Tag Archive for Coaching skills

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.

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What does it mean to be an elite coach?

Volleyball Coach

I came across an interesting topic in a coaching group. The original poster asked the following question.

What characteristics or skills do you think are an absolute necessity to be an elite coach or coaching staff?

Sadly, only a handful of people answered the question. Their answers were pretty good ones, though. Here’s a summary list, in no particular order.

  • Always strive to improve
  • Being coachable and humble
  • Trust the process
  • Strive to be your best
  • Communication skills
  • Explain they Why
  • High level understanding of the game
  • Clear objectives
  • Knowledge of your athletes
  • Well-planned practices
  • Being a listener
  • Consistent feedback
  • Creator of a strong, winning culture

I’m going to address the subject of a coaching staff separately. I think it’s a separate discussion. The above list focuses mainly on the individual coach, so I’m going to concentrate on that here.

Here are the things I think are probably key in being an elite coach.

Knowledge of the game

This is a pretty obvious thing for a coach to have, but it’s an area where new coaches can come up short. Many of us – perhaps most – started out as players at some level. Playing the game for sure develops a knowledge of the game, but it’s not the same as that required of a coach. Players tend to focus on parts, while the coach has to be aware of how those parts link together. This sort of thing tends to come primarily from watching a lot of volleyball, but not as a spectator. You have to do it with an analytic eye, watching all the various moving parts.

Up-to-date understanding of training methods

I’m not talking about know the latest drills here (see my post on Fancy New Drill Syndrome). Rather, I’m talking about the science of motor learning. It’s very easy to think you know how it works because it’s intuitive stuff. Really, though, it isn’t. See Going beyond maximizing player contacts for an idea of what I’m talking about here. The point is you need to stay on top of this stuff, not just persist in doing stuff you’ve always done or your coaches before you did.

This applies to stuff like strength and conditioning as well. Things are changing on a fairly steady basis there.

Communication skills

To put it simply, you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t communicate it to your players, it’s useless.This isn’t just about teaching skills and tactics. It’s also about communicating your vision and getting others to buy in. It’s learning about your players and letting them get to know you as well. As coaches, communication is at the very core of what we do, and you will never become an elite coach without good skills in this area.

Drive

What are you trying to accomplish? Where are you trying to go with your coaching? Your team has its goals, but no doubt you have your own as well. It’s the thing that pushes you to keep moving forward and encourages you to be better, or to make things better.

In the Why I Coach post I shared some of my drive in the “Building something” section. I’m motivated to take a program to a higher level. That isn’t just about winning as that isn’t really in your control. Instead, it’s about reaching new milestones and generally pushing things forward. If I reach a point where I don’t see the potential to keep doing that, then I know it’s probably time for me to move on.

A vision

This is somewhat related to drive above, but is more focused in the present on the current team. In order to lead others you need to know where you’re trying to go. And going to back to another prior section, it needs to be something you can communicate in a way that gets others to have the same vision and to be willing to follow you in that direction.

Organizational skills

This can cover a fairly wide array of things. For some coaches it’s at the level of organizing practices and generally managing the affairs immediately related to the team and players. Think of a club situation where there is someone (or several someones) higher up taking care of the larger administration.

In some coaching roles – a college coach, for example – there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole lot more overhead. Much of what is handled by a club director, a manager, or a board is on your shoulders. You need to deal with budgets, scheduling, facilities, and interacting and coordinating with any number of on-campus and off-campus constituencies. If you don’t have good organizational skills in that context it can really hamper your on-court efforts.

An unquenchable thirst for knowledge

One of the very clear things to come out of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews we’ve done is that those great coaches all have the mentality of constantly looking to learn and improve. They take every opportunity they can to gain more knowledge and insight.

So those are some of my thoughts on what it takes to be an elite coach. Do you have thoughts of your own? I’d love to hear them. Just leave a comment below.

Thinking more broadly about feedback

Volleyball Coach

Alexis at Coaches Corner has a post where he talks about feedback. In it he says sometimes not providing feedback is the best choice. I certainly agree that coaches probably should not provide a constant stream of verbal feedback (see The more you talk, the less they train).

This is not a contradiction to what I said in It’s more about the feedback than the drill, however. Feedback is massively important in skill acquisition. It is a key component of deliberate practice.

