Tag Archive for Coaching skills

Are we trying to solve the wrong problems?

A member of the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook group posted something I think is worth a broad share. Here’s the snippet that really hits on the main point.

“…how far back do we coaches look for the fundamental and underlying errors in our coaching philosophies that make it difficult to find effective solutions? Are we, in fact, trying to solve the wrong problems.”

The volleyball angle

There are a couple of different angles on this. One of them relates to how we work with our teams and players. Are we trying to fix the last contact? Or are we trying to look at why there was a problem with the last contact?

For example, our libero in Position 5 shanks a ball attacked in their direction. Are we trying to fix what we perceive as the reason the libero shanked the ball (usually something mechanical)? Or are we looking to our block and realizing that it was badly place or formed? Maybe we’re going back even further to see that our blocker’s footwork and/or initial positioning weren’t right.

You see where I’m going with this?

I’ve often told the story of my own development as a newer coach. I can remember an almost physical sensation of feeling my awareness of the court and the play expand. Like so many, I’d been fixated on each individual element. I wasn’t seeing the whole. As a result, I didn’t see root causality for the errors made on the last contact. At some point, though, my vision expanded.

I’m not saying that all at once I went from just seeing individual contacts to seeing the whole volleyball ballet. It was a progressive thing as I gained better understanding of how elements linked together. Watching a lot of volleyball with a critical eye helped a great deal too. I believe that was all part of my shift away from being very technically oriented as a coach to putting more emphasis on the mentality and structure of play.

The coaching angle

Let’s return to the piece that started this whole discussion. The bigger picture of our coaching is the other angle to consider. That’s the more direct focus of the quote above.

We see something “wrong” with our team or our coaching. Naturally, we want to fix it. As with the issue of only seeing the final outcome, though, are we only seeing the end result rather than the whole chain of causality getting there?

To once more quote the post, “If we were able to move back in the chain of events that have lead us to this point in our coaching and fix that one errant assumption, would coaching suddenly become much easier and more effective?”

So are you doing that? Do you try to work backwards from where you are at with a series of “Why?” or “How?” questions to figure out how you reached your current point? If not, it’s definitely something worth considering.

Improving team communication through acknowledgement

One of my early influences when I became serious about coaching volleyball was Mike Hebert. I read his books, The Fire Still Burns and Insights when I was coaching for Dean College. I coached against him once when I was at Brown and he was at Minnesota. His most recent book, Thinking Volleyball, is one I strongly recommend.

Mike authored a post for the Art of Coaching Blog. It’s focus is on the subject of acknowledgement. Basically, the rule was an individual must always indicate they heard something said to them. That applied to both something said by a coach and things said by other players. Mike developed a rule about this for his teams based on an experience with a player who didn’t show she’d heard what he was saying to her.

I think we’ve all been there. It’s really frustrating, isn’t it?

Of course, it’s not just a question of showing you heard something said to you. There’s more nuance. Mike had a set of acknowledgement rules to encourage constructive communication. Here they are in an edited fashion.

  1. When spoken to by a coach or teammate, acknowledge to the speaker that you heard and understood them – without emotion.
  2. You can make your acknowledgement verbally or by gesture, but it must convey that you heard.
  3. Keep in mind, acknowledgement does not necessarily mean agreement.
  4. Develop an acknowledgement style that invites further communication.
  5. Respond every time a coach gives you feedback or instruction.
  6. When a teammate communicates something in the heat of battle that offends you momentarily, acknowledge in a non-inflammatory manner.

As you can see, Mike went beyond simply showing that you heard. He also addressed how you indicate. You do not get emotional, and possibly inflame a situation. You try to demonstrate a willingness to communicate.

Importantly, as Mike says, acknowledgement does not have to mean agreement. You can acknowledge and still disagree. In doing so, you demonstrate respect for the other person and do not appear to be dismissive. This can foster more positive communication and lead to better team cohesion.

It’s more about the feedback than the drill

Someone on Twitter tagged me in a tweet in which they shared a link to a handful of setting drills. It said, “some new volleyball setting drills that improve your team setting technique.” I took a look and wasn’t impressed. For the most part, it was just variations on setting back and forth. One of them actually recommended setting a served ball.

