and called timeout, during which I instructed our right side players that they were to no long swing block (which we normally do), but to do square blocking.

No, we didn’t start blocking every ball. In fact, I’m not sure if we got a single block in either the 3rd or 4th sets. And no, our blocks weren’t always perfectly formed. Heck, I’m not even sure if they did what I said (need to check the video). What did happen, though, is that we put up a consistently better block that had the opposing OHs looking to hit around them (often to get dug) or have their swings go off the block to the defense.

We ended up winning the third 25-20 and the fourth 25-16.

Blocking issues aside, there were some good positive elements to our play. Defensively, we continue to improve. Our ace/error ratio was 13/11, which is a reversal of the recent pattern. Our 3rd OH came in as a serving/defense sub in three of the sets and scored 7 points on 9 serves. We passed above a 2.00 Our two American attackers were still the only ones in double digit kills, but unlike last time when no one else has more than 2, this time they all did – and had some good swings even when they didn’t get a kill. We hit about .290 as a team, with 45% kills. In fact, if you take out the 2nd set, we were up over 50%.

We did make our fair share of poor decisions, though. Our MBs got faked out a number of times (Gislaved’s setter is good at that), including the hated jumping with the back row setter. There were also a few plays where communication broke down.

Friday
My OH2 messaged me in the afternoon saying her doctor told her to come in to be checked out Saturday. She’s been fighting an illness for weeks and was put on penicillin this week. Her doctor told her if that didn’t help her then something potentially serious may be going on and that she shouldn’t be training or playing. The ironic thing is she’s been playing some of her best volleyball in recent matches. Potentially losing her in this crunch time period was not something I wanted to hear.

Training was very light. I had them do some 4-person over-the-net pepper, then transitioned that into rotating cooperative cross-court hitting at low intensity just to move and touch balls in a relatively game-like fashion. I had them do it both swinging through 4 and through 2. After that we did some target serving. The last part of training was serve and pass with some players mixing in a bit of hitting as well.

Saturday
We hosted Engelholm following the 2nd team playing a league match of their own. My sick OH was OK to play, but it was pretty easy to see that she wasn’t really mentally prepared to do it. I made the decision to start our third OH in her place. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it was going to make too much of a difference which of them was in based on the match-ups, but the one who started has been working hard and getting better, so deserved the opportunity.

The match was up and down. We lost the first set 21-25, then won the second 25-17. After the break, we in turn got trounced in the 3rd 16-25 thanks to a really bad start. We turned it around in the fourth to take the set 25-22, then used a good start to the 5th to take it 15-10 and get 2 points.

We struggled early on to stop their big OPP, but over the course of the match gave her more problems and forced her into bad swings. She still go her fair share of points, put our pressure on them with the serve really made a difference.

Thoughts and observations
This week’s two wins actually gives us our first winning streak since back in preseason. Good time for it as it secured a spot in Gran Prix and potentially a 1st or 2nd seed.

Two matches left until the holiday break. I might look to use it to give some players a break here or there, but it will depend on how things go.

Too much thinking about the opponent

There was an article a while back about the concept of Big Game Syndrome. It focuses on football, but the idea applies to any sport.

The article describes Big Game Syndrome as a situation where a team or coaching staff feels they must do even more work and be even more uptight than usual when facing a perceived important game or match. The prime example provided was football teams facing the New England Patriots. The view is that they need to do something extra special to outsmart Bill Belichick. The result is decision-making which goes down poor paths.

While coaching in Sweden once, I found myself wondering if I’d succumb to a version of Big Game Syndrome with respect to my team’s matches. We spent the better part of a week talking about that match. In particular, we focused on the other team’s big attacker. The result was that we were probably too focused on the other team and not focused enough on us.

Of course there are times when looking for any possible edge you can find to win is important. To my mind, though, I felt afterwards like I made the mistake of doing that sort of thing at a time when our focus should have been the development of our game.