But feedback is not just what we as coaches tell our players. We have to think MUCH more broadly than that.

There are two primary sources of feedback. One is outcomes. The other is external input. I’ll start with the latter.

External input

Feedback from some external source is what we tend to think of most often when we talk about feedback. It is an outside view of things the player doesn’t have for themselves and is thus provided by someone or something else. From this perspective, we usually think of what we say to our players to help them get better as our feedback. Certainly, that is an important type. There are other sources of external input, though.

Let’s think, for example, of who else provides verbal feedback to a player. Their teammates, right? The block didn’t get closed or wasn’t in the right position. The set was too low or the pass was too tight. Or, to flip things around, the set was perfect, or that was a great pass.

Sometimes players get a bit more technical with each other in terms of mechanics. That’s not always a great thing, but in the right situations is can be very valuable. Think player-to-player mentorship as an example of that.

Another source of external input is video. When players watch themselves they can see what things look like from outside to match it up with their kinesthetic sense. Basically, video is a kind of substitute for a coach’s verbal feedback. It isn’t exactly the same, but it goes in the same direction. Players just need some guidance for its proper use.

Outcome based feedback

Every time a player performs a skill there is an outcome. The pass went where they wanted or didn’t. Their serve went to their target or not. The attack was a kill, or it was a blocked ball, an error, or a dig. I think you probably get the idea.

We coaches cannot possible comment on every time each one of our players touches the ball. That means this outcome source of feedback is far bigger than anything we can provide ourselves. And yet, it probably doesn’t get the focus it requires.

This is a tricky part of the feedback system. One the one hand, it’s outcomes we are after. The player needs to know whether they accomplished what they intended. The challenging part is when the desired outcome happens despite the player making a bad choice or executing the skill poorly. In other words, they were lucky rather than good.

More experienced players generally know when they’ve done something correctly. They know when they got lucky. Outcome-based feedback is more problematic for those with less experience. They don’t know yet if they are doing things correctly. Even with experienced players you sometimes have to look at the decision-making element separate from the outcome so they can think in terms of whether there was a better choice. This means we have to consider outcome feedback when looking at our practice activities.

Using the different sources of feedback

So the bottom line is that you have multiple forms of feedback to consider how you do things. How you combine them should have a lot to do with the level of your players. In the case of inexperienced ones, you probably want to rely much less (if at all) on outcomes. Instead, you should focus on the external feedback – coach talk and video – related to the particular thing you are aiming to develop. The concentration is on the process rather than the outcome.

As players become more experienced – at least in terms of their training focus for that particular exercise – you can shift more to an outcome type of feedback, with less of the external sort. Here your external feedback likely shifts away from technical elements to more decision-making.

And through it all players should be encouraged to view feedback in a non-judgement fashion (see The Inner Game of Tennis).

Book Review: Legacy by James Kerr

Legacy, by James Kerr, is a book that often comes up when coaching book recommendations are discussed. I want to stress up front that this in not a coaching book. Amazon at this writing has it listed in Sports Psychology, but that doesn’t fit either, to my mind. I think the book description does a pretty good job of saying what it’s really about.

In Legacy, best-selling author James Kerr goes deep into the heart of the world’s most successful sporting team, the legendary All Blacks of New Zealand, to reveal 15 powerful and practical lessons for leadership and business.

Focus on that last part about lessons for leadership and business. That is most definitely what the author provides.

As for the rest of it, I have my issues. The description makes it sound like the story of the All Blacks is the core material. In particular, the team’s transformation after a period of uncharacteristic under-performance is meant to be the main focus. While that story provides a framework, that’s about all. You can perhaps work out the time line of that transition, but it’s presented piecemeal. One of my problems with the book was that at points I didn’t know where the author was in the All Blacks history when he shared certain stories. It was rather annoying.

Also, the All Blacks are not the only references the author makes. He includes ideas from the likes of Phil Jackson and Bill Walsh as well, in terms of sports. There are a number of non-sports references too.

Obviously, I have no problem with references to all-time great coaches. Sometimes the language of the text is a little too stereotypical of leadership books, and there is too much repetition of certain elements for my taste. Overall, though, the “lessons”, concepts, and explanations are quite worthwhile.

Overall, I’d say this is a book worth reading if you go into it with the right set of expectations.

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 placed 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 players. 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 to 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.