None of the drills was game-like at all. In my reply I suggest setting always be done off a pass. How often in live play do setters set a ball straight back the way it came to them? Very rarely. So why practice it so much? Let them practice movement and body position based on something more realistic. Even setting off a coach’s toss is more realistic than just setting back and forth.

But that’s not the biggest thing I thought skimming the article.

The thing that really stood out to me, though, was the idea that you need new drills (or games) to do a better job teaching player to set. You probably don’t need a new drill. Instead, you need to provide good feedback, regardless of the activity. This is a key factor in intentional practice. Any activity in which you can focus on a given skill will work to train that skill.

What makes a drill or game useful for skill development is the quality of the feedback the player gets.

  • Are you talking to them?
  • Can they watch themselves on video?
  • Did you structure the activity so the outcome provides direct feedback?

These are all key considerations.

So if you want to help a setter improve their skills, do two things. First, put them in as game-like a situation as you possibly can. Second, make sure they have very good feedback.

This, of course, goes for any position or skill.

Coaching for aggressiveness, reduced errors, and other stuff

There’s an interesting article at Volleyball Toolbox from long-time high school coach Tom Houser. Nominally, it is the response to a question about helping create more aggressive teams that make fewer errors. It covers a few different ideas, though. I think they are worth reviewing.

There’s no replacement for experience.

Just about the first thing Tom talks about in the article is how he struggled early in his career to help player. He compared his knowledge of what his players needed to “Swiss cheese” because there were so many holes in it. The first reason for this is his lack of experience, and it’s a very legitimate point.

I mentioned in my coaching stages post how early-career coaches often think they know a lot, but really don’t. Sure, they might know a whole bunch about playing volleyball, but coaching is a different skill set. And tied in with that is the amount of volleyball you watch, particularly from a coaching perspective.

Learn from others, but understand context

Another thing Tom talks about is his learning process as a developing coach. He says he was never an assistant coach, thus didn’t have a mentorship experience from that perspective. Obviously, that’s a disadvantage.

As with many of us, Tom turned to books and videos to increase his knowledge and grow is toolkit. He notes, though, that much of what he saw was presented by national team and NCAA Division I coaches. He struggled to relate those drills and such to his high school players’ level. Tom called them “nearly useless”. I respect that he was thinking of the context differences. I think, though, that was probably a bit harsh. Most drills and games are adaptable to different levels. Not all, but most. But then doing so usually requires some experience, so see above.

Much coaching communication you hear is useless

Tom talks in his article about coaches saying things like “get low,” or “snap,” or “move your feet,” or “call the ball”. We hear phrases like that all the time. We’ve probably said them ourselves.

The point is in most cases those things don’t actually address the root cause of the problem, so they don’t actually address anything useful. Just like when parents yell them from the sidelines. 🙂

Coaching for aggressiveness

Moving on to addressing the question that inspired the post, Tom provides a relatively simple way coach it. “All you have to do is ask your players to perform the drill WITHOUT punishment/consequences/eye-rolls for making a mistake performing the skill.”

This definitely matches my own philosophy. Aggressiveness will result in errors at times. You cannot encourage the one without accepting the fact of the other.

Also, Tom said he basically sets up games that require certain types of aggressiveness to win. Pretty simple, really.

Reducing errors

Having said that about the errors, Tom also shares his thoughts on keeping them to a minimum. One is the understand their source. Are they bad decisions, or are they bad execution. See what I wrote related to this breakdown in Coaching from a solutions perspective.

For the first type of error, it’s our job as coaches to teach better decision-making. In terms of the second type, Tom credits his teams making fewer mistakes on encouraging players toward simple, efficient mechanics.

Those are the major points. Definitely give the article a read and see what you takeaway for yourself.

USA Volleyball CAP III

Each year USA Volleyball runs the High Performance Coaches Clinic (HPCC). In conjunction with it, they run all three of the Coaches Accreditation Program (CAP) courses. While the CAP I and II courses are run multiple times each year in different locations, CAP III is only run alongside the HP clinic.