On the face of it, the fact we went up 2-0 suggests I was wrong. Maybe we spent the right amount of time on scouting and game planning. The fact of the matter is, though, we won those sets despite not playing very well. This was especially in the first set. We didn’t get a kill until our 10th attack. The other team kept us in it by missing a bunch of serves.

The over-thinking element came into play later in the match. We felt the pressure of trying to fend the other team off when we had late leads. It made us hesitant and cautious and led to some poor decisions.

Coaching Log – Oct 26, 2015

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

Generally speaking, the weekend league results went probably about as might be expected. Gislaved won 3-0 over the youngsters at RIG and Lindesberg won 3-0 over Sollentuna. We might have expected Örebro to have a harder time with Engleholm than a 3-0, but they seemed to be able to contain Engelholm’s main attacker. This was of interest to us as we played the latter on Tuesday.

Those results have the league table looking very top-heavy, though Hylte/Halmstad and Svedala remain on top despite playing one fewer match.

ElitserieTable-18 Nov. 2015

Click for full-sized version

Obviously, it’s too early to make any real strong forecasts, but the distribution of results so far does tend to suggest it will be a 6-team race for the four places available in the Gran Prix. Those spots are based on the first half of league play, which basically means up to the December break.

As noted, Engelholm was on our schedule for Tuesday – at their place. This is one of the domestic matches which also counts toward standing in the Oresundliga. A win would see us go top of both that and the Elitserie.

Monday
Had a sick player, so only 9 healthy bodies in training. I allowed the players to determine a warm-up exercise to do. They opted for a new variation on volley tennis. From there the focus was on preparation for Tuesday’s match, but mainly from the perspective of working on long-term developmental needs as well.

After getting their shoulders warmed up for serving, I had them do some serving against a 4-person reception formation, which is what we were expecting to primarily see in Tuesday’s match. I used boxes to have them work on hitting the seams.

From there we did some serving and passing with one setter and a MB in to have the latter working on hitting the corners. This is something that we observed would likely be successful against Tuesday’s opposition, but is something I’ve wanted to get our MBs better at generally anyway.

After that we did a cooperative cross-court drill with the attacking from 2. I had the two MBs and the libero rotating around through the setting positions on both sides. The two starting OHs stayed in 6 while the Setters and OPPs flipped back and forth between positions 1 and 2. Again, this was to work on something defensively for Tuesday, but we also could stand the work on defense on that side of the court in any case.

Next up was back court attack Winners 3s. The last part of the session was a team serve reception through all 6 rotations with 3 blockers. Myself and the team manager were the servers. The focus was on attacking to certain areas of the court.

Overall, I think it was a good preparation session for the next day’s match.

Tuesday
Really tough match. We went up 2-0 in the match, and were up late in both sets 3 and 4, but ended up losing. A case could be made that we didn’t deserve on our own merits to have the 2-0 lead, but the other team made a lot of mistakes – especially in serve – to keep us in contention. At different points they swapped both their setter and libero. We definitely struggled to contain their strong OPP but my feeling overall was that we tightened up at the end of the 3rd and 4th sets and were playing not to lose.

The official match stats are a joke, so I can’t really use them for much in the way of analysis. Our bench stats point to major struggles scoring in Rotations 1 and 6 (using the international rotation labeling system based on where the setter is). In prior matches were were consistently above 50% overall, but this time only Rotation 5 was that high. That was our starting rotation, so it’s a positive from that perspective (and we sided out at 77%). Those other two rotations were below 30% in terms of point scoring, and in the case of Rotation 1 we sided out less than 50% as well. Despite passing only 1.80 for the match as a team, we still managed to side out at 57%. Admittedly, that was boosted by all the opposition’s missed serves.

I’m going to need to really go over the video and re-stat the match myself (probably at least the other Elitserie matches we’ve played as well) to do a thorough analysis . Generally speaking, though, we continue to suffer from a lack of composure. There were a number of inexplicable errors and poor decisions.

Despite the loss, we still temporarily went to the top of the standings in the Elitserie on the basis of earning a point for winning two sets. We also got a point in the Oresundliga, where we now sit 3rd.

