Tag Archive for team psychology

What are your playing for when there’s nothing to play for?

At some point most of us have a season where eventually there isn’t anything to play for anymore. For the purposes of this discussion I mean for example you have been mathematically eliminated from post-season contention. There are other “nothing to play for” situations, but this is probably the most acute one. It’s the situation where it’s easiest to lose the team and see motivation levels plummet.

So what do you do? How do you keep the players – and yourself – motivated to continue training and playing at 100%?

Performance goals

One answer it to have other things to play for. Let me use the 2017 Midwestern State University (MSU) team as an example.

Unfortunately, we knew going into the final week of the season that we couldn’t make the conference tournament. We were three wins behind with only two conference matches to play. Yet, we still had three matches left – a Tuesday non-conference match, then Thursday and Friday conference fixtures.

Since we couldn’t focus on reaching the tournament, we shifted our attention to some secondary goals we defined earlier. One of them was to not lose any of the non-conference matches we played against teams outside the Top 25. According to the records I could see, we hadn’t done that in any season at least as far back as 2008. We needed to win the Tuesday match to achieve that objective, which we did.

Another objective was to get to 7+ conference wins, which we hadn’t done since 2013. We got on that in our Thursday match.

Unfortunately, a third goal we couldn’t quite achieve. We wanted to end with a winning season. We went into our last match 15-15, but came out 15-16. Still, that kept us fighting right through the last day of the season.

To have performance goals like this, obviously you need to set them up ahead of time. It’s easier to say, “We still have these goals to work toward” if the players were aware of them before, than if you just pull them out once the main goal is out of reach. Sustaining motivation is easier than trying to create it.

Developmental objectives

There are also non-performance things you can work toward. Stuff on the developmental side of things tends to stand out in this regard. Younger players who haven’t gotten much court time can play. You can work on aspects of the game that you want to see get better for the future. Playing a different type of system is an option.

The one plus to not having anything to play for is that you also don’t have anything to lose. You can take some risks. The important thing, though, is you need buy-in from the team. They need to be convinced that it’s worth putting in the time and effort. If not, the motivation just won’t be there.

Emotional motivations

A third potential area of motivation to get through those final matches is the emotional side of things. They can cover a range of possible thought processes.

  • Bragging rights over our big rival
  • Do it for the seniors
  • Playing spoiler
  • Revenge
  • Have fun!

No doubt you can think of others that might fit in here.

The idea in all of this is that you find a way to always have something to play for or that you’re aiming at. This shouldn’t just be something that comes up at the end of the season. If you can set things up from the beginning of the year, it’s much easier to keep a team’s motivation consistently high all through the campaign.

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! 🙂

Giving players more responsibility

Here’s something to think about.

There’s a lot of talk about the level of privilege among modern athletes. Anyone who came up as a player 20 years ago must think current players are seriously spoiled. As one of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards I interviewed said, the older players were happy just to get a new pair of shoes each year.

Obviously, the degree to which players nowadays are spoiled or not, pampered to or not, depends a great deal on the level of play and the resources of the organization for which they compete (or the amount their parents are willing the spend). The team I coached at Svedala, for example, got the basics. The club did not provide the players nearly the gear and support in the form of trainers, etc. as most college players in the US get these days. This is despite being a professional team.

But I’m not here to talk about that stuff. I want to instead discuss the degree to which players are invested in their teams and the programs that surround them.

I recently thought about the structure of university level volleyball in the U.K. That is an entirely club-based system. By that I mean teams are not varsity in the way those of us in the U.S. think about it with the school running this. Instead, they are clubs which are run by the students involved. They are much like club sports at colleges and universities in the States. Yes, there are varying degrees of involvement and oversight from school to school. Overall, though, the club membership is responsible for the direction the program takes and much of the day-to-day administration.

The result of all this is that club members are – to my mind – more invested in how the program does. This is both in terms of performance on-court and what they do outside the gym (club growth, community service, etc.). This leads me to wonder ….

Would athletes in other structures be more invested if they were more involved in the off-court parts of their programs?

I’m thinking primarily here of school programs (college/university or even high school), but the same idea could potentially be addressed in a more professional club context. We sometimes talk about the need to have players feel like they are part of the process of determining how they train and/or play. This would simply take that same idea and apply it to the more administrative side of things.

Obviously, there are things which will have to be done by the coaching staff for one reason or another. For example, NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from recruiting. There are plenty of things they can help out with, though. Making travel arrangements. Doing scheduling. Setting up community service activities. The list goes on.

As an added bonus, if we players help out with that kind of stuff we can have less administrative staff. That means lower costs. 😉

Also, the admin experience wouldn’t hurt in terms of the athletes developing useful job market skills.

Just something to think about. Feel free to tear the idea to shreds in the comment section below. 🙂

What is true competitiveness?

Mark at the At Home on the Court blog penned the Is Kobe really competitive? post. In it he presents us with a question. Is an overarching desire to win sufficient to be considered truly competitive. That may sound a bit strange, so let me explain.

It comes down to a player’s committed to winning. Will they they do anything required to do so? And by anything required I mean perhaps sacrificing their own personal desires for the greater good. We would probably call these types of people real team players, but do we consider them real competitors?

To quote Mark;

“…I would argue that I have actually met very, very few people who are actually competitive, people who would really do anything to win.  If you are prepared to do anything to win, you will work with others and you won’t take credit. “

We talked about this sort of idea in the MSU Volleyball office one day. It wasn’t so much in terms of competitiveness, but more broadly in the context of pursuit of team goals.