I just got back from attending the 2017 edition. Here is the schedule for the course.

As you can see, the course ran Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. They were all very full days. The days in between were HPCC sessions, which were also quite packed.

Cadre (in order of presentations)

Bill Hamiter: Director of USA Sitting Volleyball and Head Coach of the women’s sitting team (gold medal at the 2016 Paralympics).

Rob Browning: Head Coach at Saint Mary’s College.

Marouane Jafir: Club Director at Delaware United.

Todd Dagenais: Head Coach at Central Florida.

Sue Gozansky: Volleyball Coaching Wizard.

Joan Powell: Coordinator of Officials for PAC-12 Conference.

John Kessel: USA Volleyball Director of Sport Development.

Bill Neville: Volleyball Coaching Wizard.

Dan Mickle: Former professional beach player and current sports psychology specialist.

Day 1

We began with an initial all-levels introduction encompassing CAP I, II, and III groups. After that, though, we split off into our own cohorts. Our first session was on prioritization. Bill Hamiter was the presenter. He shared his very detailed 52-week program for the national sitting team with us. We were also given a copy of Periodization Training for Sports-3rd Edition. After that Rob Browning spoke with us about mindset work. It was largely based on the Carol Dweck book. I’ve read it, so not a lot of new material there.

Our first on-court session was lead by Todd Dagenais. We were put into groups and told to develop a serve reception organization for a 3-Middle line-up based on a given situation. We presented them to the group and had to work through variations based on changing issues. For example, “What if your OH can’t hit on the right?”. Basically it was an exercise in critical thinking and creativity.

After lunch we went back into the classroom. Sue Gozansky led a discussion of gender related issues in coaching, with Bill Hamiter adding his thoughts. John Kessel then talked with us about a variety of false beliefs and failures in conceptual understanding in volleyball. Those included the myth of the wrist snap and realizing how little time players actually spend touching the ball (one study calculated it was about 27 seconds during the 2012 Olympics).

Bill Neville took us back on-court after that. We presented favorite drills and games for analysis by the group and cadre. From there it was back into the classroom for a sports psychology session led by Sue Gozansky. After the dinner break there was some sitting volleyball play with the CAP II and III groups mixed together.

Day 2

The whole morning was in the classroom. A group of the cadre talked with us first about developing team culture. After that there was about an hour of open Q&A with Todd and Rob. That was supposed to be about talent identification, but the guys figured we probably knew enough about that already. Recruiting was a big focus of the questions.

Next up was a really interesting session on nutrition given by Dr. Jackie Berning. It focused mainly on the timing of athlete meals and their nutritional content. She shot down a number of common public concepts (think paleo diets and the like).

After nutrition we did a DISC small-group exercise led by Dan Mickle. As I have been through a few of these sessions before, there wasn’t a lot new in this one. Maybe there was more new material for others, however.

Once more to the classroom after lunch. This time conflict resolution was the focus, with Bill Hamiter in the lead. From there we went back out on the court for more sharing of favorite games and drills and constructive criticism of them. We were also assigned into groups of 2-3 to develop practice segment plans for presentation on Day 3.

The last session was presented by Aaron Brock. He is the lead strength coach for the USA men’s team. He talked with us about strength and conditioning, with a heavy emphasis on rest and recovery.

Day 3

This day was largely spent on-court. It began, though, with Todd presenting on stats. He shared his findings on where teams needed to be in certain areas from his own research. For example, in the women’s game you should target a sideout rate of about 63%. He also shared some methods for collecting key stats when you’re by yourself.

Most of the rest of the day we presented and critiqued a variety of games and drills for warm-up, skills work, systems training, competitive play, and cool down. After that wrapped up we went back into the classroom. John Kessel and a lacrosse coach who works with USOC talked about Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD). The last session was a presentation of everyone’s ideas for their outreach projects. More on that below.

