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Tag Archive for team chemistry

Player-to-coach feedback from a team exercise

At the beginning of 2017 the Midwestern State (MSU) head coach gave everyone on the program – players and coaches – a task. Based on the book One Word that will Change Your Life, we each had to come up with a word that represented something in our life that we wanted to improve or otherwise focus on. The was about both volleyball and life. I chose the word consistency. For me that was mainly a personal thing.

The year 2016 was a big transitional one for me. I started the year in Sweden coaching profession, but then rather abruptly left. After spending about a month in Long Beach, CA, I then moved to Texas to coach at MSU in a very new locale, with new people, and in a new situation. I never felt like I settled things down into a good routine for myself personally. That is what motivated my word choice.

I was not thinking about volleyball when I picked my word – at least not directly. I believe I do a good job of being consistent with my teams (see this Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast). It’s a focus point for me, and my prior teams gave me positive feedback about it. More consistency in my personal life, though, would no doubt have positive knock-on effects to my coaching work

Fast forward to the early part of the 2017 volleyball season. The head coach brought us all together one day for an exercise. We were all given a sheet of paper and told to put our name and our word at the top. We then passed everyone’s papers around the room. One by one we wrote positive comments on each person’s paper about how they were doing with respect to their word – and perhaps more broadly.

Below you can see the front and back of my sheet. You’ll also notice that someone decided to give me a new title, and several smiley faces were added. Not sure who did that, but “Papa” has now stuck. :-/

Naturally, the comments focus on consistency. After all, that’s my word. I was glad to see that they also appreciated other things I try to bring with me, though. Knowledge is obviously one of those, as you’d hope if you’re coaching! The other is a sense of humor. Volleyball is a game. Being part of a team should be fun. We shouldn’t take things – or ourselves – so seriously that we forget that.

I hesitate to call this proper feedback. After all, it was specifically intended to be positive. That makes it pretty one-sided. Still, it at least helps one to see if certain things are getting across.

Click for full-sized version

The source of team culture

One of Luke Thomas’ blog posts got me thinking about the source of team culture. Luke’s perspective is that for his team(s) the culture comes from him. I certainly agree that the coach should reflect the team culture. I’m not sure whether they are necessarily the source of that culture, though.

Recruited team or built program

I think in the case of a recruited team, one can probably say more surely that the coach defines the culture. After all, the coach selects the players. Presumably, those players reflect the type of team that coach wants.

Even there, though, I’m not sure you can say only the coach dictates culture. Certainly the coach can (and probably should) influence it. This is even more strongly the case for something like a high school team where it is a coach working with youth. I think, though, that the collective personality of the team will have some influence. So too may elements of the broader organization or community in which the team operates. It may not be the dominant one, but it at least factors in to the equation.

The now retired John Dunning shared some thoughts on developing and maintaining team culture from this perspective. The clip below is from an interview I did with him.

Unrecruited or built team

The other situation is where you coach a team that you didn’t build yourself. That could be a team already formed when you take over. It could also be a team you selected through a tryout process. Yes, in the latter case you did pick the team. But you only did so from a given pool of players.

In this sort of situation – especially when we’re talking non-youth teams – I feel like a lot of the team culture must come from the players. They need to be part of defining how they train and play and otherwise operate. You may be able to enforce a culture from a top down perspective, but it takes a lot of respect and credibility. You won’t get a cohesive culture if you don’t have player buy-in.

Seen it both ways

I’ve been in both situations. I’ve worked in college programs where we recruited players. There the primary culture is mainly dictated by the coach, especially if they have been there for a while. Returning players help to enforce the existing culture as new players are added each year. Even in this situation, though, you sometime have to adapt. Players change. The local environment can play a big part. Sometimes that’s consistent. Sometimes it changes.

I’ve also been in a situation where I’ve had to adapt myself to a team culture. Yes, I influenced a lot of things on-court. We trained the way I decided we trained and I set the expectations – at least initially. Off the court, though, the players were the bigger determinant of culture. I wouldn’t go along with things that I objected too, but otherwise I adapted myself to the situation.

So what’s your view? Where does/should team culture come from?