For a team to reach its objectives everyone needs to be on board with them. Everyone also needs to prioritize those objectives. Necessarily, prioritizing the team ahead of the self means you probably have to make sacrifices along the way.

Now, when we talk about sacrifices in this context we often speak of players not getting the playing time they want or having to play a different position or role in the team than they’d prefer. Let me provide you with a different example.

During the 2013-14 season the University of Exeter women I coached were on a mission. They wanted to reach Final 8s, played in Edinburgh that year. Everyone was totally committed and we ended up reaching that objective (and more).

A few weeks after the season the team came together to do a few training sessions ahead of playing in a regional tournament together. After one of them I was walking and talking with the team’s captain. One of the players on the team was someone who commonly expressed strong opinions that could rub people the wrong way at times. The captain told me during that walk that she had been reminded of this particular “quirk” that evening. She said it was something she had forgotten about during the season because the focus was on the team an its objectives.

In other words, the captain had sacrificed her own desires to disagree, argue, or otherwise be made upset or feeling in conflict with this other player. Being a cohesive team was more important to her than any interpersonal issue. In fact, it was so much of a higher priority that the lack of response at potential conflict points, or simply avoiding them, had become unconscious.

Was my captain a special player? To be sure! She was captain for a reason. That’s not to say, though, that other players in the team weren’t making similar types of sacrifices to help maintain team harmony. I’m sure all of them were on some level or another.

The point is that group of players put the team’s mission ahead of any personal agenda of their own. This is what we look for, is it not? When expressed in terms of the objective of winning, then to Mark’s point, this is the ultimate expression of competitiveness.

Book Review: Gender and Competition by Kathy DeBoer

I’ve had Gender and Competition  by Kathy DeBoer on my list of coaching books to read for a while now. As a male volleyball coach who has mainly worked with female athletes (though having coached a few male teams along the way), I have long been interested in the differences in how you need to approach coaching the two genders. Kathy’s book has come up many times in the discussions I’ve had with other coaches on the subject. That includes multiple Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews I’ve conducted.

Bottom line? Read this book!

You’ll find it a pretty quick read. It comprises just four chapters that add up to a little over 150 pages. Kathy’s writing style strongly favors story telling. The book is full of anecdotes from her coaching and athletics administration career. Basically, it’s teaching by way of example.

There’s one key phrase that I’ve heard attributed to Kathy on the basis of this book. It goes something along the lines of, “Men battle to bond and women bond to battle.” While I don’t recall seeing that exact phrase in the book, certainly it is what is expressed when looking at the differences in how the genders approach competition. It’s something that comes out very early in the text.

The first three chapters look to describe the difference in communication style and general approach to life, competition, and cooperation between men and women. It also looks at the challenges they pose. This isn’t true just for cross-gender interactions, but even for same gender ones, as Kathy demonstrates in some examples of her interactions with her own female athletes. The forth chapter focuses on advice for how to deal with the differences from both perspectives.

I can tell you that a lot of what Kathy talks about in terms of how men and women approach competition and the differences in how the two genders view leadership ring very true to me. I’ve seen them in my own coaching and have heard similar views from fellow coaches.

I can’t recommend Gender and Competition more strongly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female coach. It doesn’t matter whether you coach male or female players. You will gain insights that will help you do a better job working with your athletes – as well as colleagues, supervisors, and everyone else in your life.

 

The value of personality testing with your team

As I mentioned in my recent coaching log post, last week the team did a session with a sports psychology specialist who took them through a basic DISC personality type analysis (Myers-Briggs is another popular one). This is part of a semester-long process of working with the team to improve chemistry and cohesion in the squad.

As is often the case, the findings of the tests were interesting. The gentleman who lead the session did a good job of not just providing information about what the different basic personality types represent, but also what they mean in terms of developing effective lines of communication across groups.

Obviously, this sort of testing isn’t meant to provide a detailed analysis of each player (and coach, in this case). And simply thinking in terms of individuals by their primary group would be a mistake. There’s a lot of overlap and nuance. Still, to my mind it’s a worthwhile exercise to streamline the process of figuring out the best ways to reach a given player and for players to communicate with each other.

Once isn’t enough
That said, just doing the test once and thinking that’s all you need to do is not really sufficient if you really want to follow this path.

Obviously, if you’re a club coach or otherwise in a situation where you’re basically starting a new team each season, then you’d have to do a new analysis every time. If you’re coaching a school or professional team then you need to account for the fact that you have players (and coaches) regularly flowing in and out of the team. That means new testing requirements and constantly changing team composition.

On top of that, just doing the testing and having the conversation one time is almost assuredly not enough for the lessons to stick. They need to be reinforced on a regular basis over time, in some fashion or another. That might be something the coaching staff can handle, or it might require having an outside expert making regular appearances.

Cost – Benefit
And of course there is usually some kind of cost involved.

At a minimum, there is a time requirement. This is something which needs to be considered, especially where something like NCAA weekly hour limitations are involved.

If you bring in someone from outside, there’s probably a financial cost involved. That means making a decision on the prospective gains to be had from the personality testing, or any other type of psychology work. Is it worth the investment? For some the answer will be, “Yes.” For others, either because of other priorities or because of limit funds, it’s a different story.

I think it is very worth us coaches understanding these sports psychology principles. We may not use them explicitly at any given point in time, but it’s always good to know what tools are available to us to accomplish what needs doing when the priorities line up and the resources are available.