Post-Course requirements

The single biggest thing we need to do following the in-person portion of the CAP III course is our outreach project. This is basically something with a focus on growing the game in some fashion. That could be bringing more participants into the sport, expanding coaching education, and stuff like that. We met with members of the cadre during meal breaks to talk about our ideas to help get them refined. Then, as noted above, we shared them with the entire group to get additional thoughts, ideas, etc.

The other post- course requirement we were told about was to develop a set of questions from the periodization book I mentioned above. They will be used for future CAP exams, presumably.

Thoughts

Inevitably, I compare doing CAP III with going through the Volleyball England Level 3 certification. Their main focus is very similar, namely working with teams over time. The V.E. course ran 5 days total, which is longer on the face of it, but when you add in the HPCC mixed in here (everyone attended both), they are comparable from that perspective. The V.E. post-course requirements were a bit more involved, though. Nominally, there was a CAP III requirement to video yourself coaching for review and discussion, but that never actually happened in this course. We also don’t have to do a coaching log. The outreach project is something V.E. doesn’t have, however, nor is there an ongoing education requirement in order to retain your certification.

I think I’ve written elsewhere of my dislike for the participants in these sorts of courses also being demonstrators. Some people love getting out on the court, but I’m well past those days myself. More meaningfully, however, if most of the attendees are on-court they tend to be more focused on playing than on learning the concepts being presented. Also, the level of play of the attendees can be quite variable. Further, when you don’t know what you’re going to have for demonstrators it can be hard to come up with appropriate games and drills to run the group through.

My only other bit of feedback would be to watch out for overlapping content between CAP III and HPCC. There were a couple of sessions during the latter we’d already gotten from our CAP presentations.

Note: I’ll update this after our course follow-up email is received to make sure I have all the post-course requirements correctly noted.

 

Providing players room to create

There’s an article you should read. It’s an interesting discussion of how much coaches seem to appreciate creativity in their players, yet how they do so much to limit it. The article is aimed at business managers, but speaks from a sports perspective. Here’s a quote that hits the main point:

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control.

This doesn’t just apply to professional environments. It happens anywhere coaches look to constrain player freedom. I’m not talking about creating a dictatorial state here, mind you. Some coaches certainly act in that fashion, but that’s not really where I’m going. Think instead about coaches teaching specific techniques. Think about coaches employing very structured systems of play.

I doubt most coaches in those latter categories think of themselves as constraining their players. My guess is they think they will simply be the most effective ways to go. What they are doing, though, is providing solutions to players. They aren’t letting the players find their own solutions. The latter is where creativity comes in.

This is why it’s great to just let you players play at times. They might surprise you with the solutions they develop.

Addressing player effort and quality differences

An email came in from a coach working with a group of players. It deals with the question of how to handle a situation where effort and playing caliber don’t match.

I have two young and two older experienced hitters. The older players don’t give their all. They do what they must, but without the involvement. When we have a match, they play very well, with very good effect, and they can win a point under pressure.

The young players don’t understand why they are a reserve players if they play the as well as the older ones in training (a lot of times better). Unfortunately, in matches the young players make more mistakes and don’t have stable form (sometimes they can play amazing volleyball, but sometimes they can do simple mistakes). They were the most important players in the youth club and they don’t understand that in the senior league it is different.

Have you ever had similar problem in your career? What would you do, if you were me?

I’ll summarize the situation this way. We have two experienced players who go through the motions in practice, but are clearly the best come match time. We then have two young players who work very hard in practice, but are not yet consistent performers in matches.

To my mind there is a question of priorities here. The reference at the end about “senior league” makes me think competition is the priority for this particular team. That means putting the best team on the court for each match is what it’s about.

To my mind there are two ways to try to handle this sort of situation.

The younger players

The first thing we have to do is to make sure the younger players who aren’t playing understand the team’s priority – winning. They further need to understand why the more experienced players are the starters – fewer errors, more consistent performance, etc. The younger players may not like the situation, but at least they will understand the logic.

Explaining things is not enough, though. You also need to provide those players with a path toward increased playing time. Where do they need to improve to push the experienced players? What do they need to do to make those improvements? Give them hope and steps they can take to move toward their goal.