On player communication

In his post Calling For The Ball – What If?, Mark Lebedew makes a counterpoint argument to a post of mine from a couple years ago. Sorry, not recent Mark. 🙂

Calling the ball challenge

The post in question is Getting young players to communicate and move. In it I talk a bit about some ways to encourage players – especially new players – to talk to each other. In his article, Mark makes the very valid point that another level of training needs to come in as soon as multiple players are on the court. Namely, there must be a shift from the technical aspect to the organizational one.

In other words, we have to coach the players on their areas of responsibility. Mark’s argument is basically if player’s already know which ball is theirs, they don’t really need to talk to each other about it. Are we doing a good enough job of coaching that from the early stages of player and team development?

Serve receive is where this is probably most often considered, though it applies to the transition phases as well. It’s a question of seam management. Who gets the short ball? Who gets the deep ball? Which player takes second ball if the setter digs the first?

Actually, on that subject, I’m curious to hear the rules coaches use with their teams in this regard. Please leave a comment below with your own philosophy, in particular with respect to seams.

Pushing back

I’m going to push back at Mark in a couple of areas.

First, he’s got a quote from a colleague about a group of 14-year-old girls trying to come to a unified decision and how long it takes. I get the idea that’s trying to be put forth, but it’s a poorly constructed argument. Complexity, and thus time, increases exponentially as the number involved increases. It is not reasonable to compare a group decision, which likely is under relatively little time pressure, to a 2-person decision made when time is very much a factor.

The other thing I will push back against is Mark’s end note comment, “A team should be structured in such a way that all areas and phases of the game are covered and that players have specific roles in each situation that provide the BEST outcome for the team.”

I don’t know if technically volleyball has an infinite number of potential scenarios, but it’s for sure a very large number. We cannot possibly have a plan for every one of them. Yes, for standard situations we certainly can, and should. It’s when things veer away from standard that the need for what I will call “responsibility communication” (calling “Mine””) comes in to play. This mainly comes into play when players are not fully aware of the position or situation of their teammate(s).

It’s not just about responsibility

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into it too deeply here. I’ll just say that communication between players isn’t just about defining responsibility. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s not even mostly about that – largely speaking to Mark’s point about players knowing which balls are theirs and which aren’t.

Help! My team is too quiet

Communication is an important part of playing volleyball, as it is with any team sport (and beyond as Mark Lebedew recently wrote). I’ve written before on the subject of getting players to talk (here and here). I’ve also had debates with fellow coaches on the subject. A reader recently emailed on the subject, looking for some help.

I coach senior girls high school volleyball. Each year, I have the quietest team in the league. They don’t talk a lot on the court, nor do they go to the center of the court and high five or whatever between points. I get them to do this at practices; I have a yelling drill; We have team activities outside of volleyball – I just can’t seem to build team spirit. I am a positive, loud, cheerful person, so it’s not quietness on my part that is causing this. What am I doing wrong…or more to the point…what can I do right?

This coach wants to address what I would view as general communication and interaction in her team. I know coaches who argue that a team should be able to play together without actually talking. The case for that is the players should all know their responsibilities. Thus, there isn’t any need for talking.

That’s all fine in theory, but have you ever actually seen a team that plays together with no talking? Even teams full of highly experienced players who played together a lot talk. It’s the low level, inexperienced teams that are usually the ones playing in silence. That should tell us something about the value of communication.

Gender differences in communication

Now, to be fair, the coaches who pushed back at me about talking are from the men’s side of the game where their does tend to be less noise in-rally. If you’ve ever been to an event where both genders are playing, you likely noticed the difference.

That was certainly the case when I coached at BUCS Final 8s during my time in England. The format there featured two rounds of men’s play followed by two rounds of women’s play. The gym was MUCH noisier when the women were on-court.

I think there’s a very specific reason for this. Female players connect with each other via communication. I don’t mean sharing information. Both genders do that. I mean they are unified by communication and interaction. If a female team stops talking you know there’s a problem somewhere. For more on that subject, I strongly recommend Kathy DeBoer’s book on gender differences.

So if you have a team that is quiet, as described above, how can you look to address the issue?