Wednesday
I sat the team down before training to talk about the previous night’s match. It was a positive, productive meeting. There was a sense of anger about losing, but no one was down about it. Everyone was eager to move forward and get better.  I started it off by getting the observations of the players who were on the bench. Communication and defensive responsibility issues were mentioned. We talked about playing not to lose and getting too conservative in crunch time.

One of the more interesting parts of the discussion was on ways to improve training. There was talk about trying to incorporate more positional relationships in the game-like exercises – meaning making the line-ups more closely approximate match-day rotations. The issue there is not overworking players and trying to give them opportunities to be challenged in all their roles, which is the tricky part of having such a limited roster. I need to give the MBs breaks and I need to give my OHs the chance to play back row as well as front row.

We also talked about incorporating more drills in training. Not surprisingly, the desire for “more reps” motivated this from the player perspective. In parallel, though, my American OH expressed her feeling that the load of the game play exercises was too high for her – that by the latter parts of training she was telling our setter not to give her the ball. The players may not have realized this, but we have actually been doing more drills in training since the season started. The point on the game-play load is one I need to think more about. In particular, it occurs to me that perhaps the small-sided stuff I usually do before we shift to full-team games could be dropped or cut back – or counted as part of the game-play portion of training if I’m using them to focus on specific elements.

The actually training after the meeting was meant to mainly be recovery oriented – work on a few technical things and generally keep the bodies active. After they warmed-up and played a bit of volley tennis, I split out the setters to do some reps. For the American setter it was to work on the consistency of her sets for the OHs – each of which needs a slightly different height. For the young Swedish setter it was about working on her mechanics, in particular on her back sets. While that was going on, the rest of the players played 2 v 2 games of 2-touch.

After that, I brought everyone together for what was a serving and passing focused game at it’s core, but with a couple other elements. Each side had a MB and Setter front row, with an OH, Libero, and OPP in the back row. The teams alternated serving. The primary objective was to run the MBs on front and back quicks, but if that wasn’t on, they could attack out of the back row. We thus had the passers focused on getting good passes so the MBs could run their attacks, and the middles had a chance to attack against a solid 3-person defense to work on finding the gaps. The energy and attitudes were good. The passers did well, resulting in the middles getting some really nice swings.

Friday
I had planned for a few weeks to give everyone this day off. We don’t have a match until next Saturday and for the most part haven’t had more than a single day off at a time since we started training. The Swedish players primarily work or go to school, so for them it was a break to do some of their own things. For the Americans it was a few clear days to do whatever (they had talked about taking a trip) – and to allow aching bodies to recover some. I told them after Wednesday’s training to make sure they stayed active so that Monday’s training wasn’t some kind of shock to the system.

Thoughts and observations
Losses are great motivators for change. I’ve been feeling like in some ways we were winning despite our performance. To a certain degree, that was even true in the first part of Tuesday’s match when we won the first set in large part because the other team made so many errors. I’ve identified some of the broader issues in need of focus before (e.g. lack of composure), so in this case it’s not about a major change in concentration.

That said, I do feel like I need to really map out where I want the team to be going into the play-offs. Then it becomes a question of getting buy-in from the team and plotting the path toward that destination.

Other stuff
I spent a lot of the latter part of the week trying to sort through video and statistical analysis options, applications, and efforts. We have access to a very basic version of DataVolley (Media) which has no video integration. Part of what I was trying to do was learn about the options we might be able to use to overcome that and to get to the point where I can do a more specific analysis of different segments of play. Because of my internet access limitations, it took me a LONG time getting the match video from Tuesday downloaded so I could share it with the team and go through an do my own analysis (and eventually to pull individual player clips).

I was approached by our second team coach on Friday about using up to 6 of the first team players on a Svedala team for a national U23 tournament the first weekend of November. We have no matches then (because of said tournament), and nothing until the following Sunday, so no issue on my end. It’s up to the players if they want to take part.