The experienced players

It obviously isn’t any fun when some of those best players realize they will start no matter what and don’t bother to give full effort in training. The challenge is to find ways to motivate them to change that behavior. What is it they can target as a reason to push themselves in training?

Ideally, their motivation is simply to make the team the best it possibly can be. If the players are motivated by the collective good, then the coach’s job is to show them how better training by those players will help achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, some players have more selfish motivates. Maybe they want to earn some honors or recognition. Maybe they want a better contract or to move to a bigger club. You have to find out where their motivation is and try to appeal to that.

Short-term/long-term

Linked in with all of this is the time frame you are working in. Are you just concerned with this season? If so, then you are probably going to have keep picking the more experienced players for the starting lineup. If, however, you have the ability to think longer term, maybe you can find some opportunities to bench the experienced players from time to time. That would give the younger players valuable experience and show the experienced ones there are others looking to take their positions.

Those are some thoughts I had on the situation. I’d love to hear what others have done in a similar circumstance, or would do. Leave comment below and share your thoughts and/or experience.

Wait. I don’t remember it like that

One of the disadvantages of having a former player in the broadcast business is that sometimes you get thrown under the bus – intentionally or otherwise. The American setter I had at Svedala, Camryn Irwin, is in that arena now. She also sometimes features as a guest on The Net Live. She did the intro and outro audio for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast as a favor to me back when we started it.

A player’s recollection

One such episode was December 12, 2016. About an hour in, a discussion of block vs. game-like training developed. There were interesting perspectives shared by a combination of men’s and women’s players and coaches. Along the way, Cam cast me in a negative light.

She didn’t actually say, “John Forman … “. Instead, it was more “my coach in Sweden …”. I doubt most people who listen to the show have any idea that’s me. They would have to find out where Cam played in Sweden and then probably dig around to learn that I was the coach for that team. I’m guessing most American volleyball people won’t do that work.

But back to what she said. The conversation got into the subject of playing a lot in practice. I’m not going discuss the skill acquisition value of block vs. random and all that here, because that wasn’t Cam’s focus. If you want to get into it, you can start with this post. Cam talked instead about practice intensity and the potential impact on player fatigue.

Basically, what she said was at Svedala I just wanted to play all the time in training and the players felt like they needed more “drill” time to bring down the physical demands. She talked about meeting with the coach (me) to discuss it. The way she talked about it on the show was to say “We can’t just play for an hour and a half.” The implication was that they would physically break down.

Let’s put the question of whether 90 minutes of game play in practice is too high an intensity to the side for now. Maybe that’s a question for another article.

Instead I want to look at Cam’s recollection of things and compare it to my own.

A coach’s recollection

First, I remember the “We want more drills” request mainly from a skill acquisition perspective (in part a motivation for this post). It was less about training intensity.

Second, we never just played. Well, maybe the very first session. Check out my log entries for that season to see. Yes, we played a lot – especially small-sided games. I almost never had the bodies for 6 v 6. Those rare days we could play 6 v 6 (guest players) we did use the bulk of the session to do so because it would have been foolish not to. And the players were always very excited to do so. Every practice, though, included non-game activities. There was target serving, passing, various peppers, and defense drills mixed in at different points.

Third, even when we did do game play I tried to move players around to keep their workload balanced. For example, I wanted the six-rotation players equal back row and front row work.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I was generous with time off. We started with 10 players, and quickly dropped to 9. That means only two back-ups to the first team – a setter and an OH. Knowing the starters would have a heavy load, I always looked for opportunities to give the team breaks. We didn’t usually train on Thursday, so if we didn’t play on the weekend I sometimes (maybe always in-season) gave them Friday off for an extra long weekend. I know I also gave them off at least one Monday after we played on Saturday. Plus, they got 10 days completely off over the holidays. This is all on top of going lighter the days after matches and cutting things off if they looked tired.

So from my perspective I tried to not physically overwork them.