Shared purpose

It is way easier to get a group of players to do something if they can link that to a common objective. This objective has to be one they all buy in to, though. It can’t be something put on them from outside. For example, it’s all well and good to say your goal is to win your league, but if that’s not where the players are at with their own thinking then you using it as the driver won’t work. You need to figure out what they want out of it and work from there.

Gym culture

It’s much easier to get players to interact with each other if they feel relaxed. That means they aren’t caught up in their own concerns and fears about their individual performance and such. The players need to know it’s OK to make mistakes – encouraged even. See Climbing Mistake Mountain and the posts linked from there for a deeper discussion on this idea.

This is not something easily changed. You have to get probably well-entrenched attitudes turned around, and that takes time. It more specifically takes a consistent approach from the coach. You have to show every day, every practice, every game, every match that mistakes are simply part of the process of improving. If you are inconsistent and sometimes penalize errors, or get upset about them, or allow others to do so, then you won’t make any progress.

Encourage celebration

A lot of times getting teams to interact more and communicate at a higher level starts with getting them to celebrate good plays. It’s pretty easy to be happy when someone makes a good play. From that perspective, cheering tends to be easy to encourage. Players may not always be comfortable getting excited about their own plays, but if everyone else is cheering then it’s a lot easier.

So how do you get them celebrating?

You can start with simple things like having team cheers for aces and blocks. The players generally like to come up with something fun for that. You can extend that to other types of plays as well, depending on your level. These things may seem silly, but they can be a step in the right direction.

Coming together between points

If you can get the team doing things like ace and block cheers together, you’re on your way toward being able to get them to come together after each play. It’s something that may need to be coached in practice. As the emailer mentioned, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean it transfers to match-time.

One way to address this is to have a designated player or two who bring the team together. The floor captain or some other leader on the court is the best candidate. Chances are they won’t have to do it for long as a habit will develop. Even after that, though, there may be times when a reminder is required.

What if someone resists?

Interaction with one’s fellow players should be considered part of the role of every player on the court. If someone isn’t going into the huddle between points then they aren’t fulfilling their role. Same if the designated huddle-caller isn’t bringing the team together. What do you normally do if a player isn’t fulfilling their role? My guess is you take them out and put on someone who you feel will do a better job of it. This really shouldn’t be seen any differently. Losing playing time can be a big motivator.

In-Rally Communication

Most people probably think of calling the ball and calling for the ball as the talking that gets done in rallies. For sure, those are two major sources of player communication in-rally. There’s a lot of other stuff, though.

Base!
Cover!
Watch the dump!
Deep line!
Outside, outside!
Tip, tip!

I think you get the idea.

This sort of communication is a level beyond calling the ball when passing or calling for the ball as an attacker. These calls are about reading the play, anticipating, and preparing for what comes next. As such, they need to be incorporated into training players to recognize what’s happening. If you want players to be talking in this way then you have to incorporate that talk into the technical/tactical work from the beginning.

Reinforcing the requirement to talk

I mentioned potentially using playing time consequences as a way to encourage players to connect with each other between plays. Certainly that sort of thing could be applied to in-play talking as well. It depends on the player and situation, though.

As to what you can do in practice to make sure players talk as required, there are a couple of ways you can go. In the case of drills where there’s a count objective you can not count good reps when there isn’t the desired talking, or you can make it a negative if you want to be more forceful.Alternatively, in game play you can give points or bonus points if the players communicate as desired. Or you can blow the whistle to end a rally (and thus cost the team a point) if the players don’t communicate as you wish. It’s been my experience this gets them focused rather quickly!

I haven’t use it myself, but there’s a game called “ruckus” some coaches use to encourage more player communication. I’m not entirely sure of the rules. I think basically any type of communication earns a point. Don’t hold me to that, though.

Dealing with individuals

While encouraging the team toward being more interactive, you have to be conscious of individual personalities. Some players will quite readily be engaged, but others will be more shy. Trying to force the latter to be more talkative has a good chance of backfiring. You’re probably going to have to take things slowly, and gradually develop their comfort. This will require some patience on your part.