Reconciling the two perspectives

It is worth sharing something Cam related to the team at one point during the season. She often talked with players from other teams after matches as there were several Americans in the league. One of them was apparently in awe of the types of plays our team made during games – plays no one else made. Cam attributed that, at the time, to us playing a lot in training. So clearly there was a recognition on her end of the value of making practice game-like.

So why the difference in recollection?

Maybe in the moment during the TNL discussion Cam didn’t have a chance to really think back on the season. Or maybe the time off didn’t really register as you might expect.This sort of thing can happen to players. For example, a player can complete a practice and think they should have passed more balls, forgetting that they passed a bunch of them in the games or in drills that were not “passing” drills. It’s a question of the perspective on the activity (or lack thereof). We coaches are subject to this as well.

Maybe because of other stuff going on for her (like coaching the club’s youth players) Cam had a different perspective on time off than mine. She also had to deal with a back injury, which forced some additional work on her part. Perhaps that factors in to her recollections as well.

For what it’s worth, my player-coach relationship with Camryn was a positive one. I don’t think she holds any ill will toward me. She was just a player with a player’s perspective and I was a coach with a coach’s perspective. I don’t take her comments from TNL personally, even if at the time there was a bit of an “Ouch!” response. 🙂

Were the players overworked?

The team definitely struggled at times during the first weeks of the second half of the season. By that point we only had 8 players, the only back-up being a setter. I was already paring back training time. I can remember talking with the team about how we’d look to do that, but how we’d still need to keep the intensity up as much as possible in that shorter time. They needed to keep challenging each other to continue progressing.

At the same time their weight training regime had recycled. Might the combination of the two been too much? Conversely, did I given them too much time off over the holidays? These are among the things I’ve thought about as potentially contributing to a couple of poor January performances. Unfortunately, I was let go at the start of February (season runs through April), so I have no way to know how the physical side of things might played out long-term.

The lesson

Players are individuals with their own inherent biases and perspectives. It’s inevitable that they see and remember things differently than you do as a coach. Many a coach has been surprised/embarrassed/mortified at the things players remember. It comes with the territory. We want to do our best to not teach what we don’t want learned, but we have a very different view point from our players. Accept it. Try to understand their perspective. Do your best to learn when you come across an example of divergent recollection.

Coaching is its own art

Volleyball Coach

There is an article about some issues troubling the Australian national cricket team that Mark Lebedew brought to my attention. Mark, being an Aussie, is much more knowledgeable about the sport than I am. As an American, I wasn’t raised on the sport. I can follow it in broad strokes, but lack the more nuanced understanding of those who grew up with it. This article, however, is less about cricket and more about coaching. That’s more in my wheel house. 🙂

There’s a quote in the article I think worth sharing. It comes from a highly experienced coach named Trent Woodhall, who seems not to get a lot of respect in certain quarters because he isn’t a former high level player.

“[But] coaching is its own art. It has to be respected and it has to be learnt, because just like players are born to score 12,000 Test runs, coaches are born to be elite coaches.”

Now, we can debate whether one is born to coach or not. The basic point he makes here, though, is that coaching is it’s own thing separate from playing. One need not have been a great player – or even a particularly good player – to be a great coach. You can find way more examples of outstanding coaches with uninspiring playing resumes than you’ll find great players who go on to become great coaches.

The article goes on to say:

Woodhill is intent on emphasising that Australia has some excellent ex-players who can, or have, transitioned to become great coaches. But on the whole, the cricket community’s natural conservatism has led it to seek answers from the rear view mirror.

When he talks about the rear view mirror, Woodhill is referring to players coaching based on their own experience. In the interview he did for Volleyball Coaching Wizards, the Canadian National Team coach for the 2016 Olympics, Glenn Hoag, mentioned a quote from Julio Velsaco. The legendary Argentinian coach said that coaches must kill the player inside of them.

Think about the implications of that for a moment.

The article also goes on to talk about the impact of over-coaching. By that I mean not allowing players to develop their own solutions to the problems the game presents. This is something I wrote about here, here, and here.

Definitely give the article a read – even if you have no idea what they’re talking about when discussing cricket. 🙂