A personal example

At the start of the 2013-14 season my Exeter women’s team was about half returning players and half new players. Most didn’t speak English as their first language (it was about 10 different nationalities). All were fluent, but that isn’t the same as comfortable, especially in a new environment. Our training was pretty quiet to begin. By the end of the year, though, people regularly poked their heads into the gym to see what all the noise was about.

How did we get there?

First, they were totally committed to reaching Final 8s (played in Edinburgh that season). As such, it was easy for me to frame things in the context of how they contributed to reaching that goal. The prior year’s team lacked the same mindset, so using Final 8s as a motivator wouldn’t have worked.

Gym culture was a huge part as well. The process was slow, but eventually we got everyone bought in to the idea that mistakes were OK (though lack of effort and focus was not!). That helped build overall confidence and allowed some of the stronger personalities to bubble up positively (with encouragement) to take charge of bringing the team together between rallies.

Getting the players more focused on reading the play (not just ball-watching) definitely was a big factor. If you’re not anticipating what’s coming, you really don’t have a lot to talk about during a rally.

To the point about personalities above, we definitely had our challenges. Some of the players were just naturally quiet. It was a source of frustration for some of those who were more vocal. That’s something I had to manage. Over time, though, we got them at least a bit out of their shell and contributing their voices.

One other idea

The emailer talked about being loud and cheerful on the sidelines. One thing which could help a team “get it” in terms of communication is if the coach actually stopped and was a bit more quiet. This is especially true if the coach has a strong presence. I’m not suggesting that cheering as a coach is bad. I’m just suggesting that in some cases the players might be encouraged to fill the void that less cheering from the coach leaves. Once the team is in the habit of making their own noise, the coach can then resume being vocal without the risk of the players going quiet again.

The contrast to this is a team that is quiet when the coach is quiet. In that case the coach may need to be more vocal for a while to encourage the players in that direction. Volleyball Coaching Wizard interviewee Peggy Martin told me about doing exactly that sort of thing at times in her career, though she is normally a quiet coach on the bench. It’s a question of getting a read on the team and helping in whatever way suits the situation.

Your thoughts?

Did I leave anything out? What do you do to encourage more communication and interaction? Leave a comment below and share with the world! 🙂

Train them together, or separately?

When interviewed noted Juniors coach Mike Lingenfelter (Munciana) for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, the conversation at one point turned in an interesting direction. We were talking about the difficulty of moving a player up or down over the course of a club season based on their performance (or lack thereof). It’s not something you see a lot of in my experience.

Mike and I both agreed that there’s a lot of value in being able to move players around. Inevitably, certain players placed on lower level teams end up advancing quite rapidly in their development. That brings them up to the level of a higher team. Similarly, it isn’t unusual for players on a higher team to fail to keep up with their teammates progress. Thus, realistically they deserve to drop down.

Yes. We can all hear the parental screaming and yelling should their dear child get a team demotion. Let’s turn our attention to another consideration, though.

Team Chemistry

With females teams in particular, the bond between teammates is important. Moving players around mid-season can have a very serious chemistry impact. Popping a new player into a team that has trained and played together for half the season already can lead to all kinds of problems. It does not matter how good that player may be.

The idea that Mike and I discussed to try to get around this sort of thing was to avoid fixed teams. Instead, a group of players all trains together. Then, when it comes time to compete, the players are divided up into teams based on where they are at that point in time. This allows for upward and downward mobility, but without the chemistry issues noted above. Or at least there is a reduced risk of them since the whole group practices together all the time. Everyone knows each other.

This was something we did, after a fashion, when I coached at Exeter. Going into my second year we decided the number of players in the club warranted adding second teams to play in university competitions. We didn’t have enough practice time to have these teams train separately, however. So what we did was to train the first and second teams together as one group. We then divide them as needed when it came time to play matches. Certain players were always in the first team and certain players were always in the second team. Some, though, swung back and forth based on performance and development.

This system definitely has it’s challenges. You can read about how I handled coaching them in my 2013-14 coaching log. In the end, we had a pretty good season – if you believe reaching the national semifinal for the first time in school history counts as good. 🙂

Coach Development

Potential player movement aside, the other aspect of this kind of set up that Mike and I talked about is from the coaching perspective. By training the group all together rather than as multiple separate squads, you can create a master coach/mentee coach situation. By that I mean one master coach is in charge of training. Multiple under-coaches help out. Those sub-coaches then take charge of individual teams come competition time. At Exeter my assistant coached the second team on days when both teams played. This sort of arrangement is very useful in the development of inexperienced coaches.

Ever tried or seen something like this?

My question to you is whether you’ve seen or tried this sort of structure out before. And if so, how’d it go?

Clearly, this is mainly something you’d be looking at in terms of a club program. It could also come into play for high schools, though. Or even colleges that run junior varsity teams. And obviously whatever roster locking rules there are need to be accounted for in all this.

Why isn’t the team together during timeouts?

I was never particularly comfortable seeing the bench players jog across the end of the court or whatever during timeouts during matches when the rest of the team was in the huddle talking strategy, adjustments, etc. I’m sure you see it. Perhaps your team even does it. I understand the basic value of those players staying warm. They might be called on to enter the fray. It always seemed a bit odd that they were apart from everyone else, though.

This really hit home with me during my first league match with Svedala. I saw my bench players kept to themselves during a timeout early in the match. This wasn’t something we discussed. They just did it, which suggests that how it was done in previous years.

That practice ended right away. I walked over to them during the next rally and told them to join the huddle from then on. I don’t want any of my players left on the outside watching. Everyone is part of what’s going on. I want them all in the huddle to hear what we talk about. I want them to contribute if they have something meaningful to add based on what they see. That, to me, has much more value than a little light exercise.

What do your bench players do? Why?

Ice-breaking and bonding games

The most interactive session at the HP Coaches Clinic I attended 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.

1-2-3

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.

Drill: Amoeba Serving

Synopsis: This is a drill which focuses on serving accuracy, providing the weaker servers with more reps than the stronger ones.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for beginner and intermediate players.

Requirements: A team, a full court, one ball per player

Execution: Split the team into two even groups and place the groups at opposite end lines. The drill starts with one player from each side serving a ball. They then go sit or lie down where their serve landed – assuming it went in (if not, the next player serves). The rest of the players then start serving, trying to hit their teammate on the other side of the net. If successful, they go join them. The drill ends when one team has all of their players reach the other side.

Variations:

  • For better players you could require them to execute more than one successful serve before they can go over to the other side.
  • In order to give the initial server some reps you could have them swap with the first teammate to hit them.

Additional Comments:

  • By requiring a successful server (one which hits a growing target) to go to the other side of the net this drill provides more reps to the players who struggle the most with their serving.
  • Because winning the drill often comes down to the performance of the weakest server, you will generally see their teammates become quite supportive and encouraging, which can help overall team chemistry.

Dealing With Bad Player Attitudes – Just Don’t Have Them

I once watched a video featuring part of a talk by Russ Rose, coach of Penn State women’s volleyball. Aside from the fact that he mentioned Rhode Island, the state I grew up in (Penn State used to be in the Atlantic 10 conference), I was particularly interested in his perspective on attitude problem players. He flat out refuses to bring them into his squad. His reason was something like this:

If I take a pass on an extremely talented, but bad attitude, player the worse she can do is give me 8 days of grief over four years by beating us (meaning twice a year in conference play). If she goes to a non-conference team then it’s only 4 times in the NCAA tournament. However, if I bring her into my team she can make my life – and that of the whole rest of the program – miserable every day for four years.

I’ve never heard it expressed that. I can definitely relate to how challenging life as a coach can be when there’s a problem player in the squad, though. That was the case during my last season at Brown and it was absolutely miserable.

Coach Rose obviously has a significant advantage. He leads a top program and is able to be very selective about the players he recruits. Penn State won 4 straight national championships from 2007 to 2011 and won 109 straight matches in that span. Not all of us have the ability to be quite so picky. Even still, unless we are forced to coach a specific group of players we do have the recourse of suspension,or cut to jettison a problem attitude.

So my question to readers is this: Where’s the line? How much attitude are you willing to take? Does the line vary according to the player’s talent? Is the line different for a male team than for a female one?

Leave a comment below and let us